As the curtain falls on another remarkable year in cinema, it's time to reflect on the filmmaking achievements that lingered on our minds long after the credits rolled on the silver screen. Personally, 2023 has been slightly weaker than its recent predecessors, with more conventional narratives that, despite presenting us with exceptional films, less daringly managed to push the boundaries of cinematic language. Nevertheless, these pictures have transcended genres, captivated audiences, and sparked conversations, celebrating the creativity and styles of their filmmakers, whilst shaping the contemporary landscape of the Seventh Art. Curiously, five titles out of my curated list came from the Venice Film Festival, and four from Cannes.
Shoutout to the runners-up, excellent pictures that truly stood out and deserve to be watched as soon as possible: the heartwarming and nostalgic The Holdovers by Alexander Payne, and two movies by first time directors and hopefully no one-hit-wonders, the provocative American Fiction by Cord Jefferson, and finally the laugh-out-loud hilarious The Sweet East by Sean Price Williams.
On a final note, and to avoid any confusion, I feel the need to justify why certain masterworks, such as Tar for instance, don’t feature in this list. I count “films of the year” the ones that have premiered in that given year, even if they haven’t been distributed yet, as movies get released internationally across different years. Hence, I stick to the universal premiere date, no matter if you live in London or Ouagadougou.
So, grab your popcorn, dust off your watchlist, and in this annual tradition, let’s be kind and rewind the last 365 cinematic days.
10) Asteroid City – Wes Anderson
After wandering around European hotels, Japanese kennels, and French cafés, Wes Anderson goes back home to his South-West USA, setting his colourful vicissitudes in a petite desert town, in old 1955. Showcasing a stellar ensemble cast from Anderson’s stock company, the director presents his own version of quarantine, sequestering his characters in the small town after an UFO interrupts a science convention. Of course, it’s no news to praise Anderson’s overwhelmingly beautiful mise-en-scene, with his contradistinguished pastel-coloured symmetry, but this time, he genuinely gifts us with the closest adaptation of a Norman Rockwell painting in motion. Sure, over 25 years we got accustomed to his unique style, but after all this is Anderson’s signature, and even if his craft may seem less impressive, it surely is not less valuable. With Asteroid City, he finally finds balance between the episodic structure and a more consistent single narrative, turning the colourful plot into a black & white theatrical stage production. Amidst the cosmic wilderness, this asteroid will leave a crater in your heart.
9) El Conde – Pablo Larraín
Pablo Larraín’s irresistible dark comedy is a sharply original political satire. Augusto Pinochet, nicknamed "El Conde", is introduced as French vampire Claud Pinoche, whose rise to power goes as far back as the days of the French Revolution. After his dishonourable military successes in Chile, he fakes his historical death in 2006 to conduct a more quiet, private existence - and to escape legal allegations. But his earthly existence is not over, and stumbling around with a walking frame, he sips on frozen human hearts frappes. Struck with an existential dilemma after the disappointing downfall of his historical reputation, he courts death and wishes to finally rest, but his greedy, bloodsucking family is not ready to bid him farewell. And so, flying over the night skies of Santiago engulfed in his long, firm and wrinkle-free cloak, Pinochet casts a terrifying shadow that still looms over Chile. The Chilean director digs his teeth in the arteries of his country, delivering his funniest and most inventive film to date.
8) Memory – Michel Franco
When you go to watch a Michel Franco film, you know you’re in for a tough watch. The Mexican filmmaker spares no one, and he surely doesn’t hesitate to present brutally crude scenes to achieve his trademarked punch in the gut. Yet, in his new film, the violence shifts from the physical to the psychological ground. The opposite spectrums of the burdens of memory paradoxically link two broken people, one who desperately tries to fight his dementia to remember, and another who struggles to forget past trauma. The intimate and restrained direction allows Peter Sarsgaard and Jessica Chastain to blossom, delivering career defining performances. Shockingly intense as always, Memory is however Franco’s least cynical and refreshingly sweetest work, emphasising how two people can complete each other. One thing is certain, you will remember this powerful drama for a long time.
7) Close Your Eyes – Victor Erice
I believed it wasn’t possible to watch those movies that make you fall in love with the classic magic of cinema, I thought they were long gone. And then, Victor Erice resurrects from film history, and brings us one of the most poignant love letters to cinema. At times a mystery trying to patch together the puzzle of an actor’s abrupt disappearance, at other times a disillusioned account of a director dealing with regrets and disappointments, this film reaches the very special realm of pure cinema. The good cinema that heals, brings people together and, through its power, saves lives. This is the great force that runs into the frames of Close Your Eyes, dipped in all the bitter melancholy that only the octogenarian master of Spanish cinema could craft. By the end, I could feel that invisible bridge of mystic light between the projector and the lit screen, mirroring the players who in turn were staring right at the audience, watching their movie. To top it off, one scene is entirely dedicated to a guitar cover of “My Rifle, My Pony and Me” from Rio Bravo. In other words, a cinephile’s wet dream.
6) Menus-Plaisirs Les Troigros – Frederick Wiseman
Menus-Plaisirs is the quintessential film on cuisine, and this time, Frederick Wiseman’s “fly on the wall” might want to drift on some delicacies. The legendary documentarist casts his curious eye on the gourmet profession of the Troisgros’ Michelin-starred family business, who, from cherry-picking the best ingredients at the market, to symmetrically setting up tables, take care of every detail. After its 4-hour long running time, the viewers feel almost responsible, if not a touch proud, to have become so much more appreciative when the oblivious customers order the right wine, from which you followed the origin from its grape state. In the silent screening room, one could hear the omnipresent noise of tongues licking over their lips, almost devouring the movie with their eyes. I don't know if this will be the 93-year-old legendary filmmaker's final film, but if so, he would be closing his 60-year-long career with a main course.
5) Coup de Chance – Woody Allen
The most prolific voice in auteur American cinema, now reaching his 50th film, seems to have crossed the finish line. For such a directorial achievement, Woody Allen has decided to treat himself and shoot Coup de Chance in his favourite city, Paris, and for the first time entirely in French, a language he doesn’t speak (yet, he claims you can still tell good and bad acting nevertheless). We meet again familiar elements from the director’s classic inventory: a writer in love, private eyes, suspicious minds, and hitmen. Similar in structure to Match Point, where he also plays with fate and how serendipitous events may have drastic consequences in our lives, this time suspense is replaced with humour. Wondering at the curious twisted turns of luck is the perfect ground for irony, for no matter how tragic the goings-on may be, they leave the audience with a cynical smile. Sharp as always, Allen’s typewriter delivers a masterclass in characterisation, while legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro drifts his camera in long-takes and articulate movements. The plot twist, as usual, is pure genius, and it got an instant round of applause from the bemused audience that carried on all the way till the credits.
4) Dream Scenario – Kristoffer Borgli
Simultaneously the funniest and scariest film of the year.
3) Perfect Days – Wim Wenders
Perfect Days follows middle-aged Hirayama’s simple, daily routine a public toilet cleaner in Tokyo. Everything he does, from trimming his distinguished moustache to scrubbing the restroom floor, is carried out with extreme care and lack of frustration. The protagonist echoes Ozu in his simplicity and benevolence, but he’s also intrinsically Chaplin-esque in his taciturn sympathy. And when Hirayama’s everyday is spiced up by his runaway teenage niece, who unexpectedly shows up at his doorstep, the film even recalls Tati’s Mon Oncle for the playful relationship they quickly establish. Through subtle direction that veers from exposition, Wim Wenders masterfully explores the monotonous universe of Hirayama, mostly spent inside weirdly shaped, futuristic toilets across Tokyo. The legendary director finds tenderness where you would least expect to find it, presenting an intimate portrait that never aims at cheap compassion but rather challenges us to look deeper. And in doing so, he taps into the human soul. It’s the kind of brilliant, optimistic storytelling that even makes you want to be a better person. Righteous winner of the Palm d’Or for Best Actor at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, Koji Yakusho’s Hirayama is destined to conquer your heart. His smile alone, encasing a tsunami of emotions in a single expression, is worth the ticket. This film is a medicine, nourishing for the soul.
2) Poor Things – Yorgos Lanthimos
Poor Things, but lucky us. Crazy fisheye shots, vibrant surreal studio sets, and an omnipresent extravaganza- this is Yorgos Lanthimos at his finest. Dr. Godwin Baxter, played by a formidable Willem Dafoe, is a deformed mad scientist living in Victorian London, surrounded by his living experiments such as crossbreeds of dogs, ducks and chickens, and his adoptive daughter Bella (Emma Stone). She appears to be mentally and physically disabled - but it is soon revealed that she’s just a baby. Or rather, her brain is, still functioning in her young mothers’ corpse, revived by the doctor. This is the setup, and what follows is not Frankenstein, but instead a sweet and weird coming of age story. Uncontrolled by social structures, she follows her instincts, unaware of public customs. Her naivety questions societal paradigms, and we are left to wonder whether it would be best if we would all start from scratch, and re-discover our own education based on pleasure instead. Poor Things is quite philosophical, without ever stopping to being hysterically comical and irreverent. In other words, it’s an overall rollicking experience, as Mark Ruffalo’s show stealing character would put it, and who, together with Bella, accomplishes the most bizarre dance sequence, destined to become a cult hit. This is the story of “a woman plotting her course to freedom”. Mary Shelley would be proud.
1) The Zone of Interest – Jonathan Glazer
The Sun is shining bright; teenagers share summer love; a mother cuddles her baby; children merrily play as vibrant flowers blossom in the background. A father kisses his wife and children good morning and, after breakfast, nonchalantly goes to work. This idyllic environment is not the set of Hello Lucy, but a portrait of the Höss family. And rest assured, the grass is not greener on the other side, because the peaceful house is surrounded by the towering, concrete walls of Auschwitz. Jonathan Glazer has presented his most original and divisive effort to date, a film of such intensity that is destined to leave an indelible mark in film history. Loosely based on a novel by Martin Amis, there is no actual narrative to the film. Instead, most of the scenes focus on trivial, everyday moments, intimately spying on the Höss family. For our characters, building an ivy-covered patio for the Summer is a more pressing concern than the bureaucratic issue of body disposal on the other side of the wall. This is the ‘zone of interest’, shining a direct spotlight on the “banality of evil”. The icy, surgical cinematography by Łukasz Żal remains still and distant, with a single camera movement and never a closeup. The sharp digital aesthetic adds a modern hyperreal layer that annihilates the illusory sense of watching scenes from the past, and makes the audience feel uncomfortably present, right there, at the Höss’ dining table. In fact, the director does not want to be a storyteller, but he rather offers us a pure audiovisual experience, audaciously crafted on such a delicate subject matter. The constant sense of discomfort is enhanced by Glazer’s cynical audiovisual edging, as he categorically denies us to witness the monstrosities of the Holocaust. There is no visual violence whatsoever, elevating the film to a more profound level of darkness, relying on the inner depths of our imagination combined with pre-existing knowledge to fill the gaps. The devil is in the details, literally, and we can only glimpse at ominous columns of smoke in the background. What makes the film radically terrifying, though, is its soundscape. The chirping birds are sometimes interrupted by a scream, a shot, a dog barking, or an approaching locomotive not too far away. This brutal juxtaposition is so powerful that it crosses the boundaries of cinematic language. The result is a sensational, unique, daring shock.