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.