Turning Red
Turning Red
Image: Commons Wikimedia

1. Everything Everywhere All at Once

Delightfully bonkers on the surface, this inventive extravaganza from the directing team called Daniels (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) has a deep layer of family feeling and a well-earned emotional pull at the end. Michelle Yeoh is ideal and comically straight-faced as Evelyn, a harried laundromat owner with tax problems who enters a multiverse of alt-Evelyns. Exploding with colour, at times the film is a phantasmagoria of morphing identities and shifting universes – in one Evelyn does laundry, in another she's a movie star ­– yet it always remains true to its believably humane characters. It's the rare art film that can make audiences cry, and also rake in a ton of money, taking in more than $100 million at the box office worldwide. (CJ)

2. Top Gun: Maverick

A belated sequel to 1986's Top Gun seemed like a bad idea. But when Pete "Maverick" Mitchell (Tom Cruise) returned to the US Navy's elite fighter-pilot school, the resulting blockbuster wasn't just a thrilling showcase for some spectacular aerobatic displays, but a touching, bittersweet drama about getting older. It was also the year's most successful film. So... how did Cruise and co do it? Simple, really. They brought back all the elements from the original Top Gun, and then they improved every single one of them. Of course, it helps that Cruise looks better today than he did in 1986. (NB)

3. Turning Red

This joyous Pixar coming-of-age cartoon introduces a 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian (voiced by Rosalie Chiang) who transforms into a giant fluffy red panda whenever she gets stressed. Her fast-moving misadventures are rendered with all the expertise you would expect from Pixar, but Turning Red is more personal than the studio's other releases. From its multi-cultural urban setting to its positivity about being a proudly nerdy teenage girl, everything in it seems to come straight from the heart of its director and co-writer, Domee Shi. It's just a shame that the film went straight to streaming, rather than getting the cinema release it deserved. (NB)

4. Happening

The past is a template for the present in Audrey Diwan's eloquent, heart-wrenching story, based on a memoir by Annie Ernaux, winner of this year's Nobel Prize in Literature. Anne, an ordinary college student, (touchingly played by Anamaria Vartolomei) is desperate to get an abortion in France in 1963. Knowing that motherhood would destroy her future, Anne unhesitatingly seeks out illegal help, in detailed scenes that expose the hypocrisy of the medical establishment and the callousness of society at large. Diwan's measured approach reflects the heroine's quiet determination, avoiding preachiness and melodrama even as Anne races against time toward a suspenseful ending. Artful and socially resonant, Happening is one of the most poignant and moving films of the year. (CJ)

5. After Yang

Let's just flatly say: Kogonada is a genius. The director of the stylish character piece Columbus (2017), and a major force behind the exquisite Apple TV+ series Pachinko, he breathes new life and visual brilliance into After Yang's tired-sounding premise of an artificial intelligence with feelings. Colin Farrell is affecting as a father trying to repair his young daughter's beloved AI robot, Yang, played by Justin H Min with the unmistakable glimmer of a human soul. Filmed in a style that is still and beautiful, infused with golden light, and set in a timeless near-future, this transcendent film is stunning, from the exuberant family dance competition in the opening credits to its revelatory ending. (CJ)

6. Moonage Daydream

Brett Morgen's Crossfire Hurricane and Cobain: Montage of Heck bent the rules of the rock documentary, but his David Bowie film, Moonage Daydream, smashes them to pieces. Instead of taking viewers on a guided tour of the best-known parts of Bowie's life and career, it plunges them into a long, trippy exploration of his influences, travels, philosophies, and artistic endeavours: his acrylic painting and stage acting get more time than some of his albums. It's a bold approach to a fascinating and hugely charming man. And, as psychedelic as it can be, it eventually hones in on one universal question: what is the best way for any human being to live their life? (NB)

7. Triangle of Sadness

In the latest corrosive satire from Ruben Östlund (Force Majeure, The Square), the writer-director takes aim at the capitalist craziness inherent in fashion modelling, social media and luxury cruises. What's unique about Triangle of Sadness, which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, is Ostlund's combination of subtlety and excess. He makes astute observations about small social niceties, but he pushes every awkward situation to the point where viewers gasp and wince. And then there's the scene in which a shipful of super-rich passengers suffers one of cinema's worst ever bouts of seasickness... (NB)

8. The Eternal Daughter

Tilda Swinton gives two stunning performances, playing both an aging mother, Rosalind, and her middle-aged, filmmaker daughter, Julie, in one of the year's most eloquent, hauntingly beautiful films. Writer and director Joanna Hogg plays off ghost stories, with the two women staying at a creaky old isolated hotel, where they seem to be the only guests. But as Julie grapples with trying to write a screenplay about her mother, and they talk about the past, it becomes clear that the film is really mining depths of memory and regret, questioning what we can and can't know about the people we love. The women's conversations and the atmospheric story, which unfold with ease, lead us to wonder what might have happened and what might have been imagined. What is undoubtedly real is the deep emotional impact of this delicately told film, evidence of a brilliant director at work. (CJ)

9. The Fabelmans

We've known for decades that the broken families in Steven Spielberg's films were inspired by his own, but in the semi-autobiographical The Fabelmans he gives us the story in a pure, direct, realistic form – no extra-terrestrials required – and creates one of his most emotionally honest, least sentimental works. The film is shaped by sharply-drawn performances from Gabriel LaBelle as the adolescent Sammy (Spielberg's fictional alter ego), Michelle Williams as his imaginative, frustrated mother, and especially Paul Dano as his no-nonsense father – the latter two being people so different, they are doomed to break apart. Sammy's amateur movies add wit to the film, but it is the family feeling that endures. Looking back with adult eyes, Spielberg sees his parents with all their flaws, yet infuses the film with warmth, understanding and love. (CJ)

10. RRR

RRR isn't just one of the best films of the year – it's several of the best films of the year. SS Rajamouli's Telugu-language masterpiece is an inspiring historical drama about Indian citizens rebelling against the British Raj in the 1920s; it's a glitzy romantic musical worthy of Hollywood's golden age; it's a shadowy crime thriller about two double agents who become friends; it's a crazily over-the-top action movie, and it's a thunderous superhero epic. What's most amazing is that all these genres and tones fit so seamlessly together to tell one powerful story. (NB)

11. The Banshees of Inisherin

Martin McDonagh's usual dark humour and honed dialogue are there in The Banshees of Inisherin, but he has swapped the splashy violence and aggressive irony of his earlier films (In Bruges; Seven Psychopaths) for something sadder, stranger and more poetic. This is a quiet, small-scale comedy drama that hinges on an absurd disagreement between two seemingly decent men (Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson) in a small pub on a tiny Irish island. It builds into a haunting fable, and a reminder of what a terrific actor Farrell can be. (NB)

12. Babylon

Epics are sprawling and messy, and so is Damien Chazelle's (La La Land) ambitious extravaganza about early Hollywood, when talking pictures came to be. There are so many buoyant set pieces and colourful performances, though, that they overcome the film's misbegotten flaws (too many endings). Margot Robbie is bold and sympathetic as Nellie LaRoy, a wild child actress who enters the film by crashing a crowded party full of jazz, drugs, naked bodies and star-making producers. Brad Pitt is at first hilarious as a silent-movie idol trapped in period films. A behind-the-scenes sequence about making one of his pictures is a frantic comic episode that could stand alone. And he is poignant as a new generation pushes him aside. There is an elephant, a studio mogul and a gossip columnist, all swirled into a bravura film that takes you fully inside its world, and suggests that the dark side of Hollywood and its magical creations were always one and the same. (CJ)

13. Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

Benoit Blanc has another murder mystery to solve in Rian Johnson's irresistible follow-up to Knives Out. As in the first film, the suspects are a clique of wealthy, entitled Americans, but this time they're tech tycoons and social-media influencers (Edward Norton, Kate Hudson, Janelle Monaie, Dave Bautista) lounging around a private Greek island. The twisty plot isn't quite as ingenious as Johnson's last one, but the writer-director has gone all-out to make everything in Glass Onion as big, broad, funny and colourful as Daniel Craig's southern drawl. (NB)

14. Decision to Leave

Park Chan-wook puts a ravishing spin on a timeless story of romantic obsession and a detective who falls for his suspect. In Busan, South Korea, the meticulous Hae-jin investigates the death of an older man who fell off a mountain, leaving behind his beautiful young widow, Seo-rae. That she is a Chinese immigrant adds another layer of language and cultural misunderstanding. Suspicion begins to turn toward her, but by then Hae-jin may be too much under her spell to care. Park expertly feeds us just enough information to keep us enthralled and guessing as we go down the rabbit hole. This is also one of the best directed films of the year, each shot composed for maximum effect. Its off-kilter compositions, close-ups and wide vistas of city and countryside are captivating but never distracting. Park may owe a debt to Vertigo, but he makes the genre his own. (CJ)

15. Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio

You've probably never seen a Pinocchio who dances for Mussolini, but Guillermo del Toro's dark, stirring, yet life-affirming take on the classic tale of the puppet who becomes a real boy has more in common with Pan's Labyrinth and The Shape of Water, his own fantastical, politically charged films, than with the familiar Disney version. With bright, artfully designed puppets and dazzling stop-motion animation, he and co-director Mark Gustafson create a Geppetto whose young son is killed by a bomb during World War One. Decades later, in a drunken state of grief, he carves Pinocchio, a spindly-legged, long-nosed creature full of joy, who comes to call Geppetto Papa and to encounter a glittering blue Wood Sprite and her sister, Death (both voiced by Tilda Swinton; it's her year of dual roles). It's hard to imagine a more unsettling version of the story – Pinocchio runs off to join a carnival, and is forced to perform for the Fascist leader – or one as glorious and rich. It is as alive as its once-wooden hero, who loves life as much as any human boy could. (CJ)

16. Tár

In her typical crisply intelligent and authoritative fashion, Cate Blanchett plays Lydia Tár, a renowned conductor who is preparing for a major recording of a Mahler symphony. She seems to be an inspirational heroine, but as the big day approaches, Todd Field's novelistic drama whispers questions about how well Lydia has actually behaved over the years, how much her failings matter, and what her ultimate punishment should be. Who knew that two-and-a-half hours of conversations about classical music, arts sponsorship, and sexual politics could be so tense and gripping? (NB)

17. Aftersun

A coming-of-age story and an achingly beautiful depiction of a fragile father-daughter relationship, Charlotte Wells' first feature is a marvel of nuance, full of evident but often unspoken affection. Paul Mescal (Normal People) is touching as Calum, separated from his daughter's mother, trying to connect with 11-year-old Sophie (Frankie Corio, in an amazingly natural performance). During their holiday week at a slightly run-down resort in Turkey, they swim, sit on the beach and eat ice cream. Sophie is just old enough to see that in some way her father is deeply unhappy, but not adult enough to know more. An ordinary film would lead toward an explosive ending, but despite the mounting tension there is nothing plot-driven about this subtle, piercing, small wonder of a film, recently named Best British Film at the British Independent Film Awards. (CJ)

18. Onoda: 10,000 Nights in The Jungle

Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda was a Japanese "holdout" who refused to believe that World War Two had ended, and who carried on a guerilla campaign for decades in a jungle in the Philippines. This three-hour survival epic, directed by Arthur Harari, conveys the true story's mind-boggling scale and strangeness, but it's also a sympathetic character study of Onoda (played by Yûya Endô and then, in later years, by Kanji Tsuda). The lieutenant is presented as naive and misguided, but not too different from anyone who clings to a warped worldview, regardless of all the evidence to the contrary. (NB)

19. Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness

It might not be the year’s best science-fiction extravaganza about alternate realities – that honour goes to Everything, Everywhere, All at Once – but Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness is deliriously entertaining in its own right. The weirdest and scariest of Marvel’s blockbusters, it was directed by Sam Raimi, who made both the Evil Dead and the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man trilogy, and he fills the screen with his love of classic superhero comics and horror movies. The film isn’t just an exuberant celebration of pulp fantasy, though. There are some poignant musings on family, faith and sacrifice in among the flying zombies and green-furred minotaurs. (NB)

20. Corsage

Vicky Krieps' (Phantom Thread) quietly fierce performance as Empress Elisabeth of Austria is a perfect match for this sumptuous period piece with a brash contemporary soul. The story is set in 1877, when Elisabeth is turning 40, no longer the popular beauty she once was. Her palaces, stables and grounds have become a prison. Marie Kreutzer's film presents its heroine as an independent-minded woman in an era that is not yet on the cusp of modernity, signalling that paradox with a soundtrack of pop songs. Such bold moves give Corsage a bracing energy as it captures the inner struggles of a woman trying to escape the confines of social expectations and of time itself. The story departs from the facts most radically in creating a new final act for Elisabeth, one that is not necessarily happier but is true to her wilful nature and to this audacious film's savvy sense of invention. (CJ)