With 2022 winding down, it’s time for my seventh annual list of the ten best films (at least ten years old) that I watched over this past year. The list is somewhat random and arbitrary, based on the movies I happen to choose to watch (or re-watch). The only theme I noticed from this year’s list is that the 1970s truly were a Golden Age of Hollywood filmmaking. Even some of the deeper cuts from that decade are great.
1. Jeremiah Johnson  – Directed by Sydney Pollack
I would say they don’t make movies like this anymore, except they did—at least once with The Revenant in 2015, which was clearly influenced by Jeremiah Johnson. This is a powerful film, so different from most of the CGI-reliant movies made today. You can tell the cast and crew were actually there on location in the remote wilderness of Utah filming this movie—and simply seeing that natural landscape on the big screen was captivating. It makes you realize just how extraordinary the pioneers who ventured out West were, considering the lengths it took to survive mother nature. The film also portrays the tragic violence that took place between humans—the pioneers and the Native Americans. Sometimes I feel the desire to become like Jeremiah Johnson and move out to the remote mountains, build my own cabin, and live a quiet life alone in nature to read and write—but only sometimes.
2. Don’t Look Now  – Directed by Nicolas Roeg
This is a masterpiece of slow-burn horror, dealing with the occult, ESP, and paranormal premonitions. A couple is living in Venice after their daughter drowned in a tragic accident, and they meet a blind woman who claims to be able to see and talk to their dead daughter. The paranormal elements in the film are handled very subtly, as things appear on screen and you’re not exactly sure whether it was supernatural or just a coincidence. The movie was shot on location in the canals of Venice, creating another visually stunning atmosphere.
3. The Parallax View  – Directed by Alan J. Pakula
This is a tense political conspiracy thriller. It works by putting the audience in the shoes of the reporter played by Warren Beatty: you feel paranoid the entire time and don’t quite understand what’s going on as you go deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole of the conspiracy. Bombs go off everywhere he goes as every witness he questions dies. If a political thriller like this was made in Hollywood today, they would tack on a partisan message, but this movie thankfully avoids that. The only discernable political message is that politics is a dirty game with nefarious people on all sides willing to do anything to attain power—or prevent others from attaining power. The conspiracy is about a secret organization that recruits political assassins whom they can use as patsies. The movie was made on the heels of the height of political assassinations in America (JFK, RFK, MLK), each of which inspired countless conspiracies suspecting there was more to the story than a simple lone gunman. FUN FACT: The most shocking part of The Parallax View might be that you used to be able to buy airline tickets with cash while on the plane after take-off.
4. Seven Psychopaths  – Directed by Martin McDonagh
A smart funny meta crime movie about a screenwriter trying to write a movie about seven psychopaths, while dealing with several psychopaths in his real life, including his friend who kidnaps dogs for reward money, and the mob boss intent on finding his lost dog. I originally saw this movie in theaters when it first came out and quite enjoyed it. But I appreciated it on another level after having lived in Los Angeles (where the movie is set) and trying to build a career as a screenwriter myself. (Note: I actually watched this movie last year but had to wait until 2022 for it to be eligible for the 10-year-old list.)
5. Conan the Barbarian  – Directed by John Milius
I had never seen any Conan movies before, having never been a particular fan of sword and sorcery. However, I became interested in seeing this movie for three reasons: 1) It was based on the stories by Robert E. Howard (a friend and correspondence of H.P. Lovecraft), 2) It was written and directed by John Milius (who wrote Jeremiah Johnson), and 3) The Weird Studies podcast did an episode on the film. Hence my interest and expectations were raised, and I was not disappointed. Like Event Horizon from last year’s list, I wouldn’t say Conan is a “great” film—it is not high art—but it is a satisfying and entertaining B-movie. Obviously the star of the film is Arnold Schwarzenegger as Conan. He is not the best actor—between his body and accent, he’s such an abnormal human being that it never feels right seeing him try to play normal humans—but this movie and Terminator were perfect roles for Arnold because he plays a superhuman warrior and a killer machine respectively. What really makes Conan the Barbarian a classic movie is the villain, Thulsa Doom, played by James Earl Jones, the sinister sorcerer and leader of a snake cult. You already know from his role as Darth Vader that Jones has a great voice for a villain, but in this movie he displays the full package—his eyes in particular are deeply menacing. Thulsa Doom is one of the all-time great movie villains, but he rarely gets recognized as such.
6. Night Moves  – Directed by Arthur Penn
A twisty noir from the 70s starring Gene Hackman as a former football player turned private detective in Los Angeles, searching for a missing person (a young female nymphomaniac) which leads him to the Florida Keys. It has a smart script with witty one-liners a la Raymond Chandler. The mystery plot involves movie airplane stuntmen and sunken Mayan treasure, plus lots of things that would get people canceled today.
7. Dead Ringers  – Directed by David Cronenberg
This movie has an incredible acting performance by Jeremy Irons, playing identical twins who often swap identities with each other. It’s a fascinating character(s) study of the twisted codependent relationship between the twin brothers and the downfall of their successful medical careers as gynecologists (based on a true story). The film is expertly directed by David Cronenberg with some signature scenes of body horror. It will also make you never want to try drugs—at least the type of prescription barbiturates they abuse in the film.
8. The Stranger  – Directed by Orson Welles
The Stranger is a classic film noir suspense movie directed by and starring Orson Welles. It is set after World War II, about a former Nazi war criminal hiding in Connecticut and an investigator trying to find him. The best aspect, as with most Welles films, is his direction and cinematography, well ahead of his time. (See my lists from 2020 and 2021 for more on Orson Welles.)
9. Yojimbo  – Directed by Akira Kurosawa
This was my first time seeing this classic Japanese samurai film by Akira Kurosawa. It was inspired by Dashiell Hammett’s hardboiled noir book Red Harvest, and Yojimbo itself was the inspiration for Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Western, A Fistful of Dollars. In Yojimbo, the lead ronin Sanjuro is like Clint Eastwood’s “Man With No Name,” a rogue character who is confident, cool, and competent, with a strong moral code. It’s a good story, well-made, though the action is lacking, as—despite all the swordplay—there is no blood. I am fascinated by the samurai culture of medieval Japan, a time before guns, when it took skill with a sword to attain power, and there was much more chivalry in society. This movie, set in 1860, is about the end of that era, when the introduction of guns (among other technology) changed the world forever.
10a. Blow-Up  – Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni and 10b. Blow Out  – Directed by Brian De Palma
I’m grouping these two movies together as they are similar, the second clearly influenced by the first (and so I can squeeze another movie into the top ten). Blow-Up is about a photographer discovering photographic evidence of a possible murder on his film reel, while Blow Out is about a movie sound engineer discovering audio evidence of a murder on his sound reel. The first was a slow-paced impressionistic arthouse film, featuring psychedelic 60s London (like a non-ironic Austin Powers), with an ending that will irritate anyone looking for closure. Blow Out, on the other hand, was a Hollywood-ized fast-paced thriller starring John Travolta, involving a Parallax View-like political conspiracy, with ticking clocks, and big action set pieces in downtown Philadelphia—though un-Hollywood-like, it had a dark ending. Both movies are great movies for different reasons, but I slightly preferred the more arthouse version by Antonioni—although certain scenes are (as the kids today say) “highly problematic.”
Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):
A Bug’s Life  – Directed by John Lasseter & Andrew Stanton
This is the one original Pixar movie I never saw. It was difficult to find in years past, before Disney+. It’s not a bad movie, but it felt kind of small in scope (no pun intended) and less inventive than other Pixar classics such as Toy Story, The Incredibles, WALL-E, Up, and Finding Nemo.
Berberian Sound Studio  – Directed by Peter Strickland
A surreal horror movie about a British sound engineer going to Italy to work on a horror movie, where his experience in the sound studio begins to blur with the horrors of the film he’s working on.
Helvetica  – Directed by Gary Hustwit
I’ve become a bit of a font geek since I started making book covers and typesetting my own paperbacks. This is a fascinating documentary about the history of one of the most ubiquitous fonts in the world today, Helvetica. I neither love nor hate Helvetica—which is the point of the font and its brilliance. Helvetica does not call attention to itself; the text is primary, not the font. Though personally, I prefer Verdana.
I Am Legend  – Directed by Francis Lawrence
I’ve seen this movie a couple times before, but it had been a while, and this was my first time seeing it after reading the original book/novella by Richard Matheson. This was also my first time watching the movie post-Covid, which adds a new twist of surreality. I Am Legend is an intense experience, with great direction and an amazing acting performance by Will Smith. The special effects are stunning, making Manhattan look like a post-apocalyptic abandoned city that has been decaying for years, with nature taking over (including lions). There were several changes between the book and the movie. I liked how the dog played a larger role in the movie, joining Robert Neville from the beginning—though [Spoiler Alert] the end to the dog’s arc in the movie was more heartbreaking. I rarely say movies/tv shows should be longer, but this is one case where it could have been. I wanted to spend more time with Will Smith and his dog before the big showdown. There also could have been more flashbacks. Maybe not a full miniseries, but it could have been a 2.5-hour movie (it was only 1 hour and 40 minutes). My main issue with the movie is the monster conception and design. The vampire/zombies are too superhuman with absurd strength, speed, and leaping ability that is impossible for their body size—plus too much CGI was used, making them seem fake. Those issues detracted from the verisimilitude of the story. But that first half-hour or so, before we see the monsters, was masterful filmmaking. Finally, the ending (of which there are two) missed the entire point of the novella (though the alt ending hints at it).
Into Eternity: A Film for the Future  – Directed by Michael Madsen
This is a documentary that is equally fascinating and haunting, about the disposal of nuclear waste. It follows a team of German scientists and engineers building a massive underground tunnel system to store the waste in an environment designed to remain hidden, secure, and stable for the next 100,000 years, the length of time the waste remains radioactive. The documentary is artfully made, told from the perspective of future viewers from another civilization thousands of years from now who might come upon that buried nuclear waste. Will they know what it is? I am generally a supporter of nuclear energy, as it will be essential if you are at all serious about climate change and lowering CO2 emissions. Nuclear energy is a lot safer than most people think, but safely disposing of the toxic waste remains the core issue. I was amazed at the engineering feats they display in this movie to solve that problem—but I would sure love to have cold fusion rather than deal with radioactive waste at all, no matter how well-stored it is miles underground.
Knowing  – Directed by Alex Proyas
I saw this sci-fi thriller when it first came out and gave it a 7 out of 10, meaning it was a good but not great movie. I maintain that opinion. It’s nowhere near as good as the director’s earlier sci-fi film, Dark City. Knowing has an intriguing premise: students opening a time capsule with a sheet of paper filled with random numbers that turn out to be predictions for catastrophic events. The ending was especially bold.
The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean  – Directed by John Huston
There were several big names involved with this Western—John Huston, John Milius, and Paul Newman—but the movie was underwhelming, a disjointed mix of slapstick comedy and dark tragedy.
Marebito  Directed by Takashi Shimizu
A very weird Japanese horror movie about a filmmaker exploring underground tunnels full of oddities.
Pale Rider  – Directed by Clint Eastwood
A solid Western but not Eastwood’s best.
Prince of Darkness  – Directed by John Carpenter
This was my first time seeing this John Carpenter classic. Not a great film, but a well-done B-level horror movie. It had an interesting premise with Lovecraftian elements: university students and professors from various fields joining to investigate and translate an ancient religious book, involving satanic cults and opening a portal to…???
The Purple Rose of Cairo  – Directed by Woody Allen
This movie has a great premise of a movie character coming off the screen into real life. Written/directed by Woody Allen, there were funny moments, but the internal logic of the fantasy element didn’t make much sense, and the characters were a bit cliche. More could have been done with the premise.
Stalker  – Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
This was similar to my experience watching Tarkovsky’s other classic science fiction film, Solaris. I can appreciate the artistic genius, but it is extremely slow-paced, making a film that is already nearly three hours long feel like six. I normally like slower-paced films with long takes, but Tarkovsky takes that to the extreme, which, coupled with the Russian subtitles made it tedious to get through at times. But the problem was likely mine, not Tarkovsky’s. Stalker is assuredly the type of film (like 2001: A Space Odyssey) that I need to see multiple times to properly appreciate.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre  – Directed by Tobe Hooper
This is a visceral horror movie, as opposed to the type of cerebral horror I prefer. It’s basically a slasher movie, but among the best and most disturbing of slashers, clearly influential on so many horror movies that came after. I sought to see this movie because the great podcast “Astral Flight Simulation” did an episode about it, though the hosts’ interpretations were far more fascinating than the film itself. They detected layers of symbolism that I’m not sure the filmmakers were consciously aware of—yet that doesn’t mean it is not there.
The Year of the Dog  – Directed by Mike White
After watching and loving The White Lotus (my best TV of 2022 list coming soon) I sought out this movie, also written and directed by Mike White. It is similar in tone to The White Lotus, combining laugh-out-loud comedy with dark dramatic moments and biting social commentary. The Year of the Dog is ultimately the tragic story of the modern female figure known as the “wine aunt.” Peggy (played by Molly Shannon) lives an atomized life working a corporate job she hates, and is incapable of forming any romantic relationships with men, so she fills her time with her pet dogs and finds meaning in progressive political causes, then indoctrinates other people’s children (her niece) at an especially malleable age into her crazy beliefs. In short, she tries to fix everything and everyone in the world except herself.
Young Guns  – Directed by Christopher Cain
A middling Western set in the 1880s but with 1980s hairstyles and music.
The Order  – Directed by Brian Helgeland
I was looking forward to watching this movie because it is one of my favorite genres of “horror noir,” and it starred the late great Heath Ledger as a young priest investigating a murder. I was hoping for something like The Ninth Gate or Angel Heart, but The Order was totally disordered (yes pun intended). There were the bones of a good movie in there somewhere, but the script needed much more fleshing out.
Supernova  – Directed by Walter Hill, Francis Ford Coppola (uncredited), Jack Sholder (uncredited)
I couldn’t believe there was a sci-fi horror movie set in space (one of my favorite sub-genres) made by film legends including Walter Hill, Francis Ford Coppola, and H.R. Giger—and I had never seen or heard of it before? Then I watched the movie and realized why both directors took their names off the final product. Supernova has an intriguing premise, about a space crew discovering a distress signal from another ship, then they take the lone survivor on board and discover an odd and powerful alien artifact. It’s similar to Alien, Terminator 2, The Thing, and Event Horizon—but nowhere near as good as any of those movies. It was apparently ruined by studio interference at every stage of production from scripting to filming to editing. That’s a shame because with the talent involved, Supernova had the potential to be fantastic. [Spoiler Alert] Supernova has a fascinating idea about an alien species that is the ultimate Darwinian replicator. It attempts to create a Big Bang-like event through the explosion of a supernova star so it can spread itself—or it’s DNA, if it has DNA—throughout the galaxy, while also destroying all competing life-forms, such as humans, in the explosion. Alas, that intriguing aspect is spoken through dialogue that takes all of a few seconds of screen time. The rest of the movie is thoroughly dumb, mindless, dull, and cliche. A total waste of talent and money.
P.S.: Many of the movies on this list I saw via Kanopy, the streaming app free with a library card. They have a vast collection of older movies and modern indies. Use JustWatch.com to see if/where each movie on this list is currently streaming.