Like staring into a fire, part of the fun of watching all the films submitted for the Baftas or Oscars is that unexpected patterns begin to appear.

Between December and April, when we vote, I try to at least start every movie that’s made available to Academy members. The effect of so many films in such a short time can be quite hallucinatory – but they can also be quite revealing, about the industry and society over the past year.

Back to Black

This year, the first set of hallucinations at the Oscars are certainly not imaginary. After last year’s white-out, it was inevitable that Black Lives would Matter. And matter they do.

From to the indie horror His House to Spike Lee’s back-to-Nam thriller Da 5 Bloods black stories have leapt to the fore.

In the true story Judas and the Black Messiah we see the authorities enlist black petty criminal William O’Neil to betray Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, only for him to have doubts. While in the true(ish) story The United States vs. Billie Holiday, the authorities enlist black undercover cop Jimmy Fletcher to betray black singer Billie Holiday, only for him to have doubts. Anyone spot a pattern there?

Then there’s One Night in Miami and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Both are adaptations of stage plays. Both are fictionalised versions of true events. Both explore the politics of how to deal with white society without selling out – and with having doubts. (Both, sadly though, are hampered by over-written scripts that can’t bear to let go of their theatrical roots).


Women were in evidence. Far more women directors, at last. And, though the surge of #MeToo movies seems to have abated somewhat, the ultimate #MeToo movie A Promising Young Woman – written and directed by Emerald Fennell – stood out as one of the best films of the year.

With its eye-catching genre mash-up, this thriller/romcom/satire/noir/add whatever you want mixed bravery with watchability – a sadly rare combination.

Powerful women also featured in Nomadland, Ammonite and The Dig. Which reminds me that another pattern involved spadework, whether delving into the past (Ammonite, The Dig) or laying seed for the future (the engaging US-Korean farm-pic Minari).

Suffer the little children

See now if you can detect pattern number 3.

In the excellent News of the World an ageing Tom Hanks escorts a young girl (Helena Zengel) to her family, through the rigours of the Wild West. Their relationship helps him overcome grief from his past.

While in George Clooney’s SF pic The Midnight Sky an ageing Clooney finds himself alone on a dying planet earth with the young Caoilinn Springall. Their relationship helps him overcome grief from his past.

Meanwhile, in the enchanting The Secret Garden, the young Dixie Egerickx helps an ageing Colin Firth deal with grief in his past.

Got it yet?

One outlier is To Olivia – a sadly humdrum tale in which Hugh Bonneville, as writer Roald Dahl, tries to come to terms with grief following the death of his seven-year-old daughter Olivia (Darcey Ewart). And as a result either became a better writer or a bigoted anti-Semite. Or both. Take your pick.

The dark side

Staying on the dark side, loads of movies dealt with political injustice this year. From The Collective, Dear Comrades and The Dissident to Quo Vadis, Aida, we got to grips with (in turn) corruption and death in Romanian hospitals, the massacre of a workers’ demonstration in the USSR, the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul and the disastrous failures of the UN to prevent mass murder at Srebrenica.

It made for fun viewing in the Harris household over Christmas.

Not that the US escaped lightly with Aaron Sorkin’s vituperative script and direction for The Trial of the Chicago 7. The story of what was essentially a political trial of protesters against the war in Vietnam.

Two final categories

This leaves two final categories for my personal Oscars/Baftas.

First, the why-did-they-bother? award. This year I divide the award between three nominees.

I give you exhibit A: Greyhound – Tom Hanks (again) wrote the script and played a grizzled US Navy commander in charge of escorting merchant navy ships across the Atlantic while attacked by submarines in the Second World War.

Quite watchable and entirely unoriginal. I suspect this must have been a vanity project to keep Hanks sweet for the movies the producers really wanted him to make.

Then there’s Rebecca – a boring new adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s masterpiece of a novel, following a fairly good mini-series, and of course the classic Hitchcock movie. Forget the new movie, watch the Hitchcock and read the book.

And last but not least, an embarrassingly bad retread of Noel Coward’s tongue-in-cheek ghost story Blithe Spirit, in which every shred of humour has been squeezed out of it by attempts to be funny. Someone needs to learn that comedy has to be taken very seriously.

Finally, my completely personal, totally idiosyncratic list of the movies of the year that are worth your time.

In no particular order: Nomadland will widen your horizons. The Father will tease your brain. The Sound of Metal will make you rethink deafness. The Social Dilemma will make you rethink everything. Tenet will make you give up thinking (in a good way). Bacurau is weird but fun. Soul is just fun. A Promising Young Woman will wake you up. And My Octopus Teacher will move you like no other film this year.

Feel free to disagree.

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