After 10 years, I’m stepping down as the Observer’s film critic. Here are my top films from the decade | Film

This week, I filed my final column as chief film critic for the Observer. I’m stepping down after exactly 10 years in the role, making way for the brilliant Wendy Ide to take over the reins and put her own inimitable stamp on the paper. A longstanding colleague and friend, Wendy is an exceptional critic and I look forward to reading her insightful and elegant reviews in these pages for years to come. In the meantime, looking back at my own experiences over the past decade, I’m struck by how much the moviegoing landscape has changed.

When I took over from the great Philip French in September 2013, Kathryn Bigelow was still the only woman to have won the Oscar for best director, having made history when she triumphed with her tense war drama The Hurt Locker in 2010. The Academy Awards have, of course, always been inherently ridiculous (remember: Citizen Kane didn’t win best picture, but Driving Miss Daisy did). For better or worse, however, this very American shindig tells us something about the way the mainstream film industry views itself. And since the first Oscars ceremony back in 1929, the Academy has overwhelmingly celebrated and prioritised white male film-makers. Yet in the past 10 years, things have at least begun to shift in encouraging ways.

For example, in 2014 12 Years a Slave became the first best picture winner directed by a black film-maker – the British Turner prize-winner Steve McQueen. Three years later, in 2017, Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight would take the top prize, despite Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway mistakenly announcing that La La Land had won – a snafu that would go down in the annals of memorable Oscar mishaps. Then in 2020, Bong Joon-ho made history as the first South Korean film-maker to win best director, while the best picture success of his brilliant thriller Parasite caused xenophobic crybaby Donald Trump to whine: “Can we get, like, Gone With the Wind back please?” (Responding to Trump’s complaints about its subtitled film’s success, distributors Neon said: “Understandable. He can’t read.”)

And there’s more. In 2021, Chloé Zhao, the Chinese-born auteur behind Nomadland, became the second woman to win best director (11 years after Bigelow) and the first woman of colour to take the trophy. The very next year, New Zealand’s Jane Campion won the same award for The Power of the Dog. Campion had, of course, made history as the first (and, for decades, only) woman to win the Cannes Palme d’Or, with 1993’s The Piano. This year, Anatomy of a Fall director Justine Triet became the third female Palme d’Or winner, following on from Julia Ducournau’s victory in 2021 with the jaw-dropping Titane. Reflecting on her win, Triet declared that “things are truly changing”. I think they are, albeit slowly.

While awards are hardly an accurate barometer of industry trends, there have been notable shifts in terms of audience turnout and box-office figures too. For proof, look no further than this year’s runaway hit Barbie, the first film solely directed by a woman to pass the billion-dollar threshold at the global box office. Whether or not Barbie proves as popular with awards judges as it has with audiences, Greta Gerwig (who in 2018 became only the fifth woman to be nominated for best director, for Lady Bird) has helmed a blockbuster that has put this year’s other big-hitters including Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, Oppenheimer and Fast X in the shade. You’d have to be pretty cynical not to see that as some form of progress.

Illustration by Dan Strange.

The move toward a more diverse, inclusive movie landscape has clearly been fired by the rise of the #MeToo and #OscarsSoWhite movements – two of the most significant developments of the decade. The other industry-changing event, of course, was Covid, the fallout of which caused cinemas to close, and introduced millions of potential cinemagoers to home-viewing in a way that would change their film-going habits. While streaming services were already on the rise, the lockdown-accelerated rush to home-viewing was as extraordinary as it was unexpected. Indeed, so radical was the change that some pundits suggested that the age of theatrical exhibition was at an end. Yet as the recent record-breaking “Barbenheimer” box-office bonanza proves, audiences do still want the big screen experience, even after a couple of years of watching movies from the comfort of the couch.

Personally, my own experience of lockdown was baffling, not least because the closure of cinemas meant that something I’d been doing several times a week for most of my life simply stopped. As the critic for a national newspaper, I’d started to take for granted the weekly routine of spending Mondays and Tuesdays watching six or seven movies back-to-back in screening rooms with colleagues, many of whom (like me) had their favourite seats. I don’t think I realised just how much I loved that communal experience until I suddenly wasn’t able to do it.

Indeed, one of my fondest memories from this period was going to the Showcase Cinema in Southampton to watch a rare press screening of the Russell Crowe road-rage romp Unhinged. Having spent months watching everything online, I sat back in that cinema seat with a grin that stretched from ear to ear. The film was dumb as nuts but I didn’t care – the sheer joy of seeing Crowe chew the scenery from behind the wheel of a large automobile on the big screen made my soul sing. And having spent decades complaining about the distraction of fellow patrons eating popcorn and fiddling with their phones during a film, I suddenly found myself longing for the simple camaraderie of a noisy screening room packed with punters behaving badly.

More peculiar still was the way that lockdown temporarily created a movie landscape that was not dominated by blockbuster releases. As a film critic, each week presented me with an impressively diverse slate of movies to review, with the more homogenous Hollywood titles simply being wiped from that slate. In the months following the first lockdown of 2020, for example, my Observer column led on films including Andrew Kötting’s The Whalebone Box, Kitty Green’s The Assistant, Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Chinonye Chukwu’s Clemency, and Channing Godfrey Peoples’s Miss Juneteenth. While titles like these would always have commanded the top spot on the Observer, increasingly they also became the leads in other outlets that would traditionally have had to prioritise more mainstream fare. Lockdown caused chaos within the film industry, but in the midst of that chaos a space was created in which smaller independent releases could steal the spotlight, certainly in terms of review coverage.

Crucially, whether reviewing films on home-streaming platforms or on Imax cinema screens, it has been a pleasure and a privilege to spend a decade as the Observer’s chief film critic. I love this paper, and I’m pleased to say that I’ll be writing a monthly column on my favourite directors while Wendy takes over the weekly reviews. In the meantime I’ve compiled a list comprising my favourite film from each year of my tenure – and one turkey. As always, I’ve used UK release dates, corresponding to the year that I reviewed each film. My list contains documentaries, animations and dramas, and I hope it serves as a reminder of just how many strange and wonderful movies are out there, and how bright, vibrant and diverse the future of cinema looks.

Mass murderer Anwar Congo stands on the set of a fictional talkshow in The Act of Killing.
Mass murderer Anwar Congo stands on the set of a fictional talkshow in The Act of Killing. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

Blending interview footage with staged reconstructions and astonishingly surreal musical sequences, this soul-shaking investigation of a legacy of brutal killings in Indonesia from directors Joshua Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn (along with an anonymous third director) gazes long into the abyss, and asks – in Herzogian fashion – how art might mediate between awful truth and stunned silence. A follow-up film, The Look of Silence, added sociopolitical context, creating a companion piece of equal import, but it’s The Act of Killing that has haunted my dreams and nightmares since I first saw it, and tried to write about its awesome power. Elsewhere in 2013, Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant and Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity showcased the breadth of film-making in the UK (both qualified for Bafta’s best British film award), while Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave was the toast of the London film festival.

Woman screaming and holding a child with his back to the camera
Noah Wiseman and Essie Davis in The Babadook. Photograph: Icon Film Distribution/Sportsphoto/Allstar

“If it’s in a word or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook!” Australian writer/director Jennifer Kent’s chilling fantasy (developed from her short film Monster) serves as a powerful reminder that horror is a metaphorical genre, the perfect playground in which to explore down-to-earth traumas and emotions. “I’ve never seen a more terrifying movie than The Babadook,” said William Friedkin – a ringing endorsement from the director of The Exorcist. Other treats of that year included Amma Assante’s long-awaited second feature Belle, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, and Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank – the last of which remains one of my favourite pop music dramas, and includes the impressive sight of Maggie Gyllenhaal playing the theremin for real!

Cartoon character smiles dreamily
Inside Out ‘delves deep into the bittersweet mysteries of childhood and adolescence’. Photograph: Moviestore Collection Ltd/Alamy

It says something that in the same year that I reviewed Cartoon Saloon’s Song of the Sea and Studio Ghibli’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, my favourite film was another animation – Pixar’s dazzlingly insightful Inside Out. The film is a joy, as profound as it is playful, delving deep into the bittersweet mysteries of childhood and adolescence. Elsewhere, Ana Lily Amipour’s Iranian-set vampire western A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night announced the arrival of a spiky new talent (check out her recent work on Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities); Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood provided a thrillingly defiant tale of girls in the Parisian hood; and movies as diverse as Carol Morley’s The Falling and Terence Davies’s Sunset Song provided yet more reasons to celebrate British film.

Young girl cradles a doll
Under the Shadow ‘made you scared because you cared’. Photograph: Atlaspix/Alamy

Iran-born, London-based writer/director Babak Anvari’s brilliant Farsi chiller was shot in Jordan but was the UK’s entry for the foreign language film Oscar. Focusing on a mother and daughter besieged by forces both worldly and otherwise in a Tehran apartment block, it was a genre-straddling delight. As with The Babadook, Anvari’s debut feature made you scared because you cared, conjuring a drama that worked equally well as a feminist fable, a fractured family drama and a full-on frightfest. This was also the year in which I wrestled with reviews of Son of Saul, Embrace of the Serpent and Notes on Blindness – very different movies from around the world, all of which reminded me why I first fell in love with cinema.

Woman biting the arm of another as they fight
Raw ‘combines the visceral intensity of a meaty horror movie with the tenderness of a
coming-of-age tale.’

“The world is her oyster,” I wrote of French writer-director Julia Ducournau after being bowled over by her cannibalistic debut feature, Raw (French title, Grave). “Watch her swallow it whole.” A few years later, Ducournau would win the Palme d’Or with her equally fearsome follow-up, Titane – a film that deliciously recalled the Cannes scandal surrounding David Cronenberg’s note-perfect Crash decades earlier. As for Raw, it combines the visceral intensity of a meaty horror movie with the tenderness of a timeless coming-of-age tale – a fable of sisterly rivalry that really sinks its teeth into its subject matter. Other film-makers whose work I was privileged to review in 2017 included Hope Dickson Leach (The Levelling), Maren Ade (Toni Erdmann) and Maysaloun Hamoud (In Between), all of whom produced work that surprised and moved me profoundly.

Father and adult daughter in the woods
Leave No Trace is ‘the very essence of “show-don’t-tell” moviemaking’. Photograph: Lifestyle pictures/Alamy

From Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman to Léonor Serraille’s Jeune Femme, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water and Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, 2018 provided UK critics with plenty to enthuse about. My favourite film of the year was an American indie gem from Winter’s Bone director Debra Granik – an overwhelming account of a father and daughter living on their wits in the US wilderness. For me, this was the very essence of “show-don’t-tell” moviemaking. Thomasin McKenzie won the National Board of Review award for breakthrough performance, and she’s gone on to make good on that promise with starring turns in films including Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho. My original review of Leave No Trace hailed it as being “a work of overwhelming, understated power that quite simply took my breath away” and that’s a verdict by which I still stand.

A still from Bait
‘A milestone in the evolution of British cinema’: Bait. Photograph: BFI

Something is happening in Cornwall – the emergence of a unique brand of film-making, spearheaded by the groundbreaking work of Mark Jenkin. Having served a lengthy stint in the digital medium, Jenkin rediscovered his love of film through experimentation with Super 8 and 16mm. His short film Bronco’s House (2015), shot without sound, laid the groundwork for Bait, which I have called “the defining British film of the decade”. Indeed, it is my firm belief that, in years to come, film historians will cite both Bait and its successor, Enys Men, as milestones in the evolution of British cinema – films that are fundamentally rooted in the landscape, heritage and culture of Cornwall, but that have the kind of universal appeal that comes from obsessively intimate attention to detail. In that same year, I also loved Alejandro Landes’s Monos (with its superb Mica Levi score), the documentary For Sama (plaudits to composer Nainita Desai) and writer-director Harry Wootliff’s marvellous bittersweet romance Only You.

Morfydd Clark in Saint Maud.
‘Electrifying’: Morfydd Clark in Saint Maud. Photograph: A24 Films/AP

And the homegrown hits just keep coming! I remember seeing Rose Glass’s astonishing feature debut alone in a pokey screening room one cold Tuesday morning and stumbling out in a daze, able only to say the words: “Fuck me!” An electrifying performance by Morfydd Clark is central to Saint Maud’s power, perfectly complemented by co-star Jennifer Ehle, whose steely presence becomes a lightning rod for the film’s mysterious power. Meanwhile composer Adam Janota Bzowski’s eerily prowling score weaves in and out of Paul Davies’s affecting sound designs with spine-tingling results. That same year, I also got to write about Natalie Erika James’s mesmerising Relic (a heartbreaking Australian horror about Alzheimer’s) and the youth-powered British gem Rocks, directed by Sarah Gavron – films from different sides of the world that both reduced me to tears, in a good way.

Two young girls talking in the woods
Petite Maman: ‘as near to flawless film-making as I have ever seen’. Photograph: Lilies Films / MK2 Films

Chloé Zhao triumphed at the Oscars with Nomadland, Joanna Scanlan delivered a Bafta-winning turn in Aleem Khan’s indie-Brit hit After Love, and Céline Sciamma gifted us her most perfect film to date in the form of the sublime Petite Maman – a U certificate masterpiece that stands as a testament to the universal power of cinema to transform, engage and ultimately redeem audiences. This really is as near to flawless film-making as I have ever seen. This was also the year that Censor introduced audiences to the work of Welsh writer/director Prano Bailey-Bond, with composer Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch (who worked intimate wonders on Only You) brilliantly evoking the squishy retro ambience of the film’s 80s milieu. Meanwhile, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s Summer of Soul gave us what is arguably the greatest concert film ever made – a joyous celebration of the 1969 Harlem cultural festival.

Man and woman dancing outdoors
Aftersun ‘plays upon the viewer like a forgotten memory’. Photograph: Sarah Makharine

Evoking the finest works of Lynne Ramsay (most notably the criminally underrated Morvern Callar), Charlotte Wells’s Bifa- and Bafta-winning feature debut is a mesmerising meditation upon memory, love and loss. Superb performances by Oscar-nominee Paul Mescal and screen newcomer Frankie Corio lend naturalistic heft to the drama – you really believe in these characters, in all their myriad complexities. Building upon her work in short films such as 2015’s Tuesday (to which she has called Aftersun “a sequel of sorts, in a different place and time”), Wells directs with piercing precision and endless empathy, creating a movie that plays upon the viewer like a forgotten memory. Plaudits once again are due to the composer, in this case the talented Oliver Coates whose reworking of the vocal-only version of Queen and David Bowie’s Under Pressure as Last Dance is quite simply sublime.

Adrian Grenier in Entourage.
‘Hatefully unfunny’: Adrian Grenier in Entourage. Photograph: Cinematic/Alamy

What’s the best thing about being a film critic? You get to see everything. What’s the worst thing? You get to see everything, including films that, under other circumstances, you wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot plague pole. Movies such as Entourage, far and away the worst film of the past 10 years. While self-appointed moral guardians may tell you that violent horror movies are wicked and corrupting, this hatefully unfunny big-screen spin-off from the popular TV series represents everything that is most morally bankrupt about modern cinema. A soul-scraping orgy of “bros-before-hoes” cliche, it’s a hellscape of pornographic consumerist vulgarity that makes Sex and the City 2 look like a Marxist tract. As I said in my original one-star Observer review, The Human Centipede was more sensitively attuned to issues of gender politics, had better jokes, and didn’t feature a cameo appearance by Piers Morgan.


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