Rewinding 2022 - The Year in Review (Including Top 10 List)

January 04, 2023
A thought by James Berardinelli

The following is republication of articles originally posted to the ReelViews Patreon site during late December 2022.

2022 was supposed to be the year of the Great Rebound for Hollywood. That’s not what happened. For anyone paying attention, it shouldn’t be a surprise. Viewer preferences were changing back in 2019. Then the pandemic happened and everything was accelerated. Multiplex attendance in 2022 was not impacted by COVID-19. Hardly anyone is making a decision to see a movie based on a fear of becoming sick. But there are other forces at work, chief of which is whether the experience of sitting in a theater is worth the negatives or whether it would be better/cheaper/more convenient to wait 45 days for it to become available on a streaming channel. Until then, there’s no shortage of things to watch. Unsurprisingly, movies with “blockbuster” status tend to be the ones accruing decent amounts at the box office. But there’s even erosion there. The superhero boom, while not going bust, is showing signs of weakness. And, overseas, China has shut its doors to about 80% of Hollywood’s releases (including pretty much everything distributed by Disney), dampening worldwide grosses. Studios are desperately trying to figure out the balance between a theatrical release and a streaming release without seemingly recognizing that the number of people who simply “go to the movies” has shrunk to an infinitesimal number. They’re out there but you have to look hard to find them (they often go during weekday afternoons).

The total domestic box office gross in 2019 was $11.4B, continuing a run of >$10B returns that had lasted since 2009. With many theaters shuttered during 2020 (and those that operated being poorly attended), the industry eked out a $2.1B total. In 2021, theaters mostly returned to life around Memorial Day with the release of A Quiet Place Part II. Something resembling normalcy descended during the fourth quarter and the massive crowds attending Spider-Man: No Way Home cemented the realization that multiplexes were past the pandemic. But, despite the strong October-November-December, the year’s total was an anemic $4.5B. “Wait till next year!” they cried.

2022 has seen a significant increase in ticket sales over 2021 (taken as a whole). Although the year isn’t quite over, it’s possible to extrapolate the final number (grosses for the final ten days will be dominated by Avatar: The Way of Water) and should come in somewhere between $250M and $500M for the period. I’ll use the higher number, which places 2022 at $7.5B. When was the last time the total annual domestic box office was that low? 1999…and that’s not applying any sort of inflation adjustment. If I did that, things would collapse all the way back to the mid-1980s. When there were many fewer theaters and audience tastes were different.

Things aren’t going to change in 2023. This year had plenty of meaningful titles: a new Batman, a new Thor, a new Doctor Strange, a new Black Panther, a Minions sequel, the conclusion to the Jurassic World trilogy, and long-awaited follow-ups to Top Gun and Avatar. There was a lot of major firepower in theaters this year and the best they could do was $7.5B. If anything, there could be a fall-off in 2023 because the roster doesn’t look as imposing. What are the potential “destination” movies? How about: The Ant-Man and the Wasp sequel, Shazam 2, John Wick 4, The Super Mario Brothers Movie, Guardians of the Galaxy 3, Spider-Man: Across the Spiderverse, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts (although this franchise may be dead), The Flash, Indiana Jones 5, Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, Oppenheimer, The Marvels, Kraven the Hunter, Dune Part II, Trolls 3, and Aquaman 2. That’s 16 titles. Even if each of them averaged about $350M (which won’t happen – the actual number will be lower), the biggest contributor to 2023’s total will comprise $5.6B. Could all the smaller titles make up another $2B? Perhaps, but likely not more. Which puts 2023 in the same ballpark as 2022.

What this says is that we have reached “the new normal.” There isn’t going to be a surge beyond what we saw in late 2021. And, to make up the 33% decline in revenue, some things are going to change. Theaters will close. Weekday operating hours may be reduced. And studios will continue to pursue fast turnover to streaming for anything heavily front-loaded. (A drop of 60-70% from the first to second weekend is a clue that the movie will be streaming in 45 days.)

One source of disappointment is that there weren’t more high-quality (low-budget) streaming movies. It seems that the various services (Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple TV+, HBOMax, etc.) have put their money and talent into streaming series. That’s where the online quality is to be found. The made-for-streaming films have varied from okay (Lady Chatterley’s Lover) to mediocre (The Grey Man) to simply awful (Persuasion). Maybe this will change in the future but it’s starting to feel like a lost opportunity (or perhaps I’m the only one who feels that way).

Performances Worth Remembering

This is where I’m supposed to start rhapsodizing about how great Brendan Fraser is in The Whale, but I’m not going to. Fraser did a fine job and gamely allowed himself to go “ugly” for the part but a lot of the physicality of the performance was attributable to a fat suit (which on at least one occasion called to mind Mr. Creosote). Fraser’s contributions were solid but not as overwhelming as some of his proponents have argued. He’s a nice guy and everyone wants to root for him but I can’t give him props for his work in a movie I didn’t think was all that good. So who do I remember?

Bill Nighy (Living): If any role could be considered to be in Nighy’s wheelhouse, this is it. He’s a perfect fit for the part of a dour functionary coping with a terminal cancer diagnosis and trying to make a meaningful contribution to society in his final days. His portrayal is layered, nuanced, and ultimately heartbreaking.

Cate Blanchett (Tar): This is Blanchett’s best performance, beating those for which she was Oscar-nominated. Personally, I think her previous career-topper was Carol, and she’s more compelling here. Even those who didn’t like the movie are almost universal in their praise of her work in it.

Mark Rylance (The Outfit): Rylance is easily forgotten or overlooked because The Outfit wasn’t widely seen when it came out in May. Here’s what I had to say about Rylance in my review and I wouldn’t change a word: “Although the movie is opening far in advance of the 2022 Oscar season, I’m going to try to remember Rylance’s name when it comes time to list the year’s top performances, because this is one worth noting. Normally a character actor, Rylance rarely gets a chance to front a production as he does here. His portrayal of the steady, inscrutable Leonard challenges his work in Bridge of Spies (for which he won the Supporting Actor Oscar) and Wolf Hall (for which he was nominated for an Emmy) as the best he’s done in his career.” It’s neck and neck between Nighy and Rylance for the #1 Male Leading Performance of the year. Fraser is far behind them both, about even with Tom Cruise.

Margot Robbie (Babylon): Robbie is as good as she’s ever been in Babylon, at times singlehandedly keeping the film afloat. Her energy is incredible as is her dedication to what must have been a difficult shoot. For me, she’s not quite on the same level as Blanchett, but she’s close.

Brendan Gleeson (The Banshees of Inisherin): I guess Gleeson is being touted as a “Supporting Actor,” but he’s about equal in importance to Colin Farrell. Whether considered a co-lead or a secondary player, Gleeson is the primary reason why the film is as twisted and weirdly compelling as it is. Farrell may have more screen time but Gleeson has more screen presence and makes the most use of his minutes.

Danielle Deadwyler (Till): The Lead Actress category is packed this year with Blanchett and Robbie percolating to the top along with Deadwyler. It’s tough to choose among the three. Blanchett’s performance is probably the most proficient but Deadwyler’s is the most affecting. Both are at the fore for very good movies and, whichever way the Academy sways when the Oscars are announced, I won’t find fault.

Mia Goth (X, Pearl): To be sure, Goth’s performance in these films isn’t on the same level as the heavy hitters, but she deserves mention if only because of the range and intensity she showed in these two interconnected productions. She played a supporting part in X before transitioning to the lead in the prequel. Of particular note in the latter was an extended close-up in which her eyes did all the acting.

Emma Thompson (Good Luck to You, Leo Grande): Here’s one deserving performance that won’t be mentioned when Oscar nominations are handed out because the movie went direct-to-Hulu in the United States, a distribution path that disqualified it. Playing an ordinary woman with ordinary body image issues and ordinary worries about her sexuality, Thompson is committed and the result is brilliant. As for the nudity, here’s what I wrote in the review: “The decision to bare all was Thompson’s – she could have done the scenes clothed or with more of a peek-a-boo approach – and, although she admits to having been nervous and uncomfortable, it never shows. Calling her performance ‘brave’ feels condescending, but this is an example of an actress showing a willingness to do what she believes is necessary for the role (rather than something contractually mandated).”

Best Cameo: David Lynch (The Fabelmans): How is it possible to look back on 2022’s performances and not mention Lynch. Although he was only on screen for a couple of minutes (playing legendary director John Ford), he left an outsized impression. And if Judi Dench could be recognized for her miniscule role in Shakespeare in Love, why not Lynch in Spielberg’s autobiographical Valentine to movie-making?

List Time

Over the course of 2022 I reviewed 107 movies and saw a few more (none of which were notable enough to make the Top 10). Although the year provided me with my first **** title in five years (Avatar: The Way of Water), there’s a caveat in that the gap is cavernous between the experience of seeing it in the best big-screen venue versus watching it at home. This was also the first-ever year when a *** crept into the bottom of the Top 10. Even in the pandemic-interrupted year of 2020, that didn’t happen. I have never had this few ***1/2 films (eight). The number of *** and **1/2 has swelled, indicating a tendency toward mediocrity and light entertainment rather than taking the risks that could result in greatness or garbage. The Way of Water is something of an outlier that only someone with the clout of James Cameron could achieve.

Let’s get the depressing list out of the way first. Here are the Bottom 10:

98. Scream (**)
Morbius (**)
Persuasion (**)
The King’s Daughter (**)
Gone in the Night (*1/2)
Bones and All (*1/2)
Don’t Worry Darling (*1/2)
Blacklight (*1/2)
Firestarter (*1/2)
Moonfall (Zero)

I don’t have much to say about the worst films of 2020 except that Moonfall was in many ways the mirror opposite of The Way of Water. Just as I don’t give out many ****, I’m even stingier with zero-star ratings. 2022 had one of each. And, while one can always hope for another **** or two in 2023, I’d be just as happy not to see something on the level of Moonfall for a very, very long time.

Here are the Top 10:

1. Avatar: The Way of Water (****)
Living (***1/2)
Tar (***1/2)
You Won’t Be Alone (***1/2)
The Batman (***1/2)
Till (***1/2)
The Banshees of Inisherin (***1/2)
Glass Onion (***1/2)
The Northman (***1/2)
X (***)

In terms of pure narrative-based cinema, I’d put Living at the top so keep that in mind if you’re watching at home. The Ikiru remake loses almost nothing on a smaller screen. But, if you’re going out for a night at the movies, The Way of Water blows everything else out of the water. It’s not even close. This is the first true destination multiplex title since the first Avatar. Yes, there have been other “must see” theatrical releases since then (including, but not limited to, The Force Awakens, Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame, and Spider-Man: No Way Home) but none has established something so completely un-replicable in all but the most high-end home theaters.

I put X in the #10 position because I didn’t want to restrict myself to a Top 9. It’s my favorite of the 43 *** movies I saw this year. I suppose I could have swapped it out for Babylon or RRR. Those two were certainly close but I simply enjoyed X more. Maybe it was the svelte 105-minute running time. (Although my #1 film was also the year’s longest.)

Of the movies in the Top 10, six were released during “Oscar season” (October-December). All but the Top Three are currently available for home viewing. Living and Tar will join them shortly. As for The Way of Water, if you want to see it any time soon, my suggestion is to go to a theater (if you can’t handle 3D for whatever reason, there are some 2D showings available, although not at all locations). Nothing has been finalized about a home video release. It could be as soon as April or May (probably not sooner) but there is a school of thought that it won’t be released until a few months before the theatrical opening of Avatar 3. One proposal under discussion at Disney/20th Century Studios is for the 3D version of The Way of Water to have several large-screen (IMAX, Dolby, RPX, etc.) re-release windows between now and December 2024 with the home video/screening release being keyed to when there’s a palpable attendance drop-off.

And now it’s time to start all over again with the depressing dregs of January and February. (M3gan is up first.) Some things change but the promise of bad movies at the beginning of the year isn’t one of them...