It has been a great year for character studies. Half of the films on my best of 2022 are primarily focused on just one or two performances, using longer-than-expected runtimes to dig into what truly makes them tick. From disgraced conductors to larger-than-life sex workers to pathological liars to Melbourne commuters, perhaps the only thing these character studies have in common is a willingness to go deep into the universal condition of what makes us human. It has made for a satisfying year. Complemented by genre pictures, ranging from sci-fi spectacle to eat-the-rich satire to the road movie, 2022 has delighted and surprised, with great films coming in from nine different countries and three different continents. Here are my picks for the 10 best films of the year.
Honourable mentions: Sick of Myself, Elvis, Black Night, Piggy, The Bear Season One, Episode Seven, Argentina vs Holland Quarter Final.
10. MINSK | Boris Guts
Before the film’s screening at Cottbus Film Festival, Boris Guts told audiences not to enjoy his film. The next 82 minutes showed why enjoyment is a long way away, taking a loved-up couple in the titular city straight from conjugal bliss all the way towards suffering, pain, repression and police brutality, all caught in an epic one-take. While this mode of cinema has proliferated thanks to digital cameras — lessening the WOW factor of such a conceit — there is a particularly can’t-look-away aspect to this absolutely brutal film — at once deeply political and aesthetically gripping.
9. RULE 34 | Julia Murat
The best film I saw at the Locarno Film Festival, Rule 34’s portrait of a lawyer-by-day-sex-worker-by-night offers up a spiky and discursive, lived-in experience, squarely at odds with the simplicity of the fascist Bolsonaro regime. Sexy, playful and also rather funny, it all hangs upon the excellent, freewheeling and brave performance of lead Sol Miranda.
8. TRIANGLE OF SADNESS | Ruben Östlund
While eat-the-rich satires are a more common sight in cinemas than luxury yachts in the Mediterranean these days, Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness justifies its existence by the preciseness of the camera, the perfect timing of his dialogue and the way he allows scenes to build and build and build to absolute breaking point. Proof this director could take almost any worn-out conceit and breathe new life into it.
7. AXIOM | Jöns Jönsson
Essentially a feature-length portrait of a serial liar, Axiom uses its plainness of tone in order to hide a rich, layered character study of a deceitful German museum worker that feels completely unpredictable throughout. Hinging upon a crucial moment midway through the film, it’s the kind of sly, slippery and beguiling movie that begs an immediate rewatch.
6. NOPE | Jordan Peele
Jordan Peele’s epic Spielberg homage that doubles up as a discovery of lost Black cinematic history. Combining one of the best sibling relationships in cinema, a fantastic sense of inevitability, brilliant set-pieces and an almost pitch-perfect construction, it’s great to see auteur cinema still able to thrive on a big budget. I can’t wait to see what genre Peele tackles next.
5. RIDERS | Dominik Mencej
A Balkan riff on Easy Rider, Mencej trades counter-cultural shock for sensitivity, telling the story of two friends ambling through former Yugoslavia with a great eye for detail and fantastic cinematic flourishes. Perhaps one of the most slept-on movies of the year, its evocation of time and region, as well as the prickly, complicated relationship between the two friends at the centre, makes it a road trip hard to forget.
4. SPEAK NO EVIL | Christian Tafdrup
Like in Axiom, the central theme of Speak No Evil is deeply effective due to the ostensible naturalism of the conceit and the performances. An EU-English classic, its tale of a Danish couple visiting newly-found Dutch friends, first promises to be a Dogme-inspired comedy of manners. And while never losing its initial vicious wit, moments of awkwardness are expertly piled up on top of each other in favour of something much more sinister. One of the best horror movies in recent years.
3. TÁR | Todd Field
Cate Blanchett should really hold a co-directing credit alongside Todd Field. This is acting as directing, commanding and shaping a film through sheer personality and precision of performance. Perfectly cast as an EGOT-winning composer and conductor facing up to the demons of her past, she and Field create a fascinating character study that doubles up as the best American movie of the year — a polemic and a ghost story, arthouse cinema and an accessible classic. Bravo.
2. RIMINI | Ulrich Seidl
The perfect combination of concept and place, Ulrich Seidl’s depiction of a washed-up Austrian Schlager singer performing double duties of singing and shagging in what can only be described as Italian-Blackpool over the winter is both deeply sad and wryly funny. Even more impressive are the gestures towards the universal, capturing a continent that is slowly sinking into the sea, one awful crooner song at a time.
1. THE PLAINS | David Easteal
I could’ve watched a 100, maybe even 1000 more 2022 releases and I would be firmly confident that The Plains would still be my number one. A formally alienating film — a docu-fiction hybrid compromised almost entirely of one man’s drive back from work in Melbourne each and every day — it is filled with the minutiae and mundanity of everyday life, asking deep questions about what it means to work and live in the modern world. Incredibly profound and easily the best cinematic experience of the year. You can read my interview with multi-DN alum David Easteal here.
You can check out the rest of team DN’s Top Ten picks here.