This week we’re highlighting some of the great culture released in 2022. We won’t be offering a definitive ranking – that’s being very handily covered by the Guardian’s various arts desks, from film and music to TV and stage, with art and games still to come. Instead, this is a spotlight on our favorite releases – big and small – from the year that culture came roaring back after a pandemic-themed start to the decade.
Indeed, 2022 saw cinemas, gig venues, theaters, concert halls and festivals finally packed with up-for-it audiences again. Meanwhile, performers were able to showcase what they had been cooking up in those lost lockdown months, and in many cases the results were spectacular. The news wasn’t all positive, though. In the UK, venues that were already struggling post-pandemic had to contend with a cost of living crisis that made operating impossible for some, while a radical reshaping of Arts Council funding created some winners, but a lot of losers. The demise of the Edinburgh International Film Festival showed that even institutions many would consider part of the cultural furniture are vulnerable in these straitened times.
Given that gloomy backdrop, it was heartening to see the full-throated return of festival season. Glastonbury, in particular, felt utterly gigantic, whether you were at Worthy Farm or bouncing along at home, but there was just as much joy to be had at smaller events across the UK and beyond. It was a strong year for music in general, as major acts – Kendrick, Beyoncé, Taylor – returned with ambitious releases, while new stars like the TikTok-enabled Steve Lacy were minted.
For cinema it was a peculiar year, featuring some enormous box office hits – chief among them Top Gun: Maverick – but also the mother of all dry spells in the usually bounteous summer movie season. With studios continuing to experiment with video on demand releases soon after theatrical premieres, this remains an existentially shaky time for cinemas, as evidenced by a chain as massive as Cineworld having to file for bankruptcy. Many will be praying for success for the much-anticipated Avatar: The Way of Water, out this week.
Compared with film’s dearth of releases, TV had the opposite problem. At one point in the spring, shortly before the end of the Emmy eligibility window, there seemed to be a massive show launching every day in the US. Series involving genuinely massive names – Julia Roberts in Gaslit, Andrew Garfield in Under the Banner of Heaven – pretty much came and went without any fanfare. It has never been harder to stand out, but the TV that has stood out has done so by pushing the medium in thrillingly different directions. I can’t remember a better year for new shows. Read on for those, and the other releases that rose above the surfeit in 2022.
Adam Scott, Zach Cherry, John Turturro and Brit Lower in Severance. Photographer: Atsushi Nishijima/AP
It might have been released right at the start of 2022, but 12 months on Station Eleven (available on Lionsgate+/Prime Video in the UK) has still not been dislodged from my favorite shows of the year list. A drama about a deadly pandemic that somehow managed to leave you feeling hopeful about the state of things, it was the year’s best ‘one and done’ series (although if anyone wants to have a stab at a sequel, I’m all for it !) severity (Apple TV+) was the show that blew my mind more than any other, with its peculiar premise (workers have their brains surgically separated to keep work life and home life separate from each other) making for a delicious puzzle box mystery with real humanity and one of the all-time great season finales.
HBO hitman comedy drama barry (available to buy from various VOD platforms) returned after a long break more daringly inventive than ever, while another returning show, Mike White’s savage super-rich satire The White Lotus (Sky Atlantic/Now), excelled in giving us more of the same but somehow better in its second outing.
It’s a toss up between Sherwood other The Responder (both BBC iPlayer) for best British drama: The Responder boasted a mighty performance from Martin Freeman as an utterly messed-up night patrol officer, while Sherwood had the ensemble cast to end all ensemble casts with Leslie Manville, David Morrissey and Robert Glenister all on top form. And How to With John Wilson (BBC iPlayer) was both the year’s best comedy and documentary series, with Wilson’s video-essay vignettes capturing New York in all its glorious weirdness.
Beyoncé, whose Renaissance couldn’t have come sooner for fans. Photographer: Mason Poole
After a chasmic six-year gap since her last solo album, Beyoncé returned with Renaissance, an amped-up celebration of Black dance music pioneers from the late 70s onwards that immediately and deservedly rocketed to the top of many end of year lists. Another returning star, Kendrick Lamar, offered up something more muted and meditative with his new one, Mr Morale and the Big Steppers, an album that nevertheless rewarded multiple listens with some of the rapper’s most incisive work to date. No less ambitious was The Weeknd’s latest, Dawn FM, a concept album imagining a radio station that soundtracks the listener’s journey through purgatory towards the afterlife. Heavy stuff, but its mix of existential ennui and retro-futuristic R&B went down surprisingly smoothly.
My favorite heavy album of the year was God’s Own Country by Oklahoman sludge metallers Chat Pile, a noxious but utterly addictive mix of tar-thick riffage and trenchant political commentary. Similarly intense was Black Midi’s hugely entertaining third album, Hellfirewhich saw the London post-punkers burrow down further into virtuosic weirdness, touching on flamenco, alt-country and Piaf-style torch songs.
Elsewhere Nilüfer Yanya underscored her growing reputation as one of Britain’s most exciting artists with her album Painless, which evoked Radiohead, Portishead and the xx in its restless lo-fi indie. And progressive soul outfit Gabriels’ album Angels & Queens – Part 1 introduced the world to the truly spectacular vocals of frontman Jacob Lusk.
Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim in Licorice Pizza. Photograph: Courtesy of Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures Inc./AP
Despite a seeming lack of films in cinemas this year, there were still more than enough great ones to go around. The year began (in the UK at least) with a brand new Paul Thomas Anderson movie, Licorice Pizza, an intoxicating return to the director’s San Fernando Valley stomping ground. While it stirred some controversy with its central age-gap romance, it was impossible to look away from.
The year’s most spectacular box office success was Top Gun: Mavericka relentlessly thrilling old-school blockbuster that was far better than it had any need to be, while right at the other end of the scale the joyously shambling lo-fi comedy Brian and Charles, about an inventor and his shonky robot, reminded us that a trip to the cinema doesn’t have to revolve round superheroes and explosions. Indeed, just as jaw-dropping as any pyrotechnics were the shots from near-wordless documentary Taming the Garden of a vast tree being transported from the Georgian mainland to a plutocrat’s private island playground.
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There were great performances everywhere you looked but two really stood out: Caleb Landry Jones’s skin-pricklingly chilling depiction of a mass shooter in Nitram – based on Australia’s Port Arthur Massacre – and Renate Reinsve’s brilliant turn as a restless Oslo thirtysomething in The Worst Person in the Worldalso the year’s best rom-com.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Photographer: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy
The endless churn of podcasting means that distinguishing one year from another can often be a challenge, but in 2022 there were plenty of series that either presented something new or offered more of the excellent same. In the third series of fashion history pod Articles of Interest, Avery Trufelman investigated the endless popularity of preppy dressing, spinning a century-long tale that took in pre-war Japan and the Civil Rights movement. Uncovering other overlooked stories was Slate’s one year podcast, with two series in 2022: one on 1986 (taking in, among other things, the Challenger disaster and Al Capone’s vaults); the other on 1942 (looking at misinformation in second world war America and a landmark strike among US musicians).
The year’s funniest series was The Always Sunny Podcast, which promised analysis of the long-running sitcom but instead saw its stars conduct bizarre phone-in installations. The Ringer’s suite of podcasts remained as excellent as ever, particularly tastemaking TV talkathon the watch (advocating for shows like The Bear before anyone else) and the knowledgable and frequently very funny movie recap series The Rewatchables.
Finally, a shout out for the Guardian’s own excellent podcast roster, particularly Sirin Kale’s engrossing true crime pod Can I tell you a secretabout a chilling cyberstalking campaign, and the long-running Football Weekly podcast, which – as well as covering events on the pitch every week, served up thoughtful special episodes on cryptofinance in football and the lives of LGBTQ+ people, migrant workers and women in Qatar. It’s now joined by Women’s Football Weeklya podcast reflecting the massive leap the women’s game has made in recent times.
Alan Rickman in 1992. Photograph: Mirrorpix/Getty Images
The Guardian books team has done a far more exhaustive job than I could ever do with their books of the year round up, covering (deep breath) fiction, children’s literature, crime and thrillers, science fiction and fantasy, biography and memoir, history and politics, sports, science, poetry, graphic novels, music, and food.
There were some strong cultural books this year, including thorough oral histories on the history of rap (Jonathan Abrams’s The ComeUp) and of the silver screen (Hollywood: The Oral History), featuring testimony from a host of big names. Faith, Hope and Carnage, a dialogue between Nick Cave and the journalist Sean O’Hagan about music, grief and everything in between, which was both perceptive and poignant.
And two books by British actors – one living, one dead – proved both insightful, moving and entertaining. Richard E Grant’s A Pocketful of Happiness combined heartfelt testimony on the death of the Withnail star’s wife, combined with some lively tales of life on the fringes of Hollywood, while the posthumously released diaries of Alan Rickman, Madly Deeplyshowcased both the late actor’s self-doubt and savage film criticism.
Join us next week for Guide readers’ favorite culture of the year plus TV, film and music to enjoy over the festive period.