The Best Films of 2022

Top 10 of the Year

1. TárTodd Field
2. BabylonDamien Chazelle
3. Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of TruthsAlejandro Iñárritu
4. Everything Everywhere All at OnceThe Daniels
5. The BatmanMatt Reeves
6. Avatar: The Way of WaterJames Cameron
7. BlondeAndrew Dominik
8. The NorthmanRobert Eggers
9. Decision to LeavePark Chan-wook
10. All Quiet on the Western FrontEdward Berger

Best Film

Tár. This was not high up on my list of anticipated films at the beginning of 2022, mostly because Todd Field had not made a film in sixteen years, and I had not seen his previous two efforts. Tár marks a thunderous formal achievement for him though which now has him in everyone’s sights. The writing is refreshingly topical in its nuanced wrestling with cancel culture, unchecked power, and social elitism, but it also wraps these issues up in a daunting character study of Kubrickian precision. Cate Blanchett is a tour-de-force as the gifted yet abusive orchestra conductor Lydia Tár, and Field traces her psychological disintegration through an uneasy array of visual and aural motifs. His camerawork is subtle yet powerful, and there is a strong argument to be had that his 10-minute long take in the lecture scene is the single best shot of the year. To top it off, Field even has Martin Scorsese singing his praises – “The clouds lifted when I experienced Todd’s film.”

Todd Field proves himself a formal master in Tár, composing a chilly character study of incredible precision that earns comparisons to both Stanley Kubrick and Michael Haneke.

Most Underrated

Blonde. To be fair, it isn’t that surprising to see this miss out on the ’50 Most Critically-Acclaimed Films of 2022′ consensus list on They Shoot Pictures Don’t They. It also has a pretty damning Metacritic score of 50. There are two ways you can come at Andrew Dominik’s controversial Marilyn Monroe biopic though: as a cultural object, and as art.

As the former, there are reasonable arguments made against its historical accuracy, moral stance, and treatment of Monroe. This places the emphasis on content though, which I don’t find particularly conducive to evaluating cinematic form or style, hence why I stick to the latter. It reminds me a fair bit of Lars von Trier’s films, which are often considered problematic and deliberately aim to put their audiences through hell, yet which pull through with boldly composed narrative structures, innovative camerawork, and rich characterisations.

I’ll be far more likely to argue for Blonde’s success as a surreal, self-reflexive deconstruction of the nightmarish Hollywood dream machine than any personal arguments for whether or not it crosses some subjective line. As The Guardian critic Mark Kermode puts it, “Blonde isn’t really about Marilyn at all. It just happens to be wearing her wardrobe.” I do expect that over time there will be a more positive re-assessment of the film though, and you can see that growing among critics based outside of the United States.

Blonde is gruelling to watch and very deliberately challenges its audience’s perception of Marilyn Monroe. It is also one of the most astoundingly ambitious biopics in recent years, despite being a little formally messy in parts.

Most Overrated

Saint Omer. There are a few films in the top 10 of TSPDT’s 2022 consensus that don’t make my own list, but Saint Omer (sitting at #6) is the only one among them I found completely unarchivable. I think it is important to note the difference between minimalism as a purposeful artistic choice, and lack of visual invention altogether. Alice Diop falls hard into the trap of believing that just because her script has an intelligent take on gut-wrenching subject matter, she should leave her actors to handle all the emotion. And Guslagie Malanda is very good in her role – her control over her breathing, micro expressions, and contained bitterness remarkably finds great empathy for the mother who killed her 15-month-old child in this French court drama. But when there are forty minutes stretches where the film itself is doing nothing other than cutting between five different shots in a courtroom, you have to question the craft behind this. No script, no matter how good, can survive that sort of bland cinematic treatment.

There might be a better version of Saint Omer when put in the hands of a director with greater skill behind the camera. As it is, there are huge stretches of time spent cutting between the same four or five shots, which makes from some fairly uninspired cinema.

Best Directorial Debut

Aftersun. Charlotte Wells is the Scottish director who emerged from New York University with three short films under her belt, and then dazzled audiences at Cannes Film Festival with Aftersun’s melancholy ruminations. Every second of the holiday shared between eleven-year-old Sophie and her father Calum is savoured as if it were their last days together, which it very well might be. Paul Mescal’s poignantly understated performance grinds away at you, and lands its ending with a devastating emotional punch. I’m not yet sold that she is a filmmaker who will keep climbing to greater heights, though there is certainly promise here.

There are some lovely shots in Aftersun, but Charlotte Wells’ achievement has more to do with the way her narrative very subtly strips back the layers of her characters. If it isn’t Paul Mescal’s performance that will get you, it’s the final ten minutes – absolutely devastating cinema that lifts the quality of the entire film up.

Gem to Spotlight

Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths. I would typically choose a film lower down in my top 10, but given that it just barely missed out on the Most Underrated category, I want to give this the time it deserves. Alejandro Iñárritu does something really special here that requires multiple viewings to fully appreciate. It has been seven years since his dual masterpieces Birdman and The Revenant, and Bardo combines the best aspects of both – the wide-angle lenses, the darkly comic self-awareness, the surreal awe, and of course the intricately choreographed long takes. The result is something that doesn’t quite measure up to either, and yet which is still far more ambitious, exciting, and thoughtful than most other films coming out right now. He has effectively carved out his own narrow niche in the arthouse cinema landscape, turning the indulgence and extravagance he is so often criticised of into Bardo’s greatest strengths, and thereby lulling us into a lucid dream that seeks some unity in the metaphysical absurdity of his complicated life.

Iñárritu divorces himself entirely from mainstream audiences in Bardo, constructing a staggering piece of surreal cinema that you can spend days and weeks chewing on.

Best Male Performances

Unlike the women this year, there isn’t a male performance which stands out far above the rest. I am going to give the first couple of mentions though to Robert Pattinson and Austin Butler, who both put unique spins on established cultural figures. Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne in The Batman is darker and more reclusive than we have seen before, feeding well into the inquisitive detective side of the character. Meanwhile, Butler goes full method as the King of Rock in Elvis, matching Baz Luhrmann’s hyperkinetic style with a performance that is like watching electricity personified.

Daniel Giménez Cacho is front and centre in Alejandro Iñárritu’s surreal character study Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths, playing a surrogate for the director who is at once fully self-indulgent and self-critical. It isn’t too often you see an actor pull off physical comedy and weighty drama with as much dexterity as this – though perhaps you can draw that connection to my next mention, Ke Huy Quan. His role in Everything Everywhere All At Once accomplishes so many things, from being the film’s scruffy comic relief to its sweet moral centre.

Austin Butler is electric in Elvis, matching Luhrmann’s hyperkinetic style with a performance that makes the King of Rock feel dangerous.

When Alexander Skarsgård isn’t running on all fours, howling, and biting his enemies in The Northman, he menacingly saunters through muddy battlefields with tightly hunched shoulders, standing out in crowds with his furrowed brow and dark, unsmiling eyes. He is animalistic on every level, delivering a raw physical performance that follows on from Leonardo DiCaprio’s in The Revenant. Brad Pitt will get the final mention in this category for his part in Babylon. He comes off second best in this ensemble, and is only beat out by Margot Robbie, but he completely owns his storyline of a fading silent star with melancholy charm.

Alexander Skarsgård’s performance in The Northman feels like an extension of Leonardo DiCaprio’s form The Revenant, though far more animalistic.

Best Female Performances

The collection of female performances this year is actually a good deal better than the male category. I’m especially feeling good that Cate Blanchett gives her best performance to date in Tár, even outmatching the film at points – and it is a very a good film. She is pointed, cutting, and incredibly intelligent, inhabiting the famous conductor’s elite social status with assertive poise. Her deep voice resonates as she rips her inferiors to shreds, and she throws her entire body into every orchestral beat and cue, like a dance that furiously produces its own musical accompaniment. Equally, her deterioration is fascinating to observe, carrying out a full transformation that changes the shape of the woman we see before our eyes.

Blanchett delivers a once in a decade performance in Tár, cutting a sharp figure in her neat suits that mask her total fragility.

The next two actresses Margot Robbie and Ana de Armas also join Blanchett by giving career-best performances. Robbie in particular has proven herself a particularly versatile actress over the past decade since her breakthrough in The Wolf of Wall Street, and she absolutely shines as the silent movie star Nellie LaRoy in Babylon, rising to fame through sheer charisma, talent, and a little bit of luck. She luminously draws attention in crowds, mouths off in a noisy New Jersey accent, and burns bright during her brief time in the spotlight. Meanwhile, de Armas plays another celebrity representing a different vision of Old Hollywood in Blonde. It would be easy for any actress to fall into mere mimicry of Marilyn Monroe’s breathy voice and smouldering smile, and yet she plays affectingly to a more fractured, deeply wounded interpretation of the famous actress.

Michelle Yeoh won the Oscar for Best Actress in Everything Everywhere All at Once, and she gets a mention here for playing exasperated laundromat owner Evelyn – as well as a countless number of alternate versions of her. The Daniels also make superb use of her physical screen presence, letting her indulge in a variety of martial arts styles inspired by the different lives Evelyn could have led. Stephanie Hsu will also get a mention here for playing Evelyn’s troubled daughter Joy and the amusingly terrifying cosmic entity Jobu Tupaki. Finally, Zoë Kravitz earns a nod for playing the familiar part of Catwoman as a classically sly femme fatale in The Batman.

Ana de Armas has been on the rise in recent years with Blade Runner 2049 and Knives Out. Blonde finally gives her a role that lets her fully flex her talents as a magnetic screen presence.

Best Cinematography: Babylon

1. BabylonLinus Sandgren
2. Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of TruthsDarius Khondji
3. The BatmanGreig Fraser
4. Avatar: The Way of WaterRussell Carpenter
5. BlondeChayse Irvin
6. The NorthmanJarin Blaschke
7. All Quiet on the Western FrontJames Friend
8. TárFlorian Hoffmeister
9. Everything Everywhere All at OnceLarkin Seiple
10. EOMichał Dymek
11. ElvisMandy Walker
12. Decision to LeaveJi-yong Kim
Linus Sandgren is back with Damien Chazelle again after La La Land and First Man, delivering sweeping long takes, energetic whip pans, and ambient golden lighting in the visual feast that is Babylon.

Best Editing: Everything Everywhere All at Once

1. Everything Everywhere All at OncePaul Rogers
2. BabylonTom Cross
3. ElvisMatt Villa, Jonathan Redmund
4. BlondeAdam Robinson
5. The BatmanWilliam Hoy, Tyler Nelson
6. Decision to LeaveKim Sang-bum
7. EOAgnieszka Glińska
8. Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of TruthsAlejandro G. Iñárritu
9. The NorthmanLouise Ford
10. Avatar: The Way of WaterStephen E. Rivkin, David Brenner, John Refoua, James Cameron
I don’t think we have seen a film as marvellously edited as Everything Everywhere All at Once since Dunkirk. Each cut is so painstakingly planned and executed, from the rapid-fire montages to the huge sequences of parallel editing. Editor Paul Rogers makes it look effortless.

Best Screenplay: Tár

1. TárTodd Field
2. Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of TruthsAlejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone
3. BabylonDamien Chazelle
4. Everything Everywhere All at OnceDanny Peary
5. Decision to LeaveJeong Seo-kyeong, Park Chan-wook
6. The BatmanMatt Reeves, Peter Craig
7. The NorthmanSjón Robert Eggers
There is not a line or scene in Tár that lands without absolute intention – this screenplay is intelligent and painstaking in its construction, peeling back the layers of a magnificently nuanced character.

Best Original Music Score: Babylon

1. BabylonJustin Hurwitz
2. Everything Everywhere All at OnceSon Lux
3. The BatmanMichael Giacchino
4. The NorthmanRobin Carolan, Sebastian Gainsborough
5. All Quiet on the Western FrontVolker Bertelmann
6. Avatar: The Way of WaterSimon Franglen
7. EOPaweł Mykietyn
8. BlondeNick Cave, Warren Ellis
9. Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of TruthsBryce Dessner Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Justin Hurwitz solidifies his status as one of our great modern film composers with Babylon, bouncing its score along on brassy jazz tunes and energetic drum beats.

Year Breakdown

There are three big breakthroughs this year worth singling out. Starting with the Daniels, huge success was found in Everything Everywhere All at Once, their follow-up to 2016’s Swiss Army Man. Their brand of offbeat yet sincere humour which connects both films effectively sets them up as auteurs for a new generation. This multiversal epic confirmed A24’s dominance by becoming the indie film studio’s highest grossing film and the most-awarded film of all time, culminating in a win for Best Picture at the Oscars. It is one of those years that the Academy made the better choice than the Cannes Film Festival jury, who awarded the Palme d’Or to Ruben Östlund’s bourgeoisie satire Triangle of Sadness.

Matt Reeves is not a new name for many moviegoers, as he already had a fairly sizeable following for his found footage film Cloverfield and his work on the Planet of the Apes reboot franchise. He is the next big breakthrough of the year I’m highlighting though, with his brooding, noir-tinted The Batman officially breaking him into my yearly top 10 for the first time. I think this film indicates a point we have reached in the era of superhero movies that allows for auteurs like Reeves to diverge from the typical studio fare and inject their own unique voices into the genre.

The Batman is one of the top earners at 2022’s box office, and with cinematography as brilliant as this it is also one of the year’s most beautiful films.

To save the best for last, Todd Field’s breakthrough comes after a sixteen-year break from filmmaking, jumping right back in with his painstaking, psychological character study Tár. It is my number 1 film of the year, and makes me genuinely excited to see where he goes next.

Speaking of directors returning after long breaks, we also see James Cameron come back after thirteen years with his sci-fi sequel Avatar: The Way of Water. Top Gun: Maverick had a pretty solid run at the box office, but nothing could stop Cameron’s financial dominance as this quickly became the third highest grossing movie of all time, giving him three of the top four biggest earners (along with the first Avatar and Titanic). It is a pretty astounding recovery for an industry that the pandemic hurt so badly. Meanwhile, Andrew Dominik makes his first film in ten years with Blonde, Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis marks the Australian director’s return after nine years, and Alejandro Iñárritu delivers the astoundingly surreal Bardo seven years after The Revenant.

Avatar: The Way of Water became the third highest grossing film of all time, trailing Avengers; Endgame and the first Avatar movie. It is an awe-inspiring crossover of mainstream appeal and breathtaking visual artistry.

Joining Iñárritu this year is another one of the three amigos, Guillermo del Toro, who puts his own dark, existential spin on the Pinocchio fairy tale. All in all, this is a good year for world cinema – Edward Berger’s German remake of All Quiet on the Western Front, Park Chan-wook’s Korean mystery film Decision to Leave, and Martin McDonagh’s Irish black comedy The Banshees of Inisherin need to be noted here.

The influence of 2010s cinema can be felt creeping into a lot of films this year, with The Tree of Life’s pensive voiceovers and spiritual imagery emerging unexpectedly in Blonde and Bardo, and The Revenant making its presence known in the long takes and natural light of The Northman and Prey. In 2021, we saw Roma inspire directors Paolo Sorrentino and Kenneth Branagh to create memory pieces based on their childhoods, and this year Steven Spielberg and James Gray continue down similar routes in The Fabelmans and Armageddon Time.

Stylistically, maximalism is a huge movement in 2022 that can’t be ignored. Bardo, Blonde, Elvis, Babylon, Avatar: The Way of Water, and Everything Everywhere All at Once are all brimming with crowded visuals and ambitious ideas – a little to their detriment at certain points, though more often than not beautifully integrated into their stories. They move fast, they swing hard for the fences, and many of them are pushing run times of three hours. It will be interesting to see whether this trend continues deeper into the 2020s and defines it as a decade, or whether it will be unique to 2022.

Maximalism seems to be the theme of 2022, and the Daniels embody it on every level of their filmmaking in Everything Everywhere All at Once from the sound design, to the editing, right down to the crowded mise-en-scène – as we can see here.

Film Archives

AftersunCharlotte WellsR
AmsterdamDavid O. RussellR
All Quiet on the Western FrontEdward BergerHR
Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age ChildhoodRichard LinklaterR
Argentina, 1985Santiago MitreR
Armageddon TimeJames GrayR
Avatar: The Way of WaterJames CameronMS
BabylonDamien ChazelleMS/MP
BarbarianZach CreggerR
Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of TruthsAlejandro IñárrituMS
Black Panther: Wakanda ForeverRyan CooglerR
BlondeAndrew DominikHR/MS
Bodies Bodies BodiesHalina ReijnR
Bones and AllLuca GuadagninoR
CloseLukas DhontR
Crimes of the FutureDavid CronenbergR
Decision to LeavePark Chan-wookHR
ElvisBaz LuhrmannHR
Empire of LightSam MendesR/HR
EOJerzy SkolimowskiHR
Everything Everywhere All at OnceThe DanielsMS
FreshMimi CaveR
Glass Onion: A Knives Out MysteryRian JohnsonR
KimiSteven SoderberghR
LivingOliver HermanusR
MenAlex GarlandR
NopeJordan PeeleR
PearlTi WestR
PinocchioGuillermo del ToroR/HR
PreyDan TrachtenbergR
See How They RunTom GeorgeR
TárTodd FieldMP
The Banshees of InisherinMartin McDonaghR/HR
The BatmanMatt ReevesMS
The FabelmansSteven SpielbergR
The HouseEmma de Swaef, Marc James, Roels Niki, Lindroth von Bahr, Paloma BaezaR
The MenuMark MylodR
The NorthmanRobert EggersHR
The Pale Blue EyeScott CooperR
The Quiet GirlColm BairéadR
The Woman KingGina Prince-BythewoodR
The WonderSebastián LelioR/HR
Top Gun: MaverickJoseph KosinskiR
Three Thousand Years of LongingGeorge MillerR
Triangle of SadnessRuben ÖstlundR
Women TalkingSarah PolleyR
XTi WestR
Edward Berger directs the third adaptation of the 1929 novel All Quiet on the Western Front, bleakly photographing the horrors of World War I from the German perspective.

The Best Films of 2021

Top 10 of the Year

1. The French DispatchWes Anderson
2. The Green KnightDavid Lowery
3. The Tragedy of MacbethJoel Coen
4. DuneDenis Villeneuve
5. The Underground RailroadBarry Jenkins
6. The Card CounterPaul Schrader
7. C’mon C’monMike Mills
8. Nightmare AlleyGuillermo del Toro
9. SpencerPablo Larraín
10. The Power of the DogJane Campion

Best Film

The French Dispatch. Some call it Wes Anderson’s most ‘Wes Anderson’ film, as if that were a negative thing. It’s not – Anderson is one of the greatest working directors, unrelenting with his cinematic vision and frequently rubbing up against accusations that his style is too stilted and unnatural. The French Dispatch isn’t going to convince anyone otherwise, though it would be tough to argue that he has anything less than a thorough understanding of film’s full potential. This is his tribute to storytellers, or more specifically those journalists who pick up on odd stories in small towns, and with his anthological structure he constructs a dazzling formal cinematic statement, alternating between black-and-white and colour much like the magazine his characters produce. With a keen comedic sensibility and astounding visual flair, The French Dispatch will go down as one of Anderson’s finest works.

The French Dispatch reads like a magazine, segmented into articles which paint a quirky picture of a small French town.

Most Underrated

The Tragedy of Macbeth. As one of the greatest displays of mise-en-scène in a year full of beautiful films, it is clear this is a huge miss on behalf of the critical consensus, sitting outside 2021’s top 25 films on the TSPDT 21st century list. It is a bold new direction for Joel Coen who has already spanned so many genres – neo-noirs, westerns, comedies, crime films, and yet this is the first to dig so deeply into the influences of older European directors like Fritz Lang and Ingmar Bergman. The deftness and intelligence of the script goes without saying, though obviously the credit for this must go more to Shakespeare than Coen. It is in the visual direction where he takes this classical narrative to transcendent heights, creating a claustrophobic world of shadows, fog, and barren landscapes that reflect the same decrepit darkness residing within Lord and Lady Macbeth.

The low angle, the framing of the beams, the wraithlike figures, the greyscale photography – this is an incredibly strong shot from The Tragedy of Macbeth, but that there are so many more like it in this film speaks to the all-consuming beauty of Coen’s Shakespeare adaptation..

Most Overrated

Drive My Car. Ryusuke Hamaguchi draws on a Haruki Murakami short story to craft a three-hour epic drama based in Japan’s contemporary theatre industry, additionally using the works of playwrights Chekhov and Beckett as springboards into examinations of grief and companionship. This is currently sitting at #1 of 2021 on the TSPDT list, and I might be closer to #30. It is a very fine film, slow and meditative in its pacing and backed up by a strong script, but from a direction standpoint there is far less going on here than a number of other films that I have ahead of it. Hamaguchi is evidently a good filmmaker, but Drive My Car doesn’t push its cinematic style or form enough to earn its #1 spot.

I can count on one hand the number of inspired shots in Drive My Car, and this is one of them – a moment of shared understanding between its two central characters.

Best Directorial Debut

Passing. Rebecca Hall makes the leap from acting to directing with a complex examination of racial prejudice and identities in 1920s New York. She carries a bit of Paweł Pawlikowski’s style in her blocking of actors on the edges of her frames and her choice to shoot in black-and-white, but it is especially in her use of shallow focus to obscure our perception of this hazy world that she dedicates the film to a specific aesthetic and follows through on it to the end.

Already we can see an artist following in the footsteps of Paweł Pawlikowski, carefully composing these black-and-white shots that push actors right to the edges of the frame.

Gem to Spotlight

The Hand of God. Paolo Sorrentino made one of the best films of the year in 2013 with The Great Beauty which feels very much like a Federico Fellini tribute, and he draws the connection even closer with this semi-autobiographical, coming-of-age story set in 80s Italy. There is a theological sense of destiny woven through its narrative parallels of Italian folklore, sporting legends, and cinema culture, and he binds it all together some exquisite visual artistry.

Italy’s mysticism and sporting history intermingle in The Hand of God, pervading Paolo Sorrentino’s semi-autobiographical film with an abundance of metaphors.

Best Male Performance

Oscar Isaac is one of the most consistently great actors currently working, but the performance he gives in The Card Counter is an achievement that is only second to his career-best work in Inside Llewyn Davis. He is morose and austere, gazing out at the world from beneath heavy lids with an unblinking focus, making him perfectly suited to Paul Schrader’s deeply self-reflective character study of regret, self-discipline, and atonement.

Timothée Chalamet proves he can lead blockbusters as much as he can indie dramas with Dune, and he carries the archetypal character of Paul Atreides with great emotional weight. So too does Dev Patel accomplish something similar in The Green Knight with his grand medieval quest, subverting conventions of the hero’s quest facing up to the consequences of his own rashness.

This is a very different role from Oscar Isaac’s breakthrough in Inside Llewyn Davis, but the character of William Tell in The Card Counter draws on his talent for quiet, weary introspection.

If Joaquin Phoenix‘s contorted performance in Joker was expressionism, then his role as the awkward uncle Johnny in C’mon C’mon is pure realism – a very purposeful shift on his part that shows off his range, proving he can play sweet and wholesome just as well as he does dark and intense.

Bradley Cooper is the perfect showman and con artist in Nightmare Alley as Stanton Carlisle, but he also knows when to turn it down, making for a particularly haunting delivery of his final line. Benedict Cumberbatch claims a mention for The Power of the Dog, playing against type as gruff, menacing rancher Phil, and then gradually peeling back the layers to his vulnerability. Lastly, Joel Edgerton is given the role of the villainous slave catcher Arnold Ridgeway in The Underground Railroad, and still finds a surprising nuance in his backstory.

A huge leap forward in Dev Patel’s career, undergoing a subversive mythical journey towards his own inevitable doom.

Best Female Performance

Kristen Stewart takes the number one spot of the year, and it isn’t terribly close. Before Spencer it was a common misconception that she is a poor actress, but she proves all the doubters wrong in her portrayal of Princess Diana, playing the doomed royal not as how history has recorded her, but as a subjective rendering of her own unstable psychology. I previously underrated Rebecca Ferguson in Dune, but a recent re-watch proved that she rivals Timothee Chalamet with the best performance of the film. She is there every step of the way as Lady Jessica, carrying the burden of her son’s arc as the unsung hero.

Frances McDormand wields a skilful control over the weighty and loquacious material of The Tragedy of Macbeth, returning to her theatrical roots and proving Lady Macbeth to be an incredibly natural fit for her. Last of all, Thuso Mbedu pulls off a great feat of endurance in carrying Barry Jenkins’ epic series The Underground Railroad, carrying its heavy emotional stakes through its most punishing moments.

There may never be a film so uniquely suited to Kristen Stewart’s talents as this stifled, subjective portrait of Princess Diana.

Best Cinematography: The French Dispatch

1. The French DispatchRobert Yeoman
2. The Tragedy of MacbethBruno Delbonnel
3. The Underground RailroadJames Laxton
4. The Green KnightAndrew Droz Palermo
5. Nightmare AlleyDan Lausten
6. DuneGreig Fraser
7. West Side StoryJanusz Kaminsi
8. The Power of the DogAri Wegner
9. PassingEduard Grau
10. SpencerClaire Mathon
11. The Hand of GodDaria D’Antonio
12. BelfastHaris Zambarloukos
Deep focus and perfect blocking in The French Dispatch. There is not a single thing in the frame that Wes Anderson hasn’t carefully selected and placed there himself.

Best Editing: Dune

1. DuneJoe Walker
2. C’mon C’monJennifer Vecchiarello
3. Last Night in SohoPaul Machliss
4. The French DispatchAndrew Weisblum
5. The Underground RailroadJoi McMillon
6. The Green KnightDavid Lowery
7. After YangKoganada
8. West Side StoryMichael Kahn, Sarah Broshar
The editing achievements of Dune are many – the discontinuity when the “voice” is used, the montages of visions, and the spectacular action editing stand among them.

Best Screenplay: The Card Counter

1. The Card CounterPaul Schrader
2. DuneJon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve, Eric Roth
3. The Green KnightDavid Lowery
4. The French DispatchWes Anderson
5. C’mon C’monMike Mills
6. BelfastKenneth Branagh
7. The Worst Person in the WorldEskil Vogt, Joachim Trier
8. A HeroAsghar Farhadi
9. The Power of the DogJane Campion
This is a Paul Schrader screenplay through and through with the troubled antihero, voiceover, and search for redemption.

Best Music Scores

1. DuneHans Zimmer
2. SpencerJonny Greenwood
3. The Underground RailroadNicholas Britell
4. The French DispatchAlexandre Desplat
5. The Power of the DogJonny Greenwood
6. The Green KnightDaniel Hart
8. PassingDevonte Hynes
9. Nightmare AlleyNathan Johnson
10. C’mon C’monAaron and Bryce Dessner
Hans Zimmer invented entirely new instruments for this score, creating a sound that is both familiar in its orchestrations and entirely foreign in its timbre and modality.

Year Breakdown

After a disappointing down year, the film industry came roaring back in 2021 with many postponed films finally getting their release. The French Dispatch is notable among these – had it been released according to its original schedule, 2020 might have been able to lay claim to at least a single masterpiece. No Time to Die also made headlines as the first major film to have its release date pushed back, going for the complete opposite strategy as Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, and it was clearly the smarter decision in terms of profitmaking.

Spider-Man: No Way Home tops the box office, grossing a staggering $1.8 billion and bringing a jolt of life back to cinemas during the COVID-19 pandemic. No Time to Die, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and Eternals are also deservedly up there, but Dune is the defining blockbuster of the year where artistic quality and popularity collide. It is Denis Villeneuve’s highest grossing film yet, and further sets him up as an auteur for a generation.

Julia Ducournau wins the Palme d’Or with her body horror Titane, paying homage to David Cronenberg.

Julia Ducournau becomes the second female director after Jane Campion to win the Palme d’Or, disturbing audiences at Cannes Film Festival with her vehicular body horror Titane, while over at the Academy some truly strange choices are made awarding Best Picture to CODA – easily the weakest winner in a long time. It was clearly the sentimental pick and has solid representation of the deaf community, but there is absolutely no visual artistry behind it and much of the writing is as flat as anything you would find on the Hallmark channel.

Streaming services were the saving grace of 2020, and they remain strong here. The Tragedy of Macbeth is the first time Apple TV Plus has produced a film of this quality, and Amazon Prime Video has continued to get behind bold visionary auteurs with The Green Knight and The Underground Railroad. Netflix is also in the game, picking up Rebecca Hall’s stunning debut Passing and bringing back Jane Campion after her 12-year break with The Power of the Dog. Adam McKay also concludes his freak-out trilogy (The Big Short, Vice) on Netflix with Don’t Look Up – the weakest of the three but still worthy of praise for its editing and performances.

You don’t find quality television like The Underground Railroad very often – as far as I’m concerned this is a cinematic epic which stands among the best long-form films.

During this early period of recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, a trend emerged of films calling back to theatrical and musical roots. We have three great classical auteurs working in the realm of Shakespearean tragedy (The Tragedy of Macbeth, West Side Story, House of Gucci), and the works of playwrights Anton Chekhov and Samuel Beckett play significant roles in Drive My Car. When it comes to musicals, we have West Side Story, Cyrano, Annette, and Tick, Tick… Boom!. This trend is largely led by familiar auteurs like Steven Spielberg, Joe Wright, and Leos Carax dipping their toe in the genre, and Lin-Manuel Miranda joins them with his directorial debut.

Lastly, black-and-white cinematography has had a resurgence of late, but with The Tragedy of Macbeth, C’mon C’mon, Passing, sections of The French Dispatch, and Belfast, 2021 proves to be a particularly significant year here. I would hesitate to put the influence solely down to Roma from 2018, but its impact is certainly at least felt in the rise of memory pieces based on directors’ childhoods, with both Belfast and The Hand of God explicitly crediting Alfonso Cuaron’s recent masterpiece.

C’mon C’mon features elegant black-and-white photography in its endless flow of naturalistic montages.

Year Archives

A HeroAsghar FarhadiHR
After YangKoganadaHR
AnnetteLeos CaraxR
A Quiet Place Part IIJohn KrasinskiR
Barb and Star Go to Vista del MarJosh GreenbaumR
BelfastKenneth BranaghHR
BenedettaPaul VerhoevenR
BenedictionTerence DaviesR
Bergman IslandMia Hansen-LøveR
Blue BayouJustin ChonR
C’mon C’monMike MillsHR/MS
CyranoJoe WrightR
Don’t Look UpAdam McKayR
Drive My CarRyusuke HamaguchiR
DuneDenis VilleneuveMS
EternalsChloé ZhaoR
House of GucciRidley ScottR
Judas and the Black MessiahShaka KingR
LambValdimar JóhannssonR
Last Night in SohoEdgar WrightHR
Licorice PizzaPaul Thomas AndersonR/HR
MemoriaApichatpong WeerasethakulHR
Nightmare AlleyGuillermo del ToroHR/MS
No Sudden MoveSteven SoderberghR
No Time to DieCary Joji FukunagaR
Parallel MothersPedro AlmodóvarR/HR
PassingRebecca HallHR
Petite MamanCéline SciammaR
PigMichael SarnoskiR
Red RocketSean BakerR
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten RingsDestin Daniel CrettonR
SpencerPablo LarraínHR/MS
Squid GameHwang Dong-hyukR
The Card CounterPaul SchraderMS
The DigSimon StoneR
The Eyes of Tammy FayeMichael ShowalterR
The French DispatchWes AndersonMP
The Green KnightDavid LoweryMS/MP
The Hand of GodPaolo SorrentinoHR
The Last DuelRidley ScottR
The Lost DaughterMaggie GyllenhaalR
The Power of the DogJane CampionHR
The Souvenir Part IIJoanna HoggR/HR
The Suicide SquadJames GunnR
The Tragedy of MacbethJoel CoenMS
The Underground RailroadBarry JenkinsMS
The Worst Person in the WorldJoachim TrierHR
Tick, Tick… Boom!Lin-Manuel MirandaR
TitaneJulia DucournauR
West Side StorySteven SpielbergHR
Wheel of Fortune and FantasyRyusuke HamaguchiR
Guillermo del Toro is one of our great modern day expressionists, and there are sequences from Nightmare Alley which feel directly inspired by The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.


FleeJonas Poher Rasmussen
Flee follows in the lineage of animated documentaries typified by 2008’s Waltz with Bashir, considering the blurred line between history and memory.

The Best Films of 2020

Top 10 of the Year

1. I’m Thinking of Ending ThingsCharlie Kaufman
2. NomadlandChloé Zhao
3. MankDavid Fincher
4. Small AxeSteve McQueen
5. Promising Young WomanEmerald Fennell
6. Pieces of a WomanKornél Mundruczó
7. The FatherFlorian Zeller
8. TenetChristopher Nolan
9. WolfwalkersTomm Moore, Ross Stewart
10. Shiva BabyEmma Seligman

Best Film

I’m Thinking of Ending Things. There are not many years in movie history that lack a clear masterpiece. Fortunately, this is not a result of untalented contemporary filmmakers, but rather of many movies originally slated for 2020 being pushed to 2021 due to the pandemic. None of this should undercut Charlie Kaufman’s achievement in I’m Thinking of Ending Things though, which is his most visually audacious work yet. It is formally experimental in its ironic play on horror conventions, eroding all sense of time and character identities, and it all builds towards a surreal psychological drama meditating on ageing, isolation, and lost potential. Cryptic, elusive, and intensely moving in unexpected ways – not many screenwriters-turned-directors explore the cinematic potential of their intelligent scripts as well as Kaufman does here.

As one would expect from Charlie Kaufman, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is incredibly formally complex and rewards multiple viewings, letting us piece together the truth of its absurd, illogical world bit by bit.

Most Underrated

Pieces of a Woman. This is missing from the TSPDT 21st Century list, which is ridiculous for any film with camerawork as audacious as this. Its value isn’t all just in that astounding 22-minute long take of the heartbreaking home birth near the start of the film either. The script is driven by grief, anger, and heartbreak, and it is also so formally grounded in the abundance of metaphors (the bridge, the apple seeds).

Impeccable camerawork, acting, and writing in Pieces of a Woman, driven by a complicated jumble of hard-hitting emotions.

Most Overrated

Never Rarely Sometimes Always. This is a film that winds up at #3 of 2020 on TSPDT, but doesn’t find a spot in my top 10 here. It is a fantastic piece of social realism about a pregnant teenager travelling to New York to find a Planned Parenthood clinic, and the struggles around that. There is also a scene in it that displays the talents of young actress Sidney Flanagan, whose facial expressions tell an entire story that words alone could never express. Eliza Hittman makes the smart decision to hang on her face for five whole minutes here, but she just doesn’t have as developed an artistic voice as other directors with films ahead of her on my list.

Gritty, ugly emotion pairs well with the social realism of Never Rarely Sometimes Always, isolating us in the hostile environment of New York City.

Best Directorial Debut

Promising Young Woman. Emerald Fennell comes out firing with this revenge thriller. It is a complex balance of conflicting tones possessing a powerful narrative drive, and her use of pastel colours and symmetrical compositions reveals a director with an already developed style. It is also endlessly rewatchable – a sure sign of a film with a long shelf life.

Emerald Fennell conducts a fine balance of conflicting tones in Promising Young Women, but she also crafts these indelible, candy-coloured compositions, framing Mulligan with a halo behind her head like an avenging angel.

Gem to Spotlight

Small Axe. Many arguments have been had on whether to classify this as a miniseries or several distinct films. There isn’t much arguing against its cinematic power as a whole though, and with a director like Steve McQueen at the helm it easily transcends every other piece of television from 2020. The strength of this anthology is the Lover’s Rock instalment, but even in the weakest there is plenty to appreciate. This is McQueen’s ode to the West Indian communities living in London in the 1960s to 80s, making small acts of revolution, reform, and celebration that each build on each other to reveal the slow, spinning wheel of progress across decades.

Steve McQueen has been on a flawless run ever since his debut in 2008 with Hunger, and his venture into television continues that winning streak.

Best Male Performance

Gary Oldman comes out on top with one of the best performances of his career in Mank. It isn’t easy handling such a wordy script of double entendres and witticisms, but he takes charge of this character study, delivering allegorical monologues with drunken confidence and theatricality. Behind him, John Boyega commands another character study in Red, White and Blue, an instalment of Small Axe about Leroy Logan – a founding member of the Black Police Association in the UK who attempted to reform the police from within its own ranks.

Jesse Plemmons gets the final mention for his part in I’m Thinking of Ending Things. He has been on the rise for about a decade by this point, and he finally gets a part large enough in Kaufman’s film to earn him a mention. This film is basically a window in his depressed, unstable, ageing mind, though it takes a while for us to realise this.

This could very well be Gary Oldman’s crowning achievement – Herman J. Mankiewicz is loud, verbose, and a master of double entendre.

Best Female Performance

Jessie Buckley’s ever-shifting persona in I’m Thinking of Ending Things turns on us in an eerie way. She is our protagonist, offering a voiceover which we immediately attach to as a source of stability, and with Buckley’s deep voice and confident presence, we have no reason to question it. Then bit by bit she undermines that and we are left stranded, grasping for answers.

After Buckley, Vanessa Kirby claims a mention for her gut-wrenching performance in Pieces of a Woman, exerting such fine control over both the subtler moments of depression and the passionate outbursts of a grieving mother. Frances McDormand also astounds with her understated work in Nomadland, naturally sliding into this piece of realism with a hardened sincerity that she is virtually synonymous with as an actress.

This list isn’t complete without mentioning Carey Mulligan either. She is broken, dry, intelligent, funny, and heartbreaking in Promising Young Woman – a mess of emotions she sorts through with great precision.

Jessie Buckley confidently becomes our grounded, leading woman in I’m Thinking of Ending Things, and then very slyly starts pulling out the rug from beneath us.

Best Cinematography: Nomadland

1. NomadlandJoshua James Richard
2. Pieces of a WomanBenjamin Leob
3. I’m Thinking of Ending ThingsŁukasz Żal
4. MankErik Messerschmidt
5. Small AxeShabier Kirchner
6. Promising Young WomanBenjamin Kracun
With Nomadland, Chloé Zhao delivers on the promise she showed in The Rider. She comes from the school of Terrence Malick – that is, a director who can capture magic hour lighting at its most jaw-dropping.

Best Editing: I’m Thinking of Ending Things

1. I’m Thinking of Ending ThingsRobert Frazen
2. TenetJennifer Lame
3. MankKirk Baxter
4. Promising Young WomanFrederic Thoraval
5. Small AxeChris Dickens, Steve McQueen
6. The FatherYorgos Lamprinos
When we aren’t trapped in the seemingly timeless void of Jake’s family home or the perspective-shifting school, Kaufman lands us in these long car rides where the editing keeps moving forward at a deliberate pace, putting a distance between both characters.

Best Screenplay: I’m Thinking of Ending Things

1. I’m Thinking of Ending ThingsCharlie Kaufman
2. MankJack Fincher
3. Promising Young WomanEmerald Fennell
4. Pieces of a WomanKata Wéber
5. Small AxeSteve McQueen, Courttia Newland, Alastair Siddons
6. The FatherFlorian Zeller, Christopher Hampton
You can feel the Franz Kafka influence in Charlie Kaufman’s writing, trapping his characters in worlds that are simultaneously whimsical and oppressive.

Best Original Music Score: I’m Thinking of Ending Things

1. I’m Thinking of Ending ThingsJay Wadley
2. TenetLudwig Göransson
3. MankTrent Reznor, Atticus Ross
4. Pieces of a WomanHoward Shore
5. NomadlandLudovico Einaudi
The flutes, piano, and guitar of Jay Wadley’s score in I’m Thinking of Ending Things keeps the discomfort at bay for a while, before giving way to more eerie sounds – and then finally erupting in this gorgeous ballet which captures the poignancy of it all.

2020 was a disappointing down year for cinema, and it is plain to see why – the COVID-19 pandemic hit hard, pushing many films forward to 2021, and entirely halting production on others. There are no masterpieces to be found, and there is disappointing depth in the overall quality, with a couple of fringy top 10 films making its way onto the final list. The upside of postponing many blockbuster films though means the increased spotlight on smaller arthouse films, including the gorgeous indie animation, Wolfwalkers.

In terms of great established auteurs, we have new films from David Fincher, Steve McQueen, Spike Lee, Sofia Coppola, Charlie Kaufman, and Christopher Nolan to carry us over. Five of them had their films distributed on streaming services, and praise must be given to Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Apple TV+ for picking up such bold auteurs, as well providing a viewing alternative while cinemas were closed.

There is a beautiful formal contrast drawn in the court and country of Wolfwalkers – rigid boxes and lines within the castle, and free-flowing curves all through the forest.

Nolan is the outlier among the flock. His decision to stick by releasing Tenet in cinemas during the pandemic was disastrous in terms of box office, and its divisiveness certainly didn’t help. It is no doubt a flawed film with a lot of heavy exposition, though its artistic ambition in its action choreography and reverse photography is admirable.

Unfortunately, none of the above-mentioned directors are doing their best work this year, with one major exception – Charlie Kaufman might have actually outdone Synecdoche, New York with his darkly absurdist, psychological thriller I’m Think of Ending Things. There are a lot of writers-turned-directors who struggle with the transition and can’t quite find the visual language to match their screenplays, but it is safe to say by now that he has pulled it off with flair.

Nomadland is the well-deserved Best Picture Winner at the Oscars this year, seeing Chloé Zhao ascend to new heights in Hollywood, while for the first time since 1968, there is no Palme d’Or awarded due to Cannes Film Festival being cancelled. It isn’t even worth looking at the highest grossing films of the year as an indicator of where the culture was at – with cinemas shutting down in March and streaming services taking over from there, 2020’s top earners are a bizarre collection of forgettable movies. Overall, this is just a weird void of a year for cinema.

Tenet is not without its flaws, and may very well be one of Christopher Nolan’s weaker efforts, but at the same time there is no one else who could have directed a film as daringly inventive as this.

Film Archives

Another RoundThomas VinterbergR
AntebellumGerard Bush, Christopher Renz R/HR
Da 5 BloodsSpike LeeR
Emma.Autumn de WildeR
ExtractionSam HargraveR
I Know This Much Is TrueDerek CianfranceR
I’m Thinking of Ending ThingsCharlie KaufmanMS
KajillionaireMiranda JulyR
MankDavid FincherMS
MinariLee Isaac ChungR/HR
Never Rarely Sometimes AlwaysEliza HittmanR
NomadlandChloé ZhaoMS
On the RocksSofia CoppolaR
Palm SpringsMax BarbakowR
Pieces of a WomanKornél MundruczóHR
Promising Young WomanEmerald FennellHR
RelicNatalie Erika JamesR
Shiva BabyEmma SeligmanR/HR
Small AxeSteve McQueenHR/MS
SoulPete DocterR
TenetChristopher NolanHR
The Devil All the TimeAntonio CamposR
The FatherFlorian ZellerHR
The Invisible ManLeigh WhannellR
The NestSean DurkinR
The Queen’s GambitScott FrankR
UndineChristian PetzoldR
UnorthodoxMaria SchraderR
We Are Who We AreLuca GuadagninoR
WolfwalkersTomm Moore, Ross StewartR/HR


Dick Johnson is DeadKirsten Johnson
Using cinema as a medium to wrestle with the inevitability of death while loved ones are still alive – this is inspired documentary filmmaking from Kirsten Johnston, blending artifice and reality.

Short Films

If Anything Happens I Love YouWill McCormack, Michael Govier
Minimalism and austerity in If Anything Happens I Love You detailing a silent, heartbreaking story.

The Best Films of 2019

Top 10 of the Year

1. Vitalina VarelaPedro Costa
2. MidsommarAri Aster
3. About EndlessnessRoy Andersson
4. Once Upon a Time in HollywoodQuentin Tarantino
5. Ad AstraJames Gray
6. ParasiteBong Joon-ho
7. The IrishmanMartin Scorsese
8. WavesTrey Edward Shults
9. A Hidden LifeTerrence Malick
10. 1917Sam Mendes

Best Film

Vitalina Varela. Pedro Costa’s darkly-lit, glacially paced character study of a woman’s grief may be one of the more obscure films in my top 10, but even in this year loaded with masterpieces, it manages to come out on top. Vitalina Varela is also the name of the non-professional actress playing herself, wandering the gloomy remnants of her deceased husband’s derelict home in a decaying Portuguese village, and as Costa studies her grief and resentment, he hypnotically slips through a series of cinematic paintings that challenge us to peel back the layers of its solemn visual poetry. His rigorous presentation of such an immersive visual style effectively sets Vitalina Varela up as a work of astounding formal beauty, meticulously rendered through static tableaux that demand patience from its audience.

The stillness of Vitalina Varela is trying and inaccessible to mainstream audiences – but sit with this and Costa’s glacial meditation on grief and contempt sinks its teeth into you.

Most Underrated

About Endlessness. Roy Andersson’s deadpan gallery of absurd dioramas is missing from the TSPDT list entirely, meaning it isn’t considered to be in the top 31 films of 2019. It is a meditation on war, loss of faith, and a binding love that pulls us through the miasma of the mundane. But even more than this, it is about exactly what its title states – the concept of infinity, which we can either perceive as soothing or terrifying. It very much follows in the style and form he has been returning to for almost 20 years of rigorously presented tableaux, though he also weaves through a voiceover which delivers observations of its scenes ranging from unassumingly basic to beautifully profound. Such is the nature of eternity’s rhythmic ebb and flow.

A stunning formal break from Andersson’s static tableaux lands halfway through About Endlessness, with his camera slowly gliding over this derelict city. Just about the definition of a cinematic painting.

Most Overrated

First Cow. This might have ended up in the top 10 if 2019 was any weaker. Unfortunately for Kelly Reichardt though, this is one of the strongest years in film history, and #4 is far too generous given the competition. Much like McCabe & Mrs Miller, First Cow often feels like it is skirting around the edges of America’s grand historical legends in the Old West, letting every instance of violence play offscreen while we sit patiently with those who traditionally go unnoticed. This is a microcosm of modern society – a region where almost everyone is an immigrant looking to tame this strange, unfamiliar environment, only to find the cogs of capitalism at work, forcing the disadvantaged into petty crime just to get ahead. With some fantastic, authentic production design on its side as well, it is certainly an admirable film, but far from the top 5 of the year.

This fable of capitalism and corruption set in 1820s Oregon is rich in its subtext and storytelling.

Best Directorial Debut

Swallow. Carlo Mirabella-Davis sets up a disturbing character study here of a housewife slowly taking back control of the life she handed over to her domineering husband – something she achieves by eating small objects like marbles, tacks, and trinkets. The oppressive lines and angles of her house feel very inspired by Todd Haynes’ psychological drama Safe, and our central character seems to blend right into the light colour palettes of her surroundings. This a very visually inspired yet uncomfortable piece of body horror, boding well for Mirabella-Davis’ future efforts.

A lot of directors can only hope of directing a debut this formally layered and stylistically lush. Swallow is very much a psychological twist on more traditional melodramas like those from Douglas Sirk.

Gem to Spotlight

The Souvenir. There is a quiet frustration in seeing haughty intellectual Anthony emotionally manipulate ambitious film student Julie in The Souvenir, but Joanna Hogg’s autobiographical self-reflection on toxic young love takes a touchingly nuanced understanding of the matter. This is a gently paced study of flawed characters, and the frequent symmetry of Hogg’s compositions is integral to the framing of this tempestuous relationship, shooting her actors through corridors and doorways that open into small, isolated frames. Julie is a woman not yet fully sure of the space she inhabits in the world, but Hogg quietly reassures us – she’s getting there, even despite her many blunders and setbacks.

Easily among the most powerful closing shots of the year in The Souvenir – a daunting frame as Julie embraces new beginnings and heads out into the world.

Best Male Performance

Adam Driver solidifies his 2010s reign with his single greatest performance in Marriage Story – a raw, naturalistic display of bitterness, regret, fury, love, and resignation. Charlie Barber is a thorny, complex character who has cheated on his wife, built a prosperous career, proved himself to be a loving father, and is now finding it all ripped away from him in his divorce. Like his wife, he makes some impulsive mistakes in the heat of the moment, and when Driver delivers venomous lines like “Everyday I wake up and I hope you’re dead!” you can feel both the savageness of the barb and the tender sensitivity of the wound it comes from. This is pure, psychological pain rendered onscreen.

Next, Brad Pitt has the slightly better year than his Once Upon a Time in Hollywood co-star Leonardo DiCaprio for also leading James Gray’s space epic, Ad Astra, with quiet introspection. Solely within Tarantino’s hang-out film though, their achievements are relatively even, displaying humour and charm as old friends ruefully coming to the end of their careers in the film industry.

Adam Driver’s greatest performance to date as Charlie Barber – a raw, naturalistic display of bitterness, regret, fury, love, and resignation.

Joaquin Phoenix’s take on the Joker in Todd Phillip’s psychological thriller is pure expressionism, like a character lifted from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and twisted into a disturbed clown. He is hunched, painfully cackling, and unhealthily gaunt.

Al Pacino and Joe Pesci beat out their co-star Robert de Niro who sadly won’t get a mention here for The Irishman. Pacino is loud, bombastic, and incredibly likeable as the leader of the Teamsters, while Pesci comes out of retirement to play against type as the more level-headed of the two.

Coming towards the end of these mentions, Adam Sandler proves again that he is more than just a lowbrow comedian in the thriller Uncut Gems, though he still gets his own share of dark humour. His descent feels like watching a train crash in slow motion, heading towards inevitable disaster through a series of bad choices. Lastly, Song Kang-ho gives the single best performance in Parasite’s ensemble as the father of the Kim family, suffering the prejudice of his employers.

Joaquin Phoenix is a collection of askew, contorted angles in Joker. A complete commitment to the madness of the most iconic comic book villain.

Best Female Performance

Florence Pugh’s major breakthrough comes in the last year of the decade in two of 2019’s best films, Midsommar and Little Women. Her portrayal of Amy is certainly deserving of praise, but it is her performance as the severely traumatised Dani which marks her as a truly special talent worth watching. When we first meet her, she is on edge, unable to make contact with her sister, and then a few minutes later we see her at her lowest point – awful, guttural sobs erupt from deep in her chest, making the sort of noise no human should be able to make. From there, she undergoes a drastic transformation and brainwashing at the hands of the Swedish cult at the film’s centre, and in its very final shot, leaves us with an uncomfortably cathartic smile in close-up. 

Pugh’s co-star in Little Women gets the second mention of the year – Saoirse Ronan gives the definitive take on literary heroine Jo March, beating out Katharine Hepburn with a performance that is bleeding with all the contradictions of adolescence and young adulthood. She is self-assured yet insecure, intelligent but reckless. Her line deliveries are so natural, stumbling over herself as she laments the position women are relegated to in society as wives, while expressing a profound loneliness in the exact same line.  

Trauma and catharsis in Florence Pugh’s character arc, finding the terror in both.

The second-last mention in this category rivals the two above her – Scarlett Johansson gives her most purely realistic performance to date in Marriage Story, chipping away at her image as sex symbol and revealing the true ugliness of divorce. Quite essentially, her rapport with Adam Driver opens up an incredibly rich, bitter relationship between them, and those scenes where they are just going at each other’s throats are some of the best. Johansson has proven her range before, but this still feels like yet another level for her.

A little bit below these towering top 3 performances is Haley Bennett for her work in Swallow. There is so much going on in those eyes, at times looking completely dazed and entranced, yet slowly clearing over the course of her character’s awakening. Laura Dern doesn’t have nearly as much screen time as Johansson playing her lawyer in Marriage Story, but she is a real scene stealer. Sometimes you’re not sure whether you love her or hate her, but this only speaks to the nuances she brings to the part.

The definitive Jo March put to film, even beating out Katharine Hepburn’s.

Best Cinematography: Vitalina Varela

1. Vitalina VarelaLeonardo Simões
2. 1917Roger Deakins
3. MidsommarPawel Pogorzelski
4. About EndlessnessGergely Pálos
5. A Hidden LifeJorg Widmer
6. Ad AstraHoyte van Hoytema
7. Once Upon a Time in HollywoodRobert Richardson
8. WavesDrew Daniels
9. JokerLawrence Shur
10. SwallowKatelin Arizmendi
11. ParasiteHong Kyung-pyo
12. The SouvenirDavid Raedeker
13. Portrait of a Lady on FireClaire Mathon
14. Little WomenYorick Le Saux
15. The LighthouseJarin Blaschke
16. The IrishmanRodrigo Pietro
Dilapidated architecture and suffocating darkness presses in on Costa’s characters from virtually every direction, you can barely tell the difference between interiors and exteriors.

Best Editing: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

1. Once Upon a Time in HollywoodFred Raskin
2. Little WomenNick Huoy
3. A Hidden LifeRehman Nizar Ali, Joe Gleason, Sebastian Jones
4. MidsommarLucian Johnston
5. WavesTrey Edward Shults, Isaac Hagy
6. Marriage StoryJennifer Lame
7. ParasiteYang Jin-mo
8. The IrishmanThelma Schoonmaker
9. The LighthouseLouise Ford
10. JokerJeff Growth
11. Uncut GemsRonald Bronstein, Benny Safdie
Much of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood drifts by at a comfortable pace, but Fred Raskin also knows how to turn the tension up in the Spahn Ranch scene, and of course the build-up to the final, violent confrontation.

Best Screenplay: Marriage Story

1. Marriage StoryNoah Baumbach
2. ParasiteBong Joon-ho, Han Jin-won
3. MidsommarAri Aster
4. The IrishmanSteven Zaillian
5. Once Upon a Time in HollywoodQuentin Tarantino
6. The LighthouseRobert Eggers, Max Eggers
7. Little WomenGreta Gerwig
8. Ad AstraJames Gray, Ethan Gross
9. The SouvenirJoanna Hogg
10. Uncut GemsRonald Bronstein, Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie
11. About EndlessnessRoy Andersson
12. Portrait of a Lady on FireCéline Sciamma
13. A Hidden LifeTerrence Malick
14. SwallowCarlo Mirabella-Davis
Noah Baumbach writes the character relationships of Marriage Story with so much moral complexity and sincerity, committing to the realism of their many-layered conflicts.

Best Original Music Score: Midsommar

1. MidsommarBobby Krlic
2. A Hidden LifeJames Newton Howard
3. 1917Thomas Newman
4. ParasiteJung Jae II
5. JokerHildur Guonadottir
6. Little WomenAlexandre Desplat
7. The LighthouseMark Korven
8. Marriage StoryRandy Newman
9. SwallowNathan Halpern
10. WavesTrent Reznor, Atticus Ross
11. Uncut GemsOneohtrix Point Never
12. Ad AstraMax Richter
Bobby Krlic’s score for Midsommar wails with its characters and shimmers with the dazzling, bright daylight – remarkable and unconventional scoring for a horror film.

Year Breakdown

2019 is the best year of film this decade, and the only real competition is 2017 – but not even that can compete with the seven masterpieces here. When you have a film as strong as 1917 just barely cracking the top 10 list, you know that there are going to be some brilliant ones left off, so it is worth shouting out Little Women, Marriage Story, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire which would all make appearances in any ordinary year. This is also the year before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the industry hard and sunk the quality of films for a short while – perhaps the universe knew what was coming and lined this up for us.

I am sorely uneducated on Pedro Costa’s career (the only other film of his I have seen is 1997’s admirable Ossos), but Vitalina Varela feels huge for him, landing in the #1 spot of an already crowded year. In fact, there is a huge wealth of established auteurs working at the height of the powers and creating their single best films to date – Bong Joon-ho (Parasite), James Gray (Ad Astra), Ari Aster (Midsommar), Sam Mendes (1917), Greta Gerwig (Little Women), and Noah Baumbach (Marriage Story) to name a few. Meanwhile, Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, and Terrence Malick are heading towards the tail-end of their careers, and yet are still putting out hugely impressive works of cinema that land in the top 10 of the year.

Parasite makes history in multiple ways this year, dominating the awards circuit and playing to both arthouse and mainstream audiences. It grosses almost $300 million, wins the Palme d’Or, becomes the first non-English language film to win Best Picture at the Oscars, and climbs to the #1 spot on Letterboxd’s ‘Top 250 Narrative Feature Films’ list. It is also the third film in history after The Lost Weekend (1945) and Marty (1955) to win both big prizes at the Academy Awards and Cannes Film Festival.

Parasite dominates the awards circuit in 2019 with its painful evisceration of Korea’s class hierarchy.

Thematically, Bong’s film is part of a 2019 trend which saw socially-conscious films take aim at class inequality, joining Us, Knives Out, Hustlers, and The Last Black Man in San Francisco in this vein. This may speak less to what’s going on in the world of cinema than it does the world at large though, with directors using the medium as an outlet for their own frustrations and filtering them through a wide expansive of genres.

Despite the Parasite-mania, Avengers: Endgame is the bigger talking point among mainstream audiences at large, becoming the highest grossing film of the year, and the second-highest grossing film of all time. It also ends a massive decade-spanning saga in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is an entertaining watch, but there is little argument to be had regarding its value as a piece of art. The superior comic book movie of the year is quite easily Joker, which features some brilliant expressionistic filmmaking from Todd Phillips and one of the genre’s finest performances from Joaquin Phoenix.

It’s official – Malick is back on form with A Hidden Life, recovering from his post-Tree of Life slump.

Film Archives

1917Sam MendesMS
A Beautiful Day in the NeighbourhoodMarielle HellerR
A Hidden LifeTerrence MalickMS
About EndlessnessRoy AnderssonMP
Ad AstraJames GrayMP
BombshellJay RoachR
BooksmartOlivia WildeR
ChernobylJohan RenckR
Doctor SleepMike FlanaganR
El Camino: A Breaking Bad MovieVince GilliganR
Extremely Wicked, Shocking Evil and VileJoe BerlingerR
First CowKelly ReichhardtHR
Ford v FerrariJames MangoldR
HustlersLorene ScafariaR
I Lost My BodyJérémy ClapinR
Jojo RabbitTaika WaititiR
JokerTodd PhillipsHR
KlausSergio PablosR
Knives OutRian JohnsonR
Little WomenGreta GerwigMS
Marriage StoryNoah BaumbachMS
MidsommarAri AsterMP
Once Upon a Time in HollywoodQuentin TarantinoMP
ParasiteBong Joon-hoMP
Portrait of a Lady on FireCéline SciammaMS
Richard JewellClint EastwoodR
RocketmanDexter FletcherR
Sound of MetalDarius MarderR
SwallowCarlo Mirabella-DavisHR/MS
The FarewellLulu WangR/HR
The IrishmanMartin ScorseseMS/MP
The Last Black Man in San FranciscoJoe TalbotR
The LighthouseRobert EggersHR
The Peanut Butter FalconTyler Nilson, Michael SchwartzR
The SouvenirJoanna HoggHR
The Two PopesFernando MeirellesR
Toy Story 4Josh CooleyR
Uncut GemsThe Safdie BrothersHR
UsJordan PeeleR
Vitalina VarelaPedro CostaMP
WavesTrey Edward ShultsMS/MP


American FactorySteven Bognar, Julia Reichert
HoneylandTamara Kotevska, Ljubomir Stefanov
For SamaWaad Al-Kateab, Edward Watts
FyreChris Smith
Honeyland is unusually beautiful for a documentary, soaking in the golden hues of the sunlight, and observing the daily routines of a reclusive Macedonian beekeeper.

Short Films

NimicYorgos Lanthimos
Nimic is Yorgos Lanthimos’ brief experiment with short filmmaking, but with its eerie copycat premise, it is just as absurd as anything else he has made.

The Best Films of 2018

Top 10 of the Year

1. RomaAlfonso Cuarón
2. Cold WarPaweł Pawlikowski 
3. The FavouriteYorgos Lanthimos
4. BurningLee Chang-dong
5. HereditaryAri Aster
6. WidowsSteve McQueen
7. ClimaxGasper Noé
8. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-VerseBob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman
9. If Beale Street Could TalkBarry Jenkins
10. Ash is Purest WhiteJia Zhangke

Best Film

Roma. Alfonso Cuarón had already asserted his place among the best directors of his generation in the 2000s with Children of Men, and backed it up in 2013 with Gravity. Roma takes that to a whole new level – it is a supreme achievement of black-and-white photography, aural design, camera pans, mise-en-scène, formal symbolism, and neorealism that makes almost every other film in history pale in comparison. It is also a window into Cuarón’s childhood in 1970s Mexico, filtered through the eyes of his family maid who sits on the periphery of their everyday lives. It is currently my #2 film of the decade behind The Tree of Life, but there is very little space separating them.

Roma is a memory piece on another level, soaked in the detail of 1970s Mexico as Cuarón remembers it from his childhood.

Most Underrated

Widows. #33 of the year on TSPDT is far too low for Steve McQueen’s bold swing into genre filmmaking. It still carries all the marks of an auteur in complete control of his work – the cool blue and green palettes, the audacious camerawork, the uncomfortably long takes – but it is also a riveting thriller narrative with a huge ensemble and smartly plotted twists. In effect, this is McQueen’s take on a Michael Mann urban crime drama, navigating the chaos and corruption of Chicago’s most powerful players with smooth, slick pacing.

McQueen’s most purely compelling narrative to date comes in the form of Widows, his take on a Michael Mann urban crime drama.

Most Overrated

Shoplifters. This is #4 of the year on TSPDT, and winner of the Palme d’Or – but I don’t see the evidence of its greatness onscreen beyond some decent writing of characters and their complex relationships. As director, Hirokazu Kore-eda seems a little passive.

Shoplifters is admirable to an extent, but there were better contenders for the Palme d’Or in 2018 than this.

Best Directorial Debut

Hereditary. Ari Aster came onto the scene in 2018 and very quickly asserted himself as the leading horror filmmaker of the decade. It is legitimately surprising how fresh he can make this genre feel while playing to age-old conventions, and there is a lot to chew on in the subtext of the piece. But quite importantly, the accomplishment is not confined simply to writing. This is what sets him apart from other modern horror auteurs like Jordan Peele. There is painstaking direction in this – the use of miniatures, the long takes, and the rigorous symmetry are signs of an incredibly promising filmmaker.

Horror cinema reaches another peak in the 2010s with Ari Aster leading the way. You’re not the same person coming out of Hereditary as you were going in.

Gem to Spotlight

If Beale Street Could Talk. Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to Moonlight doesn’t quite reach the same heights, but it a transcendent piece of cinema nonetheless. In place of a traditional three-act structure, he opts for a non-linear narrative drifting around one young woman’s attempt to clear the name of her lover before she gives birth to their child. In place of Moonlight’s cool blue hues, he develops a warm, autumnal colour palette that seeps into every shot. It also features an astounding jazz score from Nicholas Britell which stands among the decade’s best – if nothing else tempts you, it is worth checking out for the music alone.

An indelible composition of colours here in If Beale Street Could Talk, shining the red umbrella bright above these young lovers as they walk through the rain.

Best Male Performance

A very light year in this category, led by Steven Yeun as the enigmatic burner of greenhouses, Ben. He is charming, but there is something off about him from the start of Burning that lies menacingly beneath the surface. The only other mention in this category is for Michael B. Jordan as one of the decade’s greatest villains. Killmonger is written with both empathy and complexity in Black Panther, and Jordan adds a huge dose of bombastic charisma into the mix as he swaggers into every scene in a blaze of fury, pain, and confidence.

Michael B. Jordan plays one of the better superhero villains in recent years, rich with both nuance and wounded anger.

Best Female Performance

Joanna Kulig looks like a sombre version of Jennifer Lawrence in Cold War, but she also delivers a mesmerising performance here that outdoes any from her American counterpart. Her character, Zula, is a singer picked up by a talent scout in rural Poland, and quickly finds success performing as an ambassador of Communist propaganda all across Europe. It is impossible to take your eyes off her as she sings a romantic, jazzy rendition of ‘Two Heart, Four Eyes’, or as she dances around a club to ‘Rock Around the Clock’, and Pawlikowski clearly feels the same way with his camera. The tragedy of the piece comes from the love she has for the talent scout who finds himself increasingly at odds with state politics, landing them in a decades-long affair that keeps bringing them together and tearing them apart, and through it all Kulig’s face betrays a great deal of heartbreak and regret.

Toni Collette sits at #2 for her part in Hereditary, joining a lineage of scream queens – quite unusually in her middle age. Places #3 to #5 are virtually tied between Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, and Rachel Weisz, each tied up in the knotty power struggle of Queen Anne’s royal court. The Favourite features one of the decade’s best screenplays complete with savage barbs, and each actress relishes chewing on the darkly funny web of character dynamics.

It was well-known before 2018 that Viola Davis possessed immense raw talent, but she finally gets a film that fully capitalises on that in Widows, which pivots much of its narrative upon her stern, commanding presence. Zhao Tao was another one who had been working for a long time, especially in her collaborations with Jia Zhangke, but she becomes a more powerful force than ever in Ash is Purest White, playing the lover of one mob boss across three chapters of her life. This is an epic character study of feminine strength and its moulding in the fiery heat of adversity, and she internalises that with hardy resilience. Lastly, Natalie Portman gets a nod for her leading part in Annihilation, as she journeys into the centre of the mysterious ‘Shimmer’.

Joanna Kulig is often sombre throughout Cold War, but when she lights up it is gorgeous to behold.

Best Cinematography: Roma

1. RomaAlfonso Cuarón
2. Cold WarŁukasz Żal
3. The FavouriteRobbie Ryan
4. ClimaxBenoît Debie
5. BurningHong Kyung-pyo
6. WidowsSean Bobbitt
7. If Beale Street Could TalkJames Laxton
8. HereditaryPaweł Pogorzelski
9. Black PantherRachel Morrison
Alfonso Cuarón acts as his own cinematographer for the first time in Roma, designing each frame to absolute perfection with a deep focus lens.

Best Editing: The Favourite

1. The FavouriteYorgos Mavropsaridis
2. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-VerseRobert Fisher Jr.
3. Cold WarJaroslaw Kaminski
4. HereditaryJennifer Lame, Lucian Johnston
5. WidowsJoe Walker
6. BlacKkKlansmanBarry Alexander Brown
The Favourite is sharp in its construction, every so so often slipping into these slow-motion sequences of absolute absurdity unfolding around Queen Anne’s court.

Best Screenplay: The Favourite

1. The FavouriteDeborah Davis, Tony McNamara
2. HereditaryAri Aster
3. WidowsSteve McQueen, Gillian Flynn
4. BurningOh Jung-mi, Lee Chang-dong
5. Sorry to Bother YouBoots Riley
6. RomaAlfonso Cuarón
7. Cold WarPaweł Pawlikowski, Janusz Głowacki, Piotr Borkowski
8. AnnihilationAlex Garland
The Favourite is two hours of a three-way verbal sparring match between Queen Anne, her adviser Sarah, and the opportunistic Abigail. Its political intrigue, absurdist black comedy, and cut-throat dialogue makes for the best screenplay Yorgos Lanthimos has worked with yet.

Best Original Music Score

1. If Beale Street Could TalkNicholas Britell
2. BurningMowg
3. HereditaryColin Stetson
4. WidowsHans Zimmer
5. Black PantherLudwig Göransson
6. AnnihilationBen Salisbury, Geoff Barrow
I can only hope that Nicholas Britell and Barry Jenkins’ partnership never comes to an end. If Beale Street Could Talk is infused with this soft, jazzy sound, gently permeating the tragic relationship at its centre.

Year Breakdown

There is no getting around the big story of the year – as mentioned above, Alfonso Cuarón’s staggering masterpiece, Roma, is the second-best film of the decade. It solidifies Nuevo Cine Mexicano as a dominant cinematic movement of the 21st century, Netflix as a major production company funding bold artistic visions, and Cuarón as one of the greatest working filmmakers, even if his output this decade was relatively light. If it weren’t for Roma, Paweł Pawlikowski would have topped the year for a second time this decade following his success with Ida. The similarities between that and Cold War are striking – both are foreign period films shot in crisp black-and-white, telling the tales of their respective director’s families. Looking forward into the 2020s, you can trace the trends of personal memories pieces by Paolo Sorrentino, Kenneth Branagh, and Steven Spielberg back to this moment in recent history.

Yorgos Lanthimos also transcends new heights with his most visually sumptuous film yet in The Favourite, as well as a script that cuts deep to the power hierarchies of Queen Anne’s court. He is a skilled director of offbeat comedies, and he settles on an outlandish aesthetic here which formally matches his skewed, ridiculous worlds.

A blocking of faces here in Cold War like Ingmar Bergman, expressing both intimacy and disconnection between characters.

The 2010s in general saw a resurgence of auteur-driven horror films, and Hereditary quite remarkably takes that to the next level. Ari Aster would top himself just a year later with even greater visuals and formal sophistication in Midsommar, but 2018 is where it all starts for him, marking the pinnacle of this mini-movement.

Speaking of peaking trends, Marvel is having an unusually good year. Their output in the 2010s was generally more prolific than it was high quality, but both Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Black Panther break the pattern of mediocre-to-decent movies, with both sitting in my top 15 of the year. Key to the success of these above other Marvel movies is that they actually look like something – one is a hyperactive display of neon-coloured animation, and the other lets Ryan Coogler run free with his brilliant set pieces, camerawork, and production design. Though both perform well at the box office, it is Avengers: Infinity War which dominates as the studio’s huge tentpole release, signalling an era of storytelling coming to a close.

Although Black Panther was the first superhero film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, awards season was a bit of a mess. Just as it seemed like the Academy was finally going to make some progress and award its top prize to Roma, it went with Green Book instead – the far safer option. The Palme d’Or meanwhile went to Shoplifters, which isn’t particularly close to touching the year’s best films either.

It isn’t often that Marvel makes two of the most artistically potent films of the year, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse also stands among the decade’s finest animations.

Film Archives

A Quiet PlaceJohn KrasinskiR
A Simple FavourPaul FeigR
A Star is BornBradley CooperR
AnnihilationAlex GarlandHR
Ash is Purest WhiteJia ZhangkeHR
Avengers: Infinity WarThe Russo BrothersR
Black PantherRyan CooglerHR
BlacKkKlansmanSpike LeeHR
BurningLee Chang-dongMS/MP
Can You Ever Forgive MeMarielle HellerR
CapernaumNadine LabakiR
ClimaxGasper NoéMS
Cold WarPaweł Pawlikowski MP
Crazy Rich AsiansJon M. ChuR
Eighth GradeBo BurnhamR
First ManDamien ChazelleR
Green BookPeter FarrellyR
Her SmellAlex Ross PerryR
HereditaryAri AsterMS
High LifeClaire DenisR/HR
If Beale Street Could TalkBarry JenkinsHR
Isle of DogsWes AndersonR/HR
RomaAlfonso CuarónMP
SearchingAneesh ChagantyR
ShopliftersHirokazu Kore-edaR
Sorry to Bother YouBoots RileyHR
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-VerseBob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney RothmanHR/MS
SuspiriaLuca GuadagninoR
The Ballad of Buster ScruggsThe Coen BrothersR
The FavouriteYorgos LanthimosMP
The House That Jack BuiltLars von TrierR
The NightingaleJennifer KentR
ViceAdam McKayR
WidowsSteve McQueenMS
Like all Gaspar Noé films, you need to be prepared for a gruelling experience going in. Climax is punishing to watch, but the stylistic wizardry on display is undeniable with the floating camera in the second half literally turning this party from hell upside down.


Free SoloElizabeth Chai Vasarhely, Jimmy Chin
Period. End of Sentence.Rayka Zehtabchi
The Great Buster: A CelebrationPeter Bogdanovich
Free Solo is sure to give you sweaty palms and vertigo, as we follow one rock climber’s attempt to ascend El Capitan without harnesses or protective equipment.

Short Films

BlueApichatpong Weerasethakul
Blue is as mystically opaque as anything Weerasethakul had made, and as far as short-form cinema goes it is a very intriguing experiment.

The Best Films of 2017

Top 10 of the Year

1. DunkirkChristopher Nolan
2. Blade Runner 2049Denis Villeneuve
3. ColumbusKogonada
4. Phantom ThreadPaul Thomas Anderson
5. First ReformedPaul Schrader
6. Call Me By Your NameLuca Guadagnino
7. Good TimeThe Safdie Brothers
8. The Shape of WaterGuillermo del Toro
9. You Were Never Really HereLynne Ramsay
10. Get OutJordan Peele

Best Film

Dunkirk. It is an intricate contraption of a film – a swiss watch with inner mechanisms that are so painstakingly in sync with each other that it looks effortless. Christopher Nolan’s best films always possess some brilliant mix of parallel editing and montages, but by stripping back conventional plotting to a minimum here he constructs a pure exercise in editing along the lines of Battleship Potemkin or Breathless. Like those cinematic landmarks, Dunkirk delivers a jolt of stylistic innovation, following three separate narrative strands set over a week, a day, and an hour leading up to the eventual evacuation. The effect is deliberately disorientating, jumping across multiple timelines that eventually meet at a single point in time, recalling the similarly climactic finale of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance. Considering this along with Hoyte van Hoytema’s IMAX photography and Hans Zimmer’s distillation of a heart attack in the form of music, and you get an easy #1 film of 2017, as well as the #3 film of the decade.

Dunkirk is a supreme achievement for Christopher Nolan on many levels. Gone are the chunks of bulky exposition, and in its place is a lean narrative structure that frees him up for pure cinematic innovation.

Most Underrated

Columbus. I would almost say Blade Runner 2049 owns this category given its position at #20 of 2017 on the TPSDT list, but Koganada’s astonishing debut isn’t anywhere to be found on there at all. Hopefully this is rectified with time, perhaps as he continues to build his career and becomes a bigger name in the industry.

Like Antonioni, Koganada has an eye for architecture which turns it into expressions of character.

Most Overrated

Lady Bird. It hurts a little to call this one out, given how much it is a personal favourite. The screenplay and performances can’t be faulted, and Greta Gerwig has a wickedly sharp sense of humour. #4 of the decade is just too high though for something that refuses to engage with any visual aesthetic, and which doesn’t really pack a formal punch. Thankfully she would go on to prove she is capable of delivering both with 2019’s Little Women, where her artistic voice significantly matures.

Greta Gerwig’s screenplay can’t be faulted. It is engaging, funny, smart, and incisive – she just doesn’t yet have the visual direction to back that up.

Best Directorial Debut

Columbus. This is also a strong contender for the best debut of the decade as a whole. Koganada’s roots are in online video essays, so it is no surprise that he brings a considerable understanding of film theory and history to his work as a director. Given that Columbus is so architecture-focused, comparisons to Michelangelo Antonioni will naturally emerge, but it also shares Yasujirō Ozu’s fascination with hallways, windows, and doorways as frames, submerging his characters in a city that expresses the potential of human imagination as large, postmodern constructs.

It is a stroke of genius in this shot to use existing architecture as divisions in the mise-en-scène, splitting up these characters as they say goodbye.

Gem to Spotlight

A Ghost Story. David Lowery transforms the material world into a quiet limbo of poignant self-reflection in this philosophical drama, playing out a meditation on loss, history, and existence from the perspective of the deceased. He effectively translates the inert feeling of grief into a gradually accelerating narrative pace that sees time frustratingly slip away, moving from static shots which last several minutes into montages that start leaping decades and centuries ahead. Despite the title, the only horror to be found here is purely existential.

David Lowery executes an intelligent metaphysical study of grief and the passage of time in The Ghost Story, gradually accelerating its pacing as seconds and centuries flit by.

Best Male Performances

Ryan Gosling’s performance in Blade Runner 2049 is comparable to Rutger Hauer’s in the 1982 film, finding a human sensitivity within the cold stoicism of their replicant characters, but he also benefits from being given even greater screen time to work through his internal conflicts. The scene where he discovers the toy horse in the factory is simply a masterclass of silent acting, seeing his entire world turn upside down purely through his muted facial expressions that hold back an existential terror.

Ethan Hawke is next, subverting his romantic image from Richard Linklater’s films as the stern Reverend Toller in First Reformed. This is a typical Paul Schrader protagonist – introspective, weary, and highly intelligent, though Hawke puts his own highly-strung spin on this archetype as a religious figure slowly losing his faith and grip on reality.

Ryan Gosling gets his fourth acting mention in this category for Blade Runner 2049, doing what he does best with his stoic, silent acting.

Daniel Day-Lewis’ final film performance before retiring (we’ll see) stands among the best of his brilliant career, playing the perfectionistic fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock in Paul Thomas Anderson’s gorgeous period piece. Timothee Chalamet is in the same class in Call Me By Your Name – he is only 22 years old here, but he effectively sets himself on the road towards becoming one of the greatest actors of his generation. This is a coming-of-age drama that navigates transgressive territory, and Chalamet contains so much sensitivity and youthful idealism in his performance.

After freeing himself from the Twilight series, Robert Pattinson took risks by picking up more arthouse films, and it all pays off here in Good Time with his wide-eyed, highly-strung bank robber. Joaquin Phoenix plays a far more sympathetic antihero in You Were Never Really Here, packing on weight (just two years before he would shed it all again for Joker) and moving around like a mass of depressing, negative space.

Returning briefly to Blade Runner 2049, Harrison Ford returns to the role of Rick Deckard several decades later and outdoes his original performance, while Daniel Kaluuya owns virtually the entirety of Get Out. Finally, John Cho is a thoughtful, sensitive fit for Koganada’s gentle ruminations in Columbus.

Daniel Day-Lewis is one of cinema’s great method actors, and his performance in Phantom Thread is as introspectively perfectionistic as his character.

Best Female Performances

It is not an overly strong year in this category. Sally Hawkins’ mute performance in The Shape of Water leaves everything up to her incredibly expressive face, playing out the complexities and nuances of this fairy tale heroine. Not far below her, Margot Robbie gives her single strongest performance in I, Tonya, nailing every single strained, unhinged eccentricity of the controversial sporting figure. Her scene in front of the mirror applying makeup as she tries to cover up her agony with a passionless show smile is incredible to watch. Lastly, Haley Lu Richardson makes real, heartfelt connection with John Cho in Columbus, and earns the final mention.

Sally Hawkins proves she doesn’t need dialogue to convey character in The Shape of Water, placing so much emphasis on her expressive face.

Best Cinematography: Blade Runner 2049

1. Blade Runner 2049Roger Deakins
2. DunkirkHoyte van Hoytema
3. Phantom ThreadPaul Thomas Anderson
4. ColumbusElisha Christian
5. The Shape of WaterDan Laustsen
6. Good TimeSean Price Williams
7. First ReformedAlexander Dynan
8. The BeguiledPhilippe Le Sourd
9. Call Me By Your NameSayombhu Mukdeeprom
10. The Killing of a Sacred DeerThimios Bakatakis
Blade Runner 2049 is surely a landmark of visual effects, but it may also be Roger Deakins’ best work. There is so much in the lighting and colours which build out the sci-fi world Ridley Scott created in 1982.

Best Editing: Dunkirk

1. DunkirkLee Smith
2. You Were Never Really HereJoe Bini
3. Baby DriverPaul Machliss, Jonathan Amos
4. Blader Runner 2049Joe Walker
5. Good TimeRonald Bronstein, Josh Safdie
6. I, TonyaTatiana S. Riegel
7. Call Me By Your NameWalter Fasano
8. A Ghost StoryDavid Lowery
9. First ReformedBenjamin Rodriguez Jr.
Enough can’t be said about the editing of Dunkirk. It is pure tension and disaster rendered on film for close to two hours. It also showcases some of the greatest editing in history – and I don’t make that claim lightly.

Best Screenplay: First Reformed

1. First ReformedPaul Schrader
2. Call Me By Your NameJames Ivory
3. Phantom ThreadPaul Thomas Anderson
4. Get OutJordan Peele
5. ColumbusKoganada
6. Good TimeRonald Bronstein, Josh Safdie
7. Blade Runner 2049Hampton Fancher, Michael Green
8. I, TonyaSteven Rogers
Paul Schrader wrote some of cinema’s finest screenplays including Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, and First Reformed sees him continue along the line of formally intensive character studies, this one centring a troubled man of faith.

Best Original Music Score: Dunkirk

1. DunkirkHans Zimmer
2. Phantom ThreadJonny Greenwood
3. The Shape of WaterAlexandre Desplat
4. Blade Runner 2049Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch
5. You Were Never Really HereJonny Greenwood
6. A Ghost StoryDaniel Hart
7. Good TimeOneohtrix Point Never
If Dunkirk is a Swiss watch, then Hans Zimmer’s score is its constant ticking, using auditory illusions to ratchet up the tension with no resolution.

Year Breakdown

Until 2019 came along, this was the single best year of the 2010s, with both huge depth to its quality and a monumental masterpiece sitting right at the top.

We’ll get to both, but first we have to praise Christopher Nolan coming out with his most accomplished film yet, Dunkirk – the third best film of the decade. He is the single greatest working director during this time period, and this is effectively his purest exercise in formal filmmaking, excising the cumbersome dialogue that can sometimes drag down even great masterpieces like Inception, and laying into his strengths as an editor. As the leading modern blockbuster auteur, he is a great source of inspiration for others like Denis Villeneuve, and this just so happens to be the year that he too made his best film in Blade Runner 2049 – a worthy sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic.

Although Koganada’s Columbus got the shout-out as the best directorial debut of the year, we need to take time to recognise the emergence of Jordan Peele and Greta Gerwig. Get Out is just managing to hang on there in my top 10, and although Lady Bird is sitting a little further down, it still shows the promise of a great filmmaker. Meanwhile, other directors like Chloé Zhao, David Lowery, Luca Guadagnino, and the Safdie Brothers are finding their own breakthroughs, gaining international attention respectively for The Rider, A Ghost Story, Call Me By Your Name, and Good Time.

Call Me By Your Name marks a huge breakthrough for Luca Guadagnino this year, and also cements Timothee Chalamet’s rising star.

Another name you probably wouldn’t have expected to find in this year’s top 10 is Paul Schrader, who is effectively making a major comeback with First Reformed and kicking off his late career Renaissance. This is the man who wrote Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, and this follows in the same lineage of formally intensive character studies.

Guillermo del Toro finds success at the Oscars, beating back healthy competition to win Best Picture with The Shape of Water. It is one of those times that the Academy doesn’t get it completely right, but it is so close you can hardly complain – virtually every frame of this Cold War monster fantasy is so beautifully curated.

Franchise movies continue to dominate the box office in 2017, with The Last Jedi especially pulling in large numbers and stoking controversy among Star Wars fans. There are significant flaws here, but nothing that entirely could sink Rian Johnson’s brilliant visual direction. This is easily one of the most handsomely mounted Star Wars films after A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. 2017 is also a notable year for some decent comic book movies, with James Gunn continuing his Guardians of the Galaxy series, Taika Waititi taking the Thor franchise in a fresh new direction, and James Mangold sending out Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine with a Western-style farewell in Logan.

You just don’t get shots like this in your average Marvel movie. Taika Waititi brings fresh humour in Thor: Ragnarok, but he also has an eye for striking imagery.

Film Archives

A Fantastic WomanSebastián LelioR/HR
A Ghost StoryDavid LoweryHR
Baby DriverEdgar WrightHR
Blade Runner 2049Denis VilleneuveMS/MP
Call Me By Your NameLuca GuadagninoMS
CocoLee UnkrichR
Darkest HourJoe WrightR
DunkirkChristopher NolanMP
First ReformedPaul SchraderMS
Get OutJordan PeeleHR
Good TimeThe Safdie BrothersMS
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2James GunnR
Happy EndMichael HanekeR
I, TonyaCraig GillespieHR
ItAndy MuschiettiR
John Wick: Chapter 2Chad StahelskiR
Lady BirdGreta GerwigR/HR
LoganJames MangoldR
Loving VincentDorota Kobiela, Hugh WelchmanR
Molly’s GameAaron SorkinR
MudboundDee ReesR
Paddington 2Paul KingHR
Phantom ThreadPaul Thomas AndersonMS
Star Wars: The Last JediRian JohnsonR
Sweet CountryWarwick ThorntonR
The BeguiledSofia CoppolaHR
The Big SickMichael ShowalterR
The BreadwinnerNora TwomeyR
The Disaster ArtistJames FrancoR
The Florida ProjectSean BakerHR
The Killing of a Sacred DeerYorgos LanthimosHR
The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)Noah BaumbachR
The PostSteven SpielbergR
The RiderChloé ZhaoR/HR
The Shape of WaterGuillermo del ToroMS
The WifeBjörn RungeR
Thor: RagnarokTaika WaititiR
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MissouriMartin McDonaghR
You Were Never Really HereLynne RamsayHR
Paul Thomas Anderson slightly faltered in 2014 with Inherent Vice, but he is almost entirely back on form here in Phantom Thread with some lush cinematography and rich characterisations.

The Best Films of 2016

Top 10 of the Year

1. La La LandDamien Chazelle
2. MoonlightBarry Jenkins
3. PatersonJim Jarmusch
4. The Neon DemonNicolas Winding Refn
5. ArrivalDenis Villeneuve
6. JackiePablo Larraín
7. SilenceMartin Scorsese
8. The Lost City of ZJames Gray
9. Manchester by the SeaKenneth Lonergan
10. Everybody Wants Some!!Richard Linklater

Best Film

La La Land. Damien Chazelle takes another step up from the fast-cutting, virtuosic direction of Whiplash, and delivers one of the greatest movie-musicals of all-time, letting loose one cinematic highlight after another. The opening number ‘Another Day of Sun’ is a colourful long take on a crowded Los Angeles highway. ‘A Lovely Night’ is a gorgeous tribute to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, set against a stunning view of Hollywood at sunset. Emma Stone dazzles us with an impassioned solo in ‘Audition’. Perhaps Chazelle’s finest moment comes in the dreamy, wordless montage of the epilogue, floating us through so many different worlds set inside his characters’ dreams. All of this considered together makes for a pretty easy #1 pick.

The opening number of La La Land will dazzle you with its single long take, energetic camera movement, meticulous choreography, and colours – and somehow the film will just go on to keep topping itself.

Most Underrated

The Neon Demon. Nicolas Winding Refn may forever be doomed to inhabit this category, sitting at #38 on TSPDT. Complain about his slow pacing, uncomfortable violence, and opaque narratives all you like – this is a director with a defined aesthetic and formal acuity, and here he applies that to the cult-like world of models and fashion. As a result, this is also a cutting study of femininity, asking the layered question to its central character early on, “Are you sex, or are you food?” If she is sex, then she is a woman who will engage directly in the ways others devour her beauty; if she is food, then she will be feasted upon and destroyed in the process. Either way, she is joining a community of women whose purpose is to satiate the appetites of consumers, and Refn fully recognises the body horror potential in mixing these two symbols within the setting of a menacing, erotic cult.

No one is quite making films like Nicolas Winding Refn these days, and his style certainly isn’t for more casual cinema lovers. But those with the patience and stomach for the grisly psychological horror of The Neon Demon will find lots to appreciate and pick apart.

Most Overrated

Toni Erdmann. TSPDT has this at #1 of 2016, which is frankly unreasonable. Its biggest supporters fall back on its unconventional German humour, warm character dynamics, and touching performances. I don’t disagree that these are its greatest strengths – but the formal achievement is minimal, and its cinematic style is all but non-existent.

Great writing, great characters – and entirely lacklustre direction from Marien Ade.

Best Directorial Debut

Raw. Julie Ducournau would go on to win the Palme d’Or with Titane in 2021, but she gets her start here with a coming-of-age horror drama, using cannibalism as a metaphor for a growing sexual appetite. Her visual flourishes are scarce but worth savouring, showcasing some fine compositions and tracking shots, though it is clearly the body horror imagery where she is most comfortable.

Julia Ducournau is clearly a David Cronenberg acolyte, using body horror as a coming-of-age metaphor in Raw.

Gem to Spotlight

Everybody Wants Some!! Richard Linklater’s nostalgic musings have an immortalising effect on the youthful characters of his films. As far as we are concerned, Jake Bradford will eternally be 18, permanently existing within those three, carefree days leading into the official start date of the 1980 college semester. This is richly character-driven, and while each member of this college baseball team is defined early on by their quirks and relationships, it isn’t until after the accumulation of time they spend together that we, along with Jake, begin to sink into the cool dynamic between them. Linklater is entirely committed to the subtle form of the piece, gradually evolving it into a compelling, unhurried study of young adulthood at the point that one is truly free from their parents for the first time.

Richard Linklater is no great stylist, much like Dazed and Confused he finds these ripe opportunities for visual flourishes – especially with his colourful wall murals.

Best Male Performances

Ryan Gosling is a master of stoic subtlety, and yet he integrates that manner perfectly with Damien Chazelle’s expressive musical vision in La La Land, smoothly pulling off a dance tribute to Fred Astaire and effortlessly running his fingers across piano keys. There is great passion in his performance, but he often plays it as slightly uptight and conservative compared to Emma Stone’s more relaxed demeanour. This is the third time the two have played lovers onscreen, and the chemistry they share is incredible.

Adam Driver has had a prolific decade thus far playing bit parts in dramas like Inside Llewyn Davis and kicking off the Star Wars sequels as its main villain, but Paterson marks his finest achievement to date. Paterson is a man with structure embedded so deeply into his bring that the only alarm he needs is his ‘silent magic watch’ that wakes him up at the same time every morning. He is one of Jim Jarmusch’s greatest character creations, and Driver brings such warmth, poetry, and sensitivity to this study.

Mahershela Ali and Trevante Rhodes both get a mention apiece for their roles in Moonlight – the former as young Chiron’s warm, sturdy father figure, and the latter as Chiron himself all grown up. He carries a huge presence onscreen, and yet he is cripplingly shy character, deeply affected by the trauma of his childhood. Finally, Manchester by the Sea sits a little further down my top 10 than those other films cited above, but Casey Affleck’s performance in it is so purely devastating that it nabs a mention.

Ryan Gosling’s performance is bursting with both passion and restrained subtlety. There are so many emotions in the final look he gives right at the end.

Best Female Performances

Emma Stone sings and dances her way across beautiful panoramas and dream sequences in La La Land, becoming a purely magnetic force of emotionality and musicality. Struggling actress Mia is one of this decade’s finest female characters, and Stone proves she has both the comedic and dramatic chops for the part, effortlessly becoming a classical Hollywood movie star in ‘Someone In the Crowd’ and then moving us as she belts out her big solo ‘Audition’.

Natalie Portman gets her second mention for the decade too with Jackie, an unnervingly psychological glimpse into the mind of Jacqueline Kennedy in the aftermath of her husband’s murder. It is a studied performance that transcends mere imitation and invites us right into her unsettled head space.

Elle Fanning and Amy Adams both get the final mentions of the year for The Neon Demon and Arrival respectively. For Fanning, this is her first mention in this category, and her icy cold demeanour is a perfect fit for Refn’s stilted style. Adams meanwhile is coming towards the end of her great 2010s run, teaming up with Denis Villeneuve on his unconventional sci-fi drama Arrival.

Emma Stone’s big, expressive eyes are one of her greatest assets as an actress, though it certainly isn’t her only strength in La La Land where her singing and dancing also impress.

Best Cinematography: La La Land

1. La La LandLinus Sandgren
2. MoonlightJames Laxton
3. The Neon DemonNatasha Braier
4. JackieStéphane Fontaine
5. SilenceRodrigo Prieto
6. ArrivalBradford Young
7. The Lost City of ZDarius Khondji
Chazelle’s work with his cinematography Linus Sandgren relishes the purple magic hour sunsets of Los Angeles, using it as backdrops to songs like ‘City of Stars’ and ‘A Lovely Night’.

Best Editing: La La Land

1. La La LandTom Cross
2. MoonlightJoi McMillon, Nat Sanders
3. PatersonAffonso Gonçalves
4. The Neon DemonMatthew Newman
5. ArrivalJoe Walker
6. JackieSebastián Sepúlveda
La La Land whisks you through on the sort of rhythmic montages that Tom Cross previously established in Whiplash, but it is the editing of the ten-minute epilogue which will bowl you over.

Best Screenplay: Paterson

1. PatersonJim Jarmusch
2. MoonlightBarry Jenkins
3. La La LandDamien Chazelle
4. ArrivalEric Heisserer
5. Manchester by the SeaKenneth Lonergan
6. Everybody Wants Some!!Richard Linklater
7. Hell or HighwaterTaylor Sheridan
8. SilenceMartin Scorsese, Jay Cocks
There are few films from this decade which are as formally rigorous in their construction as Paterson, studying its central character as a man of comfort, routine, and poetry.

Best Original Music Score: La La Land

1. La La LandJustin Hurwitz
2. MoonlightNicholas Britell
3. The Neon DemonCliff Martinez
4. JackieMica Levi
5. ArrivalJóhann Jóhannsson
6. Manchester by the SeaLesley Barber
Justin Hurwitz was Damien Chazelle’s composer on Whiplash, though that film was largely dominated by existing music. La La Land gives him the freedom to create a fresh, jazzy sound, and weave that through both musical numbers and instrumental orchestrations.

Year Breakdown

With only four films sitting in the Masterpiece and Must-See range, 2016 is evidently a very shallow year for cinema. That said, we do get La La Land which safely sits inside the top 10 of the decade. It also laid claim to the Best Picture trophy for a short few seconds before Moonlight took it away, making Oscar history with the notorious mix-up. Both are fine choices, and there is no real beef between them. They also cement Damien Chazelle and Barry Jenkins as two of the best new auteurs to emerge in the 2010s, especially marking the breakthrough of the latter.

Not quite on the same level as Chazelle and Jenkins, we see Nicolas Winding Refn on his unstoppable 2010s run, continuing to polarise critics with The Neon Demon, while the formal master Jim Jarmusch is still going strong decades into his career with Paterson.

A tier below these films, we see quite a few familiar faces present. Martin Scorsese, Denis Villeneuve, James Gray, and Richard Linklater each make some great films that may have not cracked the top 10 of a stronger year. That said, it is especially worth singling out Linklater here – Everybody Wants Some!! is his fourth film in a very prolific decade for him, bolstering his position as one of the best screenwriters of the 2010s.

Marvel Studios continues to dominate the box office with Captain America: Civil War, Deadpool, and Doctor Strange, but within the top 10 biggest earners of the year there is no real crossover with art. La La Land does get pretty close though.

Barry Jenkins makes his breakthrough in 2016 with Moonlight, shooting some of the greatest close-ups in cinema since Jonathan Demme’s work in the 80s and 90s.

Film Archives

ArrivalDenis VilleneuveHR
DeadpoolTim MillerR
Doctor StrangeScott DerricksonR
Don’t BreatheFederico ÁlvarezR
Everybody Wants Some!!Richard LinklaterHR
Hacksaw RidgeMel GibsonR
Hail, Caesar!The Coen BrothersR
Hell or HighwaterDavid MackenzieR/HR
Hidden FiguresTheodore MelfiR
Hunt for the WilderpeopleTaika WaititiR
JackiePablo LarrainHR
Kubo and the Two StringsTravis KnightR
La La LandDamien ChazelleMP
LionGarth DavisR
LovingJeff NicholsR
Manchester by the SeaKenneth LonerganHR
MoonlightBarry JenkinsMP
PatersonJim JarmuschMS
RawJulia DucournauR/HR
SilenceMartin ScorseseHR
SplitM. Night ShyamalanR
Swiss Army ManDaniel Kwan, Daniel ScheinertR
The Lost City of ZJames GrayHR
The Neon DemonNicolas Winding RefnMS
The Nice GuysShane BlackR
Toni ErdmannMaren AdeR
Train to BusanYeon Sang-hoR
The Lost City of Z parallels Apocalypse Now in some ways with the journey through jungles towards a singular goal, but it is James Gray’s use of natural lighting which is most impressive of all.


13thAva DuVernay
Voyage of TimeTerrence Malick
During his prolific stretch of filmmaking in the 2010s, Terrence Malick dipped into the world of documentaries with Voyage of Time, which feels very much like the ‘birth of the universe’ section of The Tree of Life stretched out.

The Best Films of 2015

Top 10 of the Year

1. The RevenantAlejandro Iñárritu
2. Mad Max: Fury RoadGeorge Miller
3. Son of SaulLászló Nemes
4. VictoriaSebastian Schipper
5. The AssassinHou Hsiao-hsien
6. CarolTodd Haynes
7. The LobsterYorgos Lanthimos
8. Tale of TalesMatteo Garrone
9. Sunset SongTerence Davies
10. The Big ShortAdam McKay

Best Film

The Revenant. Steadily over the years, this has been creeping closer and closer to Mad Max: Fury Road as the greatest film of 2015, and only recently has it finally overtaken George Miller’s high-octane action blockbuster. As a result, this also marks the second year in a row that Alejandro Iñárritu has cracked the #1 spot – a remarkable feat that marks the peak of his career and the Nuevo Cine Mexicano movement in general. This survival tale set in the 19th century snowy Dakotan wilderness is easily one of the most beautiful films of the decade in its natural lighting, long takes, and meticulously staged battle sequences, but then there are the surreal interludes on top of that which bring an otherworldly mysticism to the central spiritual journey.

A spiritual and visceral journey through the Dakotan wilderness in The Revenant, meditating on mortality and the transition from one life to another.

Most Underrated

The Revenant. The most recent update on TSPDT saw this land at #20 of the decade. This has been worst in the past – the previous year saw it at #26, and the tide has been gradually shifting over time to compensate for how badly critics missed on this when it came out. At the time it got a bit too caught up in Oscars politics with the whole narrative about Leonardo DiCaprio sleeping in a bear and going full method for the part. With some distance from that, fortunately people are starting to take it on its own merits as an astounding, awe-inspiring film.

These surreal dream scenes are staggering, and integral to our main character’s psychological journey. This is not a film to underrate so lightly

Most Overrated

Inside Out. This stands among Pixar’s best films, and it is certainly a smart, touching, endlessly imaginative screenplay. But I can’t reason its #4 spot on TSPDT above superior cinematic achievements like Son of Saul, Victoria, and Carol.

Pixar is a powerhouse of animation through the 2000s and into the 2010s, and Inside Out is worth admiring as part of that great run, even if it lacks the formal ambition of something like WALLE.

Best Directorial Debut

Son of Saul. It actually hurts a little bit not being about to mention The Witch here, but László Nemes’ Holocaust drama possesses an unparalleled formal rigour and dedicated aesthetic that Robert Eggers’ folk horror can’t match. Point-of-view is everything, trapping us in long takes that hang on the shoulder and face of one Jewish-Hungarian concentration camp prisoner, and confining us in extreme shallow focus to a wilfully incomplete picture of history. The horrors of the setting are kept just out of view, as if blocked out in his own head, but we still see just enough for this to become one of the most traumatic depictions of war committed to film.

It is hard to believe Son of Saul is the work of a first time director. Its style of shallow focus, dim lighting, and close-ups doesn’t immediately leap out, but it grinds away at you over the course of the film – a sure sign of excellent form.

Gem to Spotlight

Cemetery of Splendour. For Apichatpong Weerasethakul, this is actually a bit of a disappointment, and yet a weak film by his standards is still incredibly fascinating. In a former elementary school somewhere in Thailand, a temporary clinic has been set up to manage the overflow of comatose soldiers from a nearby hospital. A mysterious “sleeping sickness” has been taking over military units, and the only way nurses have been able to treat them is by soothing their dreams through light machines, each one standing tall above the beds like over-sized, neon canes. As the machines rotate through psychedelic colours in this otherwise pitch-black space, Weerasethakul invokes a hallucination of hypnotic effervescence. There is political subtext here as well, but Cemetery of Splendour thrives in those scenes where we disappear into his tropical fever dreams.

A standout sequence from Cemetery of Splendour, cycling through the neon colours in this temporary clinic as if tracing the dreams of its sleeping soldiers.

Best Male Performance

Leonardo DiCaprio won the Oscar for Best Actor in 2015 for his part in The Revenant, but it’s hard not to feel that the Academy simply wanted to recognise his prolific career rather than the actual triumph of acting on display. Still, you can’t complain too much when they get it right, even for the wrong reasons. Rarely has such a character been rendered onscreen with such visceral pain and spiritual awe, seeing DiCaprio rely less on his verbal skills and more on his primal, physical presence. He undergoes a transformation throughout the film, turning into a ghost who haunts the wilderness and soon becomes one with it. In Alejandro Iñárritu’s wide-angle lens close-ups, his dirtied face and pale blue eyes convey transcendent expressions of terror, wonder, and longing.

Tom Hardy is also having a great year starring in its two best films – the villain in The Revenant, and the hero of Mad Max: Fury Road. The former is far more talkative than the latter, and may actually be the greater achievement in the end, but both are worthy of praise.

DiCaprio’s performance in The Revenant is more than just a display of visceral pain and suffering – it is the canvas upon which Iñárritu maps a spiritual journey into nature, following the traditions of Native American cultures. There are few faces in film history so suited to close-ups as his.

Meanwhile, Géza Röhrig makes a brilliant onscreen debut in Son of Saul, offering us the narrow perspective through which this harrowing Holocaust story is filtered. Almost the entire film is shot in intimate close-ups hanging on his shoulder, the back of his head, and his face, leaving a lot hanging on his performance.

After this top 3, it is worth singling out Benicio del Toro in Sicario and Christian Bale in The Big Short – these are films with big casts, and yet both actors break through as particularly notable. Colin Farrell’s deadpan turn in The Lobster is a perfect absurdist fit for Yorgos Lanthimos’ bizarre black comedy, while Nicholas Hoult brings just enough to Mad Max: Fury Road as a war boy with shifting allegiances to earn a spot in this category.        

Son of Saul was Géza Röhrig’s film debut, and he is our vehicle into this concentration camp. It is exciting that he is also now using the clout he earned from it to work with Terrence Malick.

Best Female Performance

Charlize Theron’s Furiosa will go down as one of the great female action heroes of cinema, right next to Ripley from the Alien franchise and the Bride from the Kill Bill duology. She has more lines in Mad Max: Fury Road than her co-star Tom Hardy, but it is her swaggering physicality, pale blue eyes, and stoic face which open us up to her emotional journey as she resolves to find the utopian ‘Green Place’. The heartbreak of discovering its destruction and her subsequent determination to topple Immortan Joe’s tyrannical reign centre her as one of the decade’s greatest characters, come to life in Theron’s confident performance with strength and grit.

Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara come next in Carol, Todd Haynes’ warm, romantic melodrama about the transgressive relationship formed between the glamourous, middle-aged title character and Mara’s younger, fresh-faced shop assistant in 1950s New York. Laia Costa also deserves a mention for her part in the one-take film Victoria, carrying an incredible intensity across all 138 minutes of its uncut runtime, while Qi Shu maintains an elegant yet dynamic presence in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s wuxia film The Assassin.

One of the great female action heroes of film, and Charlize Theron deserves all the praise she gets for it, driving the narrative forward right next to Tom Hardy’s Mad Max.

Best Cinematography: The Revenant

1. The RevenantEmmanuel Lubezki
2. Mad Max: Fury RoadJohn Seale
3. VictoriaSturla Brandth Grovlen
4. The AssassinMark Lee Ping-bing
5. CarolEdward Lachman
6. Tale of TalesPeter Suschitzky
7. Son of SaulMatyas Erdely
8. Sunset SongMichael McDonough
9. SicarioRoger Deakins
A ruined church discovered in the middle of the wilderness. So much symbolism packed into this, paired with remarkable photography in the symmetry, low angle, natural light, washed out colours – it earns the Tarkovsky comparisons.

Best Editing: Mad Max: Fury Road

1. Mad Max: Fury RoadMargaret Sixel
2. The Big ShortHank Corwin
3. Gone GirlKirk Baxter
4. The RevenantStephen Mirrione
5. The AssassinHuang Chih-Chia
6. The LobsterYorgos Mavropsaridis
Mad Max: Fury Road is more than just great action editing with an incredibly short average shot length, though it is certainly that as well. Margaret Sixel cut out single frames in the middle of shots to create the impression of speeding up footage, and the results are magnificent.

Best Screenplay: Sicario

1. The LobsterEfthimis Filippou, Yorgos Lanthimos
2. SicarioTaylor Sheridan
3. CarolPhyllis Nagy
4. The Big ShortCharles Randolph, Adam McKay
5. The WitchRobert Eggers
6. Sunset SongTerence Davies
The Lobster is an invention of Kafkaesque absurdism, building a world on inane rules which are right at home in a Yorgos Lanthimos film.

Best Original Music Score: Mad Max: Fury Road

1. Mad Max: Fury RoadJunkie XL
2. The RevenantRyuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto
3. CarolCarter Burwell
4. SicarioJohan Johannsson
5. The WitchMark Korven
6. VictoriaNils Frahm
7. The AssassinLim Giong
8. Sunset SongGast Waltzing
9. Tale of TalesAlexandre Desplat
Junkie XL brings the sound of thunder to its score of pounding drums, distorted basses, and aggressive strings. Much of it is diegetic as well, played by Immortan Joe’s own war boys as they race across dusty landscapes.

Year Breakdown

2015 has two decade-defining masterpieces sitting right at the top – Mad Max: Fury Road and The Revenant. The first is George Miller’s widely beloved comeback that virtually revived his entire career, and the second is Iñárritu at his absolute peak, landing at the top of the list two years in a row. Birdman and The Revenant would be his only two films this decade, but he would leave a huge mark on it nonetheless. With Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak also coming out this year, it is clear that Nuevo Cine Mexico remains alive and well long after it kicked off in the early 2000s, and is still far from over.

Besides these major Hollywood movies, 2015 is also a significant year for world cinema. Just in my top 10 alone, there are only two American directors – other countries represented include Hungary, Germany, Mexico, Australia, Taiwan, Greece, Italy, and the United Kingdom. While their films don’t land in my top 10, it is notable that Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Jia Zhangke are both present and working this year too, further diversifying the pool of talent. Given the Academy’s taste for a very specific kind of film, it isn’t surprising that many of these weren’t recognised among their nominations. By giving Spotlight the award for Best Picture, they also missed out on the two very easy blockbuster choices I already mentioned sitting at #1 and #2 of the year.

Jurassic World and The Force Awakens sit atop the 2015 box office. Along with the success of Mad Max: Fury Road, these indicate the growing popularity of legacy sequels reviving nostalgic movie franchises from decades ago. Between Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014 and Jurassic World here, Chris Pratt proves to be a very bankable star, and would continue to lead both franchises into the 2020s. This year is also a highpoint for Pixar with Inside Out raking in big numbers and proving to be one of their most imaginative films, while The Martian leaves its mark as one of Ridley Scott’s most financially successful films.

Hou Hsiao-hsien crafts indelible imagery in his Chinese wuxia film The Assassin, patiently building the fable of Yinniang’s quest to kill military governor Tian Ji’an.

Film Archives

AnomalisaCharlie KaufmanR/HR
Bridge of SpiesSteven SpielbergR
BrooklynJohn CrowleyR
CarolTodd HaynesMS
Cemetery of SplendourApichatpong WeerasethakulR
Crimson PeakGuillermo del ToroHR
Inside OutPeter DocterR
Knight of CupsTerrence MalickR
Mad Max: Fury RoadGeorge MillerMP
Mountains May DepartJia ZhangkeR
RoomLenny AbrahamsonR
SicarioDenis VilleneuveHR
Son of SaulLászló NemesMS
SpotlightTom McCarthyR
Star Wars: The Force AwakensJ.J. AbramsR
Steve JobsDanny BoyleR/HR
Sunset SongTerence DaviesHR
TangerineSean BakerHR
The AssassinHou Hsiao-hsienMS
The Big ShortAdam McKayHR
The Danish GirlTom HooperR
The Hateful EightQuentin TarantinoR
The LobsterYorgos LanthimosHR/MS
The MartianRidley ScottR
The RevenantAlejandro IñárrituMP
The WitchRobert EggersHR
VictoriaSebastian SchipperMS
Terence Davies adapts the 1932 novel Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibson here, bringing its powerful literary prose to film by way of enchanting voiceovers and spectacular exterior photography.

The Best Films of 2014

Top 10 of the Year

1. BirdmanAlejandro Iñárritu
2. The Grand Budapest HotelWes Anderson
3. WhiplashDamien Chazelle
4. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on ExistenceRoy Andersson
5. Mr. TurnerMike Leigh
6. Gone GirlDavid Fincher
7. BoyhoodRichard Linklater
8. MommyXavier Dolan
9. InterstellarChristopher Nolan
10. A Girl Walks Home Alone at NightAna Lily Amirpour

Best Film

Birdman. Alejandro Iñárritu’s Best Picture win is one of the few times the Academy has gotten it 100% right. Enough can’t be said about its darkly humorous, self-deprecating screenplay, drum solo score, and trio of brilliant performances (Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Ed Norton). As far as long take cinema goes, it earns its place among the finest displays of moving camerawork. It formally ties its daring style to its content, studying the unstable mind of an aged movie star making a comeback on Broadway, and when it does finally land a cut in the final act, it may be one of the most well-placed edits of the year.

Alejandro Iñárritu kicks off the first part of his one-two punch this decade with Birdman, featuring one of the finest long takes in the art form’s history as a vehicle into its intensive, darkly comical character study.

Most Underrated

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence. #36 of the year on the 21st century TSPDT list is far too low for Roy Andersson’s bleakly absurdist gallery of cinematic paintings. This concludes his Living trilogy as a deadpan meditation on wealth, poverty, and our obsession with both. The first few tableaux show us a series of deaths in which material possessions seem to take priority, while the main running thread concerns two salesmen of novelty gag items. “We want to help people have fun,” they repeat in ironically expressionless tones, though what a sad state of affairs this world is in that these people are in charge of “fun.” Andersson’s lighting is deliberately flat and colourless, while his eye for composition is incredibly refined, creating frames and boxes around characters trapped in dull, repetitive lives.

Roy Andersson’s influences come more from painters than filmmakers, and yet he makes his gallery of deadpan tableaux into something cinematic with his rigorous formal construction.

Most Overrated

Goodbye to Language. The Jean-Luc Godard of the 21st century does not bear a whole lot of resemblance to the great director of the French New Wave. #2 of the year on the TSDPT list is far too high for this experimental essay, which doesn’t really come close to making the cut in the archives below. It is experimental to the point of being virtually formless, and much of it is just about the ugliest thing Godard has put to screen, minus maybe three shots. This was his effort to innovate 3D film technology, and though I appreciate the ambition, I don’t believe it really amounts to much in the end.

By the time Jean-Luc Godard’s career reached Goodbye to Language, the glory of his artistic innovation in the 1960s was well and truly gone.

Best Directorial Debut

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Ana Lily Amirpour’s Persian vampire film is a strange meld of Lynchian horror, acid western, and feminist grunge, while possessing the stripped back formality of a Jim Jarmusch film. Her expressionist lighting is impressive, and stands out even further in her black-and-white photography, cutting a sharp, sloping silhouette out of the hijab worn by the titular ‘Girl’. Through the streets of Bad City, she pursues and feeds on men, seeing Amirpour subvert several conventions at once while sinking us into the film’s dark, eerie ambience.

Ana Lily Amirpour sheds a dark ambience over her vampire fable, crafted delicately through her minimalist arrangement of compositions like these.

Gem to Spotlight

Two Days, One Night. This raw piece of neorealism from the Dardenne brothers can’t quite find a way into the year’s top 10, though its infusion of particularly high stakes into an otherwise mundane conceit finds excellent form in its storytelling. Marion Cotillard’s factory worker Sandra puts up a fight to keep her job, and over the course of the film she approaches her 16 co-workers, encouraging them to keep her on at the sacrifice of their own bonuses. What results is a fantastic theme-and-variation structure as the same request draws out different responses, each bringing depth to otherwise minor characters who are individually dealing with domestic violence, cultural ostracisation, immigration, financial hardships, second jobs – the list goes on. The Dardennes are committed realists, and Two Days, One Night just keeps piling on one stress after another in its social issues.

Two Days, One Night follows through on a formal pattern set in the opening minutes, leading factory worker Sandra down a path to hopefully winning back her job.

Best Male Performances

Ralph Fiennes in The Grand Budapest Hotel and Michael Keaton in Birdman sit incredibly close together at the top. Fiennes is brilliantly funny as the sophisticated, polite, but occasionally potty-mouthed Monsieur Gustave, delivering one of the best purely comedic performances in decades. He would slot perfectly into an Ernst Lubitsch comedy of the 30s and 40s, maintaining that air of upper-crust civility whether he is pleasuring his hotel guests, swearing, or running from police. It is an unassumingly physical performance as well, playing perfectly to Wes Anderson’s visual gags and effectively becoming his finest character creation.

Keaton delivers a comedic performance of a different kind in Birdman, tempered with a heavier dose of cynicism, psychological instability, and morbidity. Like his character Riggan Thompson, this is his big comeback as an actor, trying to escape out from under the shadow of the superhero character he became known for decades ago. He is raw, angry, insecure, and his voiceover rattles around in his head, reminding him of his former success which he may never capture again.

The civilised, potty-mouthed Monsieur Gustave is Wes Anderson’s finest character creation, and Ralph Fiennes’ strongest performance to date. His gentle voice makes for some brilliantly incongruous line deliveries, and his upright posture opens up some wonderful physical gags.

A very small drop below those two performances, Timothy Spall fully inhabits the coarse figure of J.M.W. Turner, whose exquisite watercolours reveal a sensitivity not immediately obvious in his crude, grunting demeanour. J.K. Simmons’ and Miles Teller’s duelling performances as mentor and student in Whiplash holds up Damien Chazelle’s intense study of obsession and ambition, with Simmons especially revealing an incredible complexity to a character who by all means is an abusive villain.

Though he is not as fully dominant as Keaton in Birdman, Edward Norton is similarly playing to his image as an egotistic, difficult actor, making uncomfortable, impulsive decisions and riling up his co-stars. In Nightcrawler, Jake Gyllenhaal’s lonely antihero draws heavily on Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, though clearly possessing more self-awareness around his absolute moral corruption. He is thin, gaunt, and wide-eyed, like a hungry hyena preying on a victim.

In Interstellar, Matthew McConaughey delivers the most emotional performance of any Christopher Nolan film, setting up huge personal stakes as a father seeing the time he could have spent with his children gradually slip away. Speaking of fathers, Ethan Hawke’s stamina is also showcased in Boyhood as Mason Evans Sr., developing his character across 12 years of his life, and Antoine Olivier Pilon delivers a volatile yet sensitive performance as the troubled son of Mommy.

Timothy Spall waddles, spits, and grunts his way to the list of 2014’s best performances, recognising painter J.M.W. Turner as a complex historical figure.

Best Female Performances

Emma Stone rounds out the trio of superb lead performances in Birdman as Michael Keaton’s estranged daughter, dealing with her own issues as a recovering drug addict, though often feeling second to her father’s ego. Next up, Anne Dorval plays the titular widowed figure of Mommy with guilt, fury, and an undeniable love for her unstable son, while Rosamund Pike is straight up chilling in Gone Girl. David Fincher’s mid-story twist would not work without her absolute commitment to the character’s deviousness.

Patricia Arquette stands right next to Ethan Hawke as one of the strongest actors in Boyhood, and Marion Cotillard lands as the fifth and final mention for this category for her work in Two Days, One Night. Her performance is pure, empathetic realism, visibly bearing the pressure to win her job back by the end of the weekend.

Emma Stone completely owns her savage monologue directed at Michael Keaton in Birdman, but she also claims the ambiguous final shot of the film with this wordless expression of wonder.

Best Cinematography: Birdman

1. BirdmanEmmanuel Lubezki
2. The Grand Budapest HotelRobert Yeoman
3. Mr. TurnerDick Pope
4. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on ExistenceIstvan Borbas, Gergely Palos
5. WhiplashSharone Meir
6. MommyAndre Turpin
7. InterstellarHoyte van Hoytema
8. Gone GirlJeff Cronenweth
9. A Girl Walks Home Alone at NightLyle Vincent
Even beyond its immersive moving camerawork, Emmanuel Lubezki still finds the time for brilliant lighting compositions and close-ups with his wide-angle lens in Birdman.

Best Editing: Whiplash

1. WhiplashTom Cross
2. The Grand Budapest HotelBarney Pilling
3. InterstellarLee Smith
4. Gone GirlKirk Baxter
5. MommyXavier Dolan
6. BoyhoodSandra Adair
7. NightcrawlerJohn Gilroy
8. A Girl Walks Home Alone at NightAlex O’Flinn
Tom Cross is the greatest editor to make his debut in the 2010s, pairing with Damien Chazelle to unleash a musical onslaught of rhythmic montages in Whiplash.

Best Screenplay: Birdman

1. BirdmanAlejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr., Armando Bó
2. The Grand Budapest HotelWes Anderson
3. Gone GirlGillian Flynn
4. BoyhoodRichard Linklater
5. InterstellarJonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan
6. WhiplashDamien Chazelle
7. NightcrawlerDan Gilroy
8. Two Days, One NightThe Dardenne Brothers
9. Ex MachinaAlex Garland
10. MommyXavier Dolan
11. CalvaryJohn Michael McDonagh
Iñárritu and his team of writers pick apart an ageing movie star’s ego with ferocious wit in Birdman, ringing the self-deprecating voiceover of the superhero he once played through his head.

Best Original Music Score: The Grand Budapest Hotel

1. The Grand Budapest HotelAlexandre Desplat
2. BirdmanAntonio Sánchez, Victor Hernandez Stumpfhauser
3. InterstellarHans Zimmer
4. Mr. TurnerGary Yershon
5. Gone GirlTrent Reznor, Atticus Ross
6. NightcrawlerJames Newtown Howard
7. Ex MachinaBen Salisbury, Geoff Barrow
Alexandre Desplat was born to score Wes Anderson films, lightly touching his lush orchestrations with an air of whimsy and a vaguely Eastern European sound.

Year Breakdown

When you study the dominant cinematic choices in the 2010s, you have to note the trend of long takes and moving cameras. Alejandro Iñárritu may be the single greatest director working with these techniques, and Birdman is the first film you point to as the best example. Emmanuel Lubezki is absolutely essential here too as cinematographer. Although Nuevo Cine Mexicano has often been defined by the ‘Three Amigos’ of Iñárritu, Alfonso Cuarón, and Guillermo del Toro, Lubezki’s input is invaluable, and is distinguished by this strong aesthetic. Birdman won Best Picture at the Oscars – but this is the second year in a row he won Best Cinematography, and the year after this, he would make it three.

Another 2010s trend which peaked in 2014 was the idiosyncratic use of changing aspect ratios. The most famous example of this is in The Grand Budapest Hotel where Wes Anderson defines each time period with this device, though Xavier Dolan turns it into an absolutely transcendent moment in Mommy as his main character physically pushes the edges of the screen out, expanding his world.

A small spurt of realism appears this year as well, most notably in Richard Linklater’s immense project Boyhood which spent a massive 12 years shooting, and finally comes to fruition here. The more modest yet still impressive achievement comes from the Dardenne Brothers, whose neorealist-inspired piece Two Days, One Night just barely misses out on the year’s top 10.

Xavier Dolan physically expands the aspect ratio of Mommy with a single push – hugely inspired filmmaking.

2014 also marks the year Roy Andersson would finish off his Living trilogy with a film that has my vote for the best title of all time, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence. He works intermittently, but his deadpan galleries of absurd tableaux are always worth the wait. Andersson is easily one of the finest filmmakers to come out of Sweden, with the top slot obviously reserved for Ingmar Bergman.

In terms of new emerging auteurs, it is impossible to look past the breakthrough of Damien Chazelle with Whiplash. He was only 29 years old when he directed this, and already evidence of his genius is coming across with one of the decade’s best edited films and a thrilling study of obsessive ambition.

James Gunn won the 2014 box office with Guardians of the Galaxy, easily one of the better Marvel instalments out there and clearly the product of a director with his own creative ideas. It isn’t very often you can look at one of these big comic book movies and recognise the unique stamp of a filmmaker. David Fincher and Christopher Nolan also prove they can keep pulling in big numbers with thought-provoking thrillers and science-fiction films, and although it has been a while since Clint Eastwood has made a film on the level of Million Dollar Baby, the box office figures clearly indicate that audiences loved American Sniper.

Whiplash is the announcement of a major new talent – Damien Chazelle’s energetic style of whip pans, rhythmic montages, and ambient lighting is evident from the start.

Film Archives

A Girl Walks Home Alone at NightAna Lily AmirpourHR
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on ExistenceRoy AnderssonMS
American SniperClint EastwoodR
Big Hero 6Don Hall, Chris WilliamsR
BirdmanAlejandro IñárrituMP
BoyhoodRichard LinklaterMS
CalvaryJohn Michael McDonaghR
Ex MachinaAlex GarlandHR
FoxcatcherBennett MillerR
Gone GirlDavid FincherMS
Guardians of the GalaxyJames GunnR
How to Train Your Dragon 2Chris Sanders, Dean DeBloisR
Inherent VicePaul Thomas AndersonR
InterstellarChristopher NolanHR/MS
It FollowsDavid Robert MitchellR
John WickChad StahelskiR
Kingsman: The Secret ServiceMatthew VaughnR
MommyXavier DolanMS
Mr. TurnerMike LeighMS
NightcrawlerDan GilroyHR/MS
PaddingtonPaul KingR
SelmaAva DuVernayR
Still AliceRichard Glatzer, Wash WestmorelandR
The BabadookJennifer KentR
The Grand Budapest HotelWes AndersonMP
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five ArmiesPeter JacksonR
The Imitation GameMorten TyldumR
The Theory of EverythingJames MarshR
Two Days, One NightThe Dardenne BrothersHR
What We Do in the ShadowsTaika WaititiR
WhiplashDamien ChazelleMS
How does a director like Christopher Nolan follow up his hugely successful blockbuster Inception and the final instalment of his Dark Knight trilogy? With more IMAX set pieces and another magnificently mind-bending narrative in Interstellar, perhaps his most emotionally-driven film yet.

The Best Films of 2013

Top 10 of the Year

1. IdaPaweł Pawlikowski
2. Inside Llewyn DavisThe Coen Brothers
3. GravityAlfonso Cuarón
4. EnemyDenis Villeneuve
5. 12 Years a SlaveSteve McQueen
6. The Great BeautyPaolo Sorrentino
7. Only God ForgivesNicolas Winding Refn
8. The GrandmasterWong Kar-wai
9. Under the SkinJonathan Glazer
10. Before MidnightRichard Linklater

Best Film

Ida. It is strange to see such an explicit influence from mid-century European directors like Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni on a contemporary filmmaker. In Ida though, Paweł Pawlikowski calls back to both in his powerful use of architecture and blocking to inform his characters – one representing faith, and the other representing secularity in post-war Poland. Exhuming secrets of their own nation’s shameful role in the Holocaust takes a psychological toll on these women, and Pawlikowski proves himself to be a master of the form in carrying this through to tragic end of both character arcs.

Pawlikowski stages a sombre reckoning with Poland’s history in Ida, studying its psychological toll on a woman of faith and one of secularity acting in counterpoint.

Most Underrated

Only God Forgives. This is likely the underrated film of the decade as well. Not only does it not crack the TSPDT list at all, its Metacritic score sits at 37 – a huge miss from the consensus, and especially those critics who decry ‘style over substance’. Perhaps it has something to do with the mix of a patient, slow-burn narrative and harrowing violence which, for most directors, would typically be at odds with each other. Rest assured though, this a hypnotic experience for those who are open to its dreamy rhythms, ambient neon lighting, and surreal terror. 

A stunning arrangement of the frame here from Only God Forgives – the red lanterns hanging over the ‘Angel of Vengeance’ as he sings in a Thai night club.

Most Overrated

Her. Sitting at #5 of the year isn’t outrageous, but this year has great depth in its quality, and so it currently sits just outside my top 10. It is beautifully designed and smartly written, but it generally seems to get more praise for its ambitious sci-fi concept than anything else.

Spike Jonze’s direction is backed up by a warm, romantic aesthetic, though it is the creative screenplay where Her shines.

Gem to Spotlight

The Immigrant. This is a highly recommended film, and yet it doesn’t end up cracking my top 10. James Gray takes great inspiration from the flashback scenes of The Godfather Part II, telling the tale of one Polish woman’s immigration to the United States in 1921 with strong narrative form and visual precision. It also features Marion Cotillard’s best performance to date, seeing her become a vehicle of pure pathos as she struggles against a system rigged against her.

James Gray brings a sensitive touch to this tale set in 1920s New York, piling up a series of hopes and tragedies against one Polish woman’s immigration.

Best Male Performance

First up, Oscar Isaac’s performance as the titular character in the Coen Brothers’ masterpiece Inside Llewyn Davis is layered with the idealism and frustration of a musician who is extremely talented, but not enough to be famous. He wears the weight of Llewyn’s poverty and hardship with a beaten down acceptance, so much so that it becomes a part of himself, leading him to give into despair the moment it arises. There is no version of this character that one could imagine being better off – this is the way he has always been and will continue to be.

Next, The Great Beauty sees Toni Servillo plays an aged version of the Marcello Mastroianni role in La Dolce Vita, searching for some remaining vestige of authentic spirituality in the vapidness of modern-day Rome. Conversely in The Wolf of Wall Street, Leonardo DiCaprio is all vapidness and no spirituality. Corruption and sleaziness have taken over this successful stockbroker, and DiCaprio plays everything to perfection – the rise and fall, the physical comedy, the smarmy dialogue, and most of all, the pure charisma.

Oscar Isaac’s beaten down performance in Inside Llewyn Davis is an acting landmark of the decade. He has maintained a pretty excellent career since this breakthrough, but nothing that quite touches this.

Michael Fassbender gets another mention in this category a couple of years after Shame, this time for his work next to Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave. Fassbender is terrifying to watch, while Ejiofor maintains a sturdy, warm presence in the lead.

Ethan Hawke ties off his work in Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy (at least for now) with an older, jaded version of Jesse who has finally married Celine, and isn’t nearly as happy as he expected. It is simply a masterful development of this character audiences have been following since 1995.

Jake Gyllenhaal’s dual performances in Enemy as college professor Adam and seedy actor Anthony carries on the lineage of doppelganger roles that we have seen Jeremy Irons pull off in Dead Ringers and Irene Jacob in The Double Life of Veronique. It is one of his strongest to date, and incredibly subtle in the tiny mannerisms distinguishing both men as opposing masculine archetypes – the brash, misogynistic player, and the quiet, reserved academic.

Jake Gyllenhaal’s dual performances in Enemy reveal two sides to one man, both conjured up in his own mind.

American Hustle is an ensemble film, but Christian Bale does some of his best work of the decade in it, packing on a huge amount of weight, while Tony Leung leads Wong Kar-wai’s big return in The Grandmaster as Ip Man. His composure exudes authority, and when he wears that wide-brimmed fedora in dimly lit scenes of rain and smoke, he even strikes the figure of a film noir hero.

Lastly, Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in Her is remarkably warm and gentle for an actor so known for his intensity. It is also so full of pathos as he makes what he believes is a genuine, romantic connection with his AI virtual assistant.

Just a year after playing Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight Rises, Christian Bale is here in American Hustle with the big gut and loud mouth.

Best Female Performance

Scarlett Johansson plays with her image as a sex symbol in Under the Skin as a man-devouring alien, topping the year with a chilly, reserved performance which somehow still finds empathy from the audience in the end.

The pair of leading women in Ida are not far behind though, as Agata Trzebuchowska and Agata Kuleza respectively play a young woman of spiritual faith and a cynical, middle-aged women who rejects religion entirely. Both undergo a personal reckoning as they face a national trauma, and Pawlikowski’s close-ups are put to incredible use with their facial expressions.

Julie Delpy’s achievement in Before Midnight is comparable to Ethan Hawke’s, taking Celine in a new direction with her troubled marriage to Jesse, while Lupita N’yongo makes her excellent film debut in 12 Years a Slave and immediately becomes a mainstay in Hollywood.

Scarlett Johansson’s cold, blank face hides beneath a wig of black hair in Under the Skin, ensnaring men with her looks and luring them back to her void.

Marion Cottilard might be more recognised in mainstream cinema for her supporting roles, but she embodies pure empathy in The Immigrant as a Polish woman making her way to America in 1921.

Zhang Ziyi slightly outdoes her co-star Tony Leung in The Grandmaster, and even gets the greatest scene of the film as she exacts vengeance against her father’s murderer in the brilliantly choreographed train station fight scene.

Cate Blanchett’s turn in Blue Jasmine is the equivalent Blanche DuBois role in A Streetcar Named Desire, playing out a breakdown which continues to prove why she is one of the strongest actresses of her generation.

Lastly, Amy Adams’ charm in American Hustle continues her winning streak in the early 2010s, while Sandra Bullock gives her finest performance to date in Gravity. She brings a movie star quality to Alfonso Cuarón’s space drama and confidently carries large chunks of on her own, but she also transcends her usual screen persona with surprising sensitivity and emotion.

Sandra Bullock proved her chops as a movie star a long time ago – it isn’t until Gravity though that she had the perfect vehicle for a performance that shows off her range and stamina.

Best Cinematography: Ida

1. IdaLukasz Zal, Ryszard Lenczewski
2. GravityEmmanuel Lubezki
3. Inside Llewyn DavisBruno Delbonnel
4. Only God ForgivesLarry Smith
5. The GrandmasterPhilippe Le Sourd
6. EnemyNicolas Bolduc
7. The Great BeautyLuca Bigazzi
8. 12 Years a SlaveSean Bobbitt
9. NebraskaPhedon Papamichael
10. The ImmigrantDarius Khondji
11. HerHoyte van Hoytema
Lukasz Zal is one of the decade’s great emerging cinematographers, and his work with Pawlikowski is key to this talent, always finding the perfect framing of actors towards the bottom of the shot.

Best Editing: The Grandmaster

1. The GrandmasterWilliam Chang
2. EnemyMatthew Hannam
3. 12 Years a SlaveJoe Walker
4. Only God ForgivesMatthew Newman
5. Under the SkinPaul Watts
6. GravityAlfonso Cuaron, Mark Sanger
7. The Great BeautyCristiano Travaglioli
8. American HustleJay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers, Alan Baumgarten
9. Inside Llewyn DavisThe Coen Brothers
10. NebraskaKevin Tent
William Chang has long been Wong Kar-wai’s editor – but he is also the art director and costume designer on many of his films. This train station fight scene in The Grandmaster may be his greatest work yet.

Best Screenplay: Inside Llewyn Davis

1. Inside Llewyn DavisThe Coen Brothers
2. Before MidnightRichard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy
3. The Great BeautyPaolo Sorrentino, Umberto Contarello
4. The Wolf of Wall StreetTerence Winter
5. 12 Years a SlaveJohn Ridley
6. IdaRebecca Lenkiewicz, Paweł Pawlikowski
7. Under the SkinWalter Campbell, Jonathan Glazer
8. Blue JasmineWoody Allen
9. EnemyJavier Gullón
10. HerSpike Jonze
11. American HustleEric Warren Singer, David O. Russell
The Coen Brothers continue to assert their position as their generation’s greatest screenwriters in Inside Llewyn Davis’ dark comedy and bleak drama.

Best Original Music Score: Under the Skin

1. Under the SkinMica Levi
2. GravitySteven Price
3. 12 Years a SlaveHans Zimmer
4. Only God ForgivesCliff Martinez
5. EnemyDaniel Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans
6. The GrandmasterShigeru Umebayashi, Nathaniel Méchaly
7. HerWilliam Butler and Owen Pallett
8. The Great BeautyLele Marchitelli
9. NebraskaMark Orton
Mica Levi uses minimalist musical textures, whining strings, and hollow percussion to create an ambience that could sound like the language of its alien protagonist.

Year Breakdown

There is great depth to 2013 as a year for cinema. We have 16 films total graded a Highly Recommend or higher, meaning there are 6 films that could have cracked my top 10, yet sadly miss out. It is also a fantastic year for screenplays, with three all-time great writers putting forward some exceptional work – Woody Allen doing Tennessee Williams with Blue Jasmine, Richard Linklater tying off his Before trilogy with Before Midnight, and The Coen Brothers doing some of their greatest work yet with Inside Llewyn Davis. When you consider that Her is the tenth-best script of the year, you know there’s solid competition.

World cinema makes its mark this year with many foreign auteurs such as Alfonso Cuarón, Nicolas Winding Refn, and Bong Joon-ho making films in Hollywood, though arguably even stronger are those working in their own native countries. Wong Kar-wai makes a comeback nine years after 2046 with his brilliantly tactile martial arts film, The Grandmaster, which is also the best edited film of the year. Paolo Sorrentino carries on the spirit of Federico Fellini in The Great Beauty, and Paweł Pawlikowski leaves everyone else in the dust with Ida, which probes Poland’s troubled history during World War II. This isn’t his debut, but it is a major breakthrough which puts him on the radar for many cinephiles.

Paolo Sorrentino makes his La Dolce Vita for modern day Rome with The Great Beauty, setting up 2013 as a great year for world cinema.

The last two directors who define 2013 in significant ways are Denis Villeneuve and Steve McQueen. Villeneuve released two films this year, and one of them belongs in the top 10. This was far more common in the early days of cinema, but it is a feat that has grown increasingly rare. Prisoners would be the audience favourite, and it possesses an incredibly engaging narrative, but Enemy is a thunderous formal achievement in its psychological character study, announcing him as a powerful cinematic force. Meanwhile for McQueen, this is the year he would finally be recognised by the Academy, winning Best Picture for 12 Years a Slave and building on his brilliant run through the 2010s.

With so much strength in the world of arthouse film, there is little of note going on at the box office, with the only major exception being the spectacle that is Gravity. Iron Man 3 sits at the top, a fine Shane Black film, though one which is heavily flawed as so many Marvel movies are.

One of Steve McQueen’s most gruelling long takes, sitting with this man torturously hanging on his toes for several minutes.

Film Archives

12 Years a SlaveSteve McQueenMS
A Touch of SinJia ZhangkeR
About TimeRichard CurtisR
American HustleDavid O. RussellHR
Before MidnightRichard LinklaterHR/MS
Blue JasmineWoody AllenHR
Dallas Buyers ClubJean-Marc ValléeR
EnemyDenis VilleneuveMS
GravityAlfonso CuarónMS
HerSpike JonzeHR
IdaPaweł PawlikowskiMP
Inside Llewyn DavisThe Coen BrothersMP
NebraskaAlexander PayneHR
Only God ForgivesNicolas Winding RefnMS
PrisonersDenis VilleneuveHR
SnowpiercerBong Joon-hoHR
The GrandmasterWong Kar-waiMS
The Great BeautyPaolo SorrentinoMS
The Great GatsbyBaz LuhrmannR
The Hobbit: The Desolation of SmaugPeter JacksonR
The ImmigrantJames GrayHR
The Wolf of Wall StreetMartin ScorseseHR
The World’s EndEdgar WrightR/HR
Under the SkinJonathan GlazerMS
Before Midnight brings Richard Linklater’s decades-spanning trilogy to a close with a cynical sting.