I am aware that it is now 2023 and that talking about 2022 is illegal, but I love talking about films I’ve watched and I wanted to wait until the year was properly over to do this list (do not report me to the police). I’m not going to do a proper “Best Films of 2022” list because, frankly, I didn’t see that many. I loved a couple, didn’t care for some, and have still yet to see 90% of the ones I wanted to. Rather than that, I’ll just tell you that The Banshees of Inisherin is my favorite 2022 flick, so far. (This also helps me whittle down this list!) So, instead, here’s a list of my favorite first-time watches, and a few deep cuts I really enjoyed too! For the sake of keeping this interesting, I won’t write about movies twice, though there’s a few that could grace both lists.
Fifteen lesser-known films I cannot recommend highly enough:
BLUE COLLAR (1978) – Paul Schrader’s follow-up script to Taxi Driver (and directorial debut!) finds the complementary cast of Harvey Keitel, Richard Pryor and Yaphet Kotto as union members at an auto body shop in Detroit trying to overthrow their evil boss. Engaging but brutally real and cynical drama shows you flat out how The Man will always keep you down, even when you think you’re winning. As real in 2022 today as it was then. Also features one of the most shocking and heartbreaking deaths I’ve seen in a while.
DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES (1962) – Utterly tense and heart-pounding drama sees Jack Lemmon – in a breakout role as a dramatic actor – fall into the throes of alcoholism. He challenges a pretty, teetotaling coworker to a drink and soon enough, they’re married, miserable and drunk. The movie uses imperceptible time jumps to make everything shady and unclear, mimicking the lives of the characters. Powerful and deeply upsetting film, almost definitely the best one on this list.
DREAM DEMON (1988) – Dreamy, psychedelic horror flick sees an average woman about to marry a rich man in a highly-publicized engagement. But she’s plagued by nightmares, and develops a bizarre friendship with an American tourist. When her nightmares cause a paparazzi to disappear in real life, it gets weird. Movie is extremely dependent on dream sequences, which can be off-putting for some, but I loved it. The ambitious opening sees a dream sequence where her wedding turns into a decapitation. It’s wild, bold and very gory while also being borderline nonsensical.
ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS (1958) – A French new wave/noir about a cheating wife and her plot for her boyfriend to kill her husband, who is also his boss. What starts smoothly goes awry when the man realizes he’s left something incriminating behind, and gets stuck in a broken elevator, which also allows some rowdy teens to steal his car. As a confused and worried wife wanders the streets, the teens go on a crime spree of their own. Extremely fun to watch what’s essentially two films smashed into one.
THE EMPTY MAN (2020) – This indie horror movie went unnoticed but had its heyday this year when horror fans set it ablaze. A group of hikers get lost in Nepal as one gets drawn to a long-dormant supernatural being. Years later, teens in a flyover state awaken the same beast – this time intentionally – and start disappearing one by one. It’s up to an incredulous investigator to put things together before The Empty Man gets him too; or, will it? Conventional horror flick gives way to some over-the-top psychedelic, psychological stuff in the final act. Absolutely tremendous.
FAMILY PLOT (1976) – It sure feels weird to include a Hitchcock movie here, but people have just missed this one. Those that haven’t, have wrongfully misaligned Alfred’s final flick as being phoned-in, when really it’s just a much smaller scale. Gone are the international incidents, in favor of a grifter psychic and her husband (Bruce Dern!) tracking down a long-lost nephew – who is in turn plotting a robbery and does not trust the folks on his trail. More comical than anything, it’s wonderful to see Hitch transpose his talents to a smaller story.
FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO (1943) – An early Billy Wilder film sees the sole survivor of a German attack on a British battalion hunker down in an Egyptian hotel, posing as the recently-deceased waiter. Rommel and his men set up camp there as the British soldier finds out that – you guessed it – the waiter he’s assumed the identity of was also a spy. Taut and exciting thriller keeps upping the ante while remaining extremely fun.
HUSH… HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE (1964) – A follow-up to Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? sees Bette Davis as an elderly woman refusing to give up her mansion to the town and losing her grip on sanity, decades after the murder of her husband (Bruce Dern!). Whether she committed the murder remains a mystery, as does the true intentions of Charlotte’s niece, who gets called in to help save the mansion. Really thrilling and tense stuff, and an all-time performance from Davis.
I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG (1932) – Love a movie that tells you what it’s about right away. A WWII vet comes home a hero, only to find himself unemployed and accused of a robbery he did not commit. He ends up on a chain gang, breaks free, and climbs up the ranks of a construction company – until the law catches up and arrests him again. A tough and brutal look at the way the country values justice and veterans, and it ends on an action sequence that holds up as shocking and thrilling even 90 years later.
IN THE SOUP (1992) – The first of two films on this list that stars Steve Buscemi as a filmmaker! In this one, he’s got an unfilmable 500 page script that he wants to…film. He struggles to find a producer, until a very suspicious gangster promises to fund it, and keeps putting it off while Buscemi does odd jobs for him and keeps him company. Funny and original, the script is solid but Seymour Cassel as the gangster really elevates it into a cult classic. An absolute delight with just a pinch of terror.
LE BEAU SERGE (1958) – French film sees François return to his hometown after many years away. His best friend from childhood, Serge, has wasted away. He’s a bad-temepered, poor alcoholic in an unhappy marriage with a kid on the way. François becomes worried that Serge can’t fend for the kid and doesn’t want it and starts to interfere. This drama has some slow points, but the final stretch is impeccable and the final shot is burned into my brain.
LIVING IN OBLIVION (1995) – Very funny, very tense no-budget indie comedy sees director Steve Buscemi have his passion project crumble before his eyes. The film is split into three extended scenes, each one of which sees Buscemi filming a scene which inevitably goes awry. An all-star cast bolster this movie that is simultaneously whiplash-inducing and utterly pointless. It works as a satire of the film industry, but one accessible to anyone on the outside. This one should be held in much higher regard.
ROADGAMES (1981) – Australian thriller sees Stacy Keach as an isolated, sarcastic trucker who finds himself on the run from a serial killer, and the police, as the serial killer has managed to pin his crimes on Keach. Add in a mysterious hitchhiker in the form of Jamie Lee Curtis and you’ve got a volatile but extremely fun little yarn.
THOMASINE & BUSHROD (1974) – This totally missed Western romp sees a black couple going on a well-planned crime spree across the West in 1911, aided by the newfangled invention of the automobile. It’s original, amusing and dramatic, embroidering the “moral criminal” Robin Hood mentality very well. It’s tense, but stays very charming and enthusiastic too.
WATERMELON MAN (1970) – A wild, confrontational and funny satire sees a very charismatic but deeply racist white man wake up one day to find he’s turned black. After a few days of constant bathing, the new reality sets in, as his family and friends (also racist) begin to scorn him. The downward spiral he falls is both comic from a karma perspective and palpably real, which makes for a very uncomfortable watch. Maybe a little dated in its own right, but still all too real.
Just for fun, because I am too self-indulgent, here’s three more:
3 Bad Men (Western/silent, 1926); Suture (Thriller, 1993); Wolfen (Horror, 1981)
And now, for the main event:
My 20 favorite first-time watches of 2022 that I didn’t already mention above:
20) YOJIMBO (1961) – One of many classic films that grace this list – a reason why I included so many “under the radar” ones above; if you’re reading this, you probably already know to watch Yojimbo. The Kurosawa classic follows a wandering ronin who finds two competing crime bosses puppeteering a small town, and uses himself to leverage the sides back and forth to avoid an all-out war. It’s a brilliant screenplay and one of the finest performances from Toshiro Mifune.
19) BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (1955) – This tightly contained little bruiser walks the line between Western and noir in a truly unique way, as it follows Spencer Tracy’s normal-man character searching for somebody in a very small town, only to be met with confusion and hostility from the locals. Did I mention, it’s a very small town. Things escalate quickly and Tracy finds himself in trouble, looking for information and trying to survive until the train comes through the next day. It’s basically a bottle episode of a film, but look at the cast – ten total characters, five Academy Award winners.
18) THE 400 BLOWS (1959) – Another “I don’t need to write about this one” entry, as I finally laid eyes on one of the most revered films ever. Truffaut’s earnest and brutally uncomfortable tale of a troubled schoolchild falling further and further into trouble and hopelessness ends on one of the most iconic – and potentially hopeful – shots in film history.
17) WHEEL OF FORTUNE AND FANTASY (2021) – With all the hype around Drive My Car, people seem to have completely missed Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s other 2021 film. The film is an anthology, with three unrelated stories of direct person-to-person confrontations. The first two involve a love triangle and a college professor who gets caught cheating with one of his students, but the real standout is the third film. Two women convince themselves they were classmates together and spend a day catching up, only to realize they’re total strangers. Rather than part ways, they use each other as stand-ins to confess long-buried secrets. Readers, my eyes did not stay dry.
16) Z (1969) – The first foreign film to be nominated for Best Picture is an Algerian release about a real-life government-orchestrated assassination of a leftist politician in Greece and the proceeding fallout. It’s bleak and brutal, and successfully presents itself as both a timeline of a real event and a plausible scenario for any country with political struggles (which is, all of them). Watching this in America in 2022 was…well, uncomfortable.
15) THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY (1980) – What a delight, I threw this on as background noise but got fully engrossed. Bob Hoskins stars as a midlevel crime boss trying to make a major play by bringing in an American investor, just as someone starts offing his men one-by-one. A taut and thoroughly nerve-wracking thriller takes place over a Good Friday and has Hoskins at his very best. Stunning directing, too. This one was an obvious influence on Uncut Gems.
14) BAD LUCK BANGING OR LOONY PORN (2021) – I could barely make heads or tails of this one and yet I loved it. The Romanian comedy follows a school teacher whose sex tape gets leaked, and she’s subjected to scorn and debate over whether she can remain in her position. It’s a satire on cancel culture and the way people weigh the actions of others subjectively. The first act is funny and tense, but the final act is an absolute riot – with one of the single wildest and most unpredictable endings I’ve ever seen. Curiously, the middle act is an unrelated, avant-garde production about Romania, good and bad, made for ignorant viewers like myself. The film opens with a full-on sex tape, but I unintentionally watched the edited Hulu version, which was very funny. Also gets points for having the best depiction of COVID on film yet (watch the questionable usage of masks).
13) HEAT (1995) – Again, what do I need to say here? It’s Pacino, de Niro, Kilmer and Mann. A damn-near perfect crime thriller that’s almost 3 hours but doesn’t feel longer than 1. Heart-pounding, fun and complete. The second-best scene is a chaotic shootout right in the middle of downtown LA, the best scene is entirely dialogue inside of a diner. A well-rounded picture.
12) CAPE FEAR (1962) – Sorry to those of you expecting a double dose of de Niro, but this is the original Gregory Peck & Robert Mitchum flick. This is one of the most heart-pounding movies I’ve ever seen, really. Peck stars as lawyer who gets Mitchum put away, only to have to flee years later when Mitchum is released and seeks revenge. Both the screenplay and Mitchum are so, so good that in the climax, you genuinely believe that a child is going to come to harm in a B&W film.
11) THE HAND OF GOD (2021) – I am a little incredulous of autobiographical films since they can often get self-indulgent, but this Italian drama smartly places weight on vibes instead of narrative. This technically-fictional coming-of-age tale sees the good and bad of growing up in the Italian country, from wanting to becoming a filmmaker to bored days watching Maradona to tragic accidents that upend entire lives. The scenery is gorgeous, the characters and dialogue all interesting and the vibes are totally engaging. I could live inside this movie, even the upsetting parts.
10) ROPE (1948) – My new favorite Hitchcock flick centers around the tensest dinner party in history. A sociopathic student and his reluctant
lover friend kidnap and kill one of their friends, hide his body in a trunk, and invite all of their colleagues and the boy’s family over to a party. Why? Just to see if they get caught. Jimmy Stewart, as their nihilistic professor, is the only one to catch on that something very, very wrong has happened. The film is edited so it looks like long takes, and the whole thing takes place in one apartment. It all amounts to an incredibly tense and uncomfortable film that far outlasts its 80 minute runtime.
9) A MAN ESCAPED (1958) – Speaking of small-scale tension, this prison break drama might be the most heart-pounding film I’ve ever seen. With almost no backstory, we see a French resistance member held captive by Nazis and his multiple attempts to escape. As his friends jump the gun to run away and get executed, he works meticulously to break his door and plan his escape. The last act of this film is done in almost pure silence, with the man and an accomplice moving slowly and carefully through the jail undetected. It is so quiet that you can hear your own heavy breathing because it is, truly, nail-biting. One of the all-time best.
8) THE CRANES ARE FLYING (1957) – This Russian WWII drama sees a young woman’s lover whisked off to war without a chance to say goodbye. As the years go on, the communications cease and she can only assume the worst. Eventually, she moves in with the man’s somewhat intolerable brother. While the story is effective and conventional, this film’s beauty lies in the directing. Eye-popping cinematography and painstakingly perfected long shots elevate this from a decent war film to one of the all-time greatest pieces of art.
7) BEFORE SUNSET (2004) – For a guy who always talks about loving long films, this is my second entry that doesn’t hit 90 minutes. There’s nothing to be said about this one that hasn’t been said – the perfect sequel to the somehow even better Before Sunrise sees two people meeting by chance, nine years after their first chance encounter. While the first film centers on their characters, this one shows how they’ve advanced. It takes place nearly in real-time, with the two wandering around Paris reconnecting before Ethan Hawke has to catch a flight. Pockets of combativeness arise where they didn’t before, and ego steps in the way; and yet, this movie is 80 minutes of completely wholesome, heartwarming love. I still need to see the third!
6) THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD (2021) – This Norwegian romcom touches on just about every emotion and every genre. At times funny, other times dramatic, and occasionally surreal, this wonderful picture follows a woman in her late 20’s as she tries to navigate life and imperfect romantic relationships. Horrible elevator pitch, but it is written with a perfect, intricate hand. There is a genuine love for these characters, even as they make wretched mistakes, and it’s that love that makes this relatable for just about anyone who cares to invest. A beautiful and moving picture.
5) ON THE WATERFRONT (1954) – One of the most famous and revered films ever, and for good reason. Brando utterly commands every scene, even when he renders a lot of his own dialogue unintelligible. The story about longshoremen union members involved in a fight is an all-time story from Budd Schulberg, written with genuine urgency and malice. Elia Kazan’s directing just adds even more.
4) THE ASCENT (1977) – Another Russian WWII drama, this one is far, far more brutal than Cranes. As a Russian troop of soldiers struggles through a harsh winter in Belarus, two men break off to beg for food from townspeople. But, they’re captured by Nazis, and held separately in a concentration camp. Eventually, both men are given an ultimatum – join or die. I won’t go further for risk of spoilers, but the last quarter of this movie is intensely heartbreaking.
3) THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007) – I know! I’d never actually seen it in full! I went in with the highest expectations and it still surpassed them. I can’t watch other Daniel Day-Lewis films now knowing how perfect he is here. The “I’ve abandoned my child” scene is just simply some of the finest acting ever put to film. This one is damn near perfect, but chances are you already know that.
2) DRIVE MY CAR (2021) – No recency bias here; the best film of 2021 is just one of the best of the century so far. A grief-stricken director struggles with the death of his unfaithful wife and reluctantly takes a role producing a stage production of Uncle Vanya. One of the primary actors he ends up casting – the man his wife cheated on him with. While Hamaguchi comes up with a punchy plot, the film revolves more around communications, with multilingual actors in Vanya serving as a metaphor for the man’s own introverted tendencies. He bonds with the actor and, more so, his personal chauffeur, herself a shy and withdrawn person. It is simply remarkable start to finish, with a justified runtime and arguably the best title card drop in history.
1) A SEPARATION (2011) – It’s been a long time since a film knocked me on the floor like this. The Oscar winner for Foreign Feature in 2011, this Iranian drama sees every taboo element you can think of. A fighting couple fails to secure a divorce, which sees a wife and teen daughter leave Tehran for the countryside while a husband (Nader) stays home to take care of his incontinent father. Nader hires a destitute, religious woman to care for his father during the day – but when Nader comes home, he finds his father tied to the bedpost and the woman gone. She returns, a fight ensues, and she ends up falling down the stairs. Was she pushed? The viewer does not know. But the woman’s husband, a man unemployable due to rage issues, convinces her to sue Nader for killing their unborn baby. The court case only gets messier. This film is shot documentary-style, which adds a sense of realism to it. Every single scene here is gut-punching, without ever being overbearing about it. Simply said, one of the best I’ve ever seen. Just prepare yourself.
I can’t help myself, here’s 9 more first-time watches I loved:
A Brighter, Summer Day (Drama/Coming of Age, 1991); All About Eve (Drama, 1950); Bande à Part (New wave/crime, 1964); Dune (Sci Fi/worms, 2021); I, Tonya (Biography/Comedy/Drama, 2017); The Killing (Noir, 1956); M (Thriller, 1931); Mulholland Drive (Noir, 2001); Suspiria (Horror, 2018);