While the moviegoing world (heck, the world at large) might be nowhere near “pre-pandemic normalcy,” here’s something to get excited about: a whittled-down annual list of the best movies we’ve already seen from the year to come. Last year’s list was one of our most stacked ever, thanks to a number of hotly anticipated titles (including a wide variety of festive standouts from 2020 and early 2021) getting pushed way back to later, more optimistic release dates. Now, as films make their way to audiences through theatrical releases, streaming options, and more, we’re not waiting quite so long to see some of our favorites.
But that doesn’t mean 2022 doesn’t already have a bevy of fantastic new offerings we’ve been lucky enough to see, review, and champion. These films include a number of our favorite festival picks (from 2020 and 2021) gearing up for theatrical and VOD release in the coming months.
IndieWire has curated 15 titles worthy of anticipation and combined them all into a single guide, complete with release dates and review snippets that provide a sneak peek at several movies bound to be a part of the year-end conversation 12 months down the line. Here’s to better months ahead.
Of note: This list only includes films we have already seen that have a confirmed 2022 release date or have been picked up for distribution with 2022 release dates to be set. Because of the (continued) weirdness of 2021, we are including films that had qualifying runs in 2021 but opted for wider release in 2022.
“A Hero” (In theaters on January 7, streaming on Amazon Prime on January 21)
Epitomized by the heart-wrenching uncertainty of 2011’s “A Separation,” Asghar Farhadi’s social melodramas begin with straightforward predicaments that are peeled back — layer by layer, and with deceptive casualness — while the hard bulb of a moral crisis is revealed deep underneath. His stories are better described as dilemmas, and those dilemmas unfold with the frustration, resolve, and steadily increasing ferocity of a cat batting a tethered ball to itself around a pole until the string is stretched tight enough that everything chokes to a standstill.
Farhadi plays to his strengths with “A Hero,” as he takes a classic premise and spins it around and around and around with enough centrifugal force to keep you rooted in place even as your sympathies fly in every conceivable direction. By the time this expertly constructed ethical clusterfuck finally slows to a stop, the simplest film that Farhadi has made since his international breakthrough 10 years ago has somehow become the most ambivalent, and also the best (although making such a pronouncement with certainty seems almost antithetical to the spirit of a movie that obliviates your judgment at every turn). Read IndieWire’s full review.
“Belle” (In theaters on January 14)
“Beauty and the Beast” meets online bullying in a hyper-modern anime riff on the classic fairy tale (or at least the Disney version of it), as “Miraï” director Mamoru Hosoda pushes his boundless imagination to new extremes in a visually dazzling musical about how J-Pop can save the world. If that seems like too much ground for a cartoon to cover in the span of a two-hour coming-of-age story, keep in mind that Hosoda has a knack for reaching familiar places in rivetingly unexpected fashions. Case in point: The heroine of “Belle” enters the movie atop a flying humpback whale that’s barnacled with hundreds of stereo speakers.
It’s a fitting introduction to a film that wows you with its wild vision of internet age identity even when it doesn’t reveal anything that isn’t already self-evident. But Hosoda is a born maximalist with a big heart, and while his most ambitious moonshot to date isn’t quite able to arrange all of its moving parts together along the same orbit, it’s impressive to see how many of them remain moving all the same. Read IndieWire’s full review.
“Italian Studies” (In theaters on January 14)
A dreamy lark of a movie shot piecemeal between July 2018 and April of the following year, Adam Leon’s “Italian Studies” may be set along (and expertly stolen from) the crowded sidewalks of London and New York, but it’s unmistakably suffused with the woozy dislocation and “we have to make something” life-force of a COVID film. No one is wearing masks or social distancing in the heat of lower Manhattan on a summer afternoon, yet Leon’s heroine — a successful author played by Vanessa Kirby at a time just before people on the street would recognize her as one of the gutsiest actresses of her generation, or as anyone at all — is lost in a fugue state that vividly reflects the isolation and uncertainty of the last 18 months. Read IndieWire’s full review.
“Cyrano” (In theaters on January 21)
Just when you think you’ve seen it all, Joe Wright — one of the last true madmen in Hollywood cinema — rebounds from the folly of his “Woman in the Window” with a full-throated musical adaptation of “Cyrano de Bergerac” soundtracked by The National, shot during COVID on Sicily (with hundreds of lavishly costumed extras singing a mope rock banger on the snowy peak of an active volcano!), and starring Peter Dinklage as a lovelorn poet who possesses the courage to sword-fight 10 men at a time but not the pride to confess his feelings to the one woman he’s loved for all eternity.
Maybe it’s just the clown makeup and corsets talking, but there are moments during Wright’s “Cyrano” — such as the literal rap battle during which Cyrano trades rhymes with a foe while they fence to the death — that delude you into thinking this must be the most gonzo work of mainstream art that someone has made in defiance of a plague since “The Decameron.” Is it good? In parts! Is it intoxicated with the same demented bravado that its namesake embodies when he sneaks behind the enemy lines of the Franco-Spanish War, but tragically lacks whenever he’s alone with his true love Roxanne (a ravishing Haley Bennett, with whom Wright himself is besotted in real life)? Absolutely. And that’s plenty to sing about. Read IndieWire’s full review.
“Sundown” (In theaters on January 28)
The characters in Michel Franco’s “Sundown” are on a luxurious Mexican holiday in which they swim in the clear sea and their private infinity pool, take a regal interest in the local singers and cliff divers, and lie flat out on sun loungers on their hotel suite’s terrace while a waiter brings them their morning margaritas. It’s relaxing for them, but absolutely nerve-frazzling for anyone who saw Franco’s last film, “New Order,” a traumatizingly gory drama in which a high-society wedding turned into a bloodbath, and things got more stressful from there.
Sure enough, it doesn’t take long for trouble to come to this particular paradise, but “Sundown” is quieter and more oblique than “New Order.” It’s smaller, too, in terms of its cast and its scope. That film’s merciless depiction of a city imploding in revolution and counter-revolution thrilled some viewers and offended others, most vocally in Franco’s native Mexico. His enigmatic follow-up is more likely to prompt puzzled conversations about what he’s getting at. Read IndieWire’s full review.
“The Worst Person in the World” (In theaters on February 4)
A sharp and entrancing pivot back to the restless films he once made about beautiful young people suffering from the vertigo of time moving through them (“Reprise” and “Oslo, August 31” being the first two parts of the loose thematic trilogy that led us here), Joachim Trier’s latest film embraces the idea that originality might be a touch overrated. In fact, Julie’s life could even be seen as a cautionary tale about the perils of waiting to become the unique flowers we’re all promised to blossom into one day, even if it understands that some lessons can only be learned the hard way. “When was life supposed to start?” asks the narrator on Julie’s behalf, her rhetorical question belying the obvious fact that it already has.
If Julie is less of a character than a vividly realized archetype, Renate Reinsve didn’t get the message. The flush-cheeked actress (who Trier fans may recognize from her small part in “Oslo”) steps into her first major role with a careful mix of forcefulness and frustration; Reinsve’s performance believably renders Julie smart enough to become anything she wants, but also naive enough to feel blindsided by the realization that she’ll eventually have to choose what that will be. Her Julie is so easy to root for, and yet when Trier and his co-writer Eskil Vogt confront how badly people can treat each other as they scramble to make the best of themselves, Reinsve ensures that “The Worst Person in the World” delivers on its ironic wink of a title. Read IndieWire’s full review.
“Lingui, the Sacred Bonds” (In theaters on February 4)
Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s slender yet riveting “Lingui, the Sacred Bonds” is a story about a woman trying to secure an abortion for her 15-year-old daughter in a country where terminating a pregnancy violates both national and religious laws, but — as its title suggests in two different languages — this soft hammer of a social drama is less concerned with the cruelties of Chad’s politics than it is with how people help each other to endure them together.
“Lingui” is a Chadian term that represents a tradition of altruism; a collective resilience in the face of catastrophic ordeals. When a group of young men wordlessly pull the teenage Maria (Rihane Khalil-Alio) out from a riverbed after she tries to drown herself, that is lingui. When Maria’s mother Amina (Achouackh Abakar Soulymane) agrees to aid her estranged sister at a moment of irrevocable crisis, that is lingui. When Maria’s school, afraid of how gossip might reflect on them, expels the girl the minute they learn of her delicate condition… that is why lingui is so necessary. Read IndieWire’s full review.
“Catch the Fair One” (In theaters on February 11)
With Ronda Rousey lying low for the last few years and Gina Carano not lying nearly low enough, the fighter-to-actress pipeline isn’t flowing as steadily as it once was. But now a new challenger has entered the ring with “Catch the Fair One,” and she’s already a WBA champion in two other weight classes. After her bruising yet vulnerable lead performance in Josef Kubota Wladyka’s sex-trafficking thriller, boxer Kali Reis deserves to add another title belt to her collection (and not just because there’s so little in the way of competition).
Reis’ sinewy first movie role isn’t much of a stretch, but that’s part of why it packs such a devastating punch. The Providence-born pugilist — a half-Native (descending from Cherokee, Nipmuc, and Seaconke Wampanoag tribes) and half-Cape Verdean boxer who could probably destroy your entire life with a single jab to the face — plays a half-native and half-Cape Verdean boxer who could probably destroy your entire life with a single jab to the face. Her character’s name has been altered to Kaylee, but the moniker they share (“K.O.”) is spelled the same. Read IndieWire’s full review.
Music Box Films
“Strawberry Mansion” (In theaters on February 18)
There have been countless movies about dreams, but “Strawberry Mansion” is the only one save for “Inception” that turns them into a hustle. In this visually entrancing and innovative fantasy from co-directors Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney, the government forces citizens to record their nighttime journeys and imposes taxes on the unpredictable ingredients found within. Audley and Birney, who previously made the lo-fi comic odyssey “Sylvio” about a lonely gorilla with an online talk show, excel at grounding outlandish concepts in genuine emotional stakes.
“Sylvio” was just strange and charming enough to show the potential of a silly-poignant balance unique to their combined talent; “Strawberry Mansion” gets there, with a delightful and innovative oddball journey that overcomes its zany twists by taking them seriously. It doesn’t always work, but there’s so much fun in watching the gears turn that it hardly matters. Shot on video and transferred to 16mm, “Strawberry Mansion” looks like some kind of lost ‘80s vision buried in the dustbin of the rental store. Read IndieWire’s full review.
“A Banquet” (In theaters on February 18)
Betsey (Jessica Alexander) has stopped eating. The pretty British teen isn’t hungry, she says, and who can really blame her, what with the recent passing of her father and the pressures of figuring out the next chapter in her own life. It’s not just that she doesn’t want to eat — not even the lavish feasts dutifully prepared by her mother Holly (Sienna Guillory) each night and happily consumed by her precocious younger sister Isabelle (Ruby Stokes) — but all food repulses her. Her body no longer wants it, and as Ruth Paxton’s auspicious but ultimately overstuffed debut “A Banquet” eventually lets on, her body may no longer even need it.
The family’s home serves as the film’s primary location, an awkward suburban residence with a second-story entrance, a first-floor kitchen, and a baffling living room. Here, claustrophobia and disconnection rage, and “A Banquet” attempts to weave together a compelling assortment of absolute terrors. There’s the body horror, of course, plus concerns about growing old, going crazy, being a woman, being believed, and exposing all of that to the wider world. Betsey is an attractive vessel for such worries, and Alexander ably embodies her, but the film never transcends the possibility that Betsey might ultimately be just that: a vessel. Read IndieWire’s full review.
“Hit the Road” (Film Forum on April 22)
A family road trip movie in which we never quite know where the film is heading (and are often lied to about why), “Hit the Road” may be set amid the winding desert highways and gorgeous emerald valleys of northwestern Iran, but Panah Panahi’s miraculous debut is fueled by the growing suspicion that its characters have taken a major detour away from our mortal coil at some point along the way. “Where are we?” the gray-haired mom (Pantea Panahiha) asks into the camera upon waking up from a restless catnap inside the SUV in which so much of this film takes place. “We’re dead,” squeaks the youngest of her two sons (Rayan Sarlak) from the back seat, the six-year-old boy already exuding some of the most anarchic movie kid energy this side of “The Tin Drum.”
They aren’t dead — at least not literally, even if the adorable stray dog who’s come along for the ride seems to be on its last legs — but the further Panahi’s foursome drives away from the lives they’ve left behind in Tehran, the more it begins to seem as if they’ve left behind life itself. A purgatorial fog rolls in as they climb towards the Turkish border, and with it comes a series of semi-competent guides (one amusingly trying to steer a motorbike from behind a sheepskin balaclava) who show up to give the family vague directions as if they were clueless interns for the ferryman on the river Styx. Read IndieWire’s full review.
“Benediction” (In theaters on May 13)
From a pair of dreamy memoirs about his formative years (“Distant Voices, Still Lives,” “The Long Day Closes”), an archival documentary that excavated the city in which those years were spent (“Of Time and the City”), and swooning adaptations of the novels and plays that allowed him to make sense of his own wounded soul (“The Deep Blue Sea”), Liverpudlian auteur Terence Davies has established himself as one of the most achingly personal of master filmmakers; this despite his adamant belief that his personal life is “really boring.”
With “Benediction” — another spectacular and terribly sad biopic about a poet cursed with the ability to express a private agony they could never escape — Davies has once again made a film that feels like the work of someone flaying their soul onscreen. Last time it was Emily Dickinson who provided the prism through which Davies could refract his own wants and wounds, and here it’s the English poet Siegfried Sassoon, an openly but resentfully gay man desperate for a peace of mind he only knew how to look for in other people. Davies has more in common with Sassoon than Dickinson — their lives even overlapped for a time — but viewers don’t have to know a single thing about the director’s work to sense his wounds bleeding through Sassoon’s aching story. This is a film that trembles with a need for redemption that never comes, and the urgency of that search is palpable enough that you can feel it first-hand, even if “Benediction” is never particularly clear about the nature of the redemption it’s hoping to find. Read IndieWire’s full review.
“The Black Phone” (In theaters on June 24)
Adapted from Joe Hill’s short story of the same name, “The Black Phone” is a violent zeitgeist of a horror film that captures the audience’s emotions as quickly as the film’s antagonist kidnaps children in broad daylight. Ethan Hawke stars as a masked kidnapper (nicknamed “The Grabber”) who terrorizes a suburban Colorado town in the 1970s. Hiding behind the facade of a clumsy magician, he lures kids in with kindness before eclipsing their world with mace and a swarm of signature black balloons. The story is told through Finney’s perspective as audiences get a glimpse into his home and personal life before he becomes the kidnapper’s latest victim.
In between dodging his classmates on the prowl to beat him up, Finney Shaw (Mason Thames) has to walk on eggshells at home in order to avoid any further abuse from his alcoholic father. The only solace he can find is alongside his sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), a sweet yet religious spitfire in pigtails, who has no qualms about cussing out cops or smashing a rock over a bully’s head. Read IndieWire’s full review.
“On the Count of Three” (TBD 2022 release)
Jerrod Carmichael’s “On the Count of Three” isn’t super heavy on the kind of koan-like quips that have always lent his confrontational standup comedy its velvet punch, but this one — delivered in the opening minutes of his suicide-dark but violently sweet directorial debut — resonates loud enough to echo throughout the rest of the film: “When you’re a kid they tell you the worst thing in life is to be a quitter. Why? Quitting’s amazing. It just means you get to stop doing something you hate.”
Lifelong best friends Val (Carmichael) and Kevin (Christopher Abbott) are both ready to give up. The first time we see them they’re standing in the parking lot outside an upstate New York strip club at 10:30 a.m. with handguns pointed at each other’s heads as part of a double-suicide pact. Nobody’s laughing, but you can already feel the love between them; something about the look in their eyes reads more like “sisters who are pregnant at the same time” than it does “strangers who are about to shoot each other in the face.” Read IndieWire’s full review.
“We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” (TBD 2022 release)
Jane Schoenbrun understands the internet. The filmmaker behind such projects as “A Self-Induced Hallucination” (a 2018 doc “about the internet”), the tech-tinged “Eyeslicer” series, and the dreamy “collective: unconscious” has always found the space to explore the worldwide web with respect, reverence, and a hearty dose of fear. For their narrative feature debut, Schoenbrun expands their obsessions to craft an intimate tale about the impact of modern internet culture. Part coming-of-age story, part horror film, and the greatest argument yet that something as bonkers as “Creepypasta” can inspire something so beautiful, “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” is a strong debut for a filmmaker who is nothing if not consistent in their themes.
Fair warning: If you, like this critic, are not someone positively impacted by ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response), “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” will likely get even more under your skin than it will for audiences who enjoy the whispered noises that trigger the condition. But even when it’s chilling, the movie finds meaning in discomfort. Read IndieWire’s full review.