2022 saw audiences returning to see movies on the big screen in mass, even if the box office is still struggling. While comedy and arthouse films failed to generate fanfare from casual moviegoers, several major franchises returned to the fold and became massive successes. Even bad reviews couldn’t stop Jurassic World Dominion and Thor: Love and Thunder from rising to the top of the box office for weeks. Netflix also got in on blockbuster-sized action films, even if anyone that watched The Adam Project or The Gray Man would be hard-pressed to remember anything about them.
Despite these disappointments, 2022 was a year that showed us that action films of different subgenres could find an audience. Between exciting comic book movies (Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness), ensemble thrillers (Bullet Train), surprisingly terrific animated films (Puss in Boots: The Last Wish), monster flicks (Beast), and romantic action comedies (The Lost City). With several action films in contention for major awards this winter, it’s an exciting time to be an action movie fan.
Here are the top eleven greatest action films of 2022, ranked.
The Woman King
It’s been far too long since we’ve had a great historical epic like Gladiator or Braveheart, and Gina Prince-Bythewood certainly delivered a spectacle that delivered on a visceral level. The Woman King gets away with a surprising amount of carnage for a PG-13 crowd-pleaser, and the award-worthy performance by Viola Davis is enough to make every battle land with an emotional beat. While The Woman King is deliberately paced and races towards an exciting finale, the conversations about societal change, gender roles, imperialism, and slavery make it a particularly timely conversation starter.
It’s accepted that Die Hard is a Christmas movie, so why not get a Die Hard movie starring Santa Claus? David Harbour does his best John McClane impression in this blood-fueled holiday romp about a particularly violent Christmas season. Director Tommy Wirkola’s background in horror makes the carnage particularly vivid, but it’s Harbour’s grumpy sense of humor that makes Violent Night such an enjoyable crowd-pleaser that will surely be a favorite for many viewers every holiday season.
After several attempts to revive the Predator franchise, Dan Trachtenberg took the series hundreds of years into the past and reignited the series with Prey. While Prey is often an action-packed story of a Predator versus the Comanche Naru (Amber Midthunder), Prey is also great when in its quiet moments, as we see the methodical process of the Predator and Naru’s attempts to take down this mammoth enemy. Prey didn’t just make the Predator series interesting again, it might be the best installment so far.
RRR was the first Tollywood film that many American audiences saw, and it’s not a film that you can forget anytime soon. In a year filled with mega-sized running times, all three hours of RRR fly by through the mythologized friendship between two real-life Indian revolutionaries, Alluri Sitarama Raju (Ram Charan) and Komaram Bheem (N. T. Rama Rao) as they find themselves on opposite sides of a political revolution. With elaborate dance numbers, sweeping love scenes, ridiculous animals, and a good deal of humor, RRR is a nonstop blast that will hopefully draw more eyeballs to the Indian film industry.
Many of Michael Bay’s fans may have given up on the dream that he would ever return to his roots in ‘90s action, but Ambulance was so good it might make you forget all those terrible Transformers sequels. Bay combines the relentless plot of Speed with the heightened male friendship of Point Break for a chaotic tour through Los Angeles with Yahya Abdul Mateen II and Jake Gyllenhaal. While you’re never going to get much depth to Bay’s projects, Ambulance showed that the legendary action filmmaker could successfully use technology to his advantage with the film’s constant drone shots and inventive editing techniques. It’s unfortunate that Bay’s best film since The Rock didn’t connect with a larger audience.
All Quiet on The Western Front
The original 1930 All Quiet on The Western Front is one of the most riveting war films of all-time, but this incredible reimagining from the German point-of-view matches, if not succeeds its predecessor. Capturing both the bleakness of the original novel with traumatizing sequences of man’s banality, All Quiet on The Western Front doesn’t idealize the “Great War” in any way. It’s a tough film to sit through, especially with the incredible breakout performance from Felix Kammerer as a young idealist who sees true evil on the battlefield.
Everything Everywhere All At Once
We had a lot of multiverse movies this year, but Everything Everywhere All At Once used its complex body swapping and reality shifting story to explore the messiness of life. It’s a film that is proud of its weirdness, and doesn’t apologize for making even the most absurd moments grounded in an emotional reality. Would you have ever expected a pair of rocks to make you cry? Michelle Yeoh gets her best role in years as a struggling mother trying to balance her business and family, but it’s the heartwarming performance by Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and The Goonies star Ke Huy Quan that is sure to steal your heart.
Do we really need more Batman movies? Matt Reeves proves that we do in this epic crime thriller that has more in common with Chinatown than it does with Aquaman. Reeves presents a Gotham City that’s even grittier than Christopher Nolan’s, but the film does not indulge in its depravity without a point. The Batman explores the cyclical nature of violence and allows Robert Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne to understand the difference between “vengeance” and heroism. The performances by Paul Dano, Colin Farrell, and Zoë Kravitz breathe new life into some of the most iconic figures in Batman’s rogue’s gallery.
Avatar: The Way of Water
It seemed impossible that James Cameron could live up to the expectation of topping the highest-grossing film of all-time, but Avatar: The Way of Water is a richer and more emotional film in every way. The new generation of Sully children are each compelling in their own way, and the underwater footage incorporates some of the most jaw-dropping visual effects sequences in history. It’s an emotional family story that connects to Cameron’s longtime support of environmentalism; while anticipation is high for Avatar 3, The Way of Water proved that the 13-year wait since the original was worth it.
The idea that the maverick genius behind The Witch and The Lighthouse was making a Viking version of Hamlet seemed too good to be true, but Robert Eggers proved once again why he’s one of the best directors working today. The Northman is a brutal reimagining of Shakespeare’s story that edges close to an NC-17 rating at points with its vicious swordplay. Eggers analyzes the text to explore how a son (Alexander Skarsgard) might idealize his father (Ethan Hawke) without accounting for his imperialism, and underestimate his mother’s (Nicole Kidman) seething rage. With insane surrealist sequences, a thrilling appearance by Björk, and some of the most heart-pounding music cues of the year, The Northman is an unforgettable experience.
Top Gun: Maverick
Almost three years after the first trailer was released, Top Gun: Maverick flew higher than anyone could have ever expected. Maverick is why we go to the movies; it’s a heartwarming, thrilling spectacle that hits every not just right in its homages to the original classic and the introduction of a new crop of heroes. Tom Cruise gives one of the best performances of his career as an older, and perhaps wiser version of the titular character who evolves as a leader, a hero, a family man, and an icon. That’s all to go without mentioning the stunning aerial combat sequences that should easily silence any doubters who thought a Top Gun sequel wouldn’t work.