2022 in Review: Best Narrative Films of the Year

It’s the last Friday of the year, so it’s time to reveal my Best of the Year list. As always, I was able to squeeze in about 10-12 additional films in the last couple weeks of December—mostly titles that others have told me are worth checking out, that I either missed when they came out in Chicago, or movies that were never released in Chicago at all. I also tend to do a great deal of re-watching in those last two weeks, primarily to solidify my top 10.

According to my count, I saw 490 films in 2022, either in a theater or via screening link—from the female-driven actioner The 355 (not good) at the beginning of the year to Netflix’s delightfully twisted Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical (it’s a real shame Netflix didn’t give this a theatrical run) at the end. This tally does include a few vintage titles, but only if I saw them in a theater (often as restored prints, but not always). If I simply watched an older film at home, that doesn’t make the count—so my actual count of movies watched in 2022 is much higher.

As I do every year, I’ve separated my Best Documentaries list from narratives because I want an excuse to call extra attention to a whole other group of worthy films (20 this year) that might go unnoticed on a combined list.

In previous years, my Narrative Features list has reached anywhere between 30 to 50 titles; this year, 40 movies stood out to me. I often feel that after the first 10 titles, the numbers don’t mean as much, and that’s certainly true this year. As always, if you think a list of 40 films is annoyingly excessive, feel free to stop reading at 30, or 10. I have faith you’ll find ways of coping with my indulgent means of expression.

I’ve included excerpts of my original reviews of my Top 10 films, if I wrote one; if not, I scribbled down some thoughts. Hope you dig the list and that it gives you some ideas for future viewings on some platform. Most, if not all, of these titles should be available somewhere in some format right now.

10. X / Pearl (tie) (Dir: Ti West)

It’s a rare thing when a sequel is better than the original; rarer still when a prequel is better than an original film that was already pretty special. But here we are with director Ti West’s Pearl, an origin story of sorts of the elderly woman character in his other 2022 film X, in which Mia Goth (who co-wrote Pearl with West) played Maxine, an up-and-coming adult film actress hoping be become a star by embarking on a career in porn circa the 1970s, set and shot on the farm property of an elderly couple, Howard and Pearl. Her character was so intent on becoming famous that it drove her a little insane and into the home of the deranged Pearl (also played by Goth, although unrecognizably so), who, it turned out, looked an awful lot like Maxine when she was younger. As individual films about the elusive search for fame as a means of escaping a life that stifles, Pearl and X are incredibly effective, flawlessly acted, and work as both a standalone pieces and as part of a whole. Tense, gripping and sometimes shocking, the combined stories comes in as one of the better horror experiences I’ve had this year. And we still have the third chapter MaXXXine left to go in 2023.

9. Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio (Dirs: Guillermo del Toro & Mark Gustafson)

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is masterful in its creation and execution, with del Toro and Gustafson putting actual thought into an animated project in ways that are rarely done outside of the halls of Aardman, Pixar, or Laika. I could watch this movie a dozen times and see something new each time. The film has drama, tension and a dark heart, all of which give the film actual stakes. And since the story is significantly changed from versions we know, I wasn’t actually sure who was going to live or die. This is easily my favorite animated work of the year (and there were some strong contenders in 2022), and I hope del Toro continues to spearhead and direct new animated works going forward.

8. Happening (Dir: Audrey Diwan)

Living in France, circa 1963, Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei) is a bright young student with a promising future ahead of her. But when she gets pregnant, she sees the opportunity to finish her studies and escape the constraints of her social background disappearing before they’ve even fully formed. With her final exams fast approaching and her belly growing, Anne resolves to act, even if she has to confront shame and pain, even if she must risk prison to do so. A film that seems as relevant today as ever, Happening is emotionally punishing, honest, and heartbreaking as it weaves through its tale of a young woman attempting to hold onto her own agency, while those around her judge her in ways that are beyond harsh and cruel.

7. The Woman King (Dir: Gina Prince-Bythewood)

A powerful, passionate, and angry exercise in reclaiming one’s identity and ending a belief system rooted in the slave trade that causes even a king to think he is something less than human just because he’s been brought up to believe so. Watching these warrior women, led by Viola Davis, step up and take control is the highlight of this movie, and The Woman King is built of raw power, fire, and fearlessness. I’ve truly never experienced anything like it, as it manages to be both intimate and epic while staging some of the finest action sequences you will see this year.

6. The Batman (Dir: Matt Reeves)

If you haven’t figured it out by now, filmmaker Matt Reeves knows what he’s doing. And probably without meaning to, he’s built an admirable career out of breathing new life into familiar material (Let Me In, two of the recent Planet of the Apes movies). And now Reeves is taking on what might be his biggest challenge to date: giving us a new Batman movie only 10 years after Christopher Nolan wrapped up his magnificent trilogy with Christian Bale. I genuinely hope Robert Pattinson sticks with this character for even half as long as he did those damned Twilight movies. The Batman feels like a good old-fashioned, dark-as-midnight crime drama, in which a guy in a cape doesn’t seem all that out of the ordinary. I want to see Bruce Wayne grow into his wealth and fame and use those parts of his life to finance Batman’s exploits. In turn, I’d like to see Batman’s skill-set increase and give Wayne the confidence to be less generally off-putting. This is an excellent first chapter in what I hope will be several more to come.

5. Aftersun (Dir: Charlotte Wells)

 At a fading vacation resort in Turkey, 11-year-old Sophie (Frankie Corio) treasures rare time together with her loving, idealistic, but clearly troubled father, Calum (Paul Mescal, in one of the finest performances of the year). As a world of adolescence creeps into view, beyond her eye Calum struggles under the weight of life outside of fatherhood. Twenty years later, Sophie’s tender recollections of their last holiday become a powerful and heartrending portrait of their relationship, as she tries to reconcile the father she knew with the man she didn’t, in this superb and searingly emotional debut film. 

4. TÁR (Dir: Todd Field)

When fictional classical conductor Lydia Tár (an electric Cate Blanchett) spouts the statement “Don’t be so eager to be offended” to a mixed-race student, I began to worry that this would be the message of writer/director Todd (Little Children; In the Bedroom) Field’s TÁR, a study in power dynamics and gender politics at the highest ranks of the creative world. In fact, it is a statement that comes back to bite her in the ass. The student’s dismissal of the building blocks of Lydia’s classical music foundation are as offensive to her as her takedown of him for finding different composers’ personal lives troublesome to the point where he doesn’t want to learn their music. To Lydia, these are the basics, and to dismiss them outright is an affront.

Throughout the film, Lydia hears strange noises in different places in her world: her apartment, in a park while out on a job, in her small space where she often works on her compositions. Each time the noise is different, sometimes it’s recognizable (screaming, a metronome), sometimes it’s terrifying, but each time it uneases Lydia and makes her feel like something is coming for her, in the vaguest of terms. Perhaps she’s losing her grip on reality, or maybe she’s more perceptive than that. She feels the “woke” tide turning and fears that she may get caught up in the undertow. She isn’t wrong, and TÁR is like watching someone get caught in a strong current in real time, powerless to do anything other than sink.

3. Everything Everywhere All at Once (Dirs: Dan Kwan & Daniel Scheinert)

There are times when a film might attempt to pack too much movie into a single work, and I can easily see people having that issue with the latest from directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (collectively known as Daniels), Everything Everywhere All At Once. But part of what makes the film so successful is that it exists in a place where some characters actually do experience all things at once, and it drives them, if not insane, then certainly to a place where their minds and hearts grow numb. You could look at this as a metaphor about the internet in general, or social media specifically, or you could see it as a commentary on the last five or six years of our lives. In all likelihood, what you take away from this film depends on what you bring to it, and those are my absolute favorite types of movies. This is a film that clearly needs to be seen multiple times to truly appreciate it, but it’s not tough to love and admire after just one viewing.

2. The Banshees of Inisherin (Dir: Martin McDonagh)

Tender and tough, plain spoken and lyrical, the latest from playwright-turned-filmmaker Martin McDonagh (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) re-teams his lead actors from his debut, In Bruges, for this story set on Inisherin, a fictional remote island off the coast of Ireland. In this remote location, we follow two lifelong best friends, the surface-level Pádraic (Colin Farrell) and the more artistic soul, fiddle player Colm (Brendan Gleeson), who has decided to suddenly put an end to their friendship and daily routine of getting together every afternoon at the local pub, getting drunk, and talking about essentially nothing day after day. The film is set in 1923, and the metaphor of the film is clearly the Irish Civil War. But taken at face value, The Banshees of Inisherin is also simply about a man in overwhelming need of change because he’s getting older and has nothing to show for his life. More than one character in the film is desperate to change their lot in life, and Kerry Condon’s performance as the sister longing for anything but the solitary life this island offers her is heartbreaking. It’s a visually bleak and melancholy work that also manages to find many ways to accentuate the beauty of the place and people, but it’s also a story about desperation and pain. It’s so many wonderful things.

1. Decision to Leave (Dir: Park Chan-wook)

From a mountain peak in South Korea, a man plummets to his death. Did he jump, or was he pushed? When detective Hae-joon (Park Hae-il) arrives on the scene, he begins to suspect the dead man’s wife Seo-rae (Tang Wei). But as he digs deeper into the investigation, he finds himself trapped in a web of deception and desire. In it’s own way, it’s a classic film noir tale of romantic obsession and men being driven into stupid decisions by desire, but it’s also a brilliant, twisty and twisted story of a beautiful woman who wants to be seen as something more than skin deep, and is willing to use her beauty to make those who underestimate her wish they hadn’t. Although there may be moments of confusion, everything comes together beautifully, flawlessly, and oh-so satisfyingly.

11. Marcel the Shell with Shoes On (Dir: Dean Fleischer-Camp); 12. After Yang (Dir: Kogonada); 13. To Leslie (Dir: Michael Morris); 14. Prey (Dir: Dan Trachtenberg); 15. Close (Dir: Lukas Dhont); 16. The Northman (Dir: Robert Eggers); 17. Bones and All (Dir: Luca Guadagnino); 18. Official Competition (Dir: Mariano Cohn & Gastón Duprat); 19. Glass Onion (Dir: Rian Johnson); 20. Resurrection (Dir: Andrew Semans)

21. Mad God (Dir: Phil Tippett); 22. Confess, Fletch (Dir: Greg Mottola); 23. Catherine Called Birdy (Dir: Lena Dunham); 24. The Whale (Dir: Darren Aronofsky); 25. Till (Dir: Chinonye Chukwu); 26. Women Talking (Dir: Sarah Polley); 27. Living (Dir: Oliver Hermanus); 28. Lightyear (Dir: Angus MacLane); 29. RRR (Dir: S.S. Rajamouli); 30. Kimi (Steven Soderbergh)

31. Return to Seoul (Dir: Davy Chou); 32. Vengeance (Dir: B.J. Novak); 33. EO (Dir: Jerzy Skolimowski); 34. Men (Dir: Alex Garland); 35. Nanny (Dir: Nikyatu Jusu); 36. Good Luck To You Leo Grande (Dir: Sophie Hyde); 37. Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths 38. I Love My Dad (Dir: Alejandro G. Iñárritu); 39. The Inspection (Dir: Elegance Bratton); 40. The Sea Beast (Dir: Chris Williams)

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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