So long as there are passionate TV watchers and ardent theatergoers connecting with characters through screens big and small, there will always be lists at the end of the year telling you which feature films and series were “the best” the year had to offer. Different as these lists always are, no single one of them is any more right than another because the connections we make with these kinds of stories are deeply personal, and our feelings about them are subjective. But as you look back on any given year in entertainment, it’s hard not to think about the things that either grabbed our collective focus or felt like they were unexpectedly fulfilling narrative desires that audiences didn’t know they had.
Even now, months after its initial theatrical release, there’s still so much light and heat and hype radiating from the Daniels’ Everything Everywhere All at Once that we can’t yet know what kind of lasting legacy the movie will have as one of the year’s discourse-shapers. What’s obvious, though, is that the film’s story about a burned-out family fighting to hold onto one another by manipulating reality with love resonated with people in a deep and powerful way that no one saw coming. In a year when Hollywood largely misunderstood what makes stories about the multiverse interesting, Everything Everywhere All at Once succeeded by actually playing with the idea of multiple realities and focusing on a kind of existential madness so universal that it was hard not to feel seen by Michelle Yeoh’s Evelyn Wang or Stephanie Hsu’s Jobu Tupaki.
There was something truly moving and magical about seeing Ke Huy Quan not just returning to film as if he’d never left but showing up in a movie that called upon him to tap into a level of emotional depth and complexity that Hollywood seemed not to think he was capable of. Quan’s ability to bring every facet of Waymond Wang to life, much like Jamie Lee Curtis’ ability to bring humanity to the IRS through Deirdre Beaubeirdre, was part of what made Everything Everywhere All at Once feel like such a classic despite it being one of A24’s newer projects.
By focusing on how transformative a force familial love can be, Everything Everywhere All At Once was able to root itself in people’s minds and make them feel things long after first seeing the film. Having that kind of staying power and mental stickiness was great for Everything Everywhere All at Once’s box office and for the profiles of its leading cast members. But that very same power is also part of what’s led to some of Everything Everywhere All at Once’s detractors and fans alike becoming exhaustively hostile in their defenses and critiques of the movie — a mode that’s increasingly felt like people’s default when it comes to discussing genre fiction.
Everything Everywhere All at Once wasn’t the only hit this year whose public perception was at least partially defined by an intense fandom that treated evangelizing their entertainment of choice like a job. For shows like Nathan Fielder’s The Rehearsal, success in 2022 meant selling viewers on the idea of a darkly absurdist deconstruction of social interactions and spawning a passionate fanbase that saw deep truths about the human condition laid bare in their favorite episodes.
It almost feels too simple to describe The Rehearsal as a reality-adjacent comedy about letting people test run living through challenging situations like raising a child or being the creator, executive producer, and star of an aggressively meta thought experiment. But that’s precisely what The Rehearsal was in its first season of following Fielder down a rabbit hole of unscripted yet highly produced situations meant to help people learn how to navigate complex and sometimes confusing moments in their lives.
Despite its frequent forays into abject absurdity, there was a surprising kind of subtlety to gradual unraveling of The Rehearsal’s constructed reality that made it easy to write the show off as novelty too charmed by its own conceit to be genuinely fascinating to watch. But that subtlety was also what made The Rehearsal feel like it was tapping into something very honest and real — especially in moments when jokes gave way to awkward silences, nervous stares, and people deciding they didn’t want to be a part of the show anymore.
In all of its ambitious convolution, The Rehearsal often felt like a throwback to the Larry Sanders Show era of HBO’s programming when the network was still building a name for itself as a hub for must-see original TV. But it was House of the Dragon and its recreation of Game of Thrones’ early success that ended up being HBO’s splashiest nostalgia play in a year marked by uncertainty about the network’s future. The Game of Thrones prequel was as interesting as one could have expected from a drama co-created by George R. R. Martin himself years after he first began detailing the Targaryen family history in his book Fire & Blood.
Though we were all ostensibly watching House of the Dragon to see just how Alicent and Rhaenyra planned to get the better of one another from week to week, many of us were also returning to Westeros out of a desire to interact with one another — especially on social media as new episodes were airing. Arguably, the sense of familiarity that grew stronger as House of the Dragon’s first season progressed was what made it easier for people to latch onto than Amazon’s The Rings of Power despite both being epic sword and sorcery tales aimed at rather similar audiences.
While both House of the Dragon and The Rings of Power will be back for second seasons, it’s hard to know whether either of them will ultimately have the kind of staying power that made it possible for Stranger Things Vol. 4 to briefly take over the world the way it did this past summer. After showing some notable signs of fatigue in its third season, Stranger Things Vol. 4 was a return to form that reminded longtime fans why they first fell in love with the series and introduced a new generation of young people to the wonders of Kate Bush’s music. Perhaps because it had been so long since we’d last caught up with the kids from Hawkins, it didn’t matter that some of Stranger Things Vol. 4’s twists were a tad predictable or how splitting the season up into two batches of episodes made it feel unnecessarily drawn out.
Those things didn’t keep Stranger Things from getting people hooked this year and sowing seeds of curiosity about what the Duffer Brothers have to offer up next. But between the series feeling like it could have ended organically in season four, there still being a season five, and Netflix announcing a spinoff series, this also felt like it might be the last time Stranger Things could still be fun to watch.
What Stranger Things couldn’t deliver this time around was the intangible sense of exciting promise that comes with wholly new stories like the ones being told in FX’s The Bear and Apple TV Plus’ Severance — two distinct takes on what it means to live in a constant state of deep-seated anxiety about one’s job. In our obsessions, with one show about a high-strung chef trying not to drown in his family beef and another about employees fighting to make themselves whole after their Amazon-like employer splits their minds in two, you could see how ready we all were to have our own work-related stresses fictionalized into narratives with structure and meaning behind them.
Those shows tapped into the reality that “quiet quitting” was never just about people deciding to leave their jobs to stick it to their bosses. Rather, it was typically about workers reassessing how they valued their labor in relation to their emotional well-being and making informed decisions about the best way to take care of their needs.
It was Andor’s exploration of these kinds of ideas that helped the Star Wars series land with such an impact and immediately establish itself as one of the franchise’s most riveting stories. Because Disney has ensured that there will always be more Star Wars around the corner, many were quick to dismiss Andor as noise that overly forgiving nerds were willing to round up to signal. At times, Andor did fall into the unmistakable rhythms of a Star Wars story revolving around a seemingly ordinary man who can’t fathom how important a figure he’s destined to become. But Andor worked hard to earn its sparingly few moments of unabashed Star Wars wonderment by always making sure to prioritize its focus on what truly animates and inspires people to join rebellious uprisings or commit to the causes of fascistic overlords.
Admittedly, there was little about Andor that felt entirely disconnected from Rogue One, an excellent spinoff that belongs higher on more people’s rankings of Star Wars stories. But after relatively uninspiring seasons of The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett, Andor was a reminder of how satisfying narratives set in that world can really be when they’re firing on all cylinders.
For very different reasons, the same thing could be said about X, A24’s hypersexual slasher pic from Ti West about a group of unsuspecting pornographers who find themselves being hunted down and murdered on a farm where they’re just trying to produce their own X-rated film. X was the farthest thing from a drama thoroughly unpacking the lives of its characters. Through sex, violence, and copious amounts of fake blood, though, it spun a dizzying classic of a horror tale that was pleasantly sharp in its depiction of the elderly harboring an intricate set of messed-up feelings about young people and vice versa.
X’s unabashed eroticism played like a bold reminder that horror’s always been a versatile genre capable of simultaneously speaking to people’s desires and playing on their darkest, most gruesome fears. Olivia Wilde’s Don’t Worry Darling attempted to do something to the same effect by building much of its two-dimensional story around a number of passionate sex scenes between Florence Pugh’s frazzled housewife on the edge and Harry Styles’ unconvincing businessman husband. But no amount of sex-positive, ominous foreshadowing was going to be enough to make of up for the fact that Don’t Worry Darling didn’t have much of a solid, compelling narrative core — which might have been part of how the film ended up being upstaged by real-world drama.
The situation with Don’t Worry Darling’s cast became a kind of minor spectacle that grabbed people’s attention with its messiness — the kind that makes you remember that celebrities are just people who may or may not be beefing at any given point in time. The movie hitting HBO Max so quickly at a time when the platform’s come to symbolize all of the tumult and disarray over at Warner Bros. Discovery felt like a particularly unfortunate, if telling, twist of fate for a project that seemed so promising when it was first announced. But when we look back on 2022’s features that were intentionally gunning for spectacularity, it’s far more likely that people are going to remember how Jordan Peele’s Nope momentarily took over the world instead of which movies hit HBO Max when.
Though people who haven’t yet seen Nope can obviously still experience it for themselves, there was something very special about the journey Peele and Nope’s cast took the public on as we were first introduced to Keke Palmer and Daniel Kaluuya as the Haywood siblings pondering what you might call a bad miracle. Following along with Nope’s cryptic ads and teases in the buildup to the movie’s release was an experience unto itself that made finally sitting down in a theater to see what the hell was going on that much more gratifying. And as time went on, Nope proved itself to be the sort of film that becomes richer the more time you spend thinking about it and discussing it with others, moved by its story about giving everything to snap the perfect shot of something unbelievable.
Technically speaking, co-directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah’s long-awaited Batgirl feature starring Leslie Grace as Barbara Gordon is out there sitting mostly finished but still incomplete following Warner Bros. Discovery’s decision to pull the project at the last minute as part of its restructuring plan. And as it stands now, it’s looking like the project’s never going to see the light of day as part of WBD CEO David Zaslav’s plan to get the company back on track financially by going all-in on Max, its forthcoming successor to both HBO Max and Discovery Plus.
Audiences never got a proper chance to meet this new, live-action Batgirl and see her go toe-to-toe with Brendan Fraser as the Firefly alongside Michael Keaton as Batman. But her conspicuous absence from the DC movie scene has come to symbolize just how willing Warner Bros. Discovery is to light things on fire in the name of “progress” that’s hard to understand from the outside because its impacts seem so destructive.
While leadership at WBD has insisted there are bigger and better things planned for the company’s newly formed DC Studios outfit, it’s been impossible not to see the production company as having casually willed one of its most eagerly anticipated projects out of existence just to recoup some cash. The move was a shocking slap in the face when it was first announced back in August, and it hasn’t really settled well since. What’s become wonderfully clear on the flip side of things, though, is that while big studios still hold most of the cards in Hollywood, film lovers themselves also have a kind of power in this space that’s capable of willing things into existence like Scorsese’s Goncharov — a fictional movie no one has ever seen but many have participated in the creation of.
Apocryphal and immaterial though Goncharov may be, the Tumblr-borne meme’s become a testament to the strange and beautiful way that films and the artists who make them can inspire people to dream up new realities that others can’t help but want to participate. More so than almost any other real (which is to say, you know, “extant”) movie that took off this year, Goncharov’s prominence in 2022 felt like a reminder of how films can move and connect us all to one another when we really commit to appreciating them as works of art. Out of all the possible energies to bring into the new year, that feels like the one we should all be focused on as we look forward to 2023 — not just for the kumbaya film lover vibes but in the hope that we’re all able to find pieces of art that make us want to learn more, share, and build community with each other.