So far, 2022 has been a bounce-back year for Hollywood. Box-office receipts are trending toward pre-pandemic totals, and movies such as Top Gun: Maverick and Elvis have actually succeeded in luring older viewers—the last COVID-era holdouts—back to theaters. Coverage of this resurgence has mostly focused on the biggest-budget features—superhero movies and sequels. But small-budget indies, niche art-house fare, and exceptional international offerings have all been thriving lately. (A strong Sundance Film Festival this past January positioned several under-the-radar movies to get proper funding.) They can be harder to find because of how diffuse release strategies have become; some films play in art cinemas around the country before becoming available to rent on demand, others debut simultaneously in theaters and online, and still others are available exclusively to bespoke streaming platforms such as Shudder, AMC+, and MUBI. These 10 indies from 2022 could well feature on my favorite-films list of the year.
Resurrection (in theaters, streaming on Shudder and AMC+ August 5)
A breakout at this year’s Sundance, Resurrection is a psychological-horror movie powered by a transfixing performance from Rebecca Hall. For a good chunk of time, the plot is joyfully inscrutable, following the nervy biotech executive Margaret (Hall) as she wrestles with the reemergence of a mysterious figure from her past named David (Tim Roth). Is he a buried family secret? A jilted former lover? A figment of her imagination? The writer and director Andrew Semans keeps the answers close to the chest, until a stunning eight-minute monologue by Margaret explains everything and kicks the rest of the film into overdrive. Resurrection is effective as a slow-burn thriller, but it enters must-see territory thanks to its final act.
Flux Gourmet (in theaters, available to stream on multiple platforms)
The director Peter Strickland excels at depicting the unusual inner workings of subcultures within subcultures. His past films include Berberian Sound Studio, which followed a repressed sound designer working on an Italian horror film, and The Duke of Burgundy, which essayed the sado-masochistic relationship between two lepidopterists. Both films are surprisingly gentle, as is Flux Gourmet, a wry satire of pretentious artists. It’s set at a residency for “sonic caterers,” i.e., people who cook in order to record and broadcast strange noises. Strickland gets big laughs by having every character take their work very seriously, and Gwendoline Christie gives a splendid performance as the residency’s imperious overseer.
Both Sides of the Blade (in theaters)
Even by Claire Denis’s standards, her latest effort is abrasive stuff: a portrait of a marriage in quiet crisis that delivers demanding performances from its leads, Juliette Binoche and Vincent Lindon. They play Sara and Jean, a couple who came together later in life and are now wrestling with ghosts from the past. Jean, struggling to find work because of his prison record, ends up employed by Sara’s ex-boyfriend—an arrangement that begins to sow discord in Sara and Jean’s marriage. Denis co-wrote the film with the French novelist Christine Angot. Their prior collaboration was the acidic romantic comedy Let the Sunshine In, but this is heavier material. Binoche plays Sara as almost unaware of her own wavering feelings for Jean; she’s lying both to the audience and herself, and her slow disintegration is spellbinding.
Paris, 13th District (available to stream on multiple platforms)
Jacques Audiard’s soapy comedy is another portrait of Parisian romance, but it’s a little bubblier than Denis’s film, jumping between four characters who live around the Olympiades tower complex in the south of the city. It’s a delightful swerve for Audiard after his beguiling 2018 Western, The Sisters Brothers, failed to connect with general audiences, and it’s a contrast to the dark crime dramas such as The Beat That My Heart Skipped and A Prophet that helped put him on the map. Paris, 13th District sees the 70-year-old Audiard grappling with the messy lives of Millennials. His protagonists cheerfully pursue casual sex, drug use, and online relationships while fretting over being able to afford a place to live. The result is sloppy but funny, and includes a charming debut performance by Lucie Zhang as a mixed-up call-center employee.
Sharp Stick (in theaters)
The first Lena Dunham–directed feature film in 12 years deserves another mention since our previous indie–films roundup, now that general audiences can go see it. Sharp Stick is an erotic comedy that makes some effort to shock but is actually far more successful at provoking the same kinds of uncomfortable laughs that have become Dunham’s trademark. The film follows a 26-year-old virgin named Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth), a caregiver to children with special needs, who embarks on an ill-advised affair with the father (Jon Bernthal) of a boy she’s looking after. What begins as a spiky exploration of their illicit relationship explodes into something even more sensational, as Sarah Jo’s appetites leap into overdrive and she starts searching for more extreme experiences. Dunham has always been fascinated by pushing the boundaries of bougie sexual mores. Sharp Stick memorably pokes at the viewers’ comfort levels by dialing Sarah Jo’s desires to surreal heights.
Murina (in theaters)
Perhaps the most taut and gripping thriller you can see in theaters this year is the Croatian film Murina, an electrifying debut from Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović that won the prize for best first feature at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. Murina is a slow burn at first, set in a picturesque island in the Adriatic where teenager Julija (Gracija Filipović) spearfishes for eels with her grizzled father, Ante (Leon Lučev). Julija is a formidable sight hunting among the reefs, weapon in hand, but much of Kusijanović’s film focuses on her yearning to escape both her idyllic trappings and her controlling father’s influence. A chance comes in the form of the businessman Javier (Cliff Curtis), who’s considering buying her dad’s modest estate. Julija inserts herself in the middle of their relationship, and a peculiar, sexually tinged power struggle develops. Murina has a terrific keep-you-guessing plot, and Filipović’s performance firmly establishes her as a talent to watch.
Mad God (limited theatrical release, streaming on Shudder)
Phil Tippett is a master of visual effects and stop-motion animation who’s worked on some of the most memorable genre films of all time, including the original Star Wars films, Robocop, and Jurassic Park. Since 1990, he’s also been developing an independent horror feature called Mad God, created in fits and starts over the years as he raised money on Kickstarter and filmed sequences in between Hollywood gigs. Mad God is an absorbingly gross piece of apocalyptic storytelling. A masked figure plunges into a world of faceless drones and babbling monsters, each one a beautifully freakish creation sprung right from Tippett’s imagination. There is a plot of sorts and plenty of grisly stop-motion violence, but Mad God is most impressive as a work of sheer atmosphere, a visual experience that is actually unlike any other.
Neptune Frost (available to stream on multiple platforms)
A collaboration between the American poet and musician Saul Williams and the Rwandan actress and playwright Anisia Uzeyman, Neptune Frost is difficult to define. The Afro-futurist musical, set in a hacker village made of computer parts, follows a miner who flees his life of digging up coltan after his brother’s tragic death. The film is a critique of the capitalist ravages visited on Burundi and its neighbors by a technology-obsessed society. It’s also a soaring, poetic vision of a transformative future, filled with abstract scenes of singing and partying. Yes, Neptune Frost’s narrative is tough to boil down, but that’s part of its ineffable magic.
Hit the Road (available to stream on multiple platforms)
Panah Panahi’s first film initially presents as a gentle comedy, tracking a sweet but bickering Iranian family of four on a road trip across the country’s rugged terrain. They fight over food, grumble about the dog they’re lugging in the car with them, and follow domestic patterns that almost any viewer would find familiar. But the taciturn elder son, Farid, who’s driving, seems haunted by something, and slowly, across a remote landscape, Panahi peels back this journey’s melancholy background. Farid has to leave Iran, and though the exact reason is not clear, it means that their trip is not without peril. Panahi is the son of the imprisoned filmmaker Jafar Panahi, one of Iran’s greatest living artists. He has his father’s subtle touch for interpersonal dynamics and for light tales that build to surprising hidden depths.
Benediction (available to stream on multiple platforms)
The English writer and director Terence Davies’s previous film was A Quiet Passion, a stirring biopic of the poet Emily Dickinson that strove to deconstruct her caricaturization as a batty recluse. Benediction is another biography of a famed poet: Siegfried Sassoon (played by Jack Lowden and, as an older man, Peter Capaldi), whose descriptions of trench warfare in World War I helped pierce Britain’s jingoistic fervor. Davies is a remarkably empathetic filmmaker, attuned to his characters’ subtlest moods and intent on equally depicting their joys, hardships, and mundane middle grounds. He’s helped by Sassoon’s own words, which are layered in via voice-overs, and a tremendous performance from Lowden.