Cinema – Best Of 2023

20th December 2023 · 2020s, 2023, Film, Books

Lots of good films this year, and a massive revival in cinema receipts thanks largely to an old-fashioned head-to-head with Barbenheimer over the summer. And I’ve just noticed that five of my top ten have female directors, which must mean #MeToo has had some sort of impact in cinema.

I saw Barbie in my local Rio Cinema on the day of release, the auditorium a sea of pink packed to capacity, with the whole place whooping and hooting and hollering. Greta Gerwig’s playfully subversive attack on the patriarchy, with such great performances by Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling (with all-star support) was as much fun as I’ve ever had in a cinema.

Oppenheimer was an immersive affair in a different way. I watched and admired Cillian Murphy’s titular performance in the giant IMAX cinema on the South Bank, though I’m not sure ‘fun’ is the word for a film about a man who built weapons of mass destruction. And I had problems with Christopher Nolan’s flimsy female characterisation.

The other ‘big’ film of the year was Martin Scorsese’s epic about the Osage nation, Killers Of The Flower Moon, and it didn’t disappoint (except for the many who moaned that it was ‘too long’), with De Niro back to his charmingly monstrous best and a contrastingly quiet performance by Native American newcomer Lily Gladstone opposite Di Caprio, a reformed womaniser and war veteran with rotten teeth and equally rotten morals.

Then, in the best year for ‘foreign’ films in an age, there was French director Justine Triet’s compelling courtroom drama Anatomy Of A Fall, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, led by a great performance from German actress Sandra Hüller as a writer trying to prove her innocence – and defend her marriage against a tide of misogyny – in her husband’s death.

One of my favourite film makers, Paul Schrader, completed his trilogy about ‘bad’ men seeking redemption with Master Gardener (following First Reformed and The Card Counter), with Joel Edgerton’s neo-Nazi-turned-horticulturist and an outstanding performance by Sigourney Weaver as the frosty Southern matriarch who employs him: she would be my choice for the Best Supporting Oscar by a country mile.

Towards the end of the year there was the return of Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismäki with Fallen Leaves, a characteristically melancholy comedy about two middle-aged oddballs (Alma Pöysti and Jussi Vatanen) looking for love and struggling to survive on the margins of life. Still with the foreign-language films, Alice Winocour’s Paris Memories (Revoir Paris) was a poignant and powerful study of survivors in the aftermath of mass tragedies, based on her own brother’s experience of the Bataclan massacre.

The Eight Mountains was a beautifully shot and leisurely told story of friendship and coming of age from Belgian directors Felix van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch, while Iranian director Ali Abbasi’s Holy Spider told the story of a fictional female journalist investigating a real-life serial killer targeting sex workers on the streets of Tehran; and Canadian-South Korean film-maker Celine Song constructed a virtual ménage à trois straddling two cultures on two sides of the world in Past Lives.

Outside of those there were some other powerful performances from the likes of Cate Blanchett as a classical composer confronting cancel culture in Todd Field’s Tár; Julianne Moore as a female paedophile in Todd Haynes’ May December, a darkly comic melodrama (based on a true story) with sexual abuse at its core; and Penelope Cruz as a mother balancing her own mental illness, an abusive husband and raising a gender-confused child in 1970s Rome in Emanuele Crialese’s poignant autobiographical coming-of-age drama L’Immensità.

Turning to the men, we had Michael Fassbender’s yoga-and-Smiths-loving psycho in David Fincher’s darkly comic deconstruction of a hit man, The Killer; and an increasingly desperate and deranged Joaquin Phoenix trying to get home to his mother in Ari Aster’s utterly bonkers and frankly indescribable psychodrama Beau Is Afraid.

Also some newcomers of note, led by cinematographer turned director Molly Manning Walker making a remarkable debut with How To Have Sex and a great ensemble cast led by Mia McKenna-Bruce; David Cronenberg’s director son Brandon brought us the predictably peculiar Infinity Pool, a gruesomely relatable horror about the perils of what the Pistols called “a cheap holiday in other people’s misery”; and Aussie doc-maker Kitty Green made her feature film debut with The Royal Hotel, another psychological horror “based on true events” story about two young female backpackers unwisely taking a job in a hellish Outback bar.

My favourites in a very loose order of enjoyment:

Master Gardener
Anatomy Of A Fall
Paris Memories
Fallen Leaves
How To Have Sex
The Eight Mountains
The Killer
Killers Of The Flower Moon
Infinity Pool

Dream Scenario
Past Lives
Beau Is Afraid
The Fabelmans
Enys Men
Holy Spider
May December

The Royal Hotel
The Night Of The 12th
Talk To Me
Women Talking
One Fine Morning

And I’ll add to the list if and when I see more from what has been a very good year for cinema.