The Power of the Dog, the story of a troubled family of ranchers in 1920s Montana, is an essay in dysfunction, a film in the business of upending social and generic norms. It is a hugely satisfying, intriguing, stimulating drama with a whiplash of an ending that took us from the realm of alt-western to alt-body horror. It was this film’s mythic quality, its dreamlike knight’s-move away from the world generally represented in westerns, that no doubt resonated with Bafta voters, who awarded it best film and gave best director for the increasingly celebrated Jane Campion.
On an evening that celebrated dissident, revisionist westerns, the outstanding debut prize went to the ultraviolent gonzo revenge movie The Harder They Fall, starring Jonathan Majors, Zazie Beetz and Idris Elba. It is a headbangingly, flesh-splatteringly freaky debut from Jeymes Samuel that reclaims the African American side of the genre. The drumbeat of brutality became a bit too uniform for me, but it is stylishly made.
Denis Villeneuve’s colossal science fiction adventure Dune, taken from Frank Herbert’s classic novel, is a big film in every way and appropriately it was a huge winner at the Baftas, including for Hans Zimmer’s thrumming musical score. This was a movie that benefited from the reopening of cinemas, a movie about a doomed colonial tyranny on a mineral-rich planet, a movie whose ineffable vastness has to be experienced on the big screen. These awards feel like justice, although they might reinforce the impression that Dune was a cloudy impressionistic experience: one giant visual effect whose actual narrative is fading in the memory. But it’s a massively audacious film and part of a vibrant tradition of epic movies.
I was very pleased to Kenneth Branagh’s enormously warm – subversively warm – movie Belfast pick up best British film, and maybe it’s a measure of how emollient this movie is that labelling a film about the Troubles as “British” isn’t as controversial as it might have been. This is a film whose streak of sentimentality has alienated some: some Belfast-dwellers have written it off as inauthentic, others from Belfast have found it entirely real. I personally responded to its richness and heartfelt humanity.
As far as the acting prizes went, Joanna Scanlan’s Bafta for best actress in the fascinating After Love was a reward for work of the very highest quality: a complex, painfully real and honest study of a woman who makes terrible discoveries about her husband after he has died. It is a career-best for Scanlan, and hugely well deserved.
Will Smith’s best actor Bafta for King Richard (beating the early favourite, Benedict Cumberbatch for The Power of the Dog) was a testament to his old-fashioned movie-star potency and an emotional connection to movie audiences. It’s impossible to overstate just how much warmth Smith can generate in the right role – and this one was the juiciest.
The crowdpleasing heart-of-gold dramedy Coda (remade from the French film La Famille Bélier) had a really good night, with wins for best adapted screenplay and supporting actor. It is a film about a young hearing girl with hearing-impaired parents: a “CODA” or “child of deaf adults”. It’s a movie widely felt to be well-intentioned if a tad micro-engineered – perhaps it played well on streaming video with Bafta voters at home. Ariana DeBose was a thoroughly deserving winner of the best supporting actress prize for her fiercely engaged and theatrically exuberant performance in Spielberg’s West Side Story.
Elsewhere, it was good to see Paul Thomas Anderson win best original screenplay for his satirically outrageous and gorgeously atmospheric age-gap comedy Licorice Pizza, set in 70s LA. It deserved more, but this unclassifiably brilliant film was always in danger of slipping through the cracks entirely. And it was pleasing to see Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s wonderfully intelligent Murakami adaptation Drive My Car named as best foreign-language film.
I was sad to see nothing for Guillermo del Toro’s noir thriller Nightmare Alley (a film superior to his much prize-garlanded The Shape of Water) and nothing for Joel Coen’s outstanding version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. But this was a well-judged and satisfying Bafta list of winners.
• Join Peter Bradshaw and fellow Guardian film critics for a Guardian Live online event ahead of the Oscars on Thursday 24 March.