It’s the final day of 2023 so you know what that means. It’s time for our list of the 25 best films released in the United Kingdom this year, and what a year it has been for cinema. With COVID very much in the rearview mirror, this year has seen the number of films released in cinemas bounce back to pre-pandemic levels. If this will still be the case in 12 months time after historic writers and actors strikes plagued much of this year is unclear. But for now, we can sit back and enjoy what has been a rejuvenating year for big-screen entertainment. So what will 2023 be remembered for?
Well, how can you talk about 2023 without touching on the impact of Barbenhimer, the two critical and commercial darlings lit up the world in July when patrons all across the globe descended upon their local cinemas in droves to see both of the big-screen spectacles one after another. Were you a Barbie supporter, or did you fall into camp Oppenheimer? These were the questions being asked of every film fan. But what is undeniable is that both films captured people's attention in a way that few films have managed in recent years. Barbie went on to become the highest-grossing film of the year with over 1.4 Billion in revenue. But what is maybe even more impressive is that a 3-hour long, r-rated bio-pic in Oppenheimer managed to gross almost 1 billion in revenue - way over if you count DVD and Blu-Ray sales. Nolan has once again proved that he is a master at the box office - more fall Warner Brothers for letting him go.
2023 was also the year of brilliant independent films, Jamie and I were very lucky to once again attend the BFI London Film Festival in October, watching over 35 films in the space of 11 glorious days. The trip may have resulted in Jamie being scammed out of more than 1 thousand pounds by some yet-to-be-identified con artist online - we will find you, Luca. But the quality of films more than made up for it…I hope. It’s my first time back at the festival since 2019 and it was an amazing experience to get back to London. Hearing a director's thoughts before and after the film always adds to the experience and I can’t recommend it enough to anyone who is unsure about attending…you don’t have to be a nutter and watch 35 films like us.
And finally, before we jump into the best films of the year, I want to give a shout-out to all of the members of both the SAG AFTRA and Writers Guild strikes. For too long studios have taken liberties with their staff, underpaying and overworking them in exchange for money-hoarding tactics to line their own pockets. And with the ever-growing prevalence of AI, it was a chest-pumping win for the little guy when both of the stricks resulted in improved contracts for their respective members. Now let’s get into the films.
Honourable Mention, Bottoms - (Director: Emma Seligman)
Fresh off the back of her third-place finish in our 2021 list, up-and-coming director Emma Seligman returned with her second feature film Bottoms. Set in an American high school, this outrageous comedy stars Rachel Sennott and Ayo Edebiri as unpopular queer students PJ and Josie. In an attempt to gain popularity and bond with their high school crushes the girls set up an all-female fight club. Unsurprisingly this problematic club soon turns into something much more deadly, and the girls are left to reckon with their actions.
So, funny story. I had a great time with Bottoms, I thought the plot although stupid, and the characters equally as ludicrous provided some of the funniest moments of the year. So, after leaving the cinema and having a thoroughly enjoyable time I messaged Jamie and recommended he see the film post haste, along with Laura Wells formally of this parish. I’m very lucky that despite our occasional differences of opinion on films Jamie is normally more than willing to take up my recommendations. So Jamie, Laura and others descended upon the cinema to take up my recommendation. I awaited eagerly what I expected to be gushing praise upon the rolling of the credits. However, to my amazement, what followed was an almost universal hatred for the film that was shared by all who attended. I was - and still am - in shock by this unforeseen turn of events. So, take that as you will. I thought the film was absolutely hilarious…but it seems it might not be for everyone.
25) Extraction 2 - (Director: Sam Hargrave)
The first Extraction film was released on Netflix way back in 2020. However, I never got around to watching it until this year. The film received very sniffy reviews at the time so I thought it safe to leave it on the backburner. How wrong was I? Extraction is an excellent action film in every conceivable way, with action sequences that can rival even the best John Wick films. Extraction 2, is no different. After miraculously - some may say ridiculously - surviving the events of the first film Tyler Rake (Chris Hemsworth) is thrust back into the action as he and a rag-tag team are tasked with breaking a drug lord's wife out of a Georgina prison.
Former Stunt coordinator and returning director Sam Hargrave flexed his directing muscles in the first film, but with Extraction 2 he has gone into overdrive. It’s safe to say his time working on stunt teams has taught him many tricks of the trade. The long take that covers the film's opening action sequence is magnificent, jumping from an epic bullet-ridden action sequence within the prison to a breakneck escape sequence on board a heavily armoured train, it’s astonishing filmmaking. What might be most impressive, however, is Hargrave's insistence on using practical effects. Often forgotten in the era of cheaper and easier CGI, the reality is you can’t beat the realism of practical. And that is something Hargrave understands. It would be much easier for him to CGI a sequence of heavily armed mercenaries landing by helicopter on a train for example. But he doesn’t take the easy option, instead, he opts for filming that sequence practically, and it makes feel so much more real…simply because it is.
24) Maestro - (Director: Bradley Cooper)
Bradley Cooper's second directed feature film Maestro is an era-spanning bio-pic of the legendary American composure Leonard Bernstein (Bradley Cooper). The creative genius behind such iconic work as West Side Story, Maestro directs its focus onto the composer's personal life, particularly his relationship with long-time muse and wife Felicia Montealegre (Carry Mulligan). Showing both the magical highs and devastating lows of their tumultuous, but loving relationship as it evolved over their lives.
Many in Hollywood have criticised Cooper's second stint behind the camera as being nothing more than blatant Oscar bait, crafted purely with the intention of winning one of the coveted golden trophies. And although that statement may be true in a way I don’t think it’s fair to use it against the film. After all Cooper - with the help of a ferocious, magnetic performance by Carey Mulligan - has crafted something beautiful with Maestro. The performances are electric and powerful, the cinematography, which sees the film split its time between colour and black and white is gorgeous and the story is unabashedly honest, not afraid to peel back the curtain on Bernstein’s affairs that plagued his marriage. In my books at least Cooper is two for two when it comes to films he has directed. I’m excited to see what he has up his sleeve next.
23) No Hard Feelings - (Director: Gene Stupnitsky)
Jennifer Lawrence stars in her first out-and-out comedy - no I’m not counting Don’t Look Up because it’s shit and more importantly not funny - No Hard Feelings follows down on her luck Maddie (Jennifer Lawrence) as she tries to save her home by partaking in two meddling parents scheme to get their son Percy (Andrew Barth Feldman) laid before he goes off to college. What follows is a hilarious raunchy comedy where Lawrence shows she might well have a future as a leading lady in comedy.
Raunchy comedies like No Hard Feelings used to dominate the comedy circuit back at the dawn of the 2000’s. But for the past decade, they have been in dwindling supply. However, that trend seems to now be reversing. I have already mentioned Jamie's favourite film Bottoms and Director Gene Stupnitsky's film falls into the same category. I for one welcome it. Where the genre went wrong is that creators started going overboard with the shock factor and forgot what made films like Superbad capture the zeitgeist…they focused on being funny first. No Hard Feelings is hilarious and features my favourite line delivery of the year by relative newcomer Feldman. The chemistry between him and Lawrence is electric, and most importantly the film has a real heart to it. A premise like this could easily come across as creepy, but it never does.
22) Barbie - (Director: Greta Gerwig)
As aforementioned Barbie has taken home the crown of 2023’s box office giant. Over 1.4 billion for a film based on a child's doll. Anyone and everyone, no matter their personal opinion of the film, has to admit that it is impressive. And it couldn’t have been done without the directing and writing chops of Gerwig. She had nothing to base the film on and went ahead and crafted a profound, moving and at times hilarious story. After suffering a crisis of consciousness Barbie (Margot Robbie) must travel to the real world to confront the truth behind her existence.
Although its success may not be a net positive in the long run - with Mattel now threatening to create films based on all of their trademarked toys…even ones no one has ever heard of - Barbie will go down as a win for originality in cinema. It’s been a long time since a debut film, not ridding the coattails of a predecessor or extended universe has taken the top spot at the box office. Robbie is great in the film, the production design is stunning and will almost certainly win the film one of many Oscars, the music is addictive, but the real star of the show has to be Ryan Gosling. Gosling has always been an underrated actor, especially when it comes to his comedic abilities - he’s magnificent in the 2016 film The Nice Guys - but thankfully with the success of Barbie, he has opened people's eyes to his acting chops. I think this time next year we might be speaking about him as a multi-Oscar-winning actor and singer.
21) Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse - (Director: Joaquim dos Santos, Justin Thompson and Kemp Powers)
In a year of unparalleled superhero fatigue, Spider-Verse once again proved that it’s not superheroes that are the problem, it’s sloppy filmmaking. Following on from the events of the first film Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) finds himself thrust back into the ever-expanding multi-verse as he attempts to stop the evil Spot (Jason Schwartzman) with the help of a plethora of brand new spider-people.
Unsurprisingly to anyone who watched the first film the animation is once again spectacular, the directing threesome of Dos Santos, Thompson and Powers have crafted an animated world unlike anything else. The artistic brilliance is singular to this project, and although it has its copycats nothing can recreate the Spider-Verse’s unique brilliance. Spot is a fantastic new villain, equally parts hilarious and menacing - and shoutout to Jason Schwartzman who is having a real purple patch of acting credits at the moment. The new collection of spider-people boasts an inventive and diverse selection of characters that help keep the story feeling fresh throughout the rather long runtime. And although the film ends on a cliffhanger that is sure to leave many viewers frustrated, I for one can’t wait to see how the filmmakers wrap up this bombastic story.
20) Wonka - (Director: Paul King)
The secret musical Wonka - I have decided to bequeath the film that name as none of its trailers let onto this fact - is the origin story of the famed chocolate maker Willy Wonka (Timothee Chalamet), charting his journey to greatness as he captivates the citizens of the whimsical Victorian London, while having to compete against the gluttonous chocolate cartel that has made the city their personal chocolate kingdom.
I thought this film being a dead rubber was a certainty, however, in my stupidity, I didn’t notice it was being directed by Paul King, the man behind the glorious Paddington movies. So, it should be no surprise that in fact, Wonka is a triumph and so is Timothee Chalamet’s effortless sweet performance as the young chocolatier. The musical sequences are spellbinding, the script is both hilarious and devastating at times and every single performance supporting Chalamet is worthy of praise, with a who’s who of British film and television starts taking their place amongst the cast. Hell even in his small screen time Hugh Grant - who can’t seem to pick a bad film at the moment - shines as a grumpy little Umpa Lumpa. Wonka could very well be the most fun I have had at the cinema this year.
19) How To Have Sex - (Director: Molly Manning Walker)
Molly Manning Walker's debut feature is a triumph. Exploring the world of consent and sexual assault the film follows Three British teenage girls as they go on a rites-of-passage holiday to a party island. Clubbing, drinking and hangovers soon ensue but in what should be a holiday to remember things soon take a sour turn for Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce) as she catches the attention of fellow party-goer Paddy (Samuel Bottomley) staying across from her room.
That short description makes the film sound much more menacing in a cinematic sense than it is, and I think it’s important to say that this isn’t a thriller. This is a very true-to-life story of how the lines of consent can between blurred and taken advantage of by men who know how to twist them to their advantage. Walker’s debut feature is tender and careful in depicting its subject matter, while never shying away from the trauma Tara feels. Never heavy-handed and making a conscious effort to make sure the narrative doesn’t fall into the pitfalls of making its antagonist an obvious villain. How To Have Sex explores perfectly how even the most unambiguous people can harbour unsettling behaviours. Newcomer McKenna–Bruce is brilliant in her honest and open portal of Tara and surely has a big future ahead of her in the industry.
18) Tar - (Director: Todd Field)
From one story about the abuse of power to another Tar depicts the life of fictional conductor Lydia Tar (Cate Blanchett) and how her misdeeds within the industry that has lauded her soon catch up to her. Having achieved every accolade in her career the death of one of her former prodigies sets in motion a story that will lead to the famed musician's eventual downfall. Tar is both an exploration of cancel culture and accountability in modern-day life.
Todd Field directed his first film over 20 years ago back in the year 2001. But Tar is somehow only the director's 3rd film…and is rumoured to be his last. To me, this is a crying shame, although he may have been out of the director's chair for 16 years Field has lost none of his talent. Instead he seems to have perfected an incomparable sense of atmosphere within his films. The film is gorgeously constructed from both a directional point of view and a cinematography point of view. Cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister has done a brilliant job in utilising the cold interiors of the German orchestral building to complement the film's narrative. Cate Blanchett unsurprisingly is magnificent in the role of the problematic genius in what might be the best performance of her career.
17) The Whale - (Director: Darren Aronofsky)
Brendan Fraser’s return to the cinematic landscape saw the formerly iced-out actor reinvigorate his career with an Oscar-winning turn as morbidly obese recluse Charlie. Struggle with the traumatic loss of the great love of his life, Charlie has succumbed to eating himself to death while hiding behind a broken webcam while teaching college students English online. Get ready for a film that will destroy your appetite and make you think differently the next time you fancy some fast food.
The Whale is former critical darling Darren Aronofsky's first film since his much-maligned masterwork Mother! released in cinemas way back in 2017. And much like Mother! The Whale has proven to be another Marmite film within the director's glittering filmography. To this day the extensive criticism of Mother! that saw Jennifer Lawrence pick up a Razzie nomination for a performance that should have been Oscar-nominated pisses me off. That film is a masterpiece and I won’t accept anything else. The Whale, although not close to the levels of its predaceous has also come under fire by critics lamenting it with unfair and unwarranted criticism. This is a fantastic film, an engrossing story of a man self-sabotaging himself out of grief, Frasher’s performance is tearjerkingly powerful. As are the performances of his co-stars Sadie Sink as his mean-spirited daughter Ellie and Hong Chau as long-term caregiver Liz.
16) Cat Person - (Director: Susanna Fogel)
Maybe the most controversial inclusion on this year's list Susanna Fogel’s exploration of modern dating really captivated me. Margot (Emilia Jones) is a college sophomore struggling to find love in the digital age. One day while working behind the counter at her local cinema Robert (Nicholas Braun) catches her eye. Despite being visibly older, and clearly lacking in social skills Margot takes an interest in the man. The two soon exchange numbers and hit it off over text. However, when comes time to bring this blossoming relationship into the real world things soon take a turn. Could Robert actually be some kind of serial killer?
Fogels film is razor-sharp in its examination of the pitfalls of modern dating. It’s funny, it’s tense and most importantly not afraid to keep the audience guessing. We’re truly sure what Robert’s true intentions are and that is what helps make Cat Person one of the tensest films of the year. Jones is superb in the leading role, fresh off the back of her performance in the Best Picture-winning Coda she brings real energy to the film. Definitely a future superstar in the making. Braun, best known for playing the idiotic cousin Gregg on this year's best show Succession, also disappears into this role as the creepy, but potentially misunderstood Robert. It may not have made a major splash with audiences, but I for one loved Cat Person.
15) The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes - (Director: Francis Lawrence)
I was never massively into the original Hunger Games films. Like the majority of people my favourite was the second film, but after that point, I never really fell in love with the franchise. In fact, to this day I still haven’t watched the final film - maybe because I was frustrated by the studio's insistence on splitting the final book into two films, thanks for starting that trend Harry Potter - although I have been reliably informed by my mum that it is a satisfactory ending. Prequel The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes however is anything but satisfactory. This is one of the best big-budget blockbusters in years. Taking us all the way back to the 10th edition of the Hunger Games, the film charts the rise of future big bad Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth) and his relationship with tribute Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), as he must help her survive the annual fight to the death.
There are too many prequels in Hollywood, and most of the time they stink - looking at your Star Wars and the Hobbit - but this adaptation of Suzanne Collins best selling novel breaks that mould. I was honestly blown away by how much I enjoyed this film. It’s comfortably the best Hunger Games film and maybe the best film from this ever-growing genre of YA survival pictures. Rachel Zegler is astonishingly good in only her third-ever role - it’s crazy to think that just 3 years ago she was in her room recording videos of her singing for her small YouTube channel. She is now a superstar. And although she has become the latest in a long line of women to get thrown into the firing line of online misogynists she continues to impress with every acting performance she delivers. Seriously now the hate she has received online is disgraceful. I’m not an overly political person, and there are a lot of criticisms of modern-day films and their quest to over-politicise themselves that I agree with. However, the pile-ons that are orchestrated online by a select group of men with fragile egos are becoming more and more ludicrous. Zegler, quite literally did nothing and yet somehow found herself being dragged over the proverbial coals of the internet. More power to her I say.
14) Dream Scenario - (Director: Kristoffer Borgli)
Maybe the most Nicolas Cagey performance of Nicolas Cage's career? The Cageaissance continues with his latest film Dream Scenario. Unassuming and hapless school teacher Paul Matthews finds himself stepping into the public consciousness when he starts to appear in people's dreams. At first, it’s innocent enough, he walks, he watches, and he never says a word. But after he attempts to take advantage of the situation to launch his stuttering literary career things soon turn sour as his dream persona turns nightmarish.
Cage will sign up for any project nowadays, no matter how ridiculous the premise is. And personally, I’m all for it because it allows us to enjoy such gems as Dream Scenario. Cage started accepting outlandish film roles due to his poor management of his finances. But from this, he has finally found his niche and produced some of his most memorable performances. Dream Scenario is maybe the best exploration of the modern-day phenomenon that is cancel culture. Cage plays the part of the unwitting Matthews brilliantly. Despite thinking it’s owed he was clearly never ready for such fame, and when things start to take a turn his naivety is laid bare. Equal parts hilarious and tragic Dream Scenario is another in a long line of examples as to why A24 is the most exciting studio producing independent films today.
13) Dear Jassi - (Director: Tarsem Singh)
Okay, I'm potentially breaking my one rule here. Dear Jassi has actually yet to secure distribution in the United Kingdom. So, although I was lucky enough to see the film at the London Film Festival in October the majority of film fans across the United Kingdom won’t have had a chance to see it. So why include the film I hear you ask? Well, sadly I have a feeling, that like other international films I have seen in the past, Dear Jassi will never secure a cinematic release in the U.K. And for that reason, and for the brilliance of the film, I couldn’t allow it to miss out on a spot in this or next year’s list.
Based on a true story, Dear Jassi is an updated retelling of the tragic Romeo and Juliet love story. Set in India during the 1990s the story follows the chance meeting, the beautiful love story and the eventual tragedy that beholds star-crossed lovers Jassi (Pavai Sidhu) and Mithu (Yugam Sood). Directed by Tarsem Singh, I had the pleasure of sitting in a Q&A with the director after the film ended. This film is very much a return to his roots and puts the spotlight on the tragedy that is honour killings, something that is still prevalent in India to this day. Singh, who stepped away from Indian cinema to venture to Hollywood has clearly spent his time away perfecting his craft. So it should be no surprise that Dear Jassi is one of the most gorgeously shot films of the year. The true story is shocking, and how it’s depicted in the film left me in an almost comatose state upon its conclusion, as well as leaving me with a burning heart. If this doesn’t get a cinematic release in the United Kingdom, I implore you to seek it out with all means necessary.
12) The Royal Hotel - (Director: Kitty Green)
Another film I had the pleasure of seeing at the festival, Kitty Greens second feature charts the journey of backpacking friends Hanna (Julia Garner) and Liv (Jessica Henwick) as they traverse the punishing Australian outback. Short on cash and in need of a job to keep their visas running, the pair set up camp at a remote pub “The Royal Hotel”. What they soon learn is that the rowdy clientele are anything but polite. What follows is a masterwork in cinematic tension as Green twists the knife slowly raising the stakes of the pair's treacherous new surroundings.
Green has in two short films already perfected her unique cinematic style. Her direction is meticulous, almost mathematic in its precision. And the partnership she has fashioned with Garner is something to behold. The pair expertly hold back right until the end to keep the tension growing to a fever pitch degree. At any moment you think the situation could explode. But Green holds and holds and holds until the opportune moment to let it blow. The performances are unsurprisingly great, and I must mention the almost unrecognisable Hugo Weaving as the drunken bar owner Billy. I was really taken aback by the film and blown away by how much I enjoyed it.
11) Pearl - (Director: Ti West)
Released almost straight after its predecessor X in America, it felt like an age before Pearl finally made its debut across the pond. Set in 1918 at the tail end of World War 1, the film traverses the backstory of X’s titular villain Pearl (Mia Goth). With her husband in Europe fighting in the war, Pearl is left to maintain her family farm alongside her unforgiving mother and disabled Father. But she has dreams of grandeur and after a casting call arrives in town she begins to believe that her dreams are stardom are about to become reality. However, this is a horror movie after all so unsurprisingly when things don’t go our protagonist's way she soon descends into violent adoration that sets in motion a chain of events that lead up to X’s showdown.
Ti West has vastly improved on his first film to release the horror film of the year. But the real star is Mia Goth, WOW. This is comfortably the best acting performance by a female actor of the year. It may not pick up any awards due to its genre, but Mia Goth has produced something truly special. She is absolutely terrifying. Right down to the final shot of the film that will be imprinted on my mind forever. Her ruthless brutality is haunting and I can’t help but feel her snubbing at this year's Oscars was a real travesty. This idea that Horror movies are in some way less deserving of praise is ludicrous. Some of the best films of all time - Alien, The Shining, The Exorcist - call the genre their home and it’s time award shows wake up and smell the bacon. This genre is as good as ever and it’s time to start rewarding it.
10) Killers of the Flower Moon - (Director: Martin Scorsese)
The longest film of the year, Martin Scorsese’s historical epic charting the destruction of the Osage Nation clocked in at a bladder-blowing 3 hours and 26 minutes. So long in fact that some theatres installed their own intermission into the film’s showings - much to the annoyance of the film's producers who demanded it be watched in one butt-numbing sitting. Personally, the length didn’t bother me too much. I mean I watched The Holiday for the first time this year and that felt a hell of a lot longer…and was nowhere near as good for that matter.
The reality is that for a story as complex and important as Killers of The Flower Moon to be told properly it needed a long run time. Pushed to the barren lines of Oklahoma, the Osage Nation soon discovers that the land is blessed with plentiful oil reserves. But when money starts flowing into the community so do opportunistic men, hell-bent on turning the Osage's good fortune into their own personal piggy banks. What ensues is the systematic destruction of the Osage people, as their wealth is scooped up by the very people claiming to have their best interests at heart. Scorsese is 81 now, and yet he shows no notion of slowing down, or his work being affected by his age. It’s interesting how Tarantino (60) has become so obsessed with ending his career early for fear of losing his touch. Well Quentin, if you follow the path laid out by Scorsese you won't have anything to worry about.
9) John Wick - (Director: Chad Stahelski)
Could this be the final chapter? Honestly, John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is so unrelenting I wouldn’t be surprised if he makes another appearance in the future. After a disappointing third outing the assassin extraordinaire returns to fight off another big bad, this time in the form of the eloquent High Table leader Marquis (Bill Skarsgard) as always, the stakes have never been higher, and that means John is going to have to fight his wave through hundreds of unmanned assassins in order to gain a showdown with the scheming assassin king.
Bloody hell they’ve done it again. Just when you think the action sequences can’t get any more grandiose, any more extravagant director Chad Stahelski revels in proving us all wrong. Where to start, as always each action sequence gets more and more outlandish as the story progresses, to the point where you are left in shock that action can be this good. From an effortlessly cool overhead sequence reminiscent of a 2D video game that sees Wick blowing unprepared assassins away with a flaming shotgun, to a staircase sequence that can barely be described with words, once again Stahelski has proven he is the master of the action genre, and for Reeves, this is a role of a lifetime. I mentioned it in my review of the television spin-off The Continental, but I will mention it again. I don’t think the creators could have ever envisioned the story would go this far. What a breath of fresh air.
8) The Fabelmans - (Director: Steven Spielberg)
Steven Spielberg’s self-biographical re-telling of his childhood and how he fell in love with the moving picture business The Fabelmans plays as a love story for the joys of cinema. Gabriel LaBelle portrays the fictionalised version of a young Spielberg, Sammy Fabelman traversing his discovery of a generational filmmaking talent. While dedicating a good portion of its focus to his early forays into direction, The Fabelmans also shines a light on the trials and tribulations of a family rocked by a shocking secret.
I thought this film was masterful, after a dip in his illustrious career Spielberg has come back in roaring fashion with his last two pictures. The Fabelmans being the best. 2023 has been the year I have once again fallen in love with cinema myself. Over the past couple of years, I found myself being drawn more towards the small screen. But this year, between all of the great new films that have been released and the plethora of amazing older films I have discovered I’m back on board. And The Fabelmans is the cherry on the cake. Beautifully shot, expertly directed and littered with great performances Spielberg, like the aforementioned Scorcese is proof that great directors never lose it.
7) Babylon - (Director: Damien Chazelle)
Damien Chezelle may yet be sent to director prison for costing Paramount over 87 million dollars with his box office bomb Babylon, but if this is the film that sends him there then at least he can say it was worth it. A celebration of cinema, Babylon charts Hollywood's tumultuous transition from silent cinema to talkies, following the interwoven stories of ambitious director Manny Torres (Diego Calva), new-found star Nelle LaRoy (Margot Robbie) and renowned actor Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt). Revelling in the decadence and oversized egos of the era Babylon is a cinematic experience like no other this year.
Slammed by critics, ignored by the Oscars and performing disastrously at the box office, I was as shocked as anyone when I sat down to watch the film and found it to be a thoroughly thrilling and lively experience. In honestly I’m a little perplexed by the criticism. Sure it’s pretentious - okay it’s super pretentious, let’s not dwell on the ending that seems to never end - but loads of great films are, and it’s dishonest to pick on Babylon for it. The cinematography and production design are breathtaking, the score is hypnotic and the performances are top-notch. Sure at times the actors might be chewing the scenery a little, looking at you Tobey, but it’s all part of the fun that is Baylon. Personally, I think people just need to lighten up and enjoy the ride.
6) Saltburn - (Director: Emerald Fennell)
Emerald Fennell’s second feature film is a feat to behold. A modern update on the 90’s classic The Talented Mr. Ripley…but considerably better. Saltburn is one part bizarre love story and another part psychological thriller. Unpopular student Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) falls headfirst into the lavish, decadent almost otherworld life of popular student Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi). After winning his affection Oliver, without a home to go back to during the summer holidays, is invited by Felix to stay at his family's country manor Saltburn.
I hate to go on about the film festival - who am I kidding, I love it. But watching Saltburn on opening night with a raucous crowd is hands down one of my greatest experiences in the cinema. The laughter was palpable, the tension could be felt in the room, and is there any wonder why? Fennell’s film is amazing. It’s breathtaking to look at. Her design so go with a square aspect ratio puts the focus right onto the character's faces. The cast is magnificent, Keoghan is creepy to a fault, Elordii is magisterial, Rosamund Pike as Elspeth Catton is comedic dynamite with some of the best lines in the film and Carey Mulligan as Poor Dear Pamela (her character name on IMDB) is a certified scene stealer. Bravo to Emerald Fennell on crafting one of the most entertaining films of the year.
5) Anatomy of a Fall - (Director: Justine Triet)
Sandra Huller shines in the role of a lifetime as Sandra Voyter. One fateful morning her young blind son Daniel (Milo Machado Graner) returns from walking his dog to find his Father Samuel (Samuel Maleski) lying dead on the floor, his head caved in from a tragic fall. But did he fall or was he pushed? Well, the police sure believe he was pushed by his wife Sandra. What follows is a cat-and-mouse courtroom drama that is unlike any courtroom drama that has come before it. Sandra and Samuel’s relationship is agonisingly examined under the microscope of perceived justice. Their secrets are laid bare for the world to see under the guise of being for the greater good.
Huller has had a fantastic year. Her other feature which will be a major awards contender comes to U.K cinemas in 2024, but her performance in Anatomy of a Fall is her best. While watching the film I was reminded of the true life story behind last year's television show The Staircase, and Anatomy of a Fall follows very similar beats. The difference is the courtroom sequences. They are breathtaking. At the end of the day, it’s a simple setting, with outstanding dialogue. But the dialogue is so outstanding that it grips you and won’t let go. The chopping and changing between languages is masterfully done, and the performance by child actor Graner is astonishing. It might be the best performance by a child I have ever seen, honestly, it blew me away. We’re into the crown jewels of the year now. These five films are almost interchangeable in my mind, every single one of them could take the top spot, that is how strong this year has been. If I was writing these reviews tomorrow Anatomy of a Fall could very well take the be number one.
4) Oppenheimer - (Director: Christopher Nolan)
In 20 years time when we look back on 2023 there will be one film that stands out amongst the rest as being the lasting image of that year. Having already secured its place in the pop-culture pantheon for years to come Oppenheimer is now working on breaking the 1 billion dollar mark at the box office. I mentioned it way back at the start of this article, but that truly is an astonishing feat for a film like Oppenheimer. It’s not just that even the likes of football Twitter - yes that’s a thing - are using Oppenheimer memes. I have never seen an R-rated, 3-hour-long film reach this sheer volume of an audience. So it should be a relief to everyone that Nolans latest picture is also a masterpiece.
Exploring the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) the father of the atomic bomb, the film is split into four key timelines. His early days in academia, his recruitment by the US military to the Manhattan Project and his subsequent building of the first atomic weapons, the aftermath that sees a race against the Soviets to create an even more powerful weapon, and his eventual betrayal by the very people who relied on him to pave the way for US military domination. This is Nolan’s most mature work, and I have to admit I didn’t fall in love with it during my first viewing. But after revisiting the film I couldn’t believe how wrong I had been. Oppenheimer is astounding. The sound design, the visual effects, the performances, the direction, the production design and let’s not forget the score. Every single facet of the film is working on overdrive. Nolan will secure his first-ever Oscar next year, and there won’t be anyone more deserving.
3) The Killer - (Director: David Fincher)
Maybe my favourite film of the year, even if I don’t think it’s the best. The Killer is David Fincher's latest Netflix collaboration following his 2020 film Mank. Michael Fassbender’s assassin is calm and collected, he never stands out, he rarely talks, he loves the Smiths, and most importantly he never misses his target…until he does. After a slip of the finger, the decorated hunter becomes the hunted as Fassbenders Killer must race against time to stop his former employers from tracking him down.
Fincher is my all-time favourite director so it should be no surprise I love his 12th film. His surgical directing style is so hypnotic in its preciseness that I can find myself watching his films over and over and never becoming bored. I watched The Killer for the first time in October and since then I have watched it four times. In fact, I might go watch it again after writing this review. That is how addicted I have become to Fincher's work. And the problem is there isn’t anyone else out there who can match this level of perfection. Fincher is renowned for putting his actors through the ringer. There’s a story from Fincher's 2007 masterpiece Zodiac that sticks in my mind. He made Jake Gyllenhaal film upwards of 70 takes of him simply throwing a notebook onto his car seat. Fincher doesn’t come to play. Everything will be how he wants it and on his terms, which is a similar opinion shared by The Killer's protagonist. One could almost say Fincher is ribbing himself here. Food for thought.
2) Past Lives - (Director: Celine Song)
The directorial debut of the year. Three years after Rose Glass burst onto the scene with Saint Maud, Celine Song joins the new wave of female filmmakers taking the world by storm with Past Lives. Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Song (Teo Yoo) two childhood friends are separated only to be reunited years later online. Nora now living in the United States reconnects with Hae Song and in the process reconnects with her forgotten routes in South Korea. As their love starts to be rekindled and they spend more time talking and sharing stories with each other Nora must reckon with two competing lives. Her life in America with her Husband Arthur (John Magaro) and the life that could have been back in South Korea with Hae Song.
Past Lives is a beautifully elegant debut feature. It’s honestly outstanding that a filmmaker could make something so poignant and profound on their first attempt. Song deserves all of the praise she is receiving tenfold. Exciting talents like her are the reason cinema will never die because as long as you have new filmmakers capable of making work as emotionally rewarding as this the medium is going to live on forever. All the performances are brilliant, even Magaro in a small role manages to deliver a performance to remember. But the star of the show is undoubtedly Lee’s radiant turn in the leading role. Her powerful performance left me emotionally shattered by the end of the film, and was so memorable it almost landed the film the top spot, but for one other film.
1) May December - (Director: Todd Haynes)
I've gone back and forth on this years number one pick, in-fact this might be the hardest it has ever been to choose a number one. Such is the quality of these top five films. But, last night, having signed off my ranking and written all of the reviews I lay in bed thinking about this damn film. The intoxicating world May December has been burrowing a home for itself in my mind ever since my first viewing, and after watching the film again this morning to make sure, it's that reason I have to award it the number one position for 2023. Who doesn't love an eleventh-hour change?
May December is auteur director Todd Haynes first scripted film since 2019 is a triumph and his best yet. Set in small-town Americana TV star Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) has secured what she sees as the role of a lifetime. Playing the notorious criminal Gracie (Julianne Moore) who twenty years ago was imprisoned for having an illicit affair with underaged Joe (Charles Melton). Travelling to their now family home to observe their relationship with each other and their three kids, Elizabeth soon finds herself relating a little too much with Gracie.
Played at times for laughs as an unapologetic melodrama, Haynes approaches the film, based loosely on a true story, with a tonal playfulness that allows it to explore themes of denial, wrongdoing and ultimately how past traumas can lay in wait while affecting your ability to grow as a person. There are some really heartfelt moments here, in particular the scenes revolving around Joe, a boy let down by everyone around him, who finds himself trapped within a relationship that started when he was too young to understand it. Melton is brilliant and could be a real dark horse for the Supporting Actor Oscar next year. I’d be a miss to not mention the film’s unbelievably over-the-top soundtrack. Composed by Marcelo Zarvos the soundtrack heightens the melodrama in spectacular fashion. Please Spotify LET ME HAVE IT!