Happy New Year! 2023 has been another great year for watching films, and I’m pleased that a significant dent has been made in my pre-2023 watchlist too (for once) – including some new favourites that I have listed at the end of this article. But first, after many changes and new entries over the last month… here are my Top 10 films of 2023!
Leo and Remi are thirteen-year-old best friends, whose seemingly unbreakable bond is suddenly, tragically torn apart.
Close is difficult to summarise because although it has a very simple premise, beneath the surface there is also a complex and deeply emotional core. The film unfolds through quiet intimate and introspective moments, while slowly pulling the rug from under you which leaves you feeling utterly devastated. Our fierce investment in the characters is testament to the sincerity of the two leads (newcomers Eden Dambrine and Gustav De Waele), whose chemistry is so perfect that it feels totally wrong when they aren’t sharing the screen. Their expert navigation of the subject matter makes their characters’ loss of childhood innocence feel inexplicably real.
Directed and co-written by Lukas Dhont, this was Belgium’s nomination for Best International Feature Film at the 2023 Oscars, and winner of the Grand Prix jury award at the Cannes Film Festival when it premiered in 2022. I can’t recommend it highly enough, but for heaven’s sake please have tissues on standby!
The story of American scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer and his role in the development of the atomic bomb.
Christopher Nolan is back, this time dipping his toe into biopic territory! Everything the visionary director touches turns to gold, so it’s hardly a surprise that Oppenheimer became the highest-grossing biopic of all time at the box office, currently just shy of $1 billion.
The unthinkable moral crisis faced by the titular physicist, who changed the world irrevocably during WWII as director of The Manhattan Project’s laboratory at Los Alamos, is illustrated perfectly with Nolan’s signature style. Science and conscience become indistinguishable amidst his fusion of non-linearity, frenetic editing, a cerebral score, and warping visuals of ripples, particles and waves – which were all achieved through practical in-camera effects. These elements converge memorably in the nerve-shredding ‘Trinity Test’ sequence (the first detonation of an atomic weapon) that quite literally takes your breath away.
The film is anchored by Cillian Murphy’s haunting portrayal as the remorseful self-dubbed “destroyer of worlds”, supported by a stellar ensemble cast with standouts including Robert Downey Jr. who gives a career-best performance. It goes without saying that this is not to be missed!
3. Killers of the Flower Moon
When oil is discovered in 1920s Oklahoma under Osage Nation land, the Osage people are murdered one by one – until the FBI steps in to unravel the mystery.
We would usually associate the term “worldbuilding” with the sci-fi or fantasy genres, but I believe one of Martin Scorsese’s greatest trademarks is his aptitude for conjuring up immersive period stages (typically mid to late 1900s America) upon which his vast dramatic sagas play out. Killers of the Flower Moon is no exception; the production design is exquisite and at no point did I question that this wasn’t 1920s Oklahoma.
What’s even more impressive is Scorsese’s representation of a very specific moment of cultural change, as the story chronicles the brutal displacement of the native Osage tribe by greedy white capitalists during the oil boom. It’s a fascinating and almost unbelievable true story, with powerhouse performances from Leonardo DiCaprio, Lily Gladstone, and Robert De Niro in the lead roles. Now aged 81, Scorsese proves that he’s still top of his game.
4. Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom
A young man with a dream of moving to Australia finds himself teaching a classroom of eager children – and a yak – in a remote Bhutanese village.
Lunana became Bhutan’s first-ever nominee for Best International Feature Film at the 2022 Oscars, but mixed messages about the official UK release date meant I had no idea which year it would feature in my Top 10 – Google says March 2023, so I’m finally biting the bullet!
The film radiates natural beauty thanks to its incredible setting; it was shot on location in Lunana (home to the most remote school in the world) and the supporting cast are all real Lunana residents, most of whom had never seen a film or even a camera before. The more I read about the unique production process and the importance of the story’s message to writer-director Pawo Choyning Dorji, the more I fall in love with it. For such a little film it achieves a lot, and I would be thrilled to see more people giving it the praise it deserves.
5. Past Lives
Two deeply connected childhood friends are wrested apart. Over twenty years later, they are reunited for one fateful week as they confront notions of love and destiny.
In the opening scene, we are invited to speculate about the relationship between the central characters from a distance (“Who do you think they are to each other?”) before the film leaps back 24 years and backfills the events leading to that moment. The story is captivating, but we are still encouraged to keep an eye on the bigger picture when the characters begin to ponder the Korean concept of “in-yun” (reincarnation). The result is a philosophical and pensive reflection on the circumstances, connections, choices and forces that shape our own lives, as well as those of Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo).
Celine Song’s debut film may not be the most technical or ambitious of the year, but it is beautifully written and there are so many valuable takeaways from the story and themes that make it very deserving of a spot in the Top 10. It was clearly an audience favourite this year, most of whom were in bits by the end – tissues are also required for this one!
6. Beau is Afraid
Following the sudden death of his mother, a mild-mannered but anxiety-ridden man confronts his darkest fears as he embarks on an epic, Kafkaesque odyssey back home.
In the best possible way, Ari Aster has created nightmare fuel with Beau is Afraid. I am weirdly drawn to anxiety-inducing films (usually those by Charlie Kaufman) where events perpetually spiral out of control and descend into literal madness. The scale of Beau is Afraid is immense – a limitless, hypothetical landscape where anything goes, which Aster uses as a creative playground for metaphors, allegory and symbolism. Joaquin Phoenix gives everything to this role (he must have been exhausted!) and he deserves far more acclaim for what he achieves in this film.
A student at Oxford University finds himself drawn into the world of a charming and aristocratic classmate, who invites him to his eccentric family’s sprawling estate for a summer never to be forgotten.
Every so often, a film comes along that temporarily permits us to abandon all standards and indulge our dark side… Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn does exactly this, and I loved it! In interviews she has asserted that no person is truly “good” (I feel validated) which is manifested in her glorious ensemble of fake, cruel, manipulative, and morally reprehensible characters. But the genius of the film is the fine line that Fennell treads as she slowly peels back layers of the facade – using dark comedy and exploiting familiar genre conventions to make her twists even more twisted. It’s perhaps the most disturbing film of the year, and I was completely intoxicated by it. I immediately wanted to watch it again, what does that say about me?
American conductor Leonard Bernstein begins a tumultuous relationship with actress Felicia Montealegre, upturning their lives.
Maestro exceeded my expectations with its masterclass performances from Bradley Cooper and Carey Mulligan – honestly, I would be happy for either of them to win big awards this season. I was also really impressed with Cooper’s direction, in particular, the homages to classic cinema style and his impressive extended takes – the six-minute sequence where he conducts Mahler’s 2nd Symphony blew me away!
9. Anatomy of a Fall
A woman is suspected of her husband’s murder, and their blind son faces a moral dilemma as the sole witness.
Anatomy of a Fall was one of my most anticipated films of the year, and while it didn’t have quite as many twists and turns as I was expecting, it’s clear that writer-director Justine Triet knew exactly what she wanted to achieve. The script is exemplary and great care has been taken with regards to how and when new evidence is revealed in the case, and which questions are answered satisfactorily, if any. The performances are excellent (particularly from Sandra Hüller) which make the film feel more like reality than fiction – at times I had to remind myself that I wasn’t actually a member of the jury! Or was I?
10. May December
Twenty years after their notorious tabloid romance, a married couple buckle under the pressure when a Hollywood actress meets them to do research for a film about their past.
I have always been fascinated by actors, the art of acting, and the various ‘methods’ – especially when it involves the impersonation of other people. So when I read the premise of May December I absolutely couldn’t wait to watch it, and it did not disappoint. Watching Natalie Portman gradually morph into Julianne Moore’s character is incredible, the film demands a repeat viewing just to pick up the subtleties of her transformation. Another fascination of mine (in films) is the idea of “moral grey areas”, and this can be found in abundance here: the deeper Portman’s character digs into the detail of the scandal, the more she questions the truth and motivations of everyone involved, including her own. Todd Haynes deliberately makes the film feel like a 90s Lifetime movie, so it always feels slightly corny and sensationalist, but it just works.
As promised, here are my Top 10 first-time watches of films pre-2023:
- Cinema Paradiso (1988)
- City of God (2002)
- The Lives of Others (2006)
- Downfall (2004)
- Bones and All (2022)
- That Thing You Do! (1996)
- Chocolat (2000)
- Dirty Dancing (1987)
- Norma Rae (1979)
- Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)
Same time next year?
A self-confessed cinephile; hopelessly devoted to film! My areas of expertise include film theory and analysis, twenty-first century ‘modern classics’ and Oscar winners post-1970. And who doesn’t love a good quiz? Proud holder of an MA in Film Studies and lifelong advocate of cinema etiquette.