As we approach 2022’s halfway point it’s time to take a temperature of the finest cinematic thus far: we’ve rounded up our favorites from the first six months of the year, many of which have flown under the radar. Kindly note that this is based solely on U.S. theatrical and digital releases from 2022.

We should also note a number of films that premiered on the festival circuit last year also had an awards-qualifying run, thus making them 2021 films by our standards—including Memoria, Petite Maman, The Worst Person in the World, A Hero, and Cyrano. Check out our picks below, as organized alphabetically, followed by honorable mentions.

After Yang (kogonada)

Many artists strive to find meaning in their work, but for kogonada it’s the pursuit that provides the meaning. In a way, if he were to “find it” that wouldn’t be nearly as special as the everlasting exploration and attempt to achieve that enlightenment. His sophomore feature, After Yang, asks some of the biggest questions about life in the gentlest of ways. In a world where robotic children are purchased as live-in babysitters, the malfunctioning of Yang (Justin H. Min) leads his father figure Jake (Colin Farrell) on a quest for a solution. Obsessing over this need to make his family feel whole again, alongside his wife Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) and their daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja), Jake is able to glimpse snippets of Yang’s recorded memories, where he finds that his android son had a whole life he never knew a thing about. – Mitchell B. (full interview)

Where to Watch: Showtime, VOD, Disc

Ambulance (Michael Bay)

The Marvel machine may be the most fortuitous development for Michael Bay. Though the director hasn’t dabbled in the world of superheroes—despite a fondness for a cinematic universe of the robot variety—the homogenized, green-screen wasteland of today’s box-office behemoths has indirectly led to a reappreciation of the director’s schoolboy giddiness for practical effects and continually upping the ante for where he can place a camera. As bombastic and occasionally mind-numbing as his approach may be, there’s distinct poetry to the momentum of a maximalist vision where previs filmmaking vis-a-vis a committee is not only missing from his vocabulary, but a kinetic approach makes such a proposition nigh impossible. With Ambulance, a streamlined spectacle that borrows liberally from HeatSpeed, and John Q, Bay seems to be at his most comfortable and invigorated in years, milking the ridiculously heightened premise for all its worth while maintaining grounded stakes despite a few bumps along the road. – Jordan R. (full review)

Where to Watch: Peacock, VOD, Disc

Anaïs in Love (Charline Bourgeois-Tacquet)

The seasons have changed––spring is here, summer is on the way, and no film out right now better exudes the aura of love in the sunshine than Charline Bourgeois-Tacquet’s Anaïs in Love. Broke, behind on her rent, and considering breaking up with her boyfriend, thirtysomething Anaïs (Anaïs Demoustier) doesn’t quite know what she wants from life. Struggling to complete her thesis, she wanders aimlessly through the film’s first act––a free spirit with no sense of direction but capable of turning heads and drawing the attention of others wherever she goes. She’s like a manic pixie dream girl without the reductive qualities of the trope. Bourgeois-Tacquet creates in her lead an instantly recognizable portrait of a young woman right at that nexus point where not having your shit figured out is starting to look a little bit uncool. – Mitchell B. (full review)

Where to Watch: VOD

Apollo 10 ½ A Space Age Childhood (Richard Linklater)

A delightful meditation on childhood in the summer of 1969 set literally in the shadows of NASA’s central operations in Houston, Richard Linklater’s contemplative and vividly animated Apollo 10 ½ A Space Age Childhood reflects on the filmmaker’s own experiences. It captures the joy and wonder of childhood through the eyes of Stan (voiced by Milo Coy as a child and, as an adult, a restrained and wise Jack Black), a ten-year-old who fantasizes about being recruited for “space camp” by NASA. His father (Bill Wise), a frugal but caring man, has uprooted his family from the city to a newly built suburban development in the shadow of the Astrodome and Astroworld amusement parks. Black’s adult narrator fills in the blanks for us with whimsical, nostalgic details that highlight just how dangerous childhood can be between abusive coaches, parents that thought nothing of allowing the kids to ride in the back of a pick-up truck at 70 miles an hour, and playing with explosives. – John F. (full review)

Where to Watch: Netflix

Benediction (Terence Davies)

Time is everything in a Terence Davies film. In Benediction, his biopic about English poet Siegfried Sassoon (Jack Lowden), he eventually covers his subject’s marriage to Hester Gatty (Kate Phillips). There’s a shot of the couple standing still, facing the camera as they pose for a wedding photo (a shot that tends to pop up throughout the director’s filmography). The camera flashes, we see the black-and-white photo, and then a fade transitions us to the future, where it rests on their bedside while Hester looks at their newborn child. The sequence is an encapsulation of what Davies does best: observing life with one’s head facing backwards, the cumulative weight of the past bearing down on every moment of the present. – C.J. P. (full review)

Where to Watch: Theaters

Crimes of the Future (David Cronenberg)

In Crimes of the Future, an underground movement of performance artists try understanding a world in which humans grow new organs on a regular basis and pain, for some reason, has vanished. The director, of course, is David Cronenberg, back with his first film in eight years and just the second original screenplay he has developed since 1999’s eXistenZ. Since its announcement last year Crimes has been marketed as Cronenberg’s long-awaited return to body horror, a lubricious realm that he hasn’t fully embraced since… 1999’s Existenz. Miraculously, it delivers on that promise: a film of erotic surgery and designer organs; in which a live autopsy is performed on a young boy for a crowd of trendy onlookers; and in which the recently regal Kristen Stewart gives a performance so tweaked it might actually be the embodiment of edging. – Rory O. (full review)

Where to Watch: Theaters

Deception (Arnaud Desplechin)

One of the most curious developments the last handful of years is a general dismissal of Arnaud Desplechin here in the United States. His Cannes opener Ismael’s Ghosts came and went without much fanfare; his follow-up, the entertaining procedural Oh Mercy!, didn’t even get distribution. His riveting Philip Roth adaptation Deception, starring Léa Seydoux and Denis Polydalès, marks the best cinematic translation of the author’s work. After premiering at last year’s Cannes it finally saw the light of day courtesy a MUBI release. Nick Newman recently caught up with Desplechin to discuss this latest project, and you can read the full interview here.

Where to Watch: MUBI

Fabian: Going to the Dogs (Dominik Graf)

In the first hour of Dominik Graf’s Fabian: Going to the Dogs, we see the title character running around 1920s Berlin, bumping into eccentric characters at bars and nightclubs while the camera moves and cuts at a whirlwind pace. It’s a time of indulgence and recklessness for Fabian and other young people in Germany, and then he finds himself standing face to face with a young woman in the back of a club. The camera cuts to a rapid-fire montage of both characters together and in love, scenes from later in the film we haven’t gotten to yet. Up to this point, Fabian was living in the present; without warning he begins to see a future, and we get to see it too. – C.J. P. (full feature)

Where to Watch: MUBI, Kino Now, Disc

Friends and Strangers (James Vaughan)

Nothing happens in James Vaughan’s Friends and Strangers in the same way that nothing happens in the films of Hong Sangsoo. The people navigating this entrancing debut feature (a lively pantheon of Australian twenty-somethings plus the occasional grownup proper) meet and talk; couples come together and drift apart; plans are shared and swiftly abandoned. But even a non-event can have its own sense of happening, and even a maze of chance encounters can reveal its own intelligent design. Populated by young adults fumbling after a coherent identity, Friends and Strangers behaves like them. It is a film of detours, digressions, and everyday surrealism––onethatdraws its unsettling allure from the angst that comes when you realize the path you’ve walked along isn’t paved anymore, and the future you’re venturing into will be entirely your own making. – Leonardo G. (full review)

Where to Watch: MUBI, Projectr

The Girl and the Spider (Ramon and Silvan Zürcher)

Ostensibly the story of a Berlin family preparing for its evening dinner as a cat wanders the apartment, The Strange Little Cat was among the most beguiling films of the early-to-mid 2010s and its more mysterious explorations of everyday family life. With the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival entry The Girl and the Spider, director Ramon Zürcher returns, with brother Silvan Zürcher as co-director. (The latter produced The Strange Little Cat.) Spider is equally captivating––a mesmerizing, uniquely ambiguous study of friendship, rivalry, tension, and memory. It is difficult to remember another recent film that does so much with so little in the way of plot and location. – Chris S. (full review)

Where to Watch: Theaters

Great Freedom (Sebastian Meise)

Its decades-spanning story centers on Hans (Franz Rogowski), a gay man who has lived through Nazi persecution only to find himself in a world where homosexuality continues to be deemed not only perverted but a criminal offense. We first meet Hans in 1968 as a middle-aged man. He’s caught by the police for having sex with men in public toilets and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment. He goes through the procedures, checks all his liberties at the prison gate, and picks up his new daily grind without so much as batting an eyelash. Even when standing up for young inmate Leo (Anton von Lucke) and landing in solitary confinement there seems to be no fear, no surprise, no protest. Just when one thinks he’s acting way too calm in such situations, the movie jumps back to 1945 and introduces us to a fresh-faced Hans in jail for the first time. Eventually we’d see another prison stint of Hans in 1957 and realize how many times he’s been through this and what motivated him to do what he does in 1969, following the decriminalization of homosexuality in Germany. – Zhuo-Ning Su (full review)

Where to Watch: MUBI, VOD

Il Buco (Michelangelo Frammartino)

Caves… whence we came from––and for Italian auteur Michelangelo Frammartino’s latest work Il Buco––towards which we return. The fixation with caves and speleology in this film hint at the sometimes-regressive nature of that discipline. In human evolutionary terms, it’s like retracing one’s steps: going back towards the darkness, our primitive homes before homo sapiens could colonize other terrains (for better, or rather, for worse). As a candidate for geographical mapping, is there such an urgent sense of utility? Cave complexes such as the Bifurto Abyss in southern Italy, depicted in this film, are a kind of anti-space, comparable to actual “outer space” in their inaccessibility and inhospitality to today’s humans. – David K. (full review)

Where to Watch: Theaters

Introduction and In Front of Your Face (Hong Sangsoo)

First paragraphs of Hong Sang-soo reviews often dwell on the Korean master’s penchant for self-repetition, soothing readers that narrow expectations will be fulfilled. Let’s take a different course. This new work, Introduction, which charts a variety of fraught social “introductions” across different relationships, caused reflection on my first impressions of a director who’d soon become a reliable favorite, before any expectations could be tweaked or swerved. That film, 2013’s Nobody’s Daughter Haewon, made me think I was observing one of the chintziest, lowest-fidelity trifles imaginable, one hilarious fake-out gag with Jane Birkin notwithstanding. What might an unsuspecting viewer confronted with this film make of its unfriendly visage? – David K. (full review)

Where to Watch: Disc

By evidence, Hong Sangsoo may never make an Oki’s Movie or Hill of Freedom-type work again; our maestro is shooting for bigger emotional game. It’s fascinating to observe how idiosyncratic directors make their way towards the arthouse mainstream. With Hong, arguably, it’s come from two sources: less of a rigid fixation on male vanity, neurosis, and inebriation, coupled with plot summaries you could describe in a brief, eloquent sentence. Oki’s Movie, for instance, approaches a Faulkner-esque writer with its digressive intricacy; The Day He Arrives is like a fractal Groundhog Day. This is well-rehearsed, but there’s something to be said for emotional transparency and an examination of things “as they are,” to paraphrase dialogue from In Front of Your Face’s lead character. Another well-rehearsed question: are we yet again in self-portraiture mode, for someone with a Dorian Gray-like attic full of them? – David K. (full review)

Where to Watch: Theaters

Kimi (Steven Soderbergh)

The double-edged sword of modern technology—the simplification it can offer our lives and its all-consuming pervasiveness—is at the heart of Kimi, Steven Soderbergh’s acutely efficient and effective pandemic-set paranoia thriller, but that is not the only thing on its mind. Powered by an affecting lead performance from Zoë Kravitz, its brisk narrative also contends with no shortage of other topics: debilitating, trauma-induced anxiety; pandemic-spurred loneliness; bureaucratic gaslighting; and, least importantly but most humorously, the annoyance of background distractions on Zoom work meetings. As an impressive melding of grounded, relatable stakes and heightened B-movie jolts, one wonders why it took this long for the director to team with writer David Koepp, whose inclination towards pure entertainment is an ideal match with Soderbergh’s fleet-footed, slick sensibilities. – Jordan R. (full review)

Where to Watch: HBO Max

Jackass Forever (Jeff Tremaine)

Jackass has been in our lives for more than two decades. Since October 2000, when the original show premiered on MTV, Johnny Knoxville and his gaggle of goofballs have appealed to lowest-common-denominator comedic impulses. They’ve slammed their testicles into things and had them slammed into by other things. They’ve gleefully dove into danger and gotten legitimately hurt. They’ve aggravated and disturbed an entire generation of people who got Reagan and Clinton elected. But then, for another generation, they brought laughter and some earnest sense of camaraderie. Since the halcyon days of the show (which Knoxville quickly ended himself after the ire of a boomer nation called for censorship), Jackass has endured in cinematic form. The first film saw surprising box office returns amongst a slew of negative critiques. The reputation of the gang and its stunts only improved while the money continues rolling in. Why is this? – Dan M. (full review)

Where to Watch: VOD, Paramount+

A Night of Knowing Nothing (Payal Kapadia)

A Night of Knowing Nothing, the debut of Indian filmmaker Payal Kapadia and winner of the Oeil d’or for Best Documentary at last year’s Cannes, cannily fuses two forms of knowing, or two ways of absorbing an important moment in one’s life: experiencing and its near-opposite, remembering. Through its slippery cinematic language and elusive point-of-view, Kapadia depicts a moment happening urgently in the film’s present-day strand––a wave of anti-government student protests and their resulting crackdown––and treats it like memory, which we know operates as anything but a direct mental recording device. Jonathan Rosenbaum convincingly argues that a film can’t be both incoherent and political––at its best, A Night of Knowing Nothing offers a challenge to this idea. 

Where to Watch: Theaters

RRR (S. S. Rajamouli)

While a certain Tom Cruise blockbuster later down this list delivered a level of spectacle severely lacking in today’s Hollywood landscape, it still seems like child’s play compared to the jaw-dropping maximalist theatrics of the Telugu blockbuster RRR. The 1920-set tale of a pair of Indian revolutionaries and their fiery bromance achieves a new bar for delivering pure entertainment—from animal wrestling to bridge-leaping rescues to the best dance number in years. Thankfully returning to theaters recently, don’t miss S. S. Rajamouli’s epic if it’s playing near you––or you can settle for the Hindi dub on Netflix.

Where to Watch: Theaters, Netflix

The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs (Pushpendra Singh)

Northwest India’s Jammu and Kashmir region resides at the center of a longstanding geopolitical stalemate involving neighboring Pakistan. While those tensions are referenced in The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs, they are not the film’s focal point. Instead, paranoia and opportunism have become fully ingrained in the forest area’s mountainous bedrock. Of more importance is why these characters either accept or subvert such societal realities, and how they normalize modes of corruption and gender inequality under the guise of tradition or progress. – Glenn H. (full review)

Where to Watch: Projectr

Top Gun: Maverick (Joseph Kosinski)

“He’s the fastest man alive.” Such is the kind of open self-awareness that is tastefully deployed throughout Top Gun: Maverick. Despite being the latest in a line of legacy sequels eager to capitalize on pandering nostalgia, Tom Cruise’s decades-in-waiting return to what made him a superstar only occasionally resorts to such bait. Thankfully, Cruise and director Joseph Kosinski are of a mind to make a film that ultimately exists on its own. Forced to contend with the pall of Reagan-era propaganda over the first Top Gun, this sequel has the gumption to take the original to task, while actively engaging with everything we know about its star. The film’s opening moments mirror that of its predecessor almost exactly. From the opening supers, to the music to the Tony Scott sunscapes, it’s just enough of a signal to let fans know they’re in a relatively safe space. But the fan service flourishes are dispensed up front, leaving plenty of runway to let the whole thing rip. Whether or not one is a fan of the first film, it can’t be overstated how impressive almost every creative decision in Maverick is. The action is practical, the propaganda is muted, and the cocksure hero has decidedly aged. – Conor O. (full review)

Where to Watch: Theaters

Honorable Mentions

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