The 20 best movies I watched in 2022
Back when the coronavirus pandemic kicked off in 2020 (bad year), I was fairly quickly rendered to my bed for a couple of weeks to battle the illness. The symptoms were startling, I couldn’t smell or taste a thing, my entire body felt hot, as though there was a thermostat shifting my core temperature vastly in the wrong direction. But the most curious side effect of this unruly mutation was an unexpected thirst for watching films. I’d never paid them much attention before my grapple with a killer virus, but in the flick of a remote my interest began to mushroom towards evangelical fervour, like I’d just discovered cinema and the thirst became unquenchable. I started watching loads of movies as if compelled to do it, with something like 24 polished off from my sick bed, and since then I’ve just kept going and going, I’ve not stopped.
At last count, since the beginning of 2020 I’ve watched 537 films. Lots of them in French, or German, or Japanese, or Russian, quite a lot in Swedish by the (Berg)man Ingmar Bergman. I’ve watched things in Iranian, in Bengali, I’ve watched films by Robert Altman and Brian De Palma that I’d easily rate as better than anything by Spielberg or Scorsese (possibly, okay maybe, okay I don’t know).
Point is, I’ve become a film guy and I won’t shut up about it. So here are the 20 best ones I watched in 2022 (as in last year), ranked from 20th best to actual best. Quite a few pearlers missed the cut too. Among them: The Banshees of Inisherin which was the best film released in 2022 (according to this guy *points at face*), Pickpocket from Robert Bresson, Dennis Hopper’s thoroughly depressing Out of the Blue, the Soho classic Deep End, The Heartbreak Kid (the original one with Charles Grodin), Police Story 3 with the dream team of Jackie Chan with Michelle Yeoh, Fassbinder’s A Year in 13 Moons, bite sized treats like Petite Maman or Shiva Baby, and Full Moon in Paris by the always exceptional Eric Rohmer, whose films, pretentious as it sounds and is, are now my happy place.
But these are the ones that really left their mark..
20. Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)
Directed by Chantal Akerman
Starring: Delphine Seyrig
Winner of the Sight and Sound Greatest Films of All Time poll late last year (knocking Vertigo off the top spot), but somehow only the 20th best I watched in 2022. Fact is, it’s not the greatest film of all time, having watched News from Home I’m not even sure it’s Chantal Akerman’s best work either, but it’s still terrific. It traces the mundane life of a Belgian sex worker, as she keeps her house in order, peeling potatoes in real time, getting veal cutlets ready for tea, but then slowly unraveling after an unseen encounter with a trick knocks everything off its axis. When I watched it I jotted down a thought that suggested it’s “like Taxi Driver without the inner monologue, a subtler breakdown”. It’s not a bad point either, well done me.
19. The Servant (1963)
Directed by Joseph Losey
Starring: Dirk Bogarde, James Fox
Penned by Harold Pinter, an early CND adopter who spent much of his life in vocal opposition to unjust human behaviour. Which is fitting, really, particularly in a film centred on cruelty and gaslighting, as a manservant slowly consumes his employer’s sanity. It’s a rare film when you’re asked to sympathise with someone who can afford hired help, and yet this somehow manages to deliver. Dirk Bogarde, playing a very sophisticated monster, deserves all the plaudits for that, wherever the plaudits are these days.
18. La Notte (1961)
Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni
Starring: Marcello Mastroianni, Jeanne Moreau
Italian for “The Night”, much of this is about a night out, at a party. And what a party, all fine tailoring and evening swims. It’s a humdinger from Antonioni who specialises in making pensive, often emotionally ambiguous films about the complexity of the human heart, and how we can lose touch with ourselves if we’re not careful. Here, Marcello Mastroianni from 8½ has his head turned by the iconic Italian looker (and Antonioni muse), Monica Vitti, before essentially realising that he’s married to Jeanne Moreau, who is also very hot. It’s a rock and a hard place situation, but if both of those things offered you a lifetime of feeling really great about yourself.
17. Equinox Flower (1958)
Directed by Yasujiro Ozu
Starring: Shin Saburi, Kinuyo Tanaka
Another stunner from Japanese legend Yasujiro Ozu, framing each scene like a beautiful postcard while questioning the absurdities of fathers who insist on puppet mastering their daughters’ love lives. He tends to deal with hard themes delivered at a languid pace, so though the order of the day here is hypocrisy, with a big accusatory arrow pointing at homestead autocrats who publicly paint themselves as progressive, the protagonists are given room to grow, to see their flaws, and to ultimately become better people. You get the sense that Ozu really had life licked.
16. Taxi Driver (1976)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring: Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster
It’s all open to interpretation, but it’s surely the story of a man desperately trying to create a family from nothing, seeing a wife in Cybill Shepherd and a daughter in Jodie Foster, but perceiving two (alpha) men to be in his way, one a political candidate and the other a pimp – both of whom he intends to kill. It’s definitely Scorsese’s masterpiece, and I say that having recently gone 12 rounds with Raging Bull and taken Goodfellas for a ride. In fact, it’s probably De Niro’s best work too, and Paul Schrader’s, it might even be Jodie Foster’s. It was basically a really good day in the office for all involved.
15. The Wild Bunch (1969)
Directed by Sam Peckinpah
Starring: William Holden, Ernest Borgnine
What’s surprising about The Wild Bunch is that while it removed much of the romanticism from old time Westerns, replacing sweeping plains and John Waynes with true grit and violence, there’s something unexpectedly progressive about this bunch. They’re fellas who value one another, who demonstrate kinship, and there’s an emotional bond between them that’s genuinely touching. Then, bang on cue, out come the guns and they all start shooting everyone in the face. That’ll be the ‘wild’ bit talking.
14. Summer with Monika (1952)
Directed by Ingmar Bergman
Starring: Harriet Andersson, Lars Ekborg
Back in 1952 this was spicy stuff. European chicks with a much more catholic relationship to their clothes, the story of a temptress stealing an impressionable young lad away for the summer then ultimately tiring of him and getting rid of him. It’s one of Bergman’s early masterpieces, but no less of a head scrambler than what came later in the Persona years. A great place to start.
13. Pulp Fiction (1994)
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Starring: John Travolta, Samuel L Jackson
If Reservoir Dogs announced Quentin Tarantino’s arrival on the scene, this was the one that said he was also going to be moving in for a while, taking over proceedings, making a few menu suggestions and probably stealing your woman. Non-linear and endlessly quotable, this became the new template, the must-have student poster of the mid-90s, the movie to epitomise independent cinema ‘moving forward’. That’s right, I said ‘moving forward’ like people do in boardrooms. Don’t forget, it’s the movie ‘industry’ for a reason.
12. Dazed and Confused (1993)
Directed by Richard Linklater
Starring: Jason London, Rory Cochrane
Truthfully, I worried that after the years away from it, a return-watch might find this to be a little cloying. 1970s high school kids who are too self-consciously far out for their own good, Matthew McConaughey over-McConaugheying the McConaughey. But more fool me and my foolishness, because what was wonderful in 1993 has maintained every speck of it in the thirty years since. Still the ultimate hangout movie, with barely a plot in sight.
11. Mad Max II (1981)
Directed by George Miller
Starring: Mel Gibson, Bruce Spence
In certain circles you’d be murdered for suggesting it – but this is much (much!) better than the Tom Hardy reboot that everyone went mad for. The plot is similarly simple – essentially drive this truck from point A to point B without crashing it/getting killed – but it’s lighter on its feet, it’s from back when Mel Gibson was a charismatic superstar-in-the-making, and because you know that no one’s raiding the CGI cupboard, it’s even more impressive to look at too.
10. Come Drink With Me (1966)
Directed by King Hu
Starring: Cheng Pei-pei, Yueh Hua
Widely considered to be one of the greatest martial arts movies ever made, there’s a certain irony that the leading lady (Cheng Pei-pei) was, in fact, a ballet dancer (and not the only one in our top ten, more later). Further proof that violence, when administered correctly, can be beautiful. It’s a tale as old as time really – a girl hellbent on revenge is looking for her kidnapped brother, so disguises herself as a boy in order to fight people.
9. The Last Picture Show (1971)
Directed by Peter Bogdanovich
Starring: Timothy Bottoms, Cybill Shepherd
A ‘coming of age’ film which, in narrative terms, tends to mean that teenage minds are going to be opened to the starker side of humanity and become corrupted. That they’ll be exposed, both figuratively and often literally, to the cruelty and futility of life. That they’ll embark on hormonal journeys that’ll find sex commodified, or weaponised, or distractingly elusive. It’s funny, when we talk of ‘coming-of-age’ it’s always with a sense of sadness, we only ever talk about the ‘loss’ of innocence, never the unshackling of it. Perhaps we’re filtering life the wrong way?
8. Rosetta (1999)
Directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne
Starring: Émilie Dequenne, Fabrizio Rongione
A powerhouse performance from the Belgian actress Émilie Dequenne, here playing a teenager dragging herself and her drunk mother through a hard knock life in a rundown caravan park. You never leave the main character’s side throughout the film, you’re with her all the way as she battles against the cruel hand she’s been dealt, refusing to give in (mostly). As committed performances go, we’re in D.D Lewis territory. But, whisper it, possibly even better.
7. Licorice Pizza (2021)
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman
You might call him PTA, I call him Professor Paul Thomas Anderson, and he’s basically the new Kubrick. A director who shifts genres, creates genres, who once in a fair while chucks in a bit of light relief to temper the darkness, and here’s some of that – in the form of a hazy Californian coming-of-age (another one!) story, but one which maintains a gleeful sense of deluded optimism to the last, a dreamlike meander through a strange (and dubious) romance, which like PTA’s Magnolia, often feels like a shaggy dog story, like you’re probably being taken for a bizarre ride, but that’s totally fine.
6. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring: Henry Thomas, Drew Barrymore
In Close Encounters, the father wanted to leave his family to go into space, here the father’s gone and there’s an alien who needs to get home, back to his family. You get the feeling that Spielberg had a lot to get off his chest back in those early forays and you suspect that he finally came somewhere close to closure with this year’s The Fabelmans, but without the intergalactic metaphor to hide behind. Not a bad film (The Fabelmans), but you could argue that the power of hindsight, and the softening of time have rendered it a little less potent, because here you can still feel the raw bewilderment of a boy who just wants everything to be okay. And over 40 years later, we’re still crying with him.
5. The Leopard (1963)
Directed by Luchino Visconti
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon
In terms of movies that stretch to three hours, this is one of the most satisfying, and that’s mainly down to the spectacular views, some architectural, some agricultural, and a couple of them biological, notably the two great beauties, Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale – what a whopping pair of thesps. But distractions aside, this is really a meditation on Italy’s crumbling past, on a time when politics usurped monarchy, and if you last the course, you’ll be rewarded with an iconic ballroom dancing scene.
4. Ganja & Hess (1973)
Directed by Bill Gunn
Starring: Marlene Clark, Duane Jones
The story goes that Bill Gunn was approached in the early 70s to make a black vampire film, but rather than steering the ship into expected waters, he delivered this bizarre and unsettling metaphor for addiction instead, with vampires as tormented by their urges rather than predators – in a constant battle with themselves, always conflicted, always trying to find comfort in fellowship. That the two excellent leads (particularly Marlene Clark playing Ganja) and the visionary director were barely able to muster anything else of note from their careers tells you everything you need to know about the wonky landscape at the time. To the point where Gunn ended up a bit part player in The Cosby Show – in hindsight, there’s nothing more horrific than that.
3. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
Directed by William Wyler
Starring: Fredric March, Harold Russell
It got all the plaudits when it came out, but somehow The Best Years of Our Lives doesn’t feel as engraved in popular culture as other anti-war epics, here depicting veterans returning from WW2 – just a single year from the war’s end, no less – not as Captain Americas welcomed back as heroes, but as troubled men struggling to rediscover their place in society, attempting to reinvigorate faded relationships. Men scarred by war, who are ‘home’ but nothing makes sense any more. All of the main performances are pretty barnstorming, but it’s hook-handed Harold Russell who runs away with it, making history by bagging two Oscars for the role, the first as Best Supporting Actor, the second an honourary Oscar for “bringing aid and comfort to disabled veterans through the medium of motion pictures”. He then waited 34 years to be in another film.
2. The Red Shoes (1948)
Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Starring: Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook
You can file this one above Billy Elliot and Black Swan as the greatest ballet movie of all time, particularly for the iconic 17 minute sequence in the middle of a film, not plonked but deftly inserted, highlighting the plight of our heroine who is ultimately forced to choose between the great loves of her life – ballet, or the handsome composer who’s lit a fire in her underpants. Romantic, stunningly shot, there’s a genuine case for this being the greatest British film ever made. Moira Shearer, the star of the show, also made a memorable appearance in Peeping Tom, the slasher flick that torpedoed Michael Powell’s career.
1. Stalker (1979)
Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
Starring: Alexander Kaidanovsky, Anatoly Solonitsyn
A Russian film that’s all in Russian. I’d tried my luck with Mirror, often seen as Tarkovsky’s masterpiece, but I came a bit of a cropper. Too non-linear, too incomprehensible. Lots would probably argue that that’s where the appeal lies, in a collection of disjointed recollections to make us ruminate on existence, and accept that memory isn’t a straight line, but a jumble rehashed by an unreliable narrator. So I approached Stalker a little gingerly, worried that I might be in for around three hours of indecipherable intellectualism and I’d be out of my depth, but that’s not (quite) what I got. Of course I was out of my depth intellectually (that’s always a given), but where Mirror was autobiographical and deliberately non sequitur, this – based on a book called Roadside Picnic – at least begins from a place of form, structure and plot. Though not without a similar sense of ambiguity, as three men with different reasons for making the journey, all pilgrimage to a place (‘The Room’) where your deepest desires are said to come true. The broad brushstroke here might be something along the lines of ‘be careful what you wish for’ but it goes a little deeper than that, possibly nearer to the old adage about the journey being more important than the getting there.