From Pearl to Babylon to Blonde to NOPE, Hollywood has never been as captivated with itself as it was in 2022. When COVID stopped movie production and closed theaters in 2020, some of Hollywood’s greatest creatives took stock and looked inward — and this year, the results of their introspection spilled onto screens.
Not every movie on this list was born of pandemic lockdowns — Blonde, for example, has been in the works for years. But other films, like X and Pearl, Ti West’s 2022 double-shot of period-film horror, are a direct result of COVID. He shot them both in New Zealand, one of the only places on earth that avoided the virus. Even in relative isolation, West shared the same fears as everyone else about when movies would come back, and Pearl is set during the global pandemic of 1918.
Of course things look brighter now than they did two years ago. With the massive success of Top Gun: Maverick, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, and Avatar: The Way of Water, it looks like movies are back. And the success of those films indicates that they don’t need to be movies about movies to succeed. But here are a few films that went all-in on the history of movies.
Horror master Ti West kicked things off in March with X, a slasher film set in the 1970s that deconstructs audience expectations. Mia Goth stars as two different women, one very old and one very young, in the first of two 2022 West movies about movies. X not only combines two of Hollywood’s favorite subjects — sex and violence — but also looks at whether auteur filmmaking truly exists, and explores the power dynamic between directors, producers and on-screen talent.
The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent
Nicolas Cage kept the trend going in Tom Gormican’s April release about an actor named Nicolas Cage (played by Nicholas Cage) hired to go to a rich guy’s island. He uses his superpower – acting – to take on a deadly crime ring and try to repair his family. It’s worth the price of admission just to watch Nicholas Cage yell his own name. “I must have turned it down two or three times,” Cage told MovieMaker for our cover story in March. “I didn’t want to play myself in a movie, I wanted them to look for someone else to portray me. But Tom was very hell-bent on making sure I played the part, and he wrote me a very thoughtful letter.” The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, like the next film on our list, is one of the few films here set in the present day.
This July film from Get Out mastermind Jordan Peele is all about spectacle, and how to escape it. The plot focuses on two sibling owners of a Hollywood horse ranch (Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer) who become obsessed with capturing an unidentified flying object on film. There are graphically unsubtle allusions to the dangers of fame. One of the New York Times‘ lead critics, Manohla Dargis, considers NOPE the third-best film of 2022; the Times‘ other lead critic, A.O. Scott, considers it the flat-out best.
Ti West continued his exploration of film history with this X prequel, released in September, that pays homage to old Technicolor classics — and adds a lot of stuff the Hays Code wouldn’t have allowed. The scenes of war, pandemic, and even masked audiences draw obvious parallels to the present day. His next film, the X sequel MaXXXine, borrows from the VHS aesthetics of the ’80s. Fun fact: Pearl is set just a few years before Babylon, which appears later in this list. Maybe they’d be a good, crazy double feature.
The latest from director Andrew Dominik arrived on Netflix September 28, and immediately proved to be one of the most divisive films of the year. Despite debate over the film, Ana de Armas has earned rapturous reviews for playing the actress as a woman who became a spectacle, swept into a machine she couldn’t control. And in our fall cover story, Dominik said he expected people to be upset by the film, telling us, “the correct response to the movie is to shake like an orphaned rhesus monkey in the snow.”
Steven Spielberg’s latest has been widely heralded as an Oscar contender for Best Picture, despite fairly disappointing box office. (As of now it has earned less than $12 million worldwide.) The Fabelmans is about a family in which the mother (Michelle Williams) embraces art and encourages her son to keep making his Super 8 movies, while the dad (Paul Dano) dismisses them as a “hobby.” The parents are, of course, based on Steven Spielberg’s. Paul Dano told MovieMaker that Spielberg’s sisters even called him “dad” on the Fabelmans set.
Empire of Light
This December 9 release from the 1917 director treats the cinema as a place of sanctuary in a 1980s resort town by the sea, where the tranquility is shattered by racial hatred. It has also been a box office disappointment, earning less than $1 million globally as of this writing.
This 1920s reunion of Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie — who also starred in 2019’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood —is a big, wild, frenzied portrait of Hollywood in the anything-goes Jazz Age. It’s so-so global take of less than $7 million — along with the disappointments of some of the other films on this list — may mean an end to all the movies about movies. At least for a while.
Main image: (L-R): Mia Goth in Pearl, Margot Robbie in Babylon, Keke Palmer in NOPE and Ana de Armas in Blonde.