2022 has been quite the ride so far. From superhero films that both exceeded and fell slightly short of expectations to the most unlikely of perfect legacy sequels and a few surprises along the way, the year in film has yielded some pretty great stuff, and (so far) not a ton of outright letdowns. Even the movies that haven’t really worked, such as Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis or Netflix’s Spiderhead, have at least had some interesting individual elements for viewers to dig into. Then again, I haven’t exactly sought out many of the year’s worst-reviewed films either, so for this piece, there will be no top five in that respect. Instead, I’ve opted to recommend five shows I’ve watched so far this year – although they are exclusively shows that were available to watch at the halfway point – as we begin the second half of 2022. There’s a lot more still to come, so let’s reflect, reassess, and revisit some of the year’s best efforts thus far.
5. Cha Cha Real Smooth
Cooper Raiff’s sophomore follow-up to his underrated debut Shithouse finds the young filmmaker attempting to expand his understanding of the dichotomy between purpose and passion, largely succeeding thanks to Raiff’s uncanny ability to make both himself and the other characters he writes extremely likeable. Both Raiff and Dakota Johnson have an easy chemistry with each other that makes their on-screen friendship engaging to watch, but it’s Raiff’s unexpected yet heartwarming connection with Vanessa Burghardt’s Lola that ultimately serves as the film’s most thoroughly beautiful non-romantic love story.
Cha Cha Real Smooth Review
4. The Northman
Robert Eggers is an uncanny filmmaker in that his ability to commit to absolute authenticity in storytelling can only be surpassed by the choices he makes when he desires to challenge that authenticity for the sake of story. A feature adaptation of the Norse tale of Amleth (the story upon which Shakespeare’s Hamlet is based), Eggers crafts a tale of vengeance which is blood-soaked mythos wrapped in a cloak of rage so boiled it could break open a volcano. Alexander Skarsgård is an absolute beast in one of his most thoroughly appropriate roles as Claes Bang and Nicole Kidman nearly steal the show right out from under him. If anything can be counted as a drawback for it, The Northman is relatively light on action sequences, and the sports segment towards its middle can take some of the wind out of its sails, but as that’s not the story it’s telling anyhow, it’s an easy thing to forgive. Plus, Anya Taylor-Joy is there to put the wind right back in anyway.
The Northman Review
3. Top Gun: Maverick
After multiple Covid-related delays and a general worry of whether the public might ever actually get to see it, 2022’s first $1 billion movie is still in theaters and thriving. And why shouldn’t it? The most perfect legacy sequel since Blade Runner 2049, Top Gun: Maverick is everything to loved about the original Top Gun wrapped in a better movie with a more emotionally-resonant story and a whole lot of “hell yeah!” filmmaking. The heart, the action, the humor – pretty much all of it works exactly the way it’s supposed to. Honoring the legacy of the original without sacrificing anything it needs to do in order to bring these characters into the modern day, Maverick finds the heart of its story and never lets go even as Tom Cruise and co. pull up to 10 Gs just trying to fly up the side of a mountain. To see these planes really flying and know it’s all there on screen is a special thing, and that combined with a healthy dose of honoring Anthony Edwards’ late Goose and Val Kilmer’s Iceman in the most appropriate ways it can makes Top Gun: Maverick one of the best movie of 2022, as well as one of the best legacy sequels ever made. I can’t wait to watch it again (and I’ve already seen it three times).
Top Gun: Maverick Review
2. The Batman
Matt Reeves near-perfect detective noir featuring the Caped Crusader has a lot more on its mind than just being easily one of the best-looking and best-sounding comic book movies ever put to screen (Greig Fraser’s cinematography really pops in this one and that Batmobile chase is an all-timer set piece). Accompanied by Michael Giacchino phenomenal score – an Oscar-worthy effort in my eyes – the story of The Batman redefines who the character is understood to be as a pop culture artifact, re-contextualizing his quest for vengeance not as a force for inspiration but for infection. Paul Dano’s unsettlingly plausible Riddler is the perfect foil for the Robert Pattinson version of the character, a near mirror image reflection of what Batman has been in his first two years on the job with a different target in mind and a purpose which challenges the viewer to reckon with whether or not the most-lauded kind of Batman in the mainstream is really all that much of a hero in the first place. Given all that, plus Zoë Kravitz’s instantly iconic Catwoman and the murderer’s row of character actors like Jeffrey Wright, Colin Farrell, and John Turturro just lining the edges of the frame around all the heroes and villains, The Batman is easily the closest any DC adaptation has come to capturing the lightning-in-a-bottle movie magic of The Dark Knight, even if it doesn’t quite get to that level (maybe one rung under on the ladder).
The Batman Review
1. Everything Everywhere All at Once
The only film on this list for which we never published a review, the second collaboration between A24 and the Daniels directing duo is an ingenious, creative, moving, and all-consuming effort featuring some of the most insane and original storytelling I have ever seen in my life. Given how brilliant its script is, how fun it is to watch Michelle Yeoh, Stephanie Hsu, Jamie Lee Curtis, and a resurrected Ke Huy Quan churn out some of the year’s best performances, and how insane this multiverse movie gets with everything that can happen via its stellar visual effects (from a team of no more than 5 people, I might add), it’s no surprise that it recently became the indie studio’s highest-grossing film ever. In fact, its only real drawback the first time watching it is that there’s so much to absorb, you might need to watch it a second or third time to truly appreciate everything it’s doing. And with A24 seemingly pushing some of their late 2022 hopefuls into 2023 according to recent press releases, it seems like they’re going all in on the Oscar campaigns for this one in every conceivable category, which they should – it could win as many as it wants to, and I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised.
Honorable Mentions: The Bad Guys, Brian and Charles, Hustle, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, Scream (2022), The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent
5. We Own This City
A fast-paced, slickly-written investigation of the Baltimore PD’s corruptions post-Freddie Gray, We Own This City may not feel like something entirely new to those familiar with co-creator David Simon’s work on The Wire, but it is as excellent as it could be in its own right, and marks a triumph in direction for Renaldo Marcus Green. Jon Bernthal, Wunmi Mosaku, Jamie Hector, and McKinley Belcher III all excel in their parts, and even if it is a little hard to follow at first, this miniseries is one HBO’s mist thoroughly underrated.
4. Hacks: Season 2
While not as underrated as the previous entry, Hacks continues to feel like the best show that no one I know is actually watching. A shortened season does leave a little bit to be desired in terms of smoother resolution, but in season two, the writers bring out nearly all the stops they have, as each single episode has something new to offer all of its characters, both in growth and in absurdity. Jean Smart and Hannah Einbinder continue to be inarguably the most iconic comedy duo on TV right now, and even if Carl Clemons-Hopkins isn’t given a ton to do this season, he’s still immensely fun to watch (and does eventually get things to do). Please bring season 3 fast!
3. Under the Banner of Heaven
When I started FX’s miniseries Under the Banner of Heaven, I thought for sure it would be just another run-of-the-mill detective story cosplaying a True Detective aesthetic and Mare of Easttown pace in order to disguise the fact that it just didn’t have much else to offer. But when the show started leaning – in its pilot episode – into exploring the depths of how organized religion can be used to warp minds searching for purpose and driven by ego, I became hooked. Having grown up in a religious household, I am familiar with a lot of the same beats this series touches upon, though this series explores the Mormon church rather than the Christian one, especially those by which religiosity is perverted under the guise of righteousness by those most eager to serve their own power, and what they’re willing to do (or not do) to attain and keep it. In many ways, but especially that one, this is a horror show. Andrew Garfield manages to wring gravitas out of his understated performance – yet another win for him – but although Daisy Edgar-Jones and Joel Edgerton (in fact, the whole cast) is excellent, it’s Sam Worthington who walks away from this series on everyone’s minds. We all wondered if there was more to the actor than simply having starred in the biggest movie ever made, and it turns out, there is more…a lot more. If you can stomach religious trauma and enjoy true crime storytelling that wants to explore something more than just the central murder mystery, this is definitely one you should check out.
2. Stranger Things 4: Part 1
Yes, I have now seen Part 2 and wrapped the season, but as Part 2 released a day after the halfway mark, I am not able to include it in my recommendations here, nor can I include season four of Stranger Things as a whole (but don’t worry, Part 2 is very good and I will be releasing my thoughts on it soon). For now, however, I can say that Part 1 of Stranger Things season four is an excellent return to form for the hit series, and easily the closest it’s gotten to capturing the proper Amblin horror vibes from the micro-miracle of season one. Yes, Sadie Sink is amazing and should be up for an Emmy. Yes, Eddie is a fantastic new character, and yes, Kate Bush’s resurgence into the mainstream of American music is something only this show could have pulled off in the way it did, but the best part of this season – for me at least – has been the editing, especially in episodes three and four. Each camera motion rolling right into the next, each scene cutting to the other at just the right time, each action directly reflecting or predicting the one on either side of it. They really popped off this season with how it’s all cut together. I’ll say more once I release my review of the season as a whole, but for now I’ll simply say: hell yeah, Stranger Things is back.
What is it with AppleTV+ and constantly giving us my favorite shows of each year that I honestly had no to minimal anticipation for before they aired? Between Ted Lasso and this, their track record with unexpected successes couldn’t be more clean, and yet, when watching the mostly Ben Stiller-directed Severance, one would never suspect its success as being unexpected at all. Everything in this series is so tightly managed, so thoroughly thought-out, and near-perfectly written. As good an actor as Ben Stiller has always been, he might be an even better director, and it’s a testament to his immense skill that Severance doesn’t feel as if it has to wrap up any story in its debut season just to tell a new one the next. There is an ending, absolutely, and one that rockets my anticipation for next season sky high, but it doesn’t resolve every little thing the season introduced so it could be somehow tied off into a miniseries if necessary. Apple is playing the long game with this one, and if they keep playing it this well, with something this well-designed, this well-acted, and this well-paced, this game could go on for a long time. In fact, I hope it does.
And those are my Top 5 Movies and Series Recommendations for the first half of 2022! (Unfortunately I haven’t yet seen RRR, so I can’t include it on this list, but maybe it will make an appearance somewhere down the line.) What are your favorite things you watched this year? Any I missed that you’d recommend? Let me know in the comments section below, and thanks for reading!
- The Friendly Film Fan
The Friendly Film Fan takes a look back at the absolute best films released over the past cinematic year.
Well, the time has finally arrived. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome back to The Friendly Film Fan for the penultimate piece of the 2021 movie season. It certainly has been a journey getting to this point, but I am so excited to finally bring you my picks for the absolute best films of the past year – or at least the ones that became my favorites. If you happened to read my Honorable Mentions piece, then you already know how tough a decision-making process putting this list together ultimately was, with several films I loved having to get cut from the top spots right at the last minute. I would certainly encourage you to check out all of those films as well, so I’ll leave a link to that piece here, as well as a link to my Recommended Movies of the past year that couldn’t quite make the cut for “Best Of” consideration. But now, it’s zero hour, so let’s get right down to it. Here are my picks for the Top 10 Movies of 2021.
10. Red Rocket
It’s difficult to describe just how thoroughly Sean Baker has become the most interesting indie darling in A24’s back pocket to watch, but what can I say? The guy just knows how to make movies. Chronicling the journey of a disgraced former pornstar as he arrives back in his Texas hometown, this tale of greed, ineptitude, and unbridled selfishness is one of the most incisive commentaries on the dangers of charismatic toxic people one can witness if it’s given a chance. Simon Rex turns in a truly Oscar-worthy lead performance here, with newcomer Suzanna Son nearly stealing the show as the redheaded Strawberry (the film makes a point about that being her name). What makes this odyssey so compelling is not that Rex’s Mikey is a real piece of shit, but that it’s still so fun to watch him work anyway; we know he’s a toxic personality, we know he’s not to be trusted, but Red Rocket sails on Rex’s charisma so much so that we can’t help but be pulled into his orbit anyway. The film’s careful balance of authenticity and storytelling inside a community seldom seen on the silver screen may be partly created, partly found, but it’s Sean Baker’s assured writing and direction that bring forth the rest of what makes this movie so damn great.
9. Licorice Pizza
Paul Thomas Anderson’s films have always had their lovers and their haters, and more than a few have shared problematic elements, but those elements aside, the guy still makes some of the most compulsively watchable films ever put to screen, and despite its own shortcomings, the rest of Licorice Pizza essentially coasts on that same level of quality. The more problematic aspects of the central romance and some of the movie’s weirdly-placed jokes are addressed in the writing, but they’re not really the point of the film. This isn’t so much a story about its central protagonists as it is about the world around them, and what it’s like to inhabit that world of 1973 Los Angeles, specifically Hollywood at that time. And boy, what a world it is to inhabit. Not only is Licorice Pizza a sweet, charming story about two people falling in love, it also features a whirlwind of memorable supporting characters, including Bradley Cooper’s show-stealing turn as producer Jon Peters in the film’s absolute best ten minutes of runtime. Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman are brilliant in the film as well, with Haim herself having come dangerously close to an Oscar nomination for her acting debut (the film itself only garnered three nominations total), and Hoffman doing his late father the proudest he could ever be. This film may not be the top of PTA’s filmography, but if this is coasting for him, that tells you by itself just how strong the man’s filmography actually is.
My most anticipated movie of the year, and boy oh boy, did it ever not let me down one bit. Spider-Man may have made more money, but Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Part One of Frank Herbert’s iconic sci-fi novel is the defining epic of the 2021 movie season as far as craft is concerned. Massive in scope and towering in its worldbuilding, Dune is every bit the filmmaking-forward tentpole it needed to be in order to fulfill the promise of Villeneuve’s filmmaking potential. What was once thought unfilmable has been made tactile, and the performances of Dune’s massive ensemble cast set against its absolutely awe-inspiring production design, visual effects, sound, and perhaps Hans Zimmer’s best score since The Lion King cement even further that snubbing Villeneuve for a Best Director spot is one of the worst decisions the Academy has made in the 21st century. Maybe the biggest movie star under 35 in the world right now, Timothée Chalamet kills it as Paul Atreides, his performance as steely and reserved as it ever needed to be to pull off this character, which makes it a fantastic benefit to watch performances as strong as Oscar Isaac’s, Rebecca Ferguson’s, and MVP Jason Momoa’s work around him. There are so many things to say about the things Dune does well that noting its ending does feel like pure set-up for another film (which hadn’t yet been greenlit when it was released) and it’s not quite as emotionally involving as some of Villeneuve’s other works feels like a moot point. This is bid-budget, theatrical filmmaking as it should be, and if there is a chance to watch Part One and Part Two of Dune on a massive theater screen back-to-back, you can be damn sure I’m taking it.
7. The Worst Person in the World
This and my #6 spot have switched back and forth more times than I can count, and will probably switch again once I get a chance to watch them back-to-back, but placement really doesn’t matter where it concerns my #6 pick and The Worst Person in the World. Joachim Trier’s final film in his unofficial “Oslo trilogy” (which I still think the Criterion Collection should make available as a trilogy) is a beautiful, poignant ode to the time in everyone’s lives when they’re trying to figure out who they are and what that means for how they love. Featuring the best lead actress performance of the year by Renate Reinsve and a show-stopping supporting turn from Anders Danielsen Lie, the Nordic submission for Best International Feature is more than worthy of the award, regardless of whether we all know what it’s eventually going to Drive My Car anyway. Beautifully shot, wonderfully scored (when there is music), and chock-full of moments you’ll remember forever, this one is a real stunner and I would implore anyone who has a chance to see it in a theater to do so. Finding this film just before I made my Top 10 was extremely difficult, but I am so glad I finally did, because it’s just the most wonderfully cathartic experience to witness, and while it’s nearly impossible to describe why, it’s one of those films that best fits the old adage: you’ll know it when you see it.
Siân Heder’s CODA (which is an acronym for Child of Deaf Adults), a remake of the 2014 French film La Famille Belier, may not seem at first like one of the best movies of the year on its face, but the Sundance hit has a funny way of sticking with you all the way to the end, like a friend you’ve realized has just always been there. A landmark case in representation of deaf actors in mainstream American cinema, each and every moment of the film further emphasis the immense talents of its fantastic ensemble cast as its protagonist Ruby, the only hearing person in her family, simultaneously pursues her passion of music and acts as her families anchor for the hearing community that they live in. Emilia Jones is fantastic in this movie, as are Daniel Durant and Marlee Matlin, but the real show-stopper here is Troy Kotsur, whose tender and often hilarious father figure shares with Jones some of the film’s most emotional and moving moments (the truck bed scene is a real knockout for both). Truth be told, there is no grand revelation, no incisive commentary, no single big “a ha” thing that CODA brings to the table that other films haven’t also addressed, but when a film is this well balanced and watchable purely based on the strength of its cast telling a human story about human issues, that’s all it needs. The film is streaming on Apple TV+ right now, and I would encourage everyone to give it a shot.
5. West Side Story
Rounding out the Top 5 is Steven Spielberg’s definitive statement that everyone who ever doubts him needs to re-evaluate their appraisal of the legendary director (who’s now been nominated for Best Director for every decade in which he’s made movies). West Side Story isn’t just one of the best remakes ever made of a film that not only do movie fans already love, but that actually won 10 Oscars in 1962, it’s also Spielberg’s first musical ever. Factoring all that in, it’s frankly the biggest miracle in the world that this 2021 adaptation works at all, much less that it works at the level it does, which may cement Spielberg as the greatest filmmaker of all time. Every update to the story speaks to the modern world, everything that was cut doesn’t feel like it’s actually missing. Tony and Maria get updated characterizations that speak to the more nuanced conflicts of their central romance, Doc being Rita Moreno instead of someone we didn’t know adds so much weight to the part, actual Latinos and Latinas being cast as the Puerto Ricans takes care of the very obviously problematic brownface problem the original film had. Everything in the new West Side Story is working at the top of its game. There’s a marvelous debut from lead Rachel Zegler, show-stopping turns by Mike Faist and Ariana DeBose (the latter of which is in the lead to win an Oscar this year), a truly underrated David Alvarez, stellar production design, brilliant cinematography, phenomenal sound, immaculate costuming, and behind it all, masterful direction. This is the musical this year that most reminded me why I love movies and more specifically, why I’ve always loved musicals, and I couldn’t be more thrilled with the way it all turned out (okay, except for Ansel Elgort, but we don’t need to open that whole can of worms right now).
4. Nine Days
Nine Days going nomination-less at this year’s Oscars was a tragic inevitability from the beginning; it had already been delayed from the summer of 2020 into August of 2021, and by that point, so many delayed films were already releasing that the stellar debut of writer and director Edson Oda got so lost in the shuffle, even many of the critically-decided awards shows seem to have forgotten that it even released at all. Sony Pictures Classics is sneaky good at getting their films into the Oscar nominations list when they have something to push, but it seems that may have been in vein, which is a shame, since it needn’t have been. Edson Oda’s life-affirming odyssey about living is one of the most beautiful celebrations of all the joy and the sorrow that is human life that I’ve seen in a very long time. There isn’t really another way to describe just how thoroughly this film sticks to one’s soul after the credits roll; it’s just beautiful. The performances of the ensemble cast are essentially perfect, the violin-centered score by Antonio Pinto is stunning, and the way the film crafts moments to both celebrate and examine the various facets of living life in the modern world, and how wonderful but also difficult that can be, as well as reckoning with the parts of it we don’t understand, is seldom this poignant. Nine Days may have fallen off the radar for many pundits and awards ceremonies post-Sundance debut, but for me, it will always have a special place amongst the films of 2021.
To truly understand what makes Flee rank so high when The Worst Person in the World might be a better International Feature or when Summer of Soul might be more successful as a documentary, one has to understand first as an Animated Feature, and then as the other two things. The first film to be nominated in all three of these categories at the Oscars, Flee is an absolutely stunning example of what makes animation such an essential medium in the filmmaking space. This is not a story one could do in live-action or pure documentary format; it needed the medium of animation to be properly told, and my god, was it ever properly told. By far the best animated film of 2021, the story of Afghan refugee Rashid Aitouganov, who is on the verge of marrying his husband, recounting his perilous journey fleeing to Denmark is told and recounted with such respect and reverence by director Jonas Poher Rasmussen that it never feels as if he gets in the way of the story being told. This truly is a remarkable feat of filmmaking for all involved, and the best case yet for why animation is not just an added benefit, but entirely essential to filmmaking itself. It is currently streaming on Hulu in both subbed and dubbed versions (but c’mon, you know the subtitled version is better).
2. C’mon C’mon
The absolute best film to go entirely nomination-less at the Oscars this year, Mike Mills’ latest feature, C’mon C’mon, might well be his absolute best yet, an absolute stunner in black-and-white with a screenplay so perfectly calibrated, it’s frankly insane that the film didn’t get awards attention from almost anyone. Joaquin Phoenix and Woody Norman’s chemistry if off the charts in this film, the latter of whom turns in maybe the best supporting performance of the entire year. Gabby Hoffman is also great for how little she actually ends up being in the film, but it’s really the connection between Phoenix and the apparently British Norman that keeps it going. As much as it’s a film about pseudo-parenting, it’s also about just figuring life out, whether as a kid or an adult. Chock-full of philosophical wonder and a genuine sense of deeply human vulnerability, it wraps the viewer in a warm hug and fills them with meaningful contemplation they’ll keep with them for as long as they possibly can. This is not just one of A24’s most inspired productions, it might well be their second-best film ever (still behind Moonlight, but then again, what isn’t?).
1. The Power of the Dog
Yes, its first half is slow. Yes, it’s not exactly the most exciting or even all that arresting Western you’ll ever see; this is not an action movie, this is not a thriller or in any sense a traditional Western. In fact, it’s almost an anti-Western in practice. But Jane Campion’s latest movie for Netflix is not only one of the best the service has ever produced, it’s one of the most layered in the resurgent director’s entire filmography. How does one not make a movie for 12 years, and then come back and make one of the most stunningly-crafted, expertly-directed, methodically-told works ever set in this genre which reckons with – in all the most difficult ways – the very subjects that this genre has always had its most bad-faith enthusiasts try to avoid? Apparently, like this. The Power of the Dog is more than just a stunning work of art in terms of its craft and the skill therein, more than just an expertly performed examination of generation-permeating abuses and how they infect everything around them, more than just an unshakably discomforting study on queerness in the Western genre unlike any other that has come before: it is a reckoning with all of these things, which it demonstrates in a single sequence near the film’s end in the biggest filmmaking flex any filmmaker in 2021 ever made. Brilliant from top to bottom, there is not one film from the past year more ready for re-analysis, more ripe for re-contextualization, or more apt to be studied in film studies classes for how it weaves so many things together with not so much as a few lines of dialogue and a shared look or two. This is a film anyone who truly engages with it will mulling over for a long, long time, and the one I’m most eager to revisit from 2021. Jane Campion didn’t just make one of Netflix’s best movies ever; she made the best movie of 2021.
And those are my picks for the Top 10 Movies of 2021! What did you think of these films? What are your Top 10 Movies of the past year? Let me know in the comments section below, and thanks for reading all of our content over the past year! We understand that things ran a little dry for a while, but we are working hard to get right back to it over the next year. We’re so excited to continue this journey with you all in 2022 and beyond. Stick around for more 2022 content, coming soon!
- The Friendly Film Fan