The Power of the Dog — Netflix
Jane Campion’s long-awaited return to feature films is a quietly executed but gut-wrenching knockout. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch in a career-best performance as a brooding, troubled and menacing ranch owner, it’s a slowly unravelling psychodrama set against the majestic landscape of rural Montana in the 1920s. With a strong supporting cast that includes Jesse Plemons, Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit-McPhee, it’s a dark fable about desire and masculinity adapted from the novel by Thomas Savage.
The Hand of God — Netflix
Paolo Sorrentino takes a distinctly less baroque approach than usual to this semi-autobiographical story about a young man’s coming of age in 1980s Naples. Displaying a careful balance between sly humour and empathy, it’s a moving and lovingly observed story of a time when Diego Maradona arrived in Napoli to instil some much-needed pride into the black sheep of Italian towns and one young man came to the realisation that what he really wanted to do was direct films.
Zola — Rent or buy from Apple TV+
Adapted from a 2015 viral twitter thread, Janicza Bravo’s debut feature is full of visual flair, memorable characters and pulls off the impossible feat of bringing a “so crazy it could have only happened in Florida” online story engagingly and often hilariously to screen. It’s a sometimes dark but always entertaining tale of the misadventures of a stripper who hooks up with a sex worker and ends up taking a hellish trip out of town that neither she nor we will forget in a hurry.
The Disciple — Netflix
Director Chaitanya Tamhane masterfully creates a melancholic, touching evocation of the difficulties of creative pursuit in this story about a young Indian classical music devotee’s dedication to his discipline. Set in Mumbai and jumping backwards and forwards in time, it’s a film that slowly draws you into its exploration of the sacrifices and striving that are needed to master a unique and ancient tradition in an age when the form is faced with the challenges of a rapidly globalising, digital world.
Michael Keaton’s complex and humane performance as mediator Kenneth Feinberg lifts this legal drama to compelling, philosophically challenging heights. Feinberg was appointed by president George W Bush to lead the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund and what he thought would be a simple number-crunching process soon became an all-encompassing obsession that asked difficult questions about how we determine the value of lives and what we sacrifice when we ignore our shared humanity.
Denis Villeneuve’s faithful adaptation of the cult sci-fi classic by Frank Herbert offered the year’s most dazzling demonstration of the world-building power of big-screen cinema. Featuring a star-studded cast including Timotheé Chalamet, Zendaya and Oscar Isaac, it’s a more than satisfying adaptation of a classic that keeps you gripped and immersed in its epic vision.
The Card Counter
Paul Schrader’s low-key, low-light, menacing story about an Iraq war veteran turned professional gambler is one of the director’s most successfully executed explorations of his long-running interest in damaged, lonely men. Featuring an electric performance by Oscar Isaac, it’s an understated but quietly devastating neo-noir that asks uncomfortable questions about trauma and the way in which society treats those it tasks with doing its dirty work.
Actress Rebecca Hall steps behind the camera for this elegantly realised adaptation of the 1929 novel by Nella Larsen about two childhood friends who find themselves living very different lives in racially divided US society. Hall’s hand is firm but unobtrusive as she allows the story to slowly progress towards its terrible but depressingly expected conclusion that leaves you feeling that the racial challenges faced by its historical characters are still very much with us today.
Kristen Stewart creates her own unique version of Princess Diana in this imagined version of the events of a key weekend in the Princess of Wales’s personal history. During a claustrophobic, protocol-filled Christmas weekend, Diana comes to the realisation that her fairytale relationship with the royal family is over and she must make the difficult decision to do what is best for her and her children. Director Pablo Larrain creates a Hitchcockian nightmare of psychological terror that gets closer than any respectful biopic could to capturing something of the humanity and personal trials and tribulations of its iconic tragic heroine.
Kelly Reichardt’s touching, funny and charming Old West bromance is wrapped in a trenchant critique of the Sisyphean tragedies of capitalist ambition. It’s the story of two outsiders, some tasty cakes and the cow who provides the milk needed to keep the wheels of their artisan enterprise turning. It’s bleakly evocative of the drudgery and hardship of life on the frontier and is an ultimately expert exercise in minimalism that delivers plenty of emotional heft.
Succession Season 3 — Showmax
The back-stabbing, powerplays, ruthless ambition and sometimes heartbreaking self-destructiveness of TV’s most loathsome rich family were on full and brilliant display in their most bitter and dramatically engaging outing to date. Creator Jesse Armstrong’s pen was dipped in bile, blood and darkly comic ink and created some of the best episodes of television in recent memory, while leaving you suitably gobsmacked at the smart twist at its end.
White Lotus — Showmax
Mike White’s nasty, cringeworthy dark comedy about the foibles of the one-percent stood out for its exceptional performances and sharp dissection of all the worst traits of our modern, narcissistic times. Set among a group of unlikeable guests and staff at a luxury Hawaiian resort over the course of a week from hell, it’s a carefully observed satire that leaves a bitter and not-soon-forgotten taste in your mouth long after its chaotically tragic conclusion.
Mare of Easttown — Showmax
Kate Winslet gives a gritty dedicated performance as a small-town police detective whose investigation of the murder of a young mother leads her down a dark and twisting path that will leave her and her seemingly tight-knit community devastated by the results. The mystery may not be as clever as it thinks it is, but the careful observation of the story’s character and place make it a superior piece of procedural drama that touches on some difficult but relevant social issues afflicting too many small-town American communities.
The Underground Railroad — Amazon Prime Video
Thuso Mbedu is brilliant in her breakout leading role as Cora, the escaped slave woman whose adventures through a terrifying alternative vision of slave-era America serve as the frame on which director Barry Jenkins hangs his series of dazzlingly imaginative nightmarish renditions of the worlds created in Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Urgently relevant and brutal, it’s a necessary examination of the still-burning racial tensions and realities that plague America centuries later.
Squid Game — Netflix
Hwang Dong-hyuk’s surreal horror series was the global sensation of the year. Set in a hellish vision of callous exploitation of the poor by bored rich men looking for new kicks, it’s the story of a disparate group of South Koreans trapped in the endless purgatory of debt who sign up for a series of life-or-death versions of children’s games where the winner takes all. What makes it all the more terrifying is that it’s only a slight exaggeration of the reality of life for many South Koreans who struggle daily to keep their heads above water in a brutally unequal society.
Scenes from a Marriage — Showmax
Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain deliver two of the year’s most compassionate and multilayered performances in this adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 drama series that offers a difficult-to-watch, voyeuristic look into the collapse of a middle-class marriage. Heavy on dialogue, ideas and emotional devastation, it’s a compelling, too-true-to-life examination of love, modern marriage and the inevitable gaps between people that are often only highlighted when they spend their lives together.
Bo Burnham: Inside — Netflix
Comedian Bo Burnham’s lockdown-produced musical special gave the world catchy tunes, viral video crazes and one of the smartest takedowns of the self-obsession and navel-gazing of the Instagram, TikTok, Twitter generation. Ingeniously crafted and smartly executed, it’s a laugh-out-loud, often cringey piece of comedy that successfully tackles all its targets with singular brilliance.
Painting With John — Showmax
Actor, musician and painter John Lurie offers a gently humorous, wise and meandering guide to creative life in this deceptively simple series in which he muses on life, the universe and everything while crafting his artworks from his Caribbean Island home. Lurie has a deadpan, droll sense of humour that makes him engaging and hard to dislike.
Normal People — Showmax
The lovelorn adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel follows the achingly real ups and downs of two Irish youngsters as they fall in love at the end of high school and then break apart and come together during various moments over the course of their new, early-adult lives in the difficult big, wide world. It’s touching, relatable and an honest exploration of the ebbs and flows of romantic life that’s anchored by a pair of excellent performances from leads Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal.
1971 — The Year That Music Changed Everything — Apple TV +
It’s not an all-inclusive examination of the music of a decidedly pivotal year in music history, but its archive-rich and energetic examination of the relationship between musicians and broader political and social trends offers a rich portrait of the people and places who converged to produce some of popular culture’s most timeless and pertinent musical reactions to heady times.