The 2024 Oscars - this year’s best

This was a very good year for movies (writes Professor in Film Industries, Gianluca Sergi).

While the box office did not return to pre-pandemic levels (a fact that is worthy of much better analysis than a quick paragraph here) it certainly showed the talent available to the filmmaking community is as varied and interestingly as it has ever been.

So here are my five picks for the best of the best this year.


It’s that time of the year...

...scoring cards are out, friends and family fight over who to pick. Ballots are counted.

It’s election time, but of a particular nature. The people elect their favourite movies and filmmakers of the year that are vying for the coveted golden statuettes we all simply know and love as The Oscars.

Except the people do not elect a single thing. It is the members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences - roughly 11,000 of them - that do the choosing and the voting.

Why the pre-amble? Because in that little tidbit of information lies the secret to understanding why ‘Best Picture’ does not mean the best film of the year artistically, just as Best Director does not go to the film that is most interestingly and creatively directed.

They - and most other Academy Awards - go instead to the films that are most difficult to make, assessed by peers who understand that - sometimes - what appears to audiences as ‘simple’ or 'run of the mill’ is anything but.

Professor Gianluca Sergi

When Emma Thomas collects her statuette as producer of this year’s Best Picture movie (yes, Oppenheimer is a shoe-in, or I'll eat the aptly named porkpie hat that Oppie favoured) it will be because she enabled Mr Nolan to make a very good movie, while ensuring the only thing that the filmmakers blew up is a make-believe atomic device, rather than the budget, schedule, or someone’s limbs. 

As for Christopher Nolan himself, he has had this one coming for a while. He is a fan favourite, and someone who Academy members openly acknowledge as an excellent filmmaker (and it certainly does not hurt that his advocacy of cinema in all its facets is admired widely by professionals, critics, and audiences all).

Ok so, Oppenheimer wins, and wins big. What else?

Anatomy of a Fall (director Justine Triet)

If it weren’t for the ridiculously good script behind my favourite film of the year… coming soon dear reader, keep reading... this would get my vote as Best Picture.

The title itself, a clever play on the title of perhaps the greatest procedural movie Hollywood every produced, Anatomy of a Murder (Otto Preminger, 1959), exchanges Murder for Fall for ambiguity. Did she or did she not kill?

If this was a straightforward ‘did she/did she not’ movie, it would work well, but Triet’s script and direction takes the viewer deep into the psyche of the suspected wife, in so doing providing us with a very intimate and effective look into the life of a woman and her near-impossible struggles to be accepted (by her husband, by her son, by her adopted country).

The film, that won the top prize at Cannes this year, is hugely aided by the best performance of 2023 by an actress (apologies to Emma Stone): Sandra Hüller is exceptional in carrying the entire movie on her shoulders without slipping once.

The film lands slightly awkwardly at the end, but it is a minor infraction in what is otherwise a most satisfying cinema trip.

A scene from Anatomy of a Fall. Image copyright mk2 films.

Past Lives (director Celine Song)

Another film directed by a woman - first time director Celine Song - makes the list, just as breezily as Song weaves this delicate story about the choices we make in life, and the impact they have on those we love.

As in the case of Triet’s movie, Past Lives also spans two cultures and languages (France and Germany in Anatomy, Korea and the US in Past Lives). As with Triet, Song is remarkably good at keeping the pace, mood and overall feel of the movie firmly in control throughout, showing a great deal of affection for her main characters.

In this, Song is aided greatly by the two leads - Greta Lee and Teo Yoo - who are both excellent in their portrayal of two gentle humans who try to make sense of their choices individually and, movingly, together.

No cynicism allowed here: this is a movie that is unafraid of its feelings, which makes for a very refreshing experience. Song’s next movie is going to be a star-studded romantic comedy and I’m fairly confident we’ll be here again talking of how she is helping to revive romantic comedies (no, they are not a dead genre, don’t believe the hype).

The Holdovers (director Alexander Payne)

Great script, the movie plays like a wonderful jazz trio of the highest quality, with Payne providing a very precise framework that enables the three central players to shine.

And boy do they shine: Paul Giamatti is as good as ever in a role that is tailored to his acting persona, and Dominic Sessa embodies his role with ability way beyond his 21 years of age and relative inexperience, but it is Da’Vine Joy Randolph's pitch-perfect performance that carries the day.

Rarely have so few lines in a script been made to shine so bright: the way she punctuates key words in the lines she speaks will be used in the future by countless acting coaches to show newcomers how to make the most of a supporting role (and steal the show and an Oscar in the process, the latter now looking more likely with every award she wins).

How to Have Sex (director Molly Manning Walker)

Another directorial feature debut, by another very promising young director, makes the list. The script is excellent in its depiction of the struggle of the three young women at the centre of the narrative as they attempt to fit in with a group of young British people on holiday, often pushing themselves – and in one poignant case, being pushed - beyond boundaries they have not been given sufficient time to explore.

While all the young actors in the movie are excellent, Mia McKenna Bruce runs away with the film (and a BAFTA) with her vulnerable, honest and very effective portrayal of a young woman trying to find her place in the crowds, literally and metaphorically.

The film is not as polished or precise as the ones mentioned before on this list, but it shows tremendous potential and talent and I am sure both Manning Walker and McKenna Bruce have long and very successful careers ahead of them, and rightly so.

Mia Mckenna Bruce in How to Have Sex (Image courtesy of mk2 films)

And my best movie of the year suggestion goes to…

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (directors Joaquim Dos Santos, Justin K Thompson and Kemp Powers)

A Marvel (though coming out of Sony, not Disney) movie as the best movie of the year? What’s that you say? An animated movie at that?!?

Give this a chance and it will reward you with one of the best scripts in years. It starts confidently, and then proceeds to move through the gears with such drive, artistry, and heart that you will be left open-mouthed at the sheer scope of its canvas.

This is storytelling on an epic level, courtesy of two of the most inventive scriptwriters in Hollywood, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, able to juggle several central characters, all fully realised and very relatable (if the latter notion surprises you when reading of a film about superheroes… welcome to the wonderful show that is Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse).

Many have mentioned its brilliant use of visuals: the movie does indeed look like an exceptional series of painting styles magically edited together coherently, but it is much more than that.

It is a reflection about choices - sharing the same interest in, and commitment to the human condition at the core of the other films on this list - as they reverberate across lives and, in this case, across dimensions.

The last 30 minutes of the film are amongst the finest to close a movie I have seen in a very long time, with every little story element coming to bear in a finale that leaves you hoping and praying for a quick release of the final chapter in this trilogy.

Gianluca Sergi is a leading industry expert and scholar in the film and screen industries with over 25 years of experience. He has consulted for world leading film and TV organisations (Disney, Fox, Sony, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences amongst others), compiled cutting edge research in writing four books and a number of articles and industry white papers.

He is Professor in Film Industries and the Director of the Institute for Screen Research Industries at the University of Nottingham.

His latest book, The Endless End of Cinema (Bloomsbury), co-authored with Oscar-winner Gary Rydstrom, charts the history of Hollywood through the many times cinema was declared, prematurely and luckily incorrectly, dead.