There’s the sense that most everyone is ready to consider 2022 something of a ‘bye’ year, one in which the lingering tendrils of the pandemic still pack a punch, and most every institution and societal wing is in recovery mode. It’s hardly a revelation to discover that people at large are struggling – financially, emotionally, spiritually, physically. I certainly feel this way, and not simply because the nature of life affords me less and less time and money to invest in the cinema, the thing that brings me joy and purpose, both artistically and simply as a fellow watcher.
This societal exhaustion is apparent across all the art forms – in Tāmaki, our funding systems are under attack, with more and more fighting over less and less, and it seems that day by day we are losing cultural institutions our artists, our musicians, our writers, our filmmakers relied on. There are those out there who see art as a ‘nice to have’, and how often have you known the powerful to care about whether everyday folks have things that are ‘nice’? Part of Aotearoa’s cinema crisis is the reluctance to see cinema as one of the real art forms, perhaps because of the close relationship it enjoys with commerce. Most New Zealanders, I’ve found, don’t really know just how much it takes to make a film in this country. Many have baulked at the New Zealand Film Commission’s price tag of forty million, not realising that just one Marvel film generally costs something like four times that number. That amount has to go across the vast enormity of filmmakers and craftspeople in this country, vanishingly few resources which, when taking into account rising costs and the requirements of a COVID landscape, are even more scarce. What New Zealand filmmakers need is more, not less, an ask that seems unlikely to be granted (despite the enormous amounts that the film industry brings into the New Zealand economy year in and year out), perpetually trapping our cinema in a scrounging, scavenging state, rather than one that can take risks, really enrich our nation’s conception of itself, and grow a new and promising generation of self-sustaining film careers.
Beyond our borders, there has been much tumult in the cinematic world, as the divide between the mega-blockbuster and everything else becomes ever more stark. There have been successes this year, namely the blistering victory lap of Top Gun: Maverick, but beyond this audiences have proven stubbornly loyal to the laziest and most incurious impulses. The dominance of the superhero genre persists, partially – it would seem – due to inertia. What else would you go to the cinema for in 2022? Surely not something without a character whose visage you recognise from your youth. Its influence – the childishness, the didacticism, the positioning of the series as a moral good due to the boxes it ticks – can be seen even in films that have enjoyed prestige and awards, showing just how deeply its roots are now entrenched in our watching habits.
There is still a lot of good cinema to be seen out there (though this is the first year in which I’ve really felt like whole breeds of cinema are going extinct before our very eyes), but audiences can’t be convinced to watch them, whether because the great art form of the working class is now prohibitively expensive in most multiplexes, or people have been convinced that television or streaming movies on a home screen is just as good despite evidence to the contrary, or there is simply so much noise and traffic in our everyday lives that we can’t find a moment to explore what’s out there, much less make time to go and watch it. The cinema that did stick this year is a mix of rarities – daring blockbusters that celebrated the theatre experience and made something of their scale and access; or intimate, poetic works by international filmmakers that reveal the cinema as the great unifier of experience. They are treasures, reasons to hope that there are still those out there that see this as an art form worth protecting, preserving, and celebrating.
The great unseen plight of the Kiwi reviewer in compiling their Best of the Year list is one that surely seems entirely superfluous to the outside eye. Because of the delays in our release calendar, films that have already appeared in other parts of the world and been part of the conversation among filmic types won’t be placed before New Zealand eyes until the early months of the year following. Such is the case with films that technically premiered here in 2022, but feel truly of 2021, like Licorice Pizza or Memoria. These films are some of the best of that year, and would sit comfortably at the top of this list – but don’t feel part of this year’s ‘conversation’, so to speak. Therefore, in order to give oxygen to films that might otherwise be crowded out and forgotten, it is my self-imposed rule not to include films that premiere here before March in my year-end list – an arbitrary distinction, maybe, but my system for many years now. Without this cutoff, rest assured that Licorice Pizza, Memoria, Red Rocket, Parallel Mothers, The Card Counter and Bergman Island would all enjoy high placings on this list. The downside to this is that major films of this year’s ‘conversation’, like Spielberg’s The Fabelmans or Todd Field’s Tár, both films with good chances of being counted, miss out.
Honourable mentions of films that were considered for this list and just missed the cut include Avatar: The Way of Water, The Banshees of Inisherin, Glass Onion, Barbarian, Decision to Leave, X, Murina, Fire Island, Ticket to Paradise, Kimi, The Woman King, Marcel the Shell With Shoes On and Aotearoa films Millie Lies Low and Mister Organ.
Dir. Frances O’Connor
Rendering the life of Emily Brontë in sharp, imaginative and moving style, the directorial debut from Frances O’Connor (one of three impressive debuts on this list, demonstrating the wealth of talent there is waiting in the wings) is in some ways a standard biopic, but is elevated by the depth of feeling in the filmmaking, a superb, star-making central performance from Emma Mackey, and the way the film sheds its handsome trappings to evolve into something wilder and more elemental, more in touch with the raw spirit at the heart of Brontë’s work. Few films demonstrated the innate desire to create art, connecting it to something noble and eternal, quite as effectively as this one.
- Apollo 10 ½ – A Space-Age Childhood
Dir. Richard Linklater
Richard Linklater’s career finds itself spinning around pivotal, life-defining elements – a formative, carefree youth in Texas, and a fascination with the way cinema alters, manipulates and reveals the intricacies of time passing to its audience. His latest, the initially slight-seeming but texturally rich memorandum Apollo 10 ½ makes compelling use of the rotoscoping animation technique utilised in Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, adding a playful layer to the film’s dreamy rendition of a childhood memoir, crafting a reality easy to sink into but ever divorced from the reality of our present moment, a world lost to time forever.
- Ali & Ava
Dir. Clio Barnard
With her excellent docu-drama The Arbor, British filmmaker Clio Barnard revealed herself as a worthy inheritor of the British social drama mantle from the likes of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, a kind of younger sister to Andrea Arnold and Lynne Ramsay. With her follow-up Ali & Ava, Barnard achieves something quite remarkable within this well-established genre – a film that is entirely clear-eyed about the realities of the social and economic difficulties of the working class in Britain, but never wallows in the darkness, instead creating a kind of realist romance between two lonely, decent souls, as full of humour, music and joy as hardship and miserablism.
Dir. Michael Bay
I’m as surprised as anyone to see a film from one Michael Bay on this list, an auteur whose career has had its fair share of ups and especially downs, every The Rock ably met by a Transformers sequel or Pearl Harbour. His latest, Ambulance, was something of a flop for the onetime king of Hollywood – a shame, because it sits comfortably among his very best. Doing with forty million what many couldn’t do with five times that budget, Bay crafts a lean, technically audacious and thrillingly involving action experience, one with real heart, as well as the requisite layer of delicious American cheese one would expect from a Bay film.
- Return to Seoul
Dir. Davy Chou
Boasting one of the best performances of the year from first time actor Park Ji-Min, Return to Seoul has the rhythms and ambiguities of a great short story, a powerful and profound exploration of belonging and parenthood that eschews easy answers or simple sentiment. Director Davy Chou is a patient and intuitive filmmaker, drawing an explosive turn from his actress, suggesting a character with a rich and tortured inner life, besieged with wounds she is struggling to heal.
- The Stranger
Dir. Thomas M. Wright
This startling debut from multi-hyphenate creative Thomas M. Wright is a dread-soaked true crime thriller by way of psychological horror, a sustained mood-piece that features a raw, stunning performance from Joel Edgerton as the man tasked with bringing down a monster by constructing an elaborate fiction. Handsomely lensed, it is the latest in a string of strong, dark Australian films that dig into that nation’s traumatised psyche to great effect.
Dir. Baz Luhrmann
Among the more consistent audience draws of recent years has been the music biopic, in which the life of a star is streamlined into a film that conjures an easily digestible narrative of a life, a formula that has seen financial success in Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman (and welcome skewering in the likes of this year’s Weird: The Al Yankovic Story). Who better to subvert and maximalise this formula than the ultimate stylist Baz Luhrmann, who took the apocryphal story of Elvis Presley and turned it into a moving, messy pop fantasia, anchored by an evocative turn by Austin Butler, who brought real pathos and power to his rendition of the King. It’s a film that could be rote, but never is, energised by the erratic and totally idiosyncratic approach of Luhrmann, as true a modern-day visionary as there is.
Dir. Terence Davies
Earlier this year, one of the greatest of all living directors, Mike Leigh, explained that he had many films he wanted to get made, but no one wanted to give him the money to make them – a tragedy considering that we may not have an enormous amount of time left with this great visionary to be gifted more films to see. Thankfully, one of his contemporaries, the considerably gentler auteur Terence Davies (The Long Day Closes, Distant Voices, Still Lives), sated our need for great British cinema, offering up a new, astonishing work this year in Benediction, which dug into the tragic life of World War I poet Siegfried Sassoon, as played with passion and care by Jack Lowden. A distinctly queer dispatch from a great artist that mixes archival footage with rich recreations of the period to create something moving, mournful and vital.
- Stars at Noon
Dir. Claire Denis
French auteur Claire Denis released two films this year, and the superior of these efforts, the sweaty and swooning Stars at Noon, is the kind of film that lingers in the mind like a slowly dissipating cloud of smoke. Margaret Qualley and Joe Alwyn play two young, horny, stupid Westerners in over their head in modern-day Nicaragua who fall into a dangerous and doomed romance, rendered in the typically digressive and sensual form of Denis, as uncompromising in her vision as ever.
- Hit the Road
Dir. Panah Panahi
Son of great Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi (whose latest, No Bears, is winning raves elsewhere – keep an eye out for it), Panah Panahi’s debut feature Hit the Road is a slowly unfolding tragedy disguised as a rollicking road movie, one packed with incendiary performances from its four leads, and running down a slow burning fuse to a jaw-dropper of a denouement, rendered in stark images of pain, loss and unabiding familial love.
- Top Gun: Maverick
Dir. Joseph Kosinski
The triumphant return of the well-loved Tom Cruise franchise turned out to be one of the year’s greatest success stories, a film that made mega-box office bucks and also managed to be a genuinely joyous motion picture, a muscular and earnest actioner that paid tribute to the past while blowing audience minds with daring, tactile stunts blessedly free of CGI. It was crowd-pleasing work with the best of intentions – to remind audiences of what the cinematic experience can offer with a big star at the helm, action not diluted by computers or cost-cutting, and meaningful scripting and directing full of care and emotion. Bring on 2023’s Mission: Impossible 7.
- We’re All Going to the World’s Fair
Dir. Jane Schoenbrun
Despite the fact that it is now one of the most dominant forces in all our lives, vanishingly few films deal with the internet in a way that feels true-to-life and authentic to the highs and lows of creating a digital persona. Director Jane Schoenbrun’s low-budget debut, the frightening, Alex G-scored We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, achieves this feeling and more, drawing us into the life of a sad and adrift young girl led down a very dark Internet alleyway. Schoenbrun’s film is full of mystery and slow-creeping, nightmarish dread, a clear-eyed vision of the predatory and warping characteristics of an element of our lives more in control of us than we are of it.
Dir. Carla Simón
Appearing at this year’s New Zealand International Film Festival, the follow-up to Spanish filmmaker Carla Simón’s devastating Summer 1993 is this initially unassuming portrait of a family of working-class Catalan peach farmers who face the loss of their farm to developers, that slowly builds into an overwhelming generational saga that evokes no less than John Steinbeck in its execution. Simón’s direction is immaculate, sensitive and improvisatory, drawing remarkable performances from a cast of non-actors and evoking a sense of place so rich that by the film’s final, damnably inevitable moments, your heart breaks right alongside the characters’.
Dir. Jordan Peele
No other film in 2022 enjoyed the scale of Nope while also being as unapologetically ambitious, thematically rich and conceptually daring – truly, no one else is doing it like Jordan Peele. Nope represents the filmmaker’s finest work yet, a sprawling Western with an ingenious take on the classic flying saucer UFO concept that examines real, thought-provoking and challenging questions about the mining of trauma and pain for entertainment and financial benefit in the United States. Peele’s direction is that of an assured master who has truly come into his own, going from strength to strength with the assistance of fantastic performances by Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer. When people talk about the films of 2022 in the years to come, they will talk about Nope.
Dir. Charlotte Wells
I had heard about Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun when it bowed to stunned raves at Cannes earlier this year – rumours swirled that it was a revelatory debut from a first-time filmmaker, the kind that made you excited about what the future of cinema could look like. At this year’s Film Festival, where it screened only once, I missed the film due to COVID. In the final weeks of this year, I caught the film as part of the British Film Festival, sat alone in the Capitol Cinema on Dominion Road, weeping profusely amid a sold out audience. As the credits rolled, barely a single person stirred, so enraptured were we all by the vivid, crushing, poetic outpouring of memory and pain that Wells had conjured in this simple story of a father and daughter’s trip to a holiday destination in Turkey. So lived-in and true were the performances, so painterly and yet authentic were the camera compositions, as though the camera had fallen into the perfect frame every time of its own accord. So ingenious, too, was the film’s conception and editing, weaving memories together with such power that I found myself accessing memories of my own childhood, which occurred at roughly the same time as this film. By the end of Aftersun’s all-too-brief journey, I was weeping not just for the characters on-screen, but for these memories that so rarely return to me in everyday life but which formed the core of my being at a pivotal time. That this masterpiece is a debut feature boggles the mind. It is the finest film of 2022, one that demands to be seen on the big screen. Aftersun burns into your skin and stays there, its lingering effects not fading away until weeks after they’re first impressed upon you.
Best of 2022
Movie title: Best of 2022
Movie description: There was plenty of great cinema on offer in 2022, in the form of thrilling returns from master filmmakers and astonishing dispatches from new and emerging voices. The question is, did audiences care enough to seek it out?
Date published: December 15, 2022
Country: New Zealand