The 10 best films of 2022 so far — in reverse order

The standard is as high as ever, but the best films now play almost exclusively to specialist audiences

Cinema is still trying to find its centre of gravity after landing awkwardly following the pandemic interregnum. In one sense, this list offers an unhappy portrait of the current arrangements. This is not 1972. Nobody clicking on to a broadsheet newspaper’s favourite films expects the list to be bulging with theatrical hits such as The Godfather, Deliverance and Cabaret (to name three top-10 box-office smashes from 50 years ago).

But there really is little here that taxed the person in the ticket booth. That Nordic epic did well, but it cost so bleeding much it hardly matters. That 1970s comedy drama didn’t do badly, but registering at number 79 in the US domestic box office doesn’t make you Spider-Man; it doesn’t even make you Morbius.

More than ever before, the top of the market — in commercial terms — offers little in the way of invention or innovation. Top Gun: Maverick was everything it needed to be. Michael Bay’s Ambulance was the Baron of Boom’s best film in 20 years. But neither troubled the scorers (and Ambulance was a flop anyway). The standard is as high as ever, but the best films now play almost exclusively to specialist audiences. On the upside, those audiences can see those pictures in buildings made of brick and concrete.

Every title here had a theatrical release somewhere in Ireland. On another upside, half of our top 10 are by women. The time may soon come when we don’t feel the need to mention that last fact.

10. Happening
Directed by Audrey Diwan

It is chilling that a film set in 1963 has become so relevant to current discussions about reproductive healthcare in western democracies. Diwan’s beautifully made drama — adapted from a novel by Annie Ernaux — follows a student as she faces up to the consequences of falling pregnant when abortion was still illegal in France. To Irish audiences, the juxtaposition of nouvelle-vague-era cool and antediluvian sexual mores is jarring. Read full review here.

9. Earwig
Directed by Lucile Hadžihalilović

The phrase “not for everyone” hangs menacingly over Hadžihalilović’s first English-language film. The director of Innocence and Evolution maintains the weird vibe with a slab of fusty surrealism concerning a young woman whose saliva is frozen to generate her own teeth. The film’s oddness coalesces around a tale that would fit neatly into the margins of TS Eliot’s The Waste Land. It is about everything and nothing. It sticks in the brain like nicotine on stucco. Read full review here.

8. Small Body
Directed by Laura Samani

A folk drama from early 20th century Italy that could be set three centuries earlier, Samani’s debut feature concerns a young woman who, when her baby is stillborn, puts the tiny corpse in a box and sets forth on a journey that, she hopes, will save the child from purgatory. There are grim happenings here, but the beautiful film is enlivened with an antic, scruffy humour and a deep love of humanity. Read Tara Brady’s review here.

7. Vortex
Directed by Gaspar Noé

Have we ever had a husband and wife directing films on this list? Anyway, Gaspar Noé (spouse of Lucile Hadžihalilović above) directs the great Françoise Lebrun and horror master Dario Argento in the tale of an elderly couple ageing painfully in a book-lined French apartment. Making ingenious use of spilt-screen — the couple are together and apart — the director of Enter the Void and Irréversible confirms he has a quieter register. Read Tara Brady’s review here.

6. Playground
Directed by Laura Wandel

Impressively lean (just 72 minutes) drama concerning the bullying of a small child in a Belgian school. Seen largely through the eyes of the victim’s younger sister — the picture is shot at a child’s height — Playground plays out entirely within the school precincts. The sense of hopeless confinement is overpowering. The injustice is enraging. Doing the right thing makes the conflict worse. But there is hope in here. Read Tara Brady’s review here.

5. An Cailín Ciúin/The Quiet Girl
Directed by Colm Bairéad

Already something of a sensation, Bairéad’s debut feature, adapted from a story by Claire Keegan, became the first Irish-language feature to play at the Berlin Film Festival before going on to sail past Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast to take seven Irish Academy Awards. It is a beautifully delicate piece concerning a young girl staying with relatives while a crisis brews at home. There are flavours of a ghost story about this ode to human decency. Read full review here.

4. Red Rocket
Directed by Sean Baker

Dark, hilarious, often troubling drama from the maker of Tangerine and The Florida Project concerning a layabout who returns to his east Texas home after a period working in the “adult film” business. Simon Rex makes something remarkable of the protagonist: a deceiving, deluded huckster whose charm is nonetheless hard to wholly resist. As ever with Baker, the sense of place is impeccable. Excellent support from young Bree Elrod. Read full review here.

3. Licorice Pizza
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Okay, you could argue this is a 2021 release here, as there were some paid previews at the end of the year. But Anderson’s rambling, heartfelt elegy to Valley life in the early 1970s officially opened in the first weeks of January. The film attracted a degree of controversy for its depiction of a relationship between a teenage lad and an adult woman. Happily, Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim are here to sell the story like experienced pros. The soundtrack rules. Read full review here.

2. The Northman
Directed by Robert Eggers

Biff! Bang! Wallop! Argh! We may never see an art film again on this scale. Eggers came to northern parts of Ireland for his retelling of Hamlet as a revoltingly violent Viking drama. Alexander Skarsgård towers over a film that skilfully weaves the supernatural in with what was then the visceral every day. Costing at least a staggering $70 million, Eggers, director of The Witch and The Lighthouse, proved he has the vision for an epic production. Read full review here.

1. The Souvenir Part II
Directed by Joanna Hogg

Hogg completed her autobiographical diptych with another raw drama set among bohemian brooders of the Thatcher years. The concluding part risks staging a film within the film that incorporates the protagonist’s earlier emotional traumas. It is a big ask. But Hogg’s commitment to creating her own universe and exploring it with vigour pays endless dividends. That dedication is matched by a cast — notably lead Honor Swinton Byrne and key comic support Richard Ayoade — that makes living, breathing creatures of the director’s retooled memories. Read full review here.

Bubbling under: Cow, Memoria, The Benediction, Parallel Mothers, Ali & Ava, The Batman, Belfast, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, The Worst Person in the World, Compartment No 6

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist