Are movies still relevant? In recent years, the question has been asked frequently. With streaming and mobile entertainment devices rising, and the pandemic’s devastating blow still lingering, the question is valid. Even as Hollywood rebounds a bit at the box office (up 21 percent in 2022), critics rightly observe that innovation is suffering. Sequels, reboots, and franchises rule the day and artsy “prestige films” can’t find audiences. Part of the problem: audiences have a growing (and justifiable) sense that Hollywood is increasingly less interested in entertaining them than in force-feeding them progressive ideals.
As I put together my list, I focused on films that didn’t pit entertainment against artistry or confuse the difference between having something to say and telling audiences what to think. The best movies captivate audiences because they’re artistically excellent. And the best movies provoke audiences to wrestle with ideas rather than be bludgeoned with arguments.
As a reminder, don’t take my commendations as wholesale endorsements of the content. Just because I loved a film doesn’t mean I loved everything in it, and a “best” movie doesn’t mean an appropriate movie for all audiences. Though the films highlighted below are all in some way edifying—depicting goodness, truth, or beauty in ways Christian viewers can celebrate—a few are rated R and should especially be viewed with caution and discernment.
Here are my 10 favorites, 10 honorable mentions, and 10 excellent documentaries released in 2022.
Todd Field’s TÁR doesn’t spoon-feed a “message” to audiences. That’s why it’s great. The film’s rise-and-fall narrative centers on orchestra conductor Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett in one of the most interesting acting performances I’ve seen in years), a ruthless character who feels more robot-like than human as she follows a hypercalculated script. One mark of a great film is how many topics of theological import it might spark in a discussion. As I wrote in my lengthy review of the film in October, TÁR provides fodder for thinking about contemporary confusion about gender and human anthropology, social media’s revealing nature, cancel culture’s relationship with sin and forgiveness, life’s fundamental uncontrollability, the tragedy of the autonomous self, and more. To be sure, Lydia Tár isn’t a sympathetic character and the film never justifies her behavior. But I do think Field wants us to reflect on how Tár is an archetype of the modern self, with all its fragile premises and false promises. In that way, we see in Tár a picture of our cold, secular, strange new world—and wonder where we go from here. Available to stream at home. Rated R.
In some ways, Devotion is the anti-TÁR. If TÁR exposes the flawed logic that says achieving greatness must come at the cost of relational commitments and selfless love, Devotion shows greatness is achieved because of relational commitments and selfless love. As one character says in the film, “The real battle in all of life is being someone people can count on.” Based on the 2015 book Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice, the Korean War–era film tells the true story of the first African American naval aviator Jesse Brown (Jonathan Majors) and his friendship with fellow aviator Tom Hudner (Glen Powell). In a contemporary Hollywood landscape where expressive individualism and woke narratives dominate, Devotion foregrounds the virtue of devoted relationships: faithfully showing up for one another and following through on duty, whether in marriage or friendship or war. Though quieter and less thrilling than the similar Top Gun: Maverick (which also stars Glen Powell), Devotion is no less inspiring and arguably has a clearer moral vision. In theaters now. Rated PG-13.
3. Top Gun: Maverick
Something uncommon: when the most popular movie of the year ($1.5 billion in the global box office) is also one of the best. In this case, the blockbuster sequel fires on all the right cylinders to capture the zeitgeist. It entertains in a time when people feel preached at. It honors the past and celebrates things like received wisdom and institutional duty in a time when all of this is daily undermined in pop culture. As I wrote in my review (contrasting Maverick with Lightyear), Maverick is radical in its refusal to preach some Important Social Message. “More radical still is Maverick’s conviction that the best way forward involves backward-looking retrieval: honoring the past rather than discarding it; seeing value in some measure of traditionalism rather than constant iconoclasm.” Rent on Amazon or watch on Paramount+. Rated PG-13.
4. Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood
Richard Linklater’s rotoscope memoir is more than meets the eye. At first glance, it’s a quaint assemblage of snapshots from Linklater’s childhood in 1960s Texas. But if you know Linklater, you know he’s a director very interested in memory, time, epistemology, and how cinema as a form interacts with these things. By replicating specific memories (which will ring true for any American born between WWII and the internet age) only loosely tied together by a “plot” about the 1969 Apollo 11 Moon landing (seen through a kid’s eyes), Linklater shows how movies mirror the mind. We process and remember reality—whether our own lives or distant images of men on the moon—through imperfect filters of memory and imagination. Does that mean reality only “exists” in the subjective mind? No. But it does mean the mind is a miraculous creation, and the movies are a miraculous mirror. Watch on Netflix. Rated PG-13.
Jordan Peele’s third film is the best sort of sci-fi thriller. It keeps you guessing—not only in the “what will happen next” sense but in the “what does this all mean” sense. Peele has proven himself a top-notch entertainer and a prophetic provocateur. His movies are fun to watch but also get us thinking about unsettling questions. In Nope’s case, Peele prompts us to think about sin, spectacle, and the idea of divine wrath. The alien monster here (spoiler alert!) has serious Angel of Death vibes, evoking a biblical agent of wrath who has come to judge an unholy people. The film’s opening quote of Nahum 3:6 (“I will cast abominable filth upon you, make you vile, and make you a spectacle”) reinforces the film’s atmosphere of divine wrath. Has there ever been a summer blockbuster that takes sin, judgment, and wrath as seriously as this film does? Nope. Rent on Amazon or watch on Peacock. Rated R.
6. Marcel the Shell with Shoes On
I wouldn’t have believed you if you’d told me in January that a movie about a precocious, stop-motion-animated, one-inch talking shell (voiced by Jenny Slate), costarring Leslie Stahl of 60 Minutes, would be one of my favorite films of the year. But here we are. Marcel is perhaps the sweetest and most smile-inducing movie of 2022, even as it ponders death, grief, and life’s fragility. On top of the existential truths it captures, Marcel also contains insightful commentary on the nature of viral celebrity and media in the age of YouTube. More than anything, it’s a film about joy: joy in family, joy in friendship, and joy in the many wonders of life we often miss. Rent on Amazon. Rated PG.
7. The Worst Person in the World
Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World may be the best film ever made about millennial angst. The Norwegian filmmaker sets the film in circles of affluence in Oslo, following a millennial woman, Julie (Renate Reinsve), whose commitment-averse meandering in her 20s leaves her cold and alone in her 30s. As Matthew Schmitz observes in his review for The American Conservative, Julie “avoids every choice that can narrow her future.” Few films have more potently exposed the empty romance of the autonomous self, “empowered” to live free of the sacrifices requisite in things like marriage, parenthood, and rootedness. But as Julie finds out by the end of the film, radical autonomy isn’t freeing. The final scenes find her looking at others through windows and computer screens, herself a distant spectator gazing flatly into a mediated void. Rent on Amazon or watch on Hulu. Rated R.
8. After Yang
What’s the meaning of human connection when one part of that connection isn’t human? This is one of the questions raised by Kogonada’s quiet yet potent family drama, which stars Colin Farrell as a tea shop owner whose family of four includes a “son” named Yang (Justin Min) who looks and acts like a human but is actually a robot. Like Kogonada’s previous film, Columbus (which I also highly recommend), After Yang is less about a propulsive plot than powerful moments. From the fun opening dance scene to a lovely dialogue scene about tea (in which Farrell impressively impersonates German filmmaker Werner Herzog), After Yang stitches together a tapestry of reflections on memory, time, beauty, and humanity. Rent on Amazon or watch on Showtime. Rated PG.
9. Avatar: The Way of Water
I disliked James Cameron’s 2009 Avatar, and I literally groaned when I first saw the trailer for the sequel (especially the ghastly, and rightly lampooned, Papyrus-esque title font). But unexpectedly, the three hours I spent watching this big-screen spectacle were enthralling. The film’s immersive world-building reminded me of Tolkien’s concept of subcreation, done on a grand, movie-magic scale. On top of that, some of the story’s themes are compelling. Yes, there’s weird nature-worship pagan spirituality here. But The Way of Water is surprisingly conservative in its celebration of family and especially fatherhood (“A father protects,” Jake Sully says near the film’s end. “It’s what gives him meaning.”). At a time when Hollywood’s treatment of gender is as fluid as Pandora’s pristine water, I’ll take a film that isn’t afraid of letting males and females be different. In theaters now. Rated PG-13.
10. Montana Story
A deconstructed Western of sorts, Montana Story tells a simple yet potent story about one family forever changed by a father’s sin. Set in the changing landscape and culture of the contemporary Western U.S., the quiet film follows estranged half-siblings Cal (Owen Teague) and Erin (Haley Lu Richardson) as they reunite and inch toward reconciliation against the backdrop of their father being on life support. Though not an easy film to watch, Montana Story finds hope in the beauty of hardy landscapes and growth that comes when we confront and work through trauma. Rather than relegating its traumatized characters to a boring arc of unending pain, Montana Story sets the stage for what’s ultimately more interesting: renewal, redemption, and moving on in health. Rent on Amazon. Rated R.
10 Honorable Mentions
Aftersun (TGC review), All Quiet on the Western Front, The Banshees of Inisherin, The Batman (TGC review), Elvis (TGC review), The Fabelmans (TGC review), Hustle, KIMI (TGC review), Thirteen Lives (TGC review), Triangle of Sadness.
10 Excellent Documentaries
Here are 10 of the best documentaries released in 2022 (listed in alphabetical order).
You don’t have to be a baseball fan to love this film about Nolan Ryan’s rise from being a lanky high school pitcher in rural Texas to a hall-of-fame legend. Perhaps the best thing about the film is the centrality of Ryan’s family. Though star athletes don’t always succeed in the home as much as they do on the field, Ryan did—and it’s inspiring to watch. Watch on Netflix. Rated TV-14.
Fire of Love
This quirky film—about French volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft—is the sort of documentary I love. It foregrounds the odd wonders of the world, including the wonderful eccentricity of humans who are captivated by it. Watch on Disney+. Rated PG.
Louis Armstrong’s Black and Blues
I learned so much in this documentary—not only about jazz pioneer and cultural icon Louis Armstrong himself but about the mid-20th-century world in which he rose to prominence and made a lasting mark. Watch on AppleTV+. Rated R.
Lucy and Desi
Amy Poehler’s documentary about Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz is a must-see for those interested in television history. Avoiding politics or didactic “messages,” the biographical narrative simply presents the story of a Hollywood power couple in a consistently compelling way. Watch on Amazon. Rated PG.
Though it occasionally borders on hagiography, this portrait of iconic actor Sidney Poitier is informative and helpful, reminding us of the power of entertainment to change minds—and cultures—over time. Watch on AppleTV+. Rated PG-13.
Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist
“Jaw-dropping” is an overused descriptor, but for this film, it applies. Nothing I watched this year caused my jaw to drop as many times as this did. Among other things, the film connects some dots for me about how digital technology has paved the way for transgender ideology. Watch on Netflix. Rated TV-MA.
The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari
This harrowing, survivor-told account of the 2019 White Island volcano disaster is both a cautionary tale (nature is sublimely beautiful but deadly; see Fire and Love) and an inspiring account of heroism. The story stuck with me perhaps because I was a tourist in New Zealand a few weeks after the calamity took place. Watch on Netflix. Rated PG-13.
What Is a Woman?
I doubt Matt Walsh’s film (my review) will be on many critics’ “best of 2022” lists. That’s because most critics refused to even see it. The refusal of so many to even engage with the film’s arguments against prevailing gender ideology is a clue that Walsh is onto something. Watch on DailyWire+. Unrated.
What We Leave Behind
The Spanish saying Hay más tiempo que vida (“There’s more time than life”) stands out as the central line of Iliana Sosa’s quiet portrait of her aging grandfather. As we walk with our loved ones in their final days, the pain of life’s brevity is achingly clear. Through a very specific story, this film captures universal truth. Watch on Netflix. Rated PG.
Ostensibly a wildlife documentary about rescuing and rehabilitating wild ocelots in the Peruvian Amazon, Wildcat turns out to be as much (or more) about the healing and redemption of traumatized people. Watch on Amazon starting December 30. Rated R.
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