With the fall festivals being the new focus of film fans around the world, it’s clear that the summer movie season is coming to a close. But even though there’s a lot to be excited about in the months ahead, the hit films from this summer certainly provided us with some rousing cinematic experiences that deserve to be revisited and recognized, from the bombastic blockbusters (Top Gun: Maverick, Nope) to some insightful indies (Not Okay, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On) and everything in between. So, without further ado, here are my picks for the top 10 best movies of summer 2022, starting with a few honorable mentions.
Honorable Mentions (Emily the Criminal, Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, and Vengeance)
Even though the summer movie season is synonymous with big-budget blockbusters, the indies and mid-budget movies really rallied this summer and actually might’ve given us the biggest bang for our buck. John Patton Ford’s Emily the Criminal is a rock-solid and riveting modern crime drama that directly tackles the plight of the 99% today and features one of Aubrey Plaza’s best performances to date, Sophie Hyde’s Good Luck to You, Leo Grande finds the exceptional Emma Thompson at the top of her game as a recently widowed woman rediscovering her sexuality alongside a delightful Daryl McCormack as the sex worker she hires (as the two superbly tackle sexual stigma thanks to Katy Brand’s razor-sharp script), and B.J. Novak’s Vengeance is a monstrously captivating murder mystery comedy that doubles as an astute observation of modern American society and the present divide between social classes and political parties. If you haven’t caught up with these yet, do so ASAP (Emily the Criminal is still in theaters, while Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is available to stream on Hulu, and Vengeance just became available to rent).
Though it pains me that I wasn’t able to see Prey in a theater, it speaks to the strength of the film that it still played just as powerfully at home, and what a joy it was to watch this “opening weekend” with the rest of Film Twitter, experiencing the wonders of what writer-director Dan Trachtenberg and co had created in tandem, collectively in awe. From Trachtenberg’s dizzying, dynamic direction to Amber Midthunder’s sensational star-making performance as Naru – a young female Comanche warrior counted out by her tribe and compelled to prove them wrong – there’s so much to cherish and commend here, as everyone involved committed to bringing the Predator franchise back to basics after a failed reboot threatened to derail the brand entirely four years ago. Thankfully, by traveling to a fresh era in the franchise’s timeline, fashioning a fantastic new lead, developing an original sense of style that still fit with the series, and infusing the film with some subtle – but still intellectually stimulating – social commentary, Prey annihilated the most intimidating enemy of all: audience disinterest in the Predator property.
9. Marcel the Shell with Shoes On
Simply put, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is a salve for the soul. You won’t find a more endlessly endearing, overwhelmingly optimistic, and mightily moving movie all year long, and it’s a miracle that writers/creators Dean Fleischer Camp and Jenny Slate were able to effectively turn the star of a few mockumentary short films released in the early 2010s into the lead of his own major motion picture, especially since this is an anthropomorphic shell we’re talking about. But, they did so successfully by penning a simple yet supremely sweet script (alongside co-writers Nick Paley and Elisabeth Holm) that spoke humorously and honesty to the human condition and enlightened us emotionally, benefitting even further from Jenny Slate and Isabella Rossellini’s warm and witty voice work. In the end, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is note-perfect proof that good things do indeed come in small packages.
8. Fire Island
Another cinematic delight that was robbed of the theatrical experience this year was Andrew Ahn’s Fire Island, the rare romcom that has something for everyone – it’s smart, it’s silly, and it’s oh so sexy. So, essentially, it’s simply everything you could want from any movie (especially a splashy summer affair) and more. Imagine watching this with a sold-out crowd of your closest queer friends and what a wild ride and laugh riot that would’ve been?! Le sigh. Anywho, it’ll have to settle for being a sublime modern adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (in the vein of Clueless adapting Emma) and a landmark achievement for bringing refreshingly diverse representation to mainstream LGBTQ+ entertainment, which is increasingly white- and cis-centric. In many ways, it feels like a game changer in that respect – particularly when it comes to its innovative (and important) perspective on the community’s occasional causticity – but above all else, it remembers that we’re here to have a good time, too, and with playful (and poignant) performances from the entire ensemble (MVPs Bowen Yang and Tómas Matos), mission accomplished.
7. Not Okay
I was all-in for Not Okay (and its scorching satire and tongue-in-cheek tone) right from the opening warning that “This Film Contains An Unlikable Female Protagonist.” I understand that it may not be for everyone – especially those who still find it impossible to overlook the awful actions of Zoey Deutch’s Danni Sanders – but I can’t help but commend a film that still makes me feel something for someone as excruciatingly egotistical as Danni, because at the end of the day, beyond all of the script’s scathing skewering of modern day influencer culture, it’s also holding a mirror up to us as well and forcing us to find traits we share with Danni and vapid Internet instant-celebs like her, which is something I won’t soon shake. Deutch is dynamite in the role (when isn’t she?), making us relate to and revile Danni simultaneously, but it’s breakout star Mia Isaac who may very well be the MVP as a school shooting survivor who Danni befriends (and later betrays), providing the film with its humanistic core (and its exceptional end note). Some people probably still won’t be able to get past the crux of the plot, but I thought Quinn Shephard delivered on this dark premise with a brilliant blend of comedy and consequences.
6. Bodies Bodies Bodies
Oh look, it’s everyone’s favorite “95-minute advertisement for cleavage!” All jokes (and absurdly off-base criticisms) aside, Bodies Bodies Bodies is simply a brutal blast from start-to-finish, with a searing script that is equal parts horrifying and hilarious, featuring probably the only accurate depiction of Gen Z in entertainment today. Once again, this is not going to be a film for everyone – as its recent controversy (which feels like something that would’ve happened in the film itself) can speak to – but if you’re willing to ride its wild wavelength, you’re in for a tremendous (and terrifying) treat. Screenwriter Sarah DeLappe does an excellent job at enveloping us in this dark world of deception and dishonestly ahead of the central “whodunit’s” commencement – proving to be supremely savvy at capturing how real girls (and especially Gen Z girls) speak to one another, which no cliché or conventional commentary to be found – while Halina Reijn’s direction further elevates the proceedings with a punchy panache, and that ensemble is to die for (pun intended). The deliciously ditzy Rachel Sennott may be the MVP, but don’t dismiss the comedic capabilities of Lee Pace (perfectly playing a modern “himbo”) or the always amusing Pete Davidson either.
I could spend this entire paragraph praising Austin Butler’s performance to high heaven, so I’ll keep it short and simple and merely say that what Butler accomplishes here in his portrayal of the “King of Rock and Roll” is not only the best performance of the year so far, but the best in years, period, and easily one of the most engrossing biopic performances we’ve ever seen, thanks to his full-bodied immersion in this role and courageous commitment the whole way through. But even beyond Butler, Elvis is an explosive, one-of-a-kind cinematic experience, and if we must get a million new music biopics every year, I pray that more are like this – a true spectacle crafted by an auteur with a signature style and capped off with a tour de force lead performance by a surefire star who seeks not solely to imitate the subject’s mannerisms, but to embody their very body and soul, as well. Even if you’re usually averse to the stylings and sensibilities of Baz Luhrmann, I implore you to give Elvis a chance, and watch as you too are magnetized by the might of Austin Butler’s acting feat.
4. The Black Phone
Studio horror films are so hit and miss these days that, even though I thought the trailers for The Black Phone looked terrific (and even though I quite enjoy Scott Derrickson’s past films Sinister and Doctor Strange), I was still wary of how well it would synthesize real-world horrors with supernatural elements after acquainting myself with the short story it’s based on. Lo and behold, The Black Phone proved to be a miracle of modern horror, so carefully and considerately constructed from top-to-bottom (why doesn’t every studio horror film look and sound as good as this one does?!) with astounding attention to period detail and more suspenseful setpieces than the genre has seen in some time (and jump scares not only used sparingly, but successfully). Meanwhile, the cast is ACES, with child actors Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw proving that they’re on their way to becoming megastars (and bringing their brother/sister bond to life so effectively that it’s impossible to not be emotionally engaged) and Ethan Hawke scaring the absolute shit out of us from start-to-finish, even while delivering 75% of his lines from behind a mask. Let Scott Derrickson do whatever he wants from here on out, please.
It seems that Nope has become a bit divisive – even in cinephile circles – so let me say here and now that this is a big “YUP” from me, and probably Jordan Peele’s most well-made movie to date. It feels obvious and cliché to call Nope a “movie that makes you fall in love with movies all over again,” but thanks to its stupefying spectacle and staggering sense of scale and scope, that’s exactly what it is – and yet, it’s also so much more at the same time. Not content to simply give us the best directed blockbuster of the summer this side of Top Gun: Maverick, Jordan Peele also (expectedly) suffuses his modern “cowboys vs. aliens” saga with stirring and scathing social commentary about our perverse attraction to spectacle such as this, humanity’s habitual inclination to turn trauma into art and entertainment, and man’s continually maddening attempts to control the uncontrollable, only to expose ourselves and others to unknown evil. And, through it all, Peele manages to deliver some of his most emotionally compelling character work to date as well, with his witty – and surprisingly warm – writing pairing perfectly with two phenomenal performances from Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer. Only five years into his directorial career, Jordan Peele has proved that he’s a once-in-a-generation talent, and I hope the day he stops sharing his art with us never arrives, because cinema – and society – is so much better off when he’s making movies.
2. Cha Cha Real Smooth
Cooper Raiff burst onto the scene in a big way two years ago with his directorial debut Shithouse, winning the Grand Jury Prize for Best Narrative Feature at the 2020 South by Southwest Film Festival and instantly establishing himself as a riotous new voice on the rise in comedy, but with his sophomore feature Cha Cha Real Smooth, he solidified himself as a star, surpassing his first film by demonstrating an even stronger grasp on his screenwriting – with a near pitch-perfect synthesis of heart and hilarity – and directing his stacked cast to several powerhouse performances, from his own tender turn in the lead role to supporting standouts such as the delightful Dakota Johnson, the lovely Leslie Mann, and breakout newcomer Vanessa Burghardt. But above all else, the secret to Cha Cha Real Smooth lies in Raiff’s sensational screenplay, which subverts expectations at every turn and refuses to take the easy way out when it comes to resolving its central relationships. Even when you think you can guess the endgame, Raiff ignores the inclination to give us clean-cut conclusions, reveling in his characters’ complexities and contradictions and mirroring the chaos of post-collegiate life, making for an infinitely more mature movie than you would expect from someone of Raiff’s age (and never is this more apparent than in the compassionate characterization of Johnson’s Domino, allowing the actress to turn in the most nuanced and wrenching work of her career so far). A true treat this is.
1. Top Gun: Maverick
Point blank, Top Gun: Maverick represents the best of what blockbuster filmmaking can – and should – be, beautifully blending spectacle with sentiment to exhilarating effect, while also featuring one of Tom Cruise’s most powerful and poignant performances to date. And it’s not just the fact that technical advancements have allowed for even more arresting action sequences than what were found in the original. Instead, what may be most impressive about Top Gun: Maverick is how screenwriters Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer, and Christopher McQuarrie suffuse the script with meaningful melodrama and striking sincerity, making for a moving (and occasionally meta) meditation on Maverick’s life and legacy that simultaneously pays tribute to the first film in touching ways, as the shadow of Anthony Edwards’ Goose proves inescapable and influences the actions of almost all involved here, for better and for worse. But even if one isn’t as up-to-date on their “Top Gun lore,” the action and emotion on display are still so engrossing that it’s impossible to not be swept up by these stupefying sights regardless, thanks to a skillfully scripted story that excites both the head and the heart. From a structural standpoint, Top Gun: Maverick truly just has it all: awe-inspiring action, drama that will leave you dewy-eyed, and rapturously resplendent romance. And in execution, all of these elements are somehow even more effective, elevating our senses and lifting our souls to the skies.
It’s pretty much perfect.
And this is what the movies were made for.