Continuing from last year, I am again composing a top ten list of films (a week later than intended). Some readers will know that I have reduced my day job to four days a week, which has given me more time to watch and review films this year. That led to a considerable increase with 114 new QuickViews this year, of which 64 were new releases in the UK (that is the qualifying criterion for this list, although QuickViews identify films by year of first release worldwide). There are a few omissions, most notably Killers of the Flower Moon, but at almost three and a half hours long it is clear that Scorcese no longer cares whether people see his films in the cinema rather than streaming — and if he doesn’t care, why should I? Other potential contenders which I have yet to see include Fallen Leaves, R.M.N., and Godzilla Minus One. Last year compiling the list was straightforward: it consisted of all the films I had rated 9 or 10, with a single 8 in the #10 spot. 2023 has seen a noticeable decline in quality at the top end, in part due to various releases being delayed to 2024 as a result of the strikes in Hollywood. However, the overall average has remained at 6.8, suggesting a general tendency toward the middle. The year’s worst was body switching catastrophe Family Switch, followed closely by Rebel Moon, Luther: Fallen Son, Mindcage and Ghosted. That gives Netflix an ignominious three spots in the bottom five as its content quality continues to flounder in favour of quantity.
On to the good stuff. I will link each of the Top 10 to their respective QuickView, but with some additional comments. This year’s list is again dominated by writer-directors, that level of control tending to allow the most auteur creativity. If I were to identify a single theme running through most of this year’s list, it would ambiguity, in both truth and relationships.
Although I was aware of Nan Goldin as a photographer, I was not familiar with her work going into this documentary. Whilst documentaries about artists can provide important background to understand the individual, it is rare that they provide a fresh lens through which to view their art. Laura Poitras achieves this by exploring Goldin’s childhood and her embrace of the LGBT community and sex workers in response to it, all which informed her photographic series The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. By contrast the coverage of her protest activism against the Sackler family becomes repetitive even though it was the film’s primary selling point. This is a documentary for the art lover, not the protester.
I enjoyed Gareth Edwards’ latest sci-fi excursion more than most, primarily for its world-building. It is always a delight to experience a well-realised new sci-fi world and Edwards’ eye for grounded visual detail is always sublime. Stories about AI uprisings are nothing new but — by comparison with Zack Snyder’s mere sci-fi pastiche of other works in Rebel Moon — Edwards provides novel context through humanity’s politically divided approach, the looming physical presence of the West’s orbital strike platform a colonial threat of violence to enforce their view on eradication of AI. The Creator was undermined by its clumsy, exposition-laden script, but its world will stay with me.
Having just reviewed it, I don’t have a great deal to add about Davy Chou’s film about an adoptee’s search for identity in the country of her birth. Notably this was Park Ji-min’s first acting role — in some ways that may have benefited the performance in Freddie’s disconnection with the culture and people of Korea. The result is raw and effective without the artificiality that can come from an overly considered performance that seeks to evoke a specific reaction from the viewer.
This is truly a breakout year for Molly Manning Walker with her excellent directorial debut alongside being the cinematographer on the well-received Scrapper. Her own film is really how not to have sex — a coming-of-age, loss-of-virginity story that stands apart through its female perspective. It allows the viewer to understand why Tara’s insecurity manifests in passivity, and how that leads to bad outcomes. How To Have Sex should be a breakout role for Mia McKenna Bruce too, her performance wordlessly communicating vulnerability and shame.
“Barbenheimer” was the year’s biggest (and most unexpected) mainstream cinematic event — the kind of viral concept that could only arise organically, much as marketers spent the rest of the year trying to find the next one (I don’t think many people did “Saw Patrol”). I enjoyed Barbie but found Oppenheimer to be cinematically superior, though it was not without issues — primarily its structure, which made its last hour feel repetitive and overlong. However, it also demonstrated the kind of creative flourishes that make Nolan’s work stand apart, like the disconcerting drumming roar that seemed to envelop Oppenheimer’s concerns about The Manhatten Project, a sound that is only later revealed to be the stamping of feet as Americans celebrate the successful test. Oppenheimer is suitably haunting about the danger of destructive invention, even if I wish it had been more direct in dismantling American propaganda about the need for the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Some of the best French films of late reveal an obsession with the idea of uncertainty over past events, demonstrated by The Accusation, The Night of the 12th, and now Anatomy of a Fall. Justine Triet’s script is the most meticulous of the three: it is half investigation, half courtroom drama, unfolding largely from the perspective of the accused, but without providing the audience with a definitive sense of her innocence or guilt. It directly addresses the unreliability of witness evidence through the changing story of her son. As our understanding of memory advances, this is becoming an increasing issue within the legal system in general.
Todd Field’s third feature-length film — his first in 15 years after a string of unrealised projects — is a magnificent examination of power and its abuse. I still find its “cancel culture” labelling to be reductive, since it tackles identity as well as the conflict between power and public perception. Cate Blanchet is on top form as the embattled conductor Lydia Tár (a very different performance to Bradley Cooper’s portrayal of Leonard Bernstein). Field also deliberately distances his film from the #MeToo movement by making both perpetrator and victim women, though Lydia is undoubtedly coded with sterotypically masculine characteristics.
Lukas Dhont’s second feature might be the year’s most heartbreaking. Newcomers Eden Dambrine and Gustav De Waele are as impressive as Frankie Corio in last year’s #1, with no awkwardness to their warm and tactile friendship. It is peers rather than parents who disrupt their relationship and I defy viewers not to be moved by Dambrine’s wide-eyed looks of guilt. Its rural vistas are beautiful, but it is the simplicity and focus of Close — free of extraneous sublots — that renders what is on screen so memorable.
As the relentless superhero movie juggernaut of the past 15 years continues to collapse, Across The Spider-verse serves as a reminder to studios that audiences are still excited by artistic creativity and human storytelling. Into The Spider-verse featured a loose animation style that deliberately broke rules, like animating Miles with half the number of keyframes than his spider-brethren, creating a barely perceptible sluggishness until he comes into his own in the climax. Across The Spider-verse expands this playfully with the anarchic Spider-Punk, who appears to be cut out from print and with stilted animation on every third frame leaving him deliberately out of sync with the rest of the characters. I mention this as just one example of the attention to detail that is crammed into this joyous work of art which might not be registered consciously but which elevate its impact. Across The Spider-verse was not just the best animated or superhero movie of the year, but one of the year’s very best films.
Like last year, the standout by some margin is a debut from a female writer-director. Celine Song’s Past Lives is an inversion of Return to Seoul, a woman who was similarly plucked out of Korea as a child but finds her past catching up with her in New York rather than travelling back to Korea. If Aftersun captured the sense of a fading memory, Past Lives captures the longing for a moment which never occurred. I said at the time that “Unrequited love is a common theme for cinema but rare is the greater agony of requited love left unrealised”, a haunting, heady concoction that I have not tasted so potently distilled in the two decades since In The Mood For Love.