As 2022 draws to a close, we’re taking a moment to look back at the year in film: the best of what we all saw, and the best of the films that might not have made it on your radar. Follow our coverage here!
Writing a column about minor VOD releases necessitates sifting through a lot of junk, and in the 120-plus movies I reviewed here in 2022, there was plenty of junk. But as fun as it can be to dunk on terrible movies about killer gorillas, it’s more exciting to discover hidden gems, movies that deserve more attention than their budgets or marketing plans have procured. Here’s a compilation of the best movies from the year in VODepths, with a couple of additions alongside previously published reviews.
Teenage Emotions (MUBI): Director Frédéric Da, a high school film teacher, collaborated with his actual students as cast and crew to create this aesthetically rough but thematically rich ensemble drama about, uh, teenage emotions. It’s an engaging and entertaining portrait of the overwhelming angst and insecurity of being a teenager, with actors who look and behave like genuine high schoolers (because they are). The dramatic arcs are loose, and there are a lot of supporting characters to keep track of, but the narrative messiness fits with the messiness of adolescence, and even the seemingly superfluous scenes convey fascinating, heartfelt honesty. Da isn’t working with an average high school (one of the cast members is the daughter of Laura Dern and Ben Harper), but the tone is never pretentious or condescending. Shot entirely on iPhones, it’s a raw, unfiltered reminder to be glad that your teenage years are in the past.
The Book of Delights (VOD, Hoopla, and Kanopy): A schoolteacher experiences lots of sexy ennui in this languid Brazilian drama, adapted from the Clarice Lispector novel. Lori (Simone Spoladore) gazes longingly out her window at the beach, reads existentialist poetry to her seven-year-old students, and picks up various anonymous sexual partners. She’s grieving the death of her mother and searching for meaning in her life, and Spoladore makes that internal quest compelling, without the need for explanatory voiceover. The moody visuals and sometimes impressionistic editing add to that sense of disconnection. Lori has repeated encounters with philosophy professor Ulisses (Javier Drolas), who challenges her to break out of her stupor and make a commitment. He’s occasionally a bit overbearing, but the characters are matched in their penchant for musings about the nature of existence, and in their sexual chemistry. Director and co-writer Marcela Lordy delivers genuine eroticism and genuine personal engagement, making Lori’s journey emotionally satisfying—and totally hot.
The Fall of the Queens (VOD and Tubi): This surreal drama from Argentina starts out as a languid coming-of-age story before taking a darker, somewhat confusing turn in the final act. The narrative may get a little muddled, but the woozy atmosphere is immersive and the performances are strong, making for a striking feature debut from director Lucas Nazareno Turturro. Malena Filmus and Lola Abraldes play a pair of teenage sisters living with their aunt on a remote farm where they spend much of their time beekeeping. The family balance is upset by the arrival of their male cousin (Franco Rizzaro), who fuels a sexual awakening in both young women. The jealousy that plays out between the sisters is understated enough for this to be an engrossing family drama, but there are ominous flashes suggesting something more dangerous to come. What eventually plays out is a bit too inscrutable, only hinting at secrets that are never quite revealed, but the ambiguity keeps the story from becoming predictable.
Hinterland (VOD and Hoopla): Virtual sets are great for sci-fi and fantasy, but what about historical dramas? This Austrian thriller gives a mixed answer to that question, although it works more often than not. The simulated environment allows director Stefan Ruzowitzky to create his own unique version of 1920 Vienna, without having to work around modern obstructions. He takes influence from German expressionism to depict buildings that exist at skewed angles, removed just enough from reality to be subconsciously unsettling. Former military commander Peter Perg (Murathan Muslu) returns to the city after two years in a Russian POW camp, only to face hostility toward World War I veterans. He attempts to resume his job as a police detective, which puts him on the trail of a killer targeting his comrades. The murder mystery is engrossing, and the examination of postwar tension is blunt but powerful. The characters sometimes look like they’re walking through museum exhibits, but most of the movie is gritty and immersive.
Nightride (VOD and Hulu): Its single-take gimmick may be unnecessary, but this Irish thriller gets a jolt of urgency from director Stephen Fingleton’s commitment to never cutting away from main character Budge (Moe Dunford). Budge is your basic small-time criminal looking to go straight after one last job, and Nightride is full of familiar underworld elements, from the excessively sadistic kingpin to the bumbling lackeys. Nearly all of Nightride takes place in Budge’s car as he drives around Belfast, making phone calls to arrange and then salvage his big score. Dunford is the only actor onscreen for the majority of the movie, which is like a cross between the Tom Hardy drama Locke and the Frank Grillo Netflix thriller Wheelman. That’s a big responsibility, and Dunford carries Nightride with a low-key mix of determination and desperation. It’s not hard to predict how things will end up for Budge, but his deceptively simple journey to get there is suspenseful and gripping.
I’m Totally Fine (VOD): Stars Jillian Bell and Natalie Morales are the only actors in this sci-fi dramedy for the majority of its slim running time, and the relationship between their characters is all that director and co-writer Brandon Dermer needs to create a funny and affecting story. Vanessa (Bell) is mourning the sudden loss of her best friend and business partner Jennifer (Morales), spending a few days alone at a fancy vacation rental where they had previously planned to host a party celebrating their professional success. She’s surprised to discover someone who looks exactly like Jennifer but claims to be an extraterrestrial sent to study humanity. Dermer combines goofy odd-couple comedy with a sensitive exploration of grief and regret. Morales is often hilarious as the alien baffled by human anatomy and customs, and she and Bell have strong chemistry that builds to cathartic moments by the end. It’s a short, sweet story about friendship and the total weirdness of eyebrows.
Matriarch (Hulu): Writer-director Ben Steiner’s debut feature draws from multiple horror traditions, combining slow-paced elevated horror about trauma with old-world folklore and gloopy Lovecraftian monstrousness. After surviving a drug overdose thanks to what may be supernatural intervention, self-destructive Londoner Laura (Jemima Rooper) returns to her Wicker Man-adjacent hometown to reunite with her estranged mother Celia (Kate Dickie), who is suspiciously happy to see her. Steiner makes the underpopulated town eerie and unsettling from the moment Laura arrives, and horror favorite Dickie has perfected her unnerving screen presence. Rooper and Dickie create a convincingly toxic mother-daughter relationship, which becomes literally toxic as Laura discovers more of what’s really been going on with Celia over the past two decades. Methodically paced and atmospheric, it erupts into glorious, graphic weirdness in the finale, and Steiner expertly navigates the tonal shifts. He does right by all of his classic influences.
Road to Perth (VOD, Tubi, and other free services): Mopey American Alex (Tommy O’Brien) is on a sort of spiteful vacation to Australia after his girlfriend rejects his marriage proposal and decides not to join him on their planned trip. He’s traveling around aimlessly when he meets the equally mopey Australian Ronnie (Hannah Lehmann), who’s been left on her own to scatter her late father’s ashes. Alex agrees to drive Ronnie cross-country to Perth, stopping at various locations where she can honor her father’s memory. Writer-director Chad Peter is clearly influenced by Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, but Road to Perth is less talky than those films, preferring to portray the growing connection between Alex and Ronnie in quiet, contemplative moments that build emotional resonance. That can make the movie feel a bit wispy and insubstantial, but O’Brien and Lehmann (who are both credited with writing additional material) have sweet, understated chemistry, and their engaging romantic journey doubles as a lovely Australian travelogue.