Have the first two decades of the 21st century been good for film? It's a vexed question, but now seems a pertinent time to pose it, with cinemas across the globe either closed or three-quarters empty.
Add to the pandemic the looming threat of streaming giants such as Netflix, Apple and Amazon Prime, who understandably have little interest in the traditional theatrical distribution model, and you have a potentially apocalyptic scenario.
Grim times then, but there have been massive box-office hits in the years since the turn of the millennium that raised attendances and made cinema-going seem once again relevant. Avatar, James Cameron's hi-tech, high-concept behemoth dominated multiplexes at the turn of 2009 and became the biggest box-office hit ever. In 2008, Marvel dipped its toe into big budget cinema with Iron Man, the first instalment of a mighty franchise that would dominate mainstream movie-making for a decade.
Disney would eventually take over the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as well as George Lucas's Star Wars franchise, which was rebooted in spectacular fashion with The Force Awakens in 2015. Bond had been given a shot in the arm in 2006 with the casting of Daniel Craig, a man who - unlike his immediate predecessors - looked like he might actually be able to kick your head in.
Lots of bums on seats, then, to watch these warring mega-franchises, but their success came with a heavy price tag in Hollywood, where producers and studios desperate for success became ever more risk-averse as they remade any old story with built-in audience recognition. As a consequence, original screenplays and grown-up dramas grew ever thinner on the ground, sending all the good writers towards television, which enjoyed a corresponding golden age. In effect, Hollywood was slowly strangling itself.
That said, many great films have been made over the last 20 years, in America and elsewhere, which have expanded the language of cinema and made audiences think. Below is my very personal list of the best movies of the past two decades, in genre categories, which made the task tougher.
In the Bourne films, Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon brought the action thriller to a whole new level, creating fight scenes more visceral than anything seen before. Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity saw Sandra Bullock's astronaut plunge thrillingly towards Earth, and in The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan gave us the first superhero masterpiece. But Nolan outdid himself in Dunkirk, his staggering recreation of the famous wartime siege. Using real boats, planes and water rather than CGI, he created a moving, pin-sharp, largely wordless evocation of what it must have been like for those poor men stranded on that beach.
Terrence Malick made a spectacular return to form with The Tree of Life, an introspective rumination on life and God, Charlie Kaufman was similarly noodly in the startlingly original Synecdoche, New York. Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will be Blood was a great American epic, spoilt only by the faintly ludicrous "I drink your milkshake" ending. The best drama of all for me was Moonlight, Barry Jenkins' poetic cliché-subverting account of a boy, who endures a tough start in a Miami housing project before being taken under the wing of an unlikely saviour -the local crack dealer.
I thoroughly enjoyed those delightful early 2000s American comedies Little Miss Sunshine and Juno. Richard Linklater's Before Midnight was a splendidly honest relationship comedy, while Whit Stillman's Jane Austen adaptation Love & Friendship was a sophisticated delight. Thor: Ragnarok was easily the funniest film of 2017, but my favourite comedy of the past two decades is Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel, a middle-European period caper starring Ralph Fiennes as a dashing concierge who's fondness for wealthy, older women will be his undoing. Funny, silly, oddly wise.
Pixar upped the ante with clever and funny, high-concept comedies such as The Incredibles and Up, Studio Ghibli produced one of their finest animated sagas in Spirited Away, Marianne Satrapi took on the endemic misogyny of the Iranian state in Persepolis, and Charlie Kaufman used stop motion to chart a mid-life crisis in his thoroughly grown-up animation Anomalisa. But you can't go past the excellence and imagination of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. If only all superhero films were as clever and funny and human as this beautifully made, perfectly judged adventure.
Waltz with Bashir, Man on Wire, Grizzly Man, Pina and Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer were just some of the documentary features that stuck in my mind in this golden age for the genre. But the documentary of the last two decades that proved impossible to forget was Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing. The banality of evil was brilliantly exposed by in this boldly original film. Following a failed coup in 1965, the Indonesian authorities embarked on a bloody anti-communist purge. Oppenheimer tracked down the leaders of a Sumatran death squad and politely asked them to re-enact their work. The results were fascinating.
I liked Ex-Machina, The Martian, and Denis Villeneuve's splendid but oddly unpopular sequel Blade Runner 2049. But the Canadian maestro outdid himself with Arrival, a high-concept drama that should rank with the greatest sci-fi movies, and used imagination rather than special effects to brilliantly depict a mysterious alien invasion. When 12 extra-terrestrial craft appear and hover silently above the Earth, scientists must do their best to make contact with visitors who seem ominously uncommunicative.
Jordan Peele has shaken up a tired genre with Get Out and Us, two films that proved you can scare people and discuss serious issues at the same time. And there are plenty of other younger film-makers, like Ari Aster and latterly Leigh Whannell, bringing new ideas to the table. But my favourite horror of the last 20 years is Jonathan Glazer's 2013 mini-masterpiece Under the Skin. Scarlett Johansson plays an alien succubus who takes the form of a beautiful woman in order to lure unsuspecting Glaswegians to their doom. It's like nothing else I've seen.
Best Irish Film
Irish cinema has come on in leaps and bounds over the past 20 years, with improved structures allowing a host of talented young writers and directors to flourish. Plenty of outstanding Irish films have been made, from Lenny Abrahamson's Garage to Frank Berry's Michael Inside, but my personal favourite was Silence, Pat Collins' mesmerising peripatetic tale in which a young Irishman returns to western Ireland from Berlin to record landscapes unpolluted by human sound. Somewhere along the way, a job becomes a kind of spiritual quest.
Best Foreign Language Film
Here is a category so broad one was inevitably spoilt for choice, so I'm going to select two favourites. Leviathan, Ida, A Prophet, The White Ribbon, A Separation, Volver, Dogtooth and Parasite were among the excellent foreign features since 2000, but my best two were Shoplifters, Hirokazu Kore-eda's touching portrait of a dysfunctional underclass family, and Nuri Bilge Ceylan's epic Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, in which a doctor and a lawyer assess the human condition while searching for a missing man.