21 Movies Like Empire of Light (2022)

Staff & contributors

Nothing about Saint Omer is easy. A female Senegalese migrant (Guslagie Malanga) is put to trial for committing infanticide, but throughout the film, it becomes clear how much of a victim she is too, of an uncaring and deeply prejudiced society. “What drove her to madness?” Her attorney asks at one point. We’re not sure. We're not necessarily asked to side with her, nor answer the many hard-hitting questions brought up in the film, but we sit with the uneasiness of it all and, in that silence, confront our ideas about motherhood, womanhood, personhood. 

This confusion is what makes the film so compelling. Despite the court’s best efforts, Laurence isn’t meant to be understood. She’s meant to be an example of the ever-ambiguous, forever-complicated, always-hurt person. It’s human nature after all to be this complex and messed up. The film shows us that the best that we can do in situations like this is to listen, understand, and as our protagonist Rama (Kayije Kagame) does, make peace with the noise. 

Genre: Crime, Drama

Actor: Aurelia Petit, Guslagie Malanda, Salimata Kamate, Valérie Dréville, Xavier Maly

Director: Alice Diop

In Aftersun, Sophie recalls a holiday she took as an eleven-year-old in the ‘90s with her father. Video recordings help jog her memory, but she’s looking for more than just a blast from the past. Rather, she seems to be seeking answers to fill in the gaps between who she knew as her father and who he really was: an immensely nice but deeply troubled man.

At first, Aftersun looks like a simple but beautiful story about father and daughter bonding over the course of a summer trip. But within minutes, it’s clear that there are layers to Aftersun, emotionally and editorially, that aren’t always explained but nonetheless enrich the movie with profound meaning. Stirring, complex, and surprisingly inventive, it’s not surprising that Aftersun is one of the most beloved films of the past year. 

Genre: Drama

Actor: Celia Rowlson-Hall, Frankie Corio, Paul Mescal, Sally Messham, Spike Fearn

Director: Charlotte Wells

Rating: R

, 2022

Adapted from the Japanese film Ikiru, which in turn was adapted from the Russian story The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Living is a parable about, well, living. Specifically, it's about the importance of wonder and the magic of the mundane. It's also about legacy and the stories we leave in our wake, which live on long after we're gone. This familiar premise could have very easily been turned into another trite and cheesy movie that warns you to make the most out of your life, but thanks to a lean script, assured camerawork, and powerfully restrained performances, Living is elevated into something more special than that. It’s a technically beautiful, well told, and profoundly moving film, with Bill Nighy giving a career-best turn as a repressed man aching for meaning in his twilight years. 

Genre: Drama

Actor: Adrian Rawlins, Aimee Lou Wood, Alex Sharp, Bill Nighy, Celeste Dodwell, Edward Wolstenholme, Ffion Jolly, Hubert Burton, John MacKay, Lia Williams, Matilda Ziegler, Michael Cochrane, Nichola McAuliffe, Nicky Goldie, Oliver Chris, Patsy Ferran, Richard Cunningham, Thomas Coombes, Tom Burke, Zoe Boyle

Director: Oliver Hermanus

To Leslie follows the eponymous Leslie (Andrea Riseborough), a Southern woman who finds herself at the bottom of the barrel after finally using up every penny of her $190k lottery win. Out of work, friends, and family, she drowns herself in alcohol—that is until a kind soul in the form of motel owner Sweeney (Marc Maron) takes her in and gives her a shot.

To Leslie starts off a bit slow, and its premise may seem like it’ll give way to weepiness, but it’s worth sticking by till the end. The film only gets better, especially with the arrival of Maron, whose presence lends the film a much-needed buoyancy. It's also worth noting that unlike many of its kind, To Leslie avoids the poverty porn trap by depicting issues like addiction and indigence with nuance, honesty, and humanity.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Alan Trong, Alan Wells, Allison Janney, Andre Royo, Andrea Riseborough, Arabella Grant, Blake Robbins, Brandee Steger, Catfish Jean, Chris Coy, Derek Phillips, Drew Youngblood, Jack O'Connor, James Landry Hébert, Jeanette O'Connor, John Gilbert, Juan Carlos Cantu, Mac Brandt, Maggie Carney, Marc Maron, Matt Lauria, Micah Fitzgerald, Owen Teague, Paula Rhodes, Pramod Kumar, Scott Peat, Scott Subiono, Sewell Whitney, Stephanie Wong, Stephen Root, Tom Virtue

Director: Michael Morris

Rating: R

French director Mia Hansen-Løve is a master at gently capturing the full bittersweetness of life, and that’s no more evident than in One Fine Morning. Léa Seydoux gives a quietly powerful performance as Sandra, a mother-of-one who is grappling with the slow, devastating decline of her philosophy professor father at the hands of a neurodegenerative disease. As she deals with the crushing trauma of watching her father deteriorate — and the logistical stress of getting him the care he needs — life grants her an oasis through a chance meeting with an old acquaintance (Clément, played by Melvil Poupaud). Despite Clément being married, the two are hurled into a passionate romance, one that re-ignites something in Sandra she thought she’d lost forever.

What’s so remarkable about One Fine Morning is its gentle empathy: Hansen-Løve appreciates that, in the context of Sandra’s life, her affair with Clément is something life-affirming and vital, worthy of sensitive consideration rather than easy judgment or melodrama. What’s more, One Fine Morning extends that thoughtful attention to the other people around Sandra, with digressions that recognize the fullness and complexity of their lives, too. This is a film that overflows with compassion and curiosity for everyone in its frame, and one that has a contagiously heart-expanding effect on its audiences. 

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Elsa Guedj, Léa Seydoux, Masha Kondakova, Melvil Poupaud, Nicole Garcia, Pascal Greggory, Sarah Le Picard

Director: Mia Hansen-Løve

A road trip movie with an unknown destination, Hit the Road plays with our expectations by avoiding any obvious questions we might have, and making us focus on the real important things. Informed by the censorship and persecution faced by critics of Iran's government—including director Panah Panahi's own filmmaker father, Jafar—the film places more focus on the very act of escape and what that can take from a family. And most importantly, through Panahi's skillful direction of rural Iran's varied, beautiful landscapes, he creates a conflicted relationship between character and setting, with entire emotional crescendos playing out just through a single shot of the environment. It's one of the most underappreciated movies of the year.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Amin Simiar, Hasan Ma'juni, Pantea Panahiha, Rayan Sarlak

Director: Panah Panahi

Not much happens in Women Talking, but what it lacks in action it more than makes up for in message. As the wronged women of an insular Christian colony decide whether they should leave or stay in their community, valuable points on each side are raised and debated fiercely. Are the men at fault or is there a bigger problem at hand? Is it sacrilegious to refuse forgiveness? Will leaving really solve anything? 

The women of this ultraconservative and anti-modern community may not know how to read or write, but years of toiling away on land, family, and faith have made them wise beyond their years, which makes their discussion all the more captivating and powerful. Relevant themes, coupled with director Sarah Polley’s poetic shots and the cast’s all-around stellar performances, make Women Talking a uniquely compelling and timeless watch.

Genre: Drama

Actor: August Winter, Ben Whishaw, Claire Foy, Eli Ham, Emily Mitchell, Frances McDormand, Jessie Buckley, Judith Ivey, Kate Hallett, Kira Guloien, Marcus Craig, Michelle McLeod, Rooney Mara, Sheila McCarthy, Vivien Endicott Douglas, Will Bowes

Director: Sarah Polley

Rating: PG-13

"Many's the person missed the opportunity to say nothing and lost much because of it."

The Quiet Girl takes the troubled, reserved nature of Cáit (Catherine Clinch) as she's swallowed by the discord in her evergrowing family, who treats her as an outcast, and fills the film with her serene, observatory perspective. Long sequences with little to no dialogue and an expansive countryside give way to the emotional thrum of this found-family drama. The simplicity in every frame befits a child's innocence, and every visual and sonic decision reinforces that wonderfully. Loving and nurturing a child is a straightforward concept, and The Quiet Girl never complicates it. Without saying much, it says it all. 

Genre: Drama

Actor: Carrie Crowley, Catherine Clinch, Kate Nic Chonaonaigh, Marion O'Dwyer, Michael Patric

Director: Colm Bairéad

The Fabelmans is often described as director Steven Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical movie about his inauguration into filmmaking, and while it certainly is that, I’d venture to say that it also functions as a universal coming-of-age tale, with protagonist and Spielberg stand-in Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) learning harsh truths about identity, family, and passion for the first time.

Here, we see how so much of filmmaking is intertwined with his life, and how the movies inspire his personality (and vice versa). Whether you’re a fan of Spielberg or not, this movie will surely win you over with its beautiful imagery, impressive technique, and big, big heart.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Alejandro Fuenzalida, Alex Quijano, Ari Davis, Art Bonilla, Chandler Lovelle, Chloe East, Connor Trinneer, Cooper Dodson, Crystal the Monkey, David Lynch, Ezra Buzzington, Gabriel Bateman, Gabriel LaBelle, Greg Grunberg, Gustavo Escobar, Isabelle Kusman, James Urbaniak, Jan Hoag, Jeannie Berlin, Judd Hirsch, Julia Butters, Kalama Epstein, Lane Factor, Larkin Campbell, Michelle Williams, Nicolas Cantu, Oakes Fegley, Paige Locke, Paul Dano, Robin Bartlett, Sam Rechner, Seth Rogen, Sophia Kopera

Director: Steven Spielberg

Rating: PG-13

A twitchy, uncomfortable noir film for the digital age, Decision to Leave blends the trappings of a restless police procedural with an obsessive forbidden romance. Here, director Park Chan-wook flips every interrogation and piece of evidence on its head, pulling us away from the whodunit and towards the inherently invasive nature of a criminal investigation. It's a movie that remains achingly romantic even if everything about the central relationship is wrong. For detective Hae-jun and suspect Seo-rae (played masterfully by Park Hae-il and Tang Wei, respectively), the attraction between them is built entirely on distrust and suspicion—illustrating the danger of falling for the idea of someone rather than the person themself.

Genre: Crime, Drama, Mystery, Romance, Thriller

Actor: Ahn Seong-bong, Cha Seo-won, Choi Dae-hoon, Choi Sun-ja, Go Kyung-pyo, Go Min-si, Jeong Ha-dam, Jin Yong-uk, Jung Yi-seo, Jung Young-sook, Kim Do-yeon, Kim Mi-hwa, Kim Shin-young, Kwak Eun-jin, Lee Hak-joo, Lee Hak-ju, Lee Ji-ha, Lee Jung-hyun, Lee Yong-nyeo, Park Hae-il, Park Jeong-min, Park Yong-woo, Seo Hyun-woo, Tang Wei, Teo Yoo, Yoo Seung-mok, Yoo Teo

Director: Park Chan-wook

In 2017, the New York Times published a groundbreaking report by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey that detailed, for the first time, Harvey Weinstein’s atrocious history of sexual abuse. The New Yorker would release Ronan Farrow’s report five days after, prompting multiple survivors to share their own stories—and the rest, as you know, is history. Following Kantor and Twohey (played by Zoe Kazan and Carey Mulligan, respectively), She Said sheds light on how this pivotal moment in the establishment of the #MeToo movement came to be.

Based on Kantor and Twohey’s book of the same name, the film reveals the specific journalistic processes involved in writing this expose—a seemingly impossible feat, considering Weinstein’s hold over multiple industries, including the press. Because it’s a newsroom drama, there’s a lot of talking, but there’s also a lot of listening. Gripping, empathetic, and (even now) necessary, She Said makes for a thrilling watch.

Genre: Drama, History

Actor: Adam Shapiro, Alex Hurt, Anastasia Barzee, Andre Braugher, Angela Yeoh, Ashley Judd, Carey Mulligan, Celia Au, Dalya Knapp, Davram Stiefler, Elle Graham, Frank Wood, Gregg Edelman, Gwyneth Paltrow, Harvey Friedman, Hilary Greer, Jennifer Ehle, John Mazurek, Judith Godrèche, Katherine Kendall, Keilly McQuail, Lola Petticrew, Makia Martin, Marceline Hugot, Mike Houston, Molly Windsor, Patricia Clarkson, Peter Friedman, Roxanna Hope, Ruby Thomas, Safia Oakley-Green, Samantha Morton, Seán Cullen, Shirley Rumierk, Tom Pelphrey, Traci Wolfe, Zabryna Guevara, Zach Grenier, Zoe Kazan

Director: Maria Schrader

Rating: R

As a crime thriller, Holy Spider is taut and terrifying, a modern noir that manages to unnerve despite the familiar moves it employs. The cat and mouse chase between serial killer and investigative reporter, for instance, is a classic tale, but that doesn’t make Holy Spider any less gripping. The film benefits from artful camerawork, considered acting (as the daring journalist Rahimi, Zar Amir Ebrahimi nabbed the Best Actress award at Cannes), and most of all a nuanced take on the situation in Iran. 

Despite having a clear stance against violence and corruption, nothing in Holy Spider is black and white. Contradictions abound, and even when presented with brief moments of justice, we’re left scratching our heads looking for more. Such is the case when the system, and not just an individual, is the true pest. 

Genre: Crime, Drama, Horror, Thriller

Actor: Ariane Naziri, Sara Fazilat, Sina Parvaneh, Zar Amir Ebrahimi

Director: Ali Abbasi

The Banshees of Inisherin is an Irish dark comedy film that begins with the breakup of longtime friends Pádraic (Colin Farrell) and Colm (Brendan Gleeson). Averse to the sudden split, Pádraic tries to repair their relationship, but instead of achieving goodwill, he inadvertently sets off even more unrest in their little town of Inisherin. Set in 1923 against the backdrop of the Irish Civil War, the film doubles as a fable about the consequences of war. 

The last time Farrell and Gleeson were together was in the expert thriller In Bruges, and their reunion in The Banshees of Inisherin shows how powerful and chemistry-filled their pairing is. Theirs is a knockout turn, but it's also far from the only good thing in the movie. Packed with gorgeously lush images of rural Ireland, strong performances from an all-Irish cast, and a whipsmart script from writer-director Martin McDonagh, The Banshees of Inisherin is an impactful watch that will give you lots to unpack long after the credits roll. 

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Aaron Monaghan, Barry Keoghan, Brendan Gleeson, Bríd Ní Neachtain, Colin Farrell, David Pearse, Gary Lydon, Jon Kenny, Kerry Condon, Pat Shortt, Sheila Flitton

Director: Martin McDonagh

Rating: R

It's difficult to portray Cinderella stories nowadays without making them feel cliche and irrelevant, but Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris seems to have achieved the impossible: it tells a well-worn tale without losing any of its charms, and Lesley Manville is the person to thank for this surprising triumph. As the titular Mrs. Harris, Manville is so sweet and likable —thoroughly convincing in her rags-to-riches journey—that it's impossible to watch her without grinning from ear to ear. Sure, the beats are predictable, polished to a fault even, but Manville makes every scene worth it. This is a feel-good movie if ever there was one, made even more enjoyable for fans of earnest performances, beautiful dresses, and clean, straightforward storytelling.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Alba Baptista, Anna Chancellor, Barnabás Réti, Ben Addis, Bertrand Poncet, Christian McKay, Csémy Balázs, Declan Hannigan, Delroy Atkinson, Ellen Thomas, Freddie Fox, Guilaine Londez, Igor Szász, Isabelle Huppert, Jade Lopez, Jason Isaacs, Jeremy Wheeler, Lambert Wilson, Lesley Manville, Lucas Bravo, Panka Murányi, Rose Williams, Roxane Duran, Vincent Martin, Zsolt Páll

Director: Anthony Fabian

, 2022

Till is a very political film. It’s charged with the kind of rage and electricity that enables thousands to mobilize for a cause. But before it explodes into something grand, it begins with the small details of everyday life. A mother admires her son as he dances to his favorite song. She buys him a new wallet and goes over the things they’ll do over the summer. These things seem trivial, but they reveal the humanity that sometimes goes overlooked in telling epic stories such as these.

To be sure, Till is a necessarily brutal film about grief and justice, but it’s also about how political movements are borne out of small and personal devastation. This nuance, along with a jaw-dropping performance by Danielle Deadwyler, makes Till a standout: a powerful entry in a long line of social-issue dramas.

Genre: Drama, History

Actor: Al Mitchell, Bradley King, Brandon P. Bell, Brendan Patrick Connor, Danielle Deadwyler, David Caprita, Ed Amatrudo, Euseph Messiah, Frankie Faison, Haley Bennett, Jackson Beals, Jalyn Hall, Jamie Renell, Jaylin Webb, Jayme Lawson, John Douglas Thompson, Josh Ventura, Keisha Tillis, Kevin Carroll, Lee Spencer, Maurice Johnson, Njema Williams, Princess Elmore, Richard Nash, Roger Guenveur Smith, Sean Michael Weber, Sean Patrick Thomas, Tim Ware, Torey Adkins, Tosin Cole, Whoopi Goldberg

Director: Chinonye Chukwu

Rating: PG-13