It’s listing time again! In today’s entertainment consumption sphere, all experiences must be pitted against each other and assigned numeric values that are ultimately arbitrary to anyone except the writer themselves. It’s just this fun thing some of us love doing even though the rules are made up and the points don’t matter.
I saw 18 films in theaters in 2022 that were actually released in 2022, an 18.2% decrease over 2021 despite having taken more vaccines than ever, well short of my all-time high of 32 films in 2019. That number doesn’t include the seven Academy Award nominees that were officially 2021 releases, but which I saw later as part of my annual Oscar Quest. It definitely doesn’t include all the 2022 films I watched on streaming services, which will receive their own much longer two-part listicle.
Of those eighteen 2022 releases, only six were sequels. Two of them were new takes on established movie heroes now played by different actors. Only six of the eighteen were superhero films. Seven of the eighteen were original concepts not previously filmed; an eighth one was as well, but contained dozens of references to other films, a mix of blatant name-checks and subtler Easter eggs. I lost some enthusiasm toward such outings by the end of the year, though that was partly due to illness. We’ll see how much I can overcompensate during Oscar Quest ’23 when it kicks off January 24th.
Here’s the annual rundown of what I didn’t miss in theaters in 2022, for better or worse. I dodged most cinematic catastrophes in their initial runs (alas, if only I’d been choosier at home), so the full standings comprise a lot of pretty solid works punching each other for domination in my head. Links to past excessively wordy reviews and sometimes bizarrely construed thoughts are provided for historical reference. And now, on with the countdown’s Bottom 8:
18. Morbius. Jared Leto leapt from one comics universe to another, from his 1995-rap-video Joker into the grimdark Spandex of the faux-vampiric antihero C-lister who was among the many pawns in Marvel’s ’90s shelf-glutting nadir, and landed with the thud of a bat ramming a brick wall. Jared Harris and Matt Smith hold a “What Would James Whale Do?” contest (Harris wins), but perfunctory nods to superior Universal monster classics only remind us of better uses of our time and don’t compensate for the script’s Blockbuster Video achievement level, the muddy graphics, The Worst End-Credits Scene in Film History, or our guilty wish that someone would’ve allowed — maybe even encouraged — Leto to lose the dour angst and take wilder swings like he normally does, lest Edward Cullen drop by to hand him a Party City “Cheer Up!” balloon.
(Housekeeping note #1: Morbius fans can take cold comfort in that this is only the worst 2022 movie I agreed to pay to see in theaters. When we get to the separate home-video list, there’re a couple far worse. Hope that helps?)
17. Jurassic World: Dominion. The most profitable and aggravating trilogy since the Star Wars prequels drifts to the finish line in an expensively wispy eco-advocacy hybrid harvested from MST3K’s The Beginning of the End and the Leverage episode “The Hot Potato Job”. Campbell Scott’s watchable Agri-Tech-Bro unleashes giant mutant locusts on innocent farmers, and the day must be saved with one last heist for Our Heroes, in what used to be a series about super awesome dinosaurs doing super awesome dinosaur stuff. Brief moments of generation-gap amusement spark from the Avengers-style crossover between the beloved ’90s cast and the 2010s motley crew, but mostly we’re reminded of the vast qualitative differences between their respective films and directors. Unconditional lovers of super awesome dinosaur flicks would be better served by a six-minute supercut of this film’s non-locust dinosaur scenes (slightly more if you splice in footage from the Peacock-exclusive extended edition), while the rest of us sigh and note, six films later, now the real dinosaurs are the characters we met along the way.
16. Black Adam. I’d love to meet whatever Warner Brothers starchy-suited Mesmer suckered Dwayne Johnson, America’s hunkiest multimillionaire multi-tasker, into believing the best way to commandeer a stalled superhero universe was to cram his vault-sized charisma into a tiny safe deposit box, play a Shazam! villain reimagined as his unstoppable personal Gary Stu, and talk up how Teth-Adam was his favorite childhood antihero in hopes that his sizable fan base would buy in. (Johnson and I are fifteen days apart in age. Black Adam was not an antihero by the time we graduated high school.) Johnson deserved a better star vehicle than this soggy bowl of hyper-masculine grit, the Justice Society deserved a better big-screen debut (one that didn’t turn classy gentlemen Pierce Brosnan and Aldis Hodge into elegantly costumed, bumbling fools), and the fandom-at-large didn’t deserve the year’s cruelest end-credits scene — a misguided notion setting up “Black Adam vs. Superman” as the DCEU’s new core going forward, but it gave us hope that maybe, just maybe, one day Henry Cavill’s Man of Steel might get to wow new generations in a good film. With that hope crushed and Johnson having severed ties with WBD in the aftermath, now I’ll never get my wish granted: a Shazam! sequel that, however ludicrously and impossibly, ends with Zachary Levi defeating The Rock in a cosmic fistfight.
15. Thor: Love and Thunder. Ragnarok remains among the MCU’s greatest hits on every level, but at some point after 2018 — between Chris Hemsworth’s collaborative clashes in Men in Black International and Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit awards-show victory laps — both guys started letting the accolades go to their heads. As the frightening warrior hate-child of Voldemort and Marilyn Manson, Christian Bale came to chew scenery and butcher gods, but Waititi the irony-drunk jester can’t stop pulling the rug out from under him. Natalie Portman’s valiant return has its heart-rending moments, but Hemsworth keeps stepping in front of them, because Valhalla forbid anything distract us from his stolidly sculpted A-lister self-image that’s lost the humility of his earlier films. The most imaginative set piece is a black-and-white sequence, a gimmick handled more creatively in past non-comics films (even WandaVision did it better); the funniest supporting character is a silent prop; its cluttered final battle is straight out of a Spy Kids sequel; and its second bucketful from the hard-RAWK nostalgia well slathers everything in stale cheese dip. Given the consistent quality and riskiness of Marvel’s assorted Disney+ series over the past two years, if they want fans to keep paying extra to leave the house, their films don’t just need to be louder; they need to stay better.
14. Lightyear. We all know Pixar has aged out of its flawless-juggernaut youth, but we keep checking back in case they find their mojo again. Last time they pulled it off was Coco, which was five years ago. In the meantime they keep bankrolling further studio efforts with Toy Story brand dilutions. This meta-prequel’s promising first half cleverly casts Chris Evans as the 1990s voice-actor star of the film that in Andy’s world begat the boulder-chinned Tim Allen action figure. Our Hero’s crew is marooned on an undeveloped planet wrapped in a tricky Doctor Who temporal-mechanics trap. The Space Ranger’s repeated failures against a backdrop of life passing him by really does recapture a little of that Pixar mojo, but the second half is a paint-by-numbers lesson in which ragtag misfits teach us how Teamwork Makes the Dream Work, and the Big Bad’s backstory is at long last revealed as a forehead-slapper involving time travel that would feel more jaw-dropping if that plot device weren’t thoroughly played out across pop culture today. Pixar should be leading the charge on that front, not following in everyone else’s TARDIS trails. Your kids might dig it, though, so feel free to give them a two-hour play-date with Uncle Buzz while you preoccupy yourself with doomscrolling behind their backs.
13. The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. If you can only watch one 2020s post-IRS-settlement Nicolas Cage film, make it 2021’s Pig. The year after that, Cage felt ready to host his own roast, an ostensibly self-deprecating meta-comedy in the vein of The Last Action Hero or JCVD, except not that bad. While he never lets director Tom Gormican plunge the satirical scalpels all the way in to the hilt, he’s game for modest self-deflation in an alt-timeline where his last fifty or sixty direct-to-video crapfests have ruined his career (which, okay, while not drastically divergent, means Pig apparently never existed) and force him to take a humiliating paycheck gig performing for a millionaire’s birthday party. Pedro Pascal is a delightful treat as a Cage superfan who knows all his movies and owns a lot of props; their weird deal-turned-friendship is the stuff of buddy-comedy greatness (I’m grateful they convinced me to watch the Paddington movies at last). But like many a high-concept comedy the final half-hour bogs down in marching mostly jokelessly toward an ordinary action climax, with only an uptick at the end (albeit a hilarious one). It’s nonetheless a nice try, and it’ll be interesting to see how well it’s aged twenty years from now when it’s Chris Hemsworth’s turn to do one of these.
(Housekeeping note#2: From this point upward, all the other films are ones I’d recommend, in which the strengths outweigh my fussbudget nitpicks. Keep in mind I’m not a pro critic who gets paid to watch 100 films a year. I realize the shortness of my list trivializes the “year’s worst” and “year’s best” labels, but I’m not trying to be a pro critic. I assemble what written contraptions I can from the parts I have at hand. Whatever my personal fun of remembrance and interpretation means beyond these digital confines, well, que sera sera. Take some more cold comfort, if you would: my separate home-video listicles for 2022 will be much longer.)
12. Downton Abbey: A New Era. It’s another cozy cuppa for PBS fans as the Granthams and their staff weather mildly inconvenient new occurrences. This time Julian Fellowes splits the party: one coterie skips across the waters to France for an awkward inheritance trifle with all the tension of an upholstery selection appointment, while the others stay behind to welcome Hollywood filmmakers (including Hannibal‘s Hugh Dancy and The Wire‘s Dominic West) hoping to shoot their new project on the grounds of Downton itself, here in the late 1920s as the advent of the “talkie” threatens to upend all of cinema. The latter storyline was fascinating to my wife and myself, but then months later a funny thing happened: for our first time we happened to watch Singing in the Rain, totally unaware that the Gene Kelly classic had done all that first and better, and gave us Donald O’Connor in a show-stopping, near-suicidal dance number. That overdue viewing knocked A New Era down a few pegs on this list, though I can’t stay mad at its otherwise dependable delivery of the same-old. Scuttlebutt is the series may continue no further, which is just as well — the alternative would bring the family face-to-face with the Great Depression. Can they weather that so cozily? I dare them to try.
11. Avatar: The Way of Water. The predictably huge box-office smash is the visually stunning James Cameron comeback we expected, an underwater world of wonder that left our IMAX 3-D audience stunned all throughout its three-hour runtime. The beautifully panoramic Pandora ocean-tribe expansion pack and the extended no-holds-barred final-battle extravaganza exceed the baselines even by Cameron standards in all their gloriously maximized CGI razzle-dazzle nonpareil. While everyone loves Sigourney Weaver’s surprise turn as a moody teen whose disrupted life leads her to new friends and new discoveries, after exiting the theater and regaining your senses it’s much easier to think again, and disappointing to realize you’ve just watched the most expensive witness-protection story in world history, one in which Our Hero sought to stop endangering his community by moving his family to a strange new neighborhood and endangering them instead. And much of the family’s stresses feel like Cameron reusing salvaged parts from his previous films and from any number of fish-out-of-water family dramas. The technological bells-‘n’-whistles have been upgraded in accelerated leaps and bounds, but the chassis could use some new solder and an oil can.
…next time: my Top Ten list!