2022’s Most Thrillingly Directed Movies

While movies are meant to be seen on the big screen, most do little to take full advantage of their enormous canvases. The reasons for that are numerous. There’s the growing popularity of straightforward, function-over-form television series. There’s the rise of streaming services, where so many films find a prolonged post-multiplex home. Plus, studios have an infatuation with interconnected franchises (be it Marvel, DC or Star Wars) whose installments must visually, narratively and tonally fit together, thereby stymying uniqueness.

Couple those factors with a simple dearth of theatrical releases—which are presently down approximately one-third from pre-pandemic times—and the mainstream cinematic landscape feels blander and safer than ever.

There are, however, exceptions to this dispiriting trend, and they now stand out like shining beacons—if not the last bastions—of bold, stylish inventiveness.

To be sure, not every film that went wild this year was a winner; Babylon’s grotesque indulgence, RRR’s grating cartoonishness, and Avatar: The Way of Water’s corny excessiveness proved that sometimes too much is, well, too much. Yet from enormous action spectaculars and razzle-dazzle biopics to historical epics and politically charged imports, the medium still delivered on its larger-than-life promise, confirming the continuing value of virtuosic showmanship.

They may not have all been the best of the best, but in some ways, they were the most important, because they kept the flame alive for filmmaking on a genuinely grand and out-there scale. No matter where they’re ultimately seen, they’re the bravura standouts of 2022—the types of daring, go-for-broke efforts that drive people to the edge of their seat and take their breath away.


There was no single shot more jaw-droppingly impressive than the opening salvo of Athena, which spends minutes on end navigating explosive civil unrest in police stations, on the streets, and around the housing projects that will become its story’s primary setting. It’s a feat of blistering technical precision and momentum, and Romain Gavras’ French film fortunately doesn’t let up after that introductory assault, exhibiting an incendiary flair that keeps the action humming right up until its Greek-tragedy finale.


Insanity, thy name is Carter, the latest from The Villainess director Jung Byung-gil, who re-establishes himself as an unrivaled gonzo madman with a camera. There’s a plot buried somewhere in this lunacy—about an amnesiac badass trying to save a girl who holds the key to stopping a viral plague—but the selling point is its balls-to-the-wall style, which (to quote my own review) “is so off the charts that it deserves a special-achievement Academy Award, if not a Nobel Prize for historic, medium-altering innovation.”

Top Gun: Maverick

Preternaturally youthful daredevil Tom Cruise is a special effect unto himself these days, and Top Gun: Maverick takes full advantage of his perpetually boyish charm while simultaneously supplying the majestic aesthetic goods. Channeling predecessor Tony Scott even as he puts his own distinctive stamp on the material, director Joseph Kosinski coats his blockbuster follow-up in a sweaty, shimmering sheen that highlights the marquee-grade attractiveness of his cast and turns his aerial centerpieces into sleek, scintillating blasts.


No one overdoes it quite like Baz Luhrmann, and that’s to the immense benefit of Elvis, his bombastic biopic of the King of Rock and Roll. Turning Elvis Presley’s life story into a kaleidoscopic funhouse of glitter, glamor, and groovy remixed music—not to mention more whiplash camerawork and editing than is found in most annual releases—Luhrmann’s latest is a ceaseless eruption of fireworks. Ultimately, that tack turns out to be the ideal vehicle for a celebration of a true 20th-century icon.

Flux Gourmet

Peter Strickland doesn’t play by mainstream-cinema rules, and the British iconoclast’s Flux Gourmet is proof positive of that fact. A wild art-world satire about sonic collectives that aim to discover new sounds through experimentation with food, it’s a bonkers affair whose every new scene carries with it the potential for surprise. Strickland’s brash, stylized direction harmonizes perfectly with his wacko soundscape and his cast’s amusingly off-kilter performances (including by Gwendoline Christie). It’s a freaky feast for the senses.


In terms of pure, unadulterated blockbuster mayhem, Michael Bay has no equals, and Ambulance finds him at the top of his game. Per his trademark, every surface boasts a car-commercial shine, every fireball is explosively gorgeous, and every shootout and car chase is an exercise in adrenalized extravagance. Restraint is nowhere to be found here, as the director seizes every opportunity to juice his material with great, heaping blasts of testosterone. This is dudebro cinema in its uncut (or, rather, cut-to-crazy-ribbons) form.


Andrew Dominik seeks truth through florid artifice in Blonde, viewing Marilyn Monroe’s life through a wildly expressionistic, subjective lens. Flip-flopping between aspect ratios, perspectives, and black-and-white and color, the writer/director balances piercing fidelity (recreating iconic images of the actress) with baroque imaginativeness. Rife with reflective motifs, recurring symbols, and beguiling shifts in focus—and led by Ana de Armas’ commandingly ornate lead turn—Dominick transforms his Netflix drama into a beautifully overwrought nightmare of misogynistic torment.

The Northman

The Northman has a scope far greater than that of Robert Eggers’ previous The Witch and The Lighthouse, and yet it retains his idiosyncratically dark, malevolent energy. A Viking saga of bloodshed, magic, and revenge that rages and rampages with ferocious glee (thanks in part to star Alexander Skarsgård), the film is an action epic energized by Eggers’ peerless aptitude for ancient evil atmosphere and unearthly vistas of men and monsters. It’s a thrilling genre work of imposing auteurist artistry.


Gaspar Noé is synonymous with extremeness, and Vortex doesn’t alter that reputation, even if it sends him down a new creative path. For his story about an elderly couple (Dario Argento and Françoise Lebrun) struggling with dementia and, with it, the looming specter of death, Noé adopts a constant split-screen approach, his bifurcated frame accentuating his characters’ disconnection. Playing with division in all sorts of telling and unexpected ways, the filmmaker fashions his drama as a morose vision of perpetual (and eternal) separation.

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