Heather’s Top Ten Movies of 2022

I’ve appreciated how many movie critics this year are pointing out that art is subjective when sharing their top tens. My list may or may not be all the “best” movies of the year, but they are all movies that I thought were well made, well written, and poignant. Something Hollywood studios ALWAYS struggle to understand is that there’s no replacement for a good script and story that’s sincere. Those are my main criteria, and all of these picks check those boxes.

10. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

I’ve lost an older brother, which I think is part of what made Wakanda Forever so resonant. The fact that Ryan Coogler had to completely rewrite the movie, and Letitia Wright had to carry the film in a totally different way, and the rest of the cast had to step up in the midst of their own grief just made this an extra feat of storytelling. This was a powerful exploration of the ways different people process grief differently, the ways losses can compound, and the ways we are required to expand in order to fill gaps left by loved ones. The Marvel-required elements might have been a little clunky, but everything that was core to the story of Wakanda and Talokan worked beautifully. If this is your first time realizing that Wright can act, check out her terrific performance in Mangrove on Amazon Prime. Coming to Disney+ January 20th

9. Hidden Letters

Maybe it’s recency bias but when I watched this documentary a few days ago I was completely blown away. It’s an astounding story about female rebellion and undercover subversion. For centuries in China when women were continuously oppressed and silenced and prevented from receiving education, women created their own secret language called Nushu. They wrote letters, poems and songs to connect with one another in the only ways they could. This is a story about Chinese women and it’s also a universal story about oppression and creative resistance. I’m just saying that if we can learn to speak Elvish and Klingon, Nushu is overdue for its place in the sun. Currently available on demand.

8. Cha Cha Real Smooth

In an age where toxic masculinity is proliferating online at alarming rates, I appreciate any content that can normalize young men living with empathy and being emotionally present with the people around them. And Cooper Raiff is a young filmmaker who is charting an encouraging way forward for men in cinema. This is a warm-hearted coming of age story about the time of life when you’ve graduated from college but you still have no idea what you’re doing. It’s about confusion, aimlessness, trying to figure out what you’re good at, getting too attached, working out shifting family dynamics, and getting a real job. With a great supporting performance from Dakota Johnson, you should definitely slide to the…Apple+ app and give it a watch.

7. Descendant

As much as we’ve been in a golden age of documentaries, I’ve still seen some snoozers this year. Which makes Descendant a real stand-out. I had heard some initial news stories about the search for the Clotilda, the last vessel to carry enslaved people to America, but even with a little bit of background knowledge my jaw was on the floor for most of this doc. The story is absolutely bonkers in its hubris and deceit, and still all too relevant. This is a must watch for all Americans as we seek to understand ourselves through our history. Available on Netflix.

6. Turning Red

I am normally such a curmudgeon about animated films of any kind (I am after all not a child) but Turning Red was charming and hilarious. I too was a tween obsessed with boy bands (mine was Hanson) who was overwhelmed and confused by adolescence. Red empathetically understands the experience of girls, the process of both differentiating from and identifying with our mothers, the importance of female friendships, and the stranglehold pop music can have on youth culture. Just give Nobody Like U one listen and it will be never not be on your mind. Available on Disney+

5. Prey

I’ve never seen a Predator movie, but after a quick summary of the Predator’s specs from Ivan, I was ready to jump in. And this movie absolutely slaps. It was such a creative framework for the traditional elements of the franchise applied in a fresh way to a totally different environment and protagonist. The Predator only attacks that which it sees as a threat, which makes a young Native girl a deadly opponent to underestimate. This movie had terrific action sequences as well as a great storyline and character development, a rare combination.  If you’re on the hunt for a well-constructed action movie that’s thought-provoking and exhilarating, set your sites on Prey. Available on Hulu

4. She Said

In lesser hands this journalist true crime retelling could have centered abuse and an abuser. But in the capable hands of director Maria SchraderShe Said centers the lives and determination of the survivors and those who fought to tell their stories. It is a remarkable achievement to leave a film about one of Hollywood’s most predatory abusers and have an overwhelming feeling of power and hope. They pull no punches about the reality of the systemic victimization, and yet the strength and courage of countless women is the heart of this story. I walked out of the theater feeling like women can do anything, and I hope you’ll give yourself the chance to experience this inspiring story. Currently available on demand.

3. Everything, Everywhere, All At Once

Listen, I’m always skeptical of hype-beast movies that everyone says changed their lives and did something cinema has never done before and you’ve never seen anything like it, blah blah blah. So I was skeptical of Everything to say the least. But the creativity, insight and emotion could not be denied. Beyond the obvious artistry required for building a multiverse, what really made this movie stand apart was the timely exploration of the pull towards nihilism so pervasive in young people today. With unprecedented amounts of information and experiences available at all times comes a sense of overwhelming meaninglessness and despondency. And Everything considers what it can look like for older generations to join and journey with our youth in their search for meaning and significance, and in so doing to answer those questions for ourselves as well. Plus it’s a heart wrenchingly accurate depiction of parent/child relationships and humanity’s cosmic search for love and affirmation from family. This movie will not be for everyone, the absurdist sexual content may be a dealbreaker for some. But if you can hang in there, Everything is a wild ride through existentialism and the search for meaning. Currently available on demand.

2. Marcel the Shell with Shoes On

As mentioned previously, animated films activate my inner curmudgeon. But Marcel took my heart by storm. Somehow this movie is both melancholic and hopeful, bringing to life what it means to experience profound loss while still remaining emotionally present to the world around you. Filled with delicate observations, wistful exploration and sly humor, Marcel had me laughing and crying. After multiple years as a society of experiencing collective loss and disappointment, Marcel invites us to keep our hearts open and to never stop pursuing meaningful connection. Currently available on demand.

1. Aftersun

For the first 30 minutes I wasn’t sure where this movie was going, it’s a subtle and slow burn. But by the time the credits rolled I was in tears. This is fundamentally a story about growing up with an unstable parent and in adulthood looking back and piecing together your memories and retrospective meaning-making. With terrific lead performances and a structure that relives the story through the eyes of an 11 year old, this was the most singular and poignant film of the year for me. It has stuck with me and I continue to think about it months later. A powerful debut from first time filmmaker Charlotte Wells, it was also produced by Barry Jenkins and makes an interesting companion piece to his Moonlight. Currently available on demand.

Honorable mentions: These all made a strong impression on me and are worth your time!

Breaking – Unfortunately this movie didn’t get any attention beyond its premiere at Sundance, but it features a compelling true story and a mesmerizing performance from John Boyega. It draws crucial attention to the struggles of military veterans and the damaging disarray endemic to the VA. Highly recommend. Currently available on demand.

The Swimmers – The only reason this didn’t make my top ten is that it felt overlong at times and would have benefited from a tighter run time. But this true story of young female Syrian refugees who were also professional swimmers was compelling and important. It very much immerses you in the experience of a refugee in this time period and is an engaging and important watch. Available on Netflix.

NopeJordan Peele always comes through with something creative and thought-provoking. Maybe a little too obtuse but overall I’m always excited about writers/directors taking big swings and creating brand new material. Currently streaming on Peacock.

Bodies, Bodies, Bodies – A Gen Z horror/suspense movie that doesn’t feel mocking but is able to be fun, unpredictable and sincere. Currently available on demand.

Glass Onion – I liked this one significantly better than Knives Out. Taut, witty, insightful. A fantastic screenplay backed up by an unstoppable ensemble cast. Available on Netflix.

Tar – Objectively one of the best movies of the year with top two best performances of the year. I didn’t personally resonate with it as much as others which is why it’s not higher for me, but it’s a great film. Currently available on demand.

Weird: The Weird Al Yankovic Story – I am the target audience for this movie. A parody biopic about biopics about Weird Al, it is hilariously meta and self-aware. There were scenes in the first act that made me laugh out loud, and Daniel Radcliffe fully commits from start to finish. The third act is messy and goes off the rails, but overall turning the story of a notoriously kind and well-behaved polka satirist into a stereotypical rock and roll biopic deserves a watch. Available for free on Roku.

RRR – This movie is absolutely bonkers and implausible in all the best ways. A 3 hour epic about the fictional meeting and friendship between two real life Indian revolutionaries is historical fan fiction at its best. Be ready to suspend your disbelief and enjoy the ride. Available on Netflix.

Heather’s Top Ten Movies of 2020

Maybe I shouldn’t admit this publicly, but we watched over 220 movies this year. Most of them were older ones I’d never seen because it was a weird year for new releases. A lot of titles got pushed back to 2021, some have been on streaming for months but were just small features without much hype, some are available on VOD but cost $19.99 to rent which feels hefty. So nearly all of my top ten picks are smaller movies that you may or may not have heard of yet, because that’s what came out in 2020.

It was an also a phenomenal year for documentaries! I have a theory that the rise of reality television transformed documentary filmmaking. When I was a kid, docs were seen as pretentious snooze-fests about the migratory patterns of bees and whatnot. Things that most people could not access or find interesting. But the art form has developed by leaps and bounds, encompassing so many more topics and having far more intricate structures. No longer are they something you have to drag yourself through just so you can say you are informed, now they are engrossing and emotional and complex. So my list is heavier on documentaries than usual, but give them a chance. They might be some of the most moving content you’ll see this year.

10. Miss Juneteenth – I heard a lot about this movie during the summer when our country was talking about the holiday of Juneteenth, but we weren’t able to see it until December. This story is a much-needed makeover of the pageant genre. It follows some traditional tropes of a mother and daughter story where the mom won the pageant in the past and is pressuring her daughter to participate and win like she did. But the themes of Miss Juneteenth are far deeper and more nuanced. It is also a story about Black ownership and what it looks like to carve out something for yourself against the odds. It’s about the struggles and pressures that Black women face in trying to hold themselves and the people around them together. And it’s about generational failures and hopes and how we create and keep a legacy alive. The making of the film reflects these very themes with writer/director Channing Godfrey Peoples who was given opportunities by Ava DuVernay. DuVernay (Selma, When They See Us) created a wonderful show called Queen Sugar and used that platform to give other women entrances into the film/TV industry. Many new and talented creators received a leg-up from directing and writing with DuVernay and what she carved out for herself and others. Miss Juneteenth is the product of what can happen when Women of Color are given the opportunities and support they deserve. Available to rent on demand.

9. Feels Good Man – Everything about this documentary was a mystery to me before watching. In the early 2000s cartoonist/artist Matt Furie created a chill character named Pepe the Frog. Pepe lived a normal existence on MySpace for a while, then became a huge meme on the blogging site 4Chan. Still pretty harmless. Then Pepe morphed into a major symbol for the Alt-right and Trumpism and was registered as an official hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League. How did that happen?? The doc unpacks this progression with terrific detail and insight, exploring online culture and how and why it intersected with Trumpism. It also follows Matt and the impact it had on him personally and professionally, and how Pepe finally reclaimed his froggy identity. Even if you aren’t very interested in politics, this is a fascinating look at how things take on a life of their own online and how the internet shapes our lived reality. Available to rent for a small fee on demand.

8. All In: The Fight for Democracy – Like many of us, I was obsessed with the election this year. There were a couple of particularly good documentaries that unpacked big themes and factors of our political moment. This doc follows Stacy Abrams’ activism in the fall-out of the voter suppression that took place surrounding the gubernatorial race in Georgia in 2018. It also provides a succinct and helpful overview of the general history of voter suppression in America, specifically of Black and Brown voters. Available on Prime.

7. Mangrove – I really liked The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Netflix) this year and for a while it was on my top ten list. Then I saw Mangrove. Part of Steve McQueen’s film anthology on Prime, Small Axe, each tells a story about the context of his childhood which was West Indian-British communities in London in the 1970s-1980s. A very unique and personal project, they’re all free-standing stories, the only thing that connects them is the general context. Mangrove follows a true-life courtroom drama surrounding Black-British protestors who are being unjustly prosecuted over their protest. This story eloquently unpacks what it feels like to know the system is against you and to feel helpless rage in the face of it. Letitia Wright turns in an incredibly good lead performance that I believe should garner her a Best Actress nomination and shows her range outside of Marvel. (Pro tip: Turn on the English subtitles as you watch. The actors are speaking English but with thick accents and use of slang that may be hard to follow for some viewers.)

6. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – I was nervous to watch this because Viola Davis’s makeup is so extreme and the pressure of it being Chadwick Boseman’s final performance made me wonder if it could live up to all our high hopes. I need not have worried. Deftly steered by Tony award-winning Broadway director George C. Wolfe the film feels like a play but still comes alive in an authentic way on screen. Based on the play by August Wilson (author of Fences), the story follows real-life Blues singer Ma Rainey as she records a few hits, including “Black Bottom.” The setting is a Chicago recording studio where Ma and her all-Black band try to work with each other and navigate the relationship between them and the all-White management. It is a powerful exploration of the power dynamics involved in creating Black art, and the impact it has on Black artists when those power dynamics are heavily unequal. With both Davis and Boseman turning in wonderful performances, I hope this will get significant awards attention. Available to stream on Netflix.

5. Dick Johnson is Dead – No movie has affected me so emotionally this year as this documentary. On the surface it’s a quirky doc made by a daughter whose father is dying and the family is trying to get used to the idea of him being gone by filming dramatic and humorous staged deaths. But more broadly it’s about memory and loss and how to say goodbye. It is also just the most heartbreakingly beautiful portrait of a loving and emotionally present father who would do anything for the daughter he loves. If you have lost someone close to you then be warned that this could be extremely emotional to watch. But emotions aren’t always bad. Available on Netflix.

4. Driveways – We almost missed this one, a very indie and small but beautiful film about a mother and her socially anxious 9-year-old son who come to clean out her older sister’s home after she dies. The sister had lived next door to an elderly man living alone after his wife died, played with a kind authenticity by Brian Dennehy in his final performance before his death this year. The synopsis sounds heavy and perhaps boring, but the film has a wonderfully gentle and sweet quality that winsomely draws you in. And the 9-year-old, played heartrendingly by newcomer Lucas Jaye will have you rooting for him every step of the way. Available on demand for a small rental fee.

3. Minari – Maybe it’s because we now live 20 minutes from the border of Arkansas, but this film about a Korean immigrant family living in rural Arkansas in the 1980s was resonant. A quiet and empathic look at family dynamics and the costs of chasing a dream. Ivan wrote more about the film and the themes of manhood and fatherhood. Unfortunately, it’s not slated for wide release until February (we saw it at the Indie Memphis Film Festival at the drive-in) so keep an eye out for it in early 2021.

2. The Assistant – This is one that unfortunately got lost for most people during the summer. Streaming on Hulu and led by the wonderful Julia Garner, this is a subtle story of being a young woman trying to work in an exploitative environment. There are plenty of stories about women being harassed in the workplace, but this was the first I’ve seen about the female bystanders who are co-opted into the oppression by their presence in the organization, and who must wrestle with their role in changing or engaging in the system. Not all abuse is direct, some happens by leveraging and pressuring you to maintain “how things are.” Garner perfectly captures confusion, powerlessness, anger, and tense observation. This is a thorough exploration of the ripple effects of harassment and exploitation without needing to depict the abuse itself.

1.The Sound of Metal – Available on Prime, this is a story of a musician who suddenly loses his hearing. Featuring an Oscar-worthy performance by Riz Ahmed, this movie immerses you in what this experience would be like. The sound design is incredibly creative without being dominant and weaves between the world of sound and hearing loss. This story also does a wonderful job of elevating and honoring the deaf community. It depicts the struggle and identity crisis that would accompany such an abrupt loss but does so in a way that highlights the dignity and autonomy of those who are deaf. It is emotional, powerful, compassionate, and informed.

Honorable Mention Documentaries

Athlete A – An incredibly important and well-told doc about USA Gymnastics and the abuses of Larry Nassar. This is essential viewing for anyone who has or works with kids. It is survivor-focused and uncovers his abuse without retraumatizing the viewers. You will be horrified by the system that protected him but inspired by the many women who stood against him to tell the truth together. Available on Netflix.

John Lewis: Good Trouble – We lost some greats this year, and John Lewis tops that list. He was a remarkable man who started out as a teenager but took every opportunity in front of him to advocate for justice and act in the hope that things could be better than they were. He became a giant through consistent acts of faith and bravery and was constantly motivated by his belief in God and the support of the community of faith. This will inspire you with everything that he accomplished and challenge you to see where you can follow his example. Now available on HBOMax.

The Painter and the Thief – A crazy and powerful story about the transforming power of compassion and love and choosing to see someone at their best even when they are at their worst. It has a very poignant and raw exploration of addiction that’s ultimately hopeful but emotional so be aware. See Ivan’s list for more info, available to stream on Hulu.

Boy’s State – At times scary and at times inspiring, this doc follows teenage boys in Texas as they create their own form of government. Ivan wrote about this here, and I also recommend it. Available on Apple+