Seeking out the

5000 greatest films

in a century of cinema

Films of 2022

As the new year approached, many made the joke that 2022 was going to be “2020 too,” or “2020 II,” meaning the seemingly endless COVID-19 lockdown malaise would continue with each day blurring into the next. We all feared this prolonged lassitude would result in yet another year of depressing and damaging distanced existence. Of course, much had changed by January of ‘22. While COVID was far from gone, the populations of most countries had adjusted to a new normal. Unfortunately, that new normal was much less pleasant that the old normal. Work, school, travel, business, politics, and the general social discourse had become far more coarse, complicated, confusing, and even traumatic. Very few industries came roaring back to life, and that legacy of meagre sustainability certainly included film exhibition.

Many cinemas, already on life support, closed for good, including the UK chain Cineworld, owner of the US chain Regal. That news meant the end of many hundreds of Regal Cinemas all over the country. Meanwhile, worried distributors who had gone all in-on streaming were suddenly waking up to the fact that their short-term thinking was killing their bottom line. The streaming industry, still in its adolescence, saw a peak during the COVID lockdowns that will be very hard to top. And all of a sudden CEOs started to realize that there is really no way to make more money on streaming than they had during 2020 and 2021. Raising subscription rates seems to be their only option, but now that so much of the country has cut the cable cord, the idea of paying more than $10 or $20 for every single subscription service is starting to put off even the most dedicated early adopters of streaming.

It doesn’t help that now that media companies are run entirely like Silicon Valley startups, subscribers are witnessing financial decisions that directly affect them and baffle them as customers—like cancelling shows almost right out of the gate and selling popular shows to rival streamers. More unprecedented is the industry’s practice of sometimes not releasing completed movies, even ones with built-in fan bases, if the CEO deems that writing off the entire multi-hundred-million-dollar production as a tax deduction makes more sense than spending anything on distribution and advertising.
These problems with streaming have not resulted in a mass return to cinemas. All the usual pre-COVID problems still exist—the poor quality of the chain cinema experience, projection equipment that is serviced even less frequently, high ticket prices, and rampant cellphone use and talking. But now additional factors weigh on people’s minds, such as the risk of getting COVID in a crowded theater and other germophobic concerns. Plus coexisting with one’s fellow human beings has become a whole lot less pleasant in recent years. The idea of gathering in a community of strangers for a movie is far less appealing if you fear you’re going to be accosted for wearing a mask, or for not wearing a mask, or getting confronted by the myriad other aggressions that seem to have become part of American life these days. Instead, people have invested in their home screening systems and gotten used to the comforts and upsides of streaming.

Of course, independent cinemas, where people are more likely to know and share values with their fellow audience members, avoid many of the negative issues of the chain movie theater experience.  But indie cinemas in 2022 were still starved for new movies to play, and the movies they did get were not attracting audiences in anywhere close to pre-pandemic numbers. Only special engagements of older pictures brought in sizable crowds. The one type of audience that seemed guaranteed to show up and buy tix were die-hard movie fans—especially genre movie fans. This growing number of folks leapt at the chance to return to standing in line and crowding into theaters to see old movies, even ones they could stream anytime on their TVs. They appreciate that these pictures were meant to be seen in a cinema, with a big group, often on 35mm film.

For lovers of repertory cinema like me, this screening explosion of classic, cult, and favorite old films was a surprise benefit of the pandemic. And this phenomenon wasn’t just true in my hometown of Boston, already a mecca for indie theaters that run older films on 35mm. It was the report from arthouse cinemas across the nation. While indie operators could barely give away tix to highly anticipated new releases like David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future and Alex Garland’s Men, they were practically turning people away from special engagements and midnight screenings of movies guaranteed to be more fun or exciting when viewed with an audience.  These “event” movies included everything from golden-age classics like Singin’ in the Rain and Casablanca, to more ironic big-screen favorites like Grease and Face Off, to those few recent movies where 35mm prints are available to screen like Mad Max: Fury Road and this year’s Ti West double feature X and Pearl.

When indie and chain cinemas finally did see theatrical releases of a glut of features held back by studios that didn’t want to dump their product on a streamer during COVID, ticket sales were not what the programmers and distributors had hoped. Movies like Death on the Nile, Downton Abbey: A New Era, Scream, The Lost City, Ambulance, The Northman, and The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent opened reasonably but ended up performing at the low end of their box-office projections.

Gradually, a few new releases did break through the fear, lethargy, and new home-viewing habits. A few multiplex blockbusters and arthouse hits coaxed America back to the movies. Starting with yet another Batman reboot, Matt Reeves’s The Batman in March, and building to James Cameron’s long-in-the-works but not exactly long-awaited Avatar sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water in December. Many loud voices had been predicting for years that The Way of Water would be a colossal bomb when it finally came out, but this “sequel that no one asked for,” became the must-see spectacle of 2023; ending up as the highest-grossing film of the year, the highest-grossing film of the COVID-19 pandemic era, and the third-highest-grossing film of all time.

Many of us had braced ourselves for a post-COVID onslaught of small, unimaginative movies made and set during the pandemic lockdown. Judd Apatow’s The Bubble, an unfunny comedy about a bunch of actors stuck at a hotel attempting to film a sequel to an action movie during the pandemic, epitomized the kind of picture I assumed would soon flood cinemas and streamers. However, the public (apart from the small segment tasked with viewing and rejecting submissions for film festivals) was spared movies that wallowed in a time that we were all eager to put behind us. While 2021 saw its share of films shot entirely on Zoom, like Will Wernick’s Safer at Home and Rob Savage’s Host, or made about couples stuck in rooms like Doug Liman and Steven Knight’s Locked Down and Sam Levinson’s Malcolm & Marie, by 2022, we seemed to have moved on.

What did make it through were inventive, small-scale pictures made by sharp filmmakers who used the restrictions of the COVID era to produce interesting work. Céline Sciamma’s surreal fantasy Petite Maman has a cast of four and is largely set outdoors. Lila Neugebauer’s Causeway and Sophie Hyde’s Good Luck to You, Leo Grande are two-handers about characters whose isolation has nothing to do with a pandemic. Joanna Hogg’s Gothic mother/daughter tale The Eternal Daughter is a two-hander in which Tilda Swinton plays both lead roles. Zach Cregger’s Barbarian, the year’s best horror movie, has hardly any scenes in which more than two people are in a frame together, though you’re not really conscious of that fact while watching.

Those who intentionally set their films during the pandemic, from Rian Johnson’s boisterous Glass Onion to Claire Denis’s dreary Both Sides of the Blade, use the trappings of COVID to mark each story’s place in time, rather than make it the point of the story. While Steven Soderbergh, whose past five non-COVID-era pictures all looked so intentionally low-budget they might as well have been made during the lockdown, finally returned to making a film that looked like it was shot by a real filmmaker. The distinctly COVID-era thriller Kimi, set almost entirely in the apartment of an agoraphobic corporate surveillance worker, seemed to remind the great director what excited him about filmmaking in the first place.

But, for the most part, looking back on the films of 2022 won’t feel like looking at a time when film production was shut down or limited. A key reason is that, unlike The United States of America, the film industry adapts quickly and with little pushback about whatever necessities are required to enable production to continue. As one of the last fully unionized industries, nearly everyone follows new rules and guidelines without much fuss. COVID safety protocols were universally adopted across the industry. COVID compliance officers became the latest addition to almost every film crew, just as intimacy coordinators had been introduced in response to the #MeToo movement. While the constant testing and quarantining complicated production, people who work in movies were eager to resume their jobs and largely just got on with it, rather than grandstanding and pushing back on rules that might not have fit their political ideology. I produced and directed a music video in Los Angeles in January of 2022, and I can tell you, it was no fun dealing with the constantly shifting availability of crew members any more than was fun wearing a mask for the full duration of long shoot days, but the show must go on. And everyone knew that these new rules would be temporary adjustments to keep our fellow workers safe during a period of compromised health.

Many stories circulated about the fate that would befall those who put their own comfort and ideology above the production they're working on or the safety of their fellow crewmembers. An audiotape went viral of Tom Cruise yelling at his Mission Impossible 7 staff when a couple of them broke the COVID protocols. While it is amusing to listen to the grandiose Cruse equating the work they are engaged in, making a silly action picture, with the work of saving lives, it is difficult to fault the logic of his words. “I’m on the phone every night with studios, insurance companies, producers! They are all looking to us to see if this industry can get back on its feet,” the megastar rants. “We are responsible for thousands of jobs! You got a problem with that, then you’re gone. And you can tell it to the people who are losing their fucking homes and can’t put food on the table or pay the kid’s college tuition because our industry is shut down.”

Perhaps the most impressive film made during COVID was The Woman King, Gina Prince-Bythewood’s period action movie about the all-female unit of warriors who protected the African Kingdom of Dahomey in the 1800s. This film is a deft blending of old Hollywood-style historical epic cinema and Marvel-style superhero fantasy, which managed to be better than most Hollywood historical epics and all Marvel movies. Nothing about this action-packed, shot-on-location war picture felt like it was made during a pandemic. The Woman King was the first film released in 2022 that exceeded box office expectations. It ran in IMAX, Dolby Vision, and traditional cinemas, creating excitement and buzz from nearly all who bought a ticket—though not enough to convince most Academy members to bother seeing it.

Still, many of the year’s best films were put in theaters for unforgivably short runs before getting squirrelled away on some streaming site with little to no fanfare. In the case of Glass Onion, the limited run was perhaps predictable. Netflix had offered writer/director Rian Johnson 469 million dollars to make two sequels to his hit 2019 film, Knives Out. These movies were always going to be Netflix Originals, but the company chose not to give Glass Onion the kind of prestige theatrical window it provided to its prior high-profile titles The Irishman, Roma, Marriage Story, The Two Popes, and The Power of the Dog. Part of this decision was certainly due to the fact that the company treated those earlier films as major releases, and they hoped one of them would make Netflix the first streaming service to win a Best Picture Oscar. When upstart Apple TV beat them to that honor with their tiny, non-theatrical 2021 release CODA, Netflix brass questioned the point of doing theatrical releases at all.

But in the case of Glass Onion, there certainly was a point to doing a big release in theaters. It was exactly the kind of crowd-pleasing comedy that could have played to huge box office in cinemas for months, making the company tremendous revenue. Netflix instead gave it only a one-week theatrical run starting Thanksgiving Day, and then put it on their platform in December, where most people saw it at home by themselves or with a small handful of others—the worst way to watch a crowd-pleasing comedy.

Netflix faired a little better with their handling of two foreign acquisitions, All Quiet on the Western Front and RRR. Both of these titles also had small theatrical releases, but they received major promotion and awards campaigning when they became available on the Netflix platform. I knew nothing of a new German adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front when I walked past a local moviehouse and saw the title on the marquee. Because of all the repertory screenings in my area, I assumed the programmer was running the 1930 Universal film version directed by Lewis Milestone. The new All Quiet only played for a week or so initially, but it was reissued after it cleaned up at the BAFTA awards and went on to become the second most nominated film at the ‘22 Oscars.

RRR, the cinematic sensation from India, was also one of the year’s most notable (and enjoyable) pictures. Again, it is unfortunate that the majority of Americans saw S.S. Rajamouli’s exhilarating epic alone at home on Netflix because RRR was the year’s biggest crowd-pleaser. Netflix wasn’t even able to stream it in its original language. A smaller distributor had optioned the original Telugu-language version of the film, leaving Netflix only able to run Hindi and English dubs. But RRR was a theatrical sensation throughout the world, including in America where many cinemas booked it for limited engagements throughout the year. Some of these screenings turned into near-Rocky-Horror-level events, with audiences of people who’d seen the movie many times showing up dressed as their favorite characters and dancing in the aisles during the musical number.

Some other noteworthy films were not so lucky when it came to their releases. One of 2022’s best comedies was Greg Mottola’s adaptation of Confess, Fletch—one of Gregory Mcdonald’s series of comedic mystery novels about a wisecracking investigative reporter. The series had been in development limbo ever since the late ‘80s when the second of the films starring Chevy Chase had disappointed. Now when a new Fletch finally came out, with a terrific lead performance by Jon Hamm, Paramount dumped it like it was an embarrassing cinematic turd. In fact, Confess, Fletch was a welcome return to the long-abandoned type of light and breezy studio comedy not aimed solely at teenagers. Its low-profile release meant that few people saw the hilariously entertaining movie in theaters, and it now sits hidden away on the Showtime channel.

The same fate met Ron Howard’s survival docudrama Thirteen Lives. The first-rate dramatization of the 2018 Tham Luang cave rescue was Howard’s best film in decades. Most viewers would have known the outcome of the event that captured the world’s attention just a few years prior, which was also the subject of the acclaimed 2021 documentary The Rescue. Still, Thirteen Lives managed to be an impressively suspenseful nail-biter. It was another example of a movie crying out to be seen with an audience in a dark theater—not at home on a TV or laptop.

But if you were dedicated and had time to devote to seeing movies in theaters during their brief theatrical runs, you got to experience the best thing about 2022 in movies, which was that good films came out all through the year. It was most certainly not one of those dismal years in which we got nothing but superhero films, overhyped “elevated horror” pictures, and subpar indies for the first three-quarters of the calendar, with all the best films held for awards consideration or awards season counter-programming. The year 2022 saw great movies of all genres and styles aimed at all kinds of audiences released throughout all twelve months of the year. And many of those films scored top awards and critics' prizes. (See my essay ranking the 54 Oscar-nominated features and shorts.)

While not my favorite film of the year, at the top of any list of 2022’s most consequential movies would have to sit Top Gun: Maverick. As Steven Spielberg told its star and producer Tom Cruise at the Academy Award Nominees Lunch, Maverick saved Hollywood’s ass, and might have also saved theatrical distribution. While that pronouncement may have been a slight exaggeration, it was not pure hyperbole. Demonstrating the importance of movie stars and producers with the power to protect pictures from the now ever-more-short-term and bottom-line-obsessed executives who run studios, Cruise gambled his star power and convinced Paramount to hold back the release of this legacyquel for almost three years. Top Gun: Maverick did not come out until it was assured of having a proper run at such a time when the ongoing COVID pandemic would not prevent most audiences from venturing out to the cinema. And boy, did they come out! In the end, this film was the one that got the world excited about going back to the movies. Sure, Avatar: The Way of Water handily overtook Maverick at the box office, nearly doubling Maverick’s $1.493 billion take, but I doubt there are many folks out there who honestly think The Way of Water is a superior picture.

What’s more fascinating about Top Gun: Maverick is how it somehow united America in 2022. Left or right; old or young; male, female, or non-binary; Marvel fan or Scorsese fan—nearly everyone liked this picture, even people who hate the jingoistic, military glamorizing aspects of movies saw the picture many times. For a significant number of folks, Top Gun: Maverick was the first movie they'd seen since the pandemic started. People went to this movie in theaters over and over and over. Why? Because it delivered almost everything that’s been missing from blockbusters for decades. Rather than showcasing a bunch of bored, disposable actors in silly costumes spouting atrocious dialogue in front of green screens displaying muddy CGI, Cruise and director Joseph Kosinski ensured that as much of the film that could be shot practically, in real jets and real situations, was shot that way. The large screenwriting team demonstrated that not all sequels that are essentially a remake of their progenitors have to be inferior retreads. With care, patience, and a willingness to avoid the worst mistakes of pandering fan service, this style-over-substance, studio-produced commercial product ended up as one of the year’s best and most satisfying pictures.

What Top Gun: Maverick did for the multiplex, Everything Everywhere All At Once did for the arthouse. The days of the sleeper hit may have all but vanished with the closure of third-run movie theaters, the rise of streaming platforms, and the absurd requirement for every type of movie to do well in its first 72 hours of release or be instantly forgotten. But this small, messy, self-important, quasi-super-hero movie, with more sentimental schmaltz than two CODA-style McMuffins wrapped in a Spielberg burrito, captured the hearts and minds of moviegoers everywhere. It launched itself out of the South by Southwest film festival and played to rapturous audiences and critics who fell over themselves trying to find new ways to praise it.

Some called EEAAO’s domination of the year—in terms of the cinematic discourse, end-of-year top ten lists, and a near sweep of Oscar wins—a victory for Letterboxd. The social network for movie lovers was launched in 2011 but didn’t really enter mainstream usage till 2020. Like Film-Twitter for people who want to enjoy movies rather than fight about them or link them to all the ills of society, Letterboxd, at least for now, has a friendly vibe. You only follow those you want to follow, and even if you disagree strongly with someone’s views on a given movie, you still might enjoy reading their pithy statements or lengthy, intelligent reviews. EEAAO became a must-see movie for people who still read film criticism and for people who reject film critics as “elitist” and prefer getting recommendations from friends. While I disliked the film myself, I found it fascinating how EEAAO was praised equally from both ends of the analysis spectrum—professional critics and amateur reviewers.

Outside of Letterboxd, social media outrage machines were cranked up to all-time high levels in 2022. This escalation of rhetoric was due in no small part to Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter, but the platform had long been a place where the loudest and angriest tweets got the most attention. Just as American politics has devolved into a team sport in which neither side seems sufficiently concerned about the integrity of the stadium that could easily collapse and injure players and spectators alike, rabid fans of movies like Top Gun: Maverick and EEAAO had little tolerance for the views of those who didn’t love a movie they viewed as an integral part of their identity. EEAAO co-director Daniel Kwan had to take to Twitter several times over the year and during the lead-up to the Oscars to rein in the rabid supporters of his film with Tweets like, “I am so grateful to the fans who love this film and have made it their own. I know for many, this story and characters mean a lot so any slight towards the film feels like a personal attack, but lashing out does everyone a disservice (and is counteractive to the film's message).”

The other side of the outrage spectrum was epitomized by the social media reactions to the British Film Institute’s December announcement of the results of their once-a-decade Sight and Sound poll of “the greatest films of all time. The BFI’s film magazine has conducted this informal survey of industry folks since 1952, when Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist classic Bicycle Thieves was voted number one. Over the years, the number of people invited to participate in the poll—asked to list their 10 best films in no particular order—grew slowly, but remained well under a thousand individuals. In 1962, the second year of the survey, Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane took the top spot. Kane held that honor for fifty years until Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo supplanted it in 2012. A fair amount of outcry occurred in film buff circles when that change occurred, but it was nothing like the vitriol on display when both Vertigo and Kane were bumped to the number 2 and 3 slots in favor of Chantal Akerman’s three-hour-and-twenty-one-minute minimalist, feminist study of domestic malaise, Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975).

That a relatively obscure art film (made by a 24-year-old woman no less!), which had only entered the S&S list the prior decade (at the ranking of #37), would supplant all major works of the cinematic canon sent shockwaves around the world of those who care about movies. It also earned the rancour of the millions of trolls who look for any examples of how the status quo is getting upended and therefore bringing about the end of the world. Straddling both demographics, the volatile writer/director Paul Schrader, always an outspoken Facebook commenter, summed up the feeling with this post: “For 70 years, the Sight and Sound poll has been a reliable if somewhat incremental measure of critical consensus and priorities. Films moved up the list, others moved down; but it took time. The sudden appearance of Jeanne Dielman in the number one slot undermines the S&S poll’s credibility. It feels off, as if someone had put their thumb on the scale. Which I suspect they did. . . . By expanding the voting community and the point system this year’s S&S poll reflects not a historical continuum but a politically correct rejiggering.”

In that post, Schrader, consciously or not, conveys the key fear of so many straight white males across the world, that our God-given right to control how everything, from societal laws to hierarchies of personal taste, is slipping away. That Schrader’s work and views are forever colored by his strict Calvinist upbringing makes this particular fear all the more obvious in his Tweets. Even though he long ago rejected the old-time religion, he is a man formed by a faith tradition that views social and moral change in terms of centuries not decades. But that widespread belief—that laws, social mores, and established canons of literature, cinema, and other art forms should only be revised at a glacial pace—remains as true of liberal Hollywood and the Democratic Party as is in what’s left of the non-batshit-crazy wing of the Republican Party. Even though the major gains of feminism, civil rights, and queer activism have lately plateaued and even lost ground, this kind of minor upset is deeply unsettling to those in power who are addicted to a status quo where changes are subtle and often merely cosmetic.

I must admit that I myself was a bit taken aback at the BFI’s announcement. But I’ve fortunately never had any part of my identity wrapped up in the Sight and Sound poll. As someone far more wrapped up in the mechanics of list-making in general than in the results of lists not generated by me, the criteria for Sight and Sound’s pole was always way too loose for me to take all that seriously. The list is as random and ultimately meaningless as any other ranking of movies, but it was considered the most legit. Roger Ebert called it, “by far the most respected of the countless polls of great movies—the only one most serious movie people take seriously.” Indeed, the main reason why Citizen Kane was (and still is) considered by so many to be the best movie ever made was because it topped this list for five decades.

The bumping off of films like The Seventh Seal, Lawrence of Arabia, The Wild Bunch, and Chinatown from the list would seem to nullify its seriousness from the get-go. But, to me, these omissions merely demonstrate the folly of considering any such list to be “definitive.” By this decade, asking a small percentage of an industry to submit an unranked list of 10 films in which any type is eligible is going to generate a random list. An animated Looney Tunes short like What's Opera Doc? can coexist with a nine-hour documentary like Shoah. The parameters are just way too broad, and almost no one wants to put down the same old movies year after year. Each person surveyed approaches the task differently. Some list the first ten pictures that pop into their mind, some list the movies they thought the most about that year or that decade, and some attempt to make a list that reflects their individual personality. Now, if the submissions were anonymous, there would be fewer top ten lists designed to make the submitter look eclectic; but then BFI would not be able to promote themselves by posting pictures on social media showing the individual lists of many high-profile folks who participated. If people had to commit to creating their own list of 100 and ranking their choices, and the magazine then tabulated those titles via ranked-choice voting, we’d get closer to a list I’d take more seriously.

Of course, the rise of Jeanne Dielman to the top of this oh-so-significant list is a direct result of the BFI almost doubling the number of people surveyed from 846 to 1,660, and including far more non-Brits, academics, critics, film programmers, curators, archivists, and, most importantly, women. This attempt to be more inclusive was seen as blasphemy by many on social media. But all one has to do is consider that the roster of people surveyed for the American Film Institute’s similar top 100 American films list in 1998 included not only film notables like Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Jodie Foster, but also former president Bill Clinton, magician David Copperfield, talk show host Larry King—who proudly never read the books or saw the movies of his guests, and fake businessman, fake author, actual president, and person known for his short attention span, Donald J. Trump.

The idea for many who participated in this year’s S&S poll was not to destroy the established canon but to expand it. Making room on such a list for films that exist outside the popular consciousness or the standard curriculum in film school certainly helps to topple the white male dominance of cinema discussion. But it also acknowledges that with the film industry now well over a century old, and with easier availability to movies from every era and every corner of the globe, a single list of 100 films can not feel complete in any way anymore, the way it could in the 1950s, 1960s, or even at the end of the millennium.   

Most importantly, the films from the past decade that were added to this most recent S&S list—Get Out, Parasite, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire—actually do represent some of the best filmmaking of the last ten years, so why not include them? The only real result of Jeanne Dielman topping the list was that far more people got to see that film than ever before. My own previous experiences of Chantal Akerman pictures were all in academic situations or at the Harvard Film Archive. So I was delighted to get to see this movie on the biggest screen in my city with a respectful, sold-out crowd of hundreds of movie lovers from all walks of life. We sat quietly watching all 201 minutes of Delphine Seyrig going about the monotonous, unrewarding, soulless daily routines of widowed housewife Jeanne Dielman in her Bruxelles apartment. It was almost surreal and certainly memorable.

Other examples of film discourse in the social media echo chamber were more bizarre. I mentioned the accusations of “elitism” aimed at professional film critics. But that profession, already diminished by the rise of the amateur reviewer, has been under more and more pressure to conform to the tastes of either the mainstream or the vocal social media culture warriors who advocate for certain ideas. For a large segment of social media consumers, perhaps in reaction to how harsh a place most platforms are, the idea of “if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” rules (unless one is raging against film critics). The passionate disdain for those who make a living analyzing movies is on display everywhere. I’ve never been a professional film critic myself, but I lament their diminishing influence on the culture. Reading film criticism, regardless of whether I agree or disagree with a writer’s take on a picture, was always a way to keep a movie playing in my head, since I always read critics after seeing a film, not before. Now there are fewer and fewer real critics and more and more people writing think pieces on the state of cinema (and yes, I’m aware that I’m writing one of those pieces myself right now).

Another long-standing aspect of movies that saw an active rejection campaign by younger moviegoers in 2022 was the sex scene. For many of the generation that grew up with 24/7 access to all forms of on-line pornography, having nudity or scenes of copulation included in their non-porn filmed entertainment not only feels gratuitous, it can feel like an assault. They suddenly feel taken out of the story being told and forced to think about the conditions on the set—were the actors being exploited? Was there an intimacy coordinator? Etc. Claims by these folks that nudity and sex never propel a story forward are easily dismissed, as there are thousands of examples to point to. But the idea that watching such material with family members or other social groups can be “creepy” “or “awkward” is valid. 

This understandable objection illustrates part of the shift in viewing habits from generation to generation. I’m making a generalization, but the way I see it, Gen-Xers and Boomers want movies to make us feel a certain amount of both titillation and discomfort—not just around sex but also around nearly everything depicted on screen. We go to movies most often to see something totally outside of our experience. Millennials and Gen-Z want films to be more reassuring and reflective of how they see the world and want the world to be. There is a growing view that any behaviour shown on screen is going to serve as a model to others, and therefore films and TV shows should not portray people engaging in conduct that is not socially acceptable.  

More and more younger viewers express a disturbingly conservative attitude when it comes to censorship. And some in this generation who see nothing wrong with fast-forwarding through scenes that might make them uncomfortable are now questioning why older films that depict bad behaviour should be allowed to continue being screened. When I balk at the idea of fast-forwarding through any form of artistic expression I’m labelled with the term “elitist.” But it’s difficult to take that term as much of an insult when it’s wielded by someone who considers CDs and record albums “elitist” because they force one to listen to the songs in the order the band specified, rather than the listener being able to create their own playlist order. (This example is not hyperbole; I’ve had this argument several times, along with how theatrical releases, shooting on 35mm film, and countless other common practices are supposedly “elitist.”)

However, I can’t begrudge young people for wanting control over the content they consume because they grew up in a world with so much less actual freedom than my generation did. They experience all or some combination of helicopter parents, non-stop bombardment of marketing aimed at them, intense, constant, second-to-second peer pressure on social media (as opposed to the daily-basis peer pressure when I was a kid), and the crude and cynical ways they are used as pawns by politicians, interest groups, and the media. They are inundated with so much information and asked to carry so much of the weight of the world on their shoulders, of course, they might want movies that are either escapist fantasy, like those of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or genre pictures that reflect their reality either authentically or metaphorically.

Part of the appeal of Everything Everywhere All At Once is what it embodies in terms of representation. Crowd-pleasing genre films about Asian Americans dealing with generational and cultural conflicts are as rare as American films with predominantly Asian lead actors. EEAAO was a breath of fresh air for a population deeply underrepresented by Hollywood features. Even more than that, the film held a special appeal to Millennials and the younger generations that grew up with the Internet. The film’s story about a disintegrating immigrant family who must navigate the complexities of the multiverse was profoundly meaningful to many.  The relentless, hyper-kinetic style in which this narrative is presented also embodies the information overload and social splintering of the Internet age.

The film also provided an opportunity to feel and express emotions within the relatively safe container of a wild, crazy genre movie. To me, the rise in popularity of genre films (to the extent that EEAAO is now a Best Picture Oscar-winner) seems a similar indication of the ways social media has affected our culture as the rejection of sex scenes. Facebook, Twitter, Tick-Tok, and other platforms have made people, especially young people, so fearful of backlash and mockery when it comes to expressing vulnerability that scenes in which characters (and potentially actors) are arguably at their most vulnerable feel “cringy.” Whereas over-the-top genre movies that build to an extreme climax of broad sentimental catharsis provide one of the last remaining safe ways of experiencing emotions in a public way.

Most people younger than I seem dismissive of dramas like 1983’s Best Picture Oscar winner Terms of Endearment, considering them sentimental Hollywood crap. Yet they gleefully post videos of themselves and their friends actively weeping at the end of EEAAO or this year’s quirky animated feature Marcel the Shell with Shoes On. There is something about movies that cloak their power to bring emotional catharsis in the unreal constructs of sci-fi, superhero, dystopian future actioners, ironic comedies, or animated features. By means of these alternative reality constructs, such movies are freed, in the eyes of many, from being considered emotionally manipulative. To me, however, these films are far more manipulative, more contrived, and less artful than a beautifully written comedic drama like Terms of Endearment.

Also at the core of the broadly comedic, sci-fi, martial arts, movie-referencing, fantasy EEAAO is a key theme that preoccupies eighteen to forty-year-old social media users, filmgoers, filmmakers, and film writers: the disconnect between generations. Like so many recent genre pictures, EEAAO builds to an emotional climax in which parent and child “see” each other, forgive each other, hug or otherwise heal a rift. I have complained about this trend in sci-fi for many years now because I perceive it as a lack of storytelling vision. Filmmakers set out to create movies that ask the ultimate existential questions, but film after film ends with the simple answer that you should love your kids or you should accept your parents more. Contact, Interstellar, Ad Astra, Arrival, War of the Worlds, The Midnight Sky, I could go on, all end with this rather simplistic notion. I think one of the many reasons 2001: A Space Odyssey continues to be so powerful is that it doesn’t end with the monolith opening up and Dave Bowman’s father coming out and giving him a hug. Movies that ask big questions need not give us reductive answers. Asking the questions in a powerful way is more than enough.

The current younger generation of genre filmmakers seems to want more than a hug from their parents; they want an unconditional apology. I don’t think these mea culpas from the older generation are any more honest a conclusion than the “happily ever after” trope of riding off into the sunset with a handsome prince, which was firmly rejected by many in my own generation and the ones that followed. EEAAO is a perfect example of the trend that I’ve dubbed “apology porn,” as are the animated films The Mitchells vs The Machines from 2021, and Turning Red from 2022. My strongest negative comments about this trend can be found in my review of Turning Red, as it’s a film I thought sold out its excellent premise and specific point of view in favor of something that would appeal to the broadest viewership. But clearly that film, like EEAAO, spoke to a wide audience and had many critics praising it for the very choices I felt it had failed to commit to.

Another trend this year was Boomer filmmakers looking back to the era in which they grew up.  This is a cyclical theme that comes around in many cinematic years, but something felt different in 2022. Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, James Grey’s Armageddon Time, Sam Mendes’s Empire of Light, Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir: Part II, Richard Linklater’s Apollo 10 ½, and more, all looked back on the conflict and turbulence of their eras rather than depicting the past nostalgically as a simpler, quainter time. Filmmakers were pointing out to us that the seeds of our current societal discord were sewn in the past, and the issues we are currently dealing with have always been with us. These pictures make the case that we need to explore the past in order to avoid repeating it, as well as to skirt making the same mistakes on an even more destructive level.

Unfortunately, most of these “a-director-looks-back” films were neither popular, influential, nor very good (at least in my opinion). It’s telling that of the five I listed above, I thought the most successful was Mendes’s middling, lightweight Empire of Light. The more prestigious examples aimed higher, but that just caused them to miss their marks all the more drastically. Similarly, Jordan Peele, whose first film Get Out in 2017 captured the cultural zeitgeist so perfectly, released the year’s biggest disappointment with his third feature Nope. This 2022 picture also used genre to address present-day issues and explored the past with a contemporary lens, but Peele’s storytelling was so muddled and his characters so flat, it was impossible to care about any of the thematic points he was making.

Despite it all, I found 2022 an encouraging year for movies because what was populating theaters and home viewing seemed far less homogenous than things have seemed in the last few years. The future of the industry is still very much in doubt, and I’m not sure we’ll ever see a return to cinema-going in the style and popularity of what it’s been like for the past 100+ years. But good films are still getting made. And as long as there are indie cinemas, regional film festivals, and a movie-hungry public who want to see new and old pictures on the biggest possible screen, there’s still hope.