As we bid farewell to the year that was, the cinematic landscape has been a mixed bag of remarkable storytelling, pioneering creativity, and a few significant stumbles along the way. While diving into all of the hits and misses of the year would take about the same time as Killers of the Flower Moon runs for (a whopping 3h 26m!), we’ve opted to shorten it to the 10 films we absolutely loved, and the 5 we didn’t.
The Hits: Triumphs of the Silver Screen
In 2023, the film industry delivered an array of exceptional movies that not only captivated audiences worldwide but also marked significant achievements in storytelling, acting, and direction. These hit films, varying from gripping dramas to innovative biopics, showcase the boundless creativity and emotional depth that cinema can offer. Let’s dive into the masterpieces that defined this year, films that not only entertained but also challenged and inspired.
- Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret
Kelly Fremon Craig’s adaptation of Judy Blume’s beloved novel is a masterful blend of humour and heart. It captures the essence of adolescent angst and the quest for identity. While Rachel McAdams gives us another memorable performance, it’s the young Abby Ryder Fortson as Margaret who delivers a performance both endearing and authentic, perfectly encapsulating the confusion and curiosity of puberty. The film excels in its nuanced portrayal of religious exploration and familial dynamics, making it a relatable and insightful watch for all ages. The direction is sensitive yet bold, never shying away from the awkward realities of growing up. The 99% Rotten Tomatoes score is a testament to its universal appeal and exceptional storytelling.
Christopher Nolan’s biographical thriller is a spellbinding depiction of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb. Cillian Murphy’s transformative performance is outstanding in this film, embodying Oppenheimer’s brilliance and internal conflicts. The film does not merely recount historical events; it immerses the audience in the moral quandaries and psychological complexities of its protagonist. Nolan’s signature non-linear storytelling and visually stunning set pieces make the film a thrilling and thought-provoking experience. Its box office success is a clear indicator of Nolan’s ability to blend intellectual depth with mainstream appeal.
- The Zone of Interest
Jonathan Glazer’s adaptation of Martin Amis’ novel offers an unyielding look at one of history’s darkest chapters. Set in and around Auschwitz, the film confronts the banality of evil through its depiction of the lives of Nazi officers and their families. The narrative is handled with a chilling detachment, making it even more impactful. The performances are powerful, particularly the leads, who portray their characters with disturbing normalcy. The film’s Cannes premiere was met with both acclaim and discomfort, reflecting its potent and challenging nature. Its 93% Rotten Tomatoes rating confirms its status as a harrowing yet essential watch.
- Past Lives
In her directorial debut, Celine Song presents a beautifully crafted narrative about love, time, and memory. “Past Lives” explores the relationship between two childhood friends over 24 years, with its semi-autobiographical nature adding a layer of authenticity and emotional depth. Greta Lee and Teo Yoo deliver wonderfully compelling performances, capturing the nuances of longing and the passage of time. The film’s pacing is deliberate, allowing the audience to fully engage with the characters’ journeys. Its critical acclaim, reflected in its 97% Rotten Tomatoes rating, perfectly highlights the film’s ability to resonate deeply with its audience through its poignant storytelling and subtle performances.
Beyond the sheer power of its marketing campaign, Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” is a cinematic revelation, far surpassing expectations for a movie based on the iconic doll. Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling bring depth and nuance to their roles as Barbie and Ken, transcending the superficiality often associated with these characters. Gerwig infuses the film with themes of feminism, identity, and self-discovery, turning a potential cliché into a vibrant, thought-provoking narrative. The film’s aesthetic, a fantastical medley of colour and whimsy, complements its unexpectedly substantial themes, making “Barbie” a unique and significant addition to contemporary cinema. It’s a bold statement on cultural stereotypes and personal empowerment.
- The Holdovers
Alexander Payne’s “The Holdovers” is a delightful blend of humour and heart. Paul Giamatti excels in his role as a grumpy history teacher who finds himself stuck with a troubled student over the holidays. The film is a testament to Payne’s ability to craft relatable, nuanced characters, with Giamatti’s performance providing both laughs and poignant moments. Set against a holiday backdrop, the movie explores themes of companionship, redemption, and the unexpected bonds that form in the unlikeliest of places. Its warm, understated approach to storytelling makes it a refreshing and memorable entry in Payne’s oeuvre.
Ira Sachs’ “Passages” is an insightful, unvarnished portrayal of love and relationships. The film, featuring Franz Rogowski, Ben Whishaw, and Adèle Exarchopoulos, takes a deep dive into the complexities of a gay couple’s marriage as it is destabilised by infidelity. Sachs’ direction is raw and honest, steering clear of melodrama to focus on the nuanced realities of emotional entanglements and human imperfection. The film’s candidness in portraying messy, real-life relationships sets it apart, offering a fresh perspective on love, desire, and the hard truths of navigating human connections.
- Fallen Leaves
Set in the modern-day streets of Helsinki, “Fallen Leaves” is a beautifully crafted story about the intersection of loneliness and love. The film captures the essence of human connection through its portrayal of two individuals meeting in a karaoke bar. The director’s approach to storytelling is subtle yet profound, allowing the characters’ emotions and backgrounds to unfold organically. This sensitivity is reflected in the film’s high 98% Rotten Tomatoes score, a testament to its ability to resonate with audiences on a deeply personal level. The film stands as a poignant reminder of the serendipity and beauty found in unexpected encounters.
Bradley Cooper’s “Maestro” is a deeply moving biopic of Leonard Bernstein, portrayed with passion and intensity by Cooper himself. Carey Mulligan delivers an equally compelling performance as Bernstein’s wife, Felicia Montealegre Cohn Bernstein. The film is not just a chronicle of Bernstein’s career but an intimate exploration of his personal life, relationships, and the challenges of balancing artistic ambition with family. Cooper’s direction is sensitive and nuanced, capturing the emotional depth and complexity of Bernstein’s life. The film’s score, featuring Bernstein’s music, adds a layer of authenticity, making “Maestro” a heartfelt tribute to one of the great musical minds of the 20th century.
- Killers of the Flower Moon
Martin Scorsese, the maestro of cinema, delivers yet another masterpiece with this film. Set against the grim backdrop of 1920s Oklahoma, the movie delves into the chilling Osage murders, intertwining crime, greed, and racism. As usual, Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro deliver performances of immense depth, bringing to life the complex, morally ambiguous characters. The film’s cinematography captures the haunting beauty of the landscape, juxtaposing it with the dark events unfolding. Its success both critically and commercially underscores Scorsese’s unwavering ability to engage and provoke thought through his films.
The Misses: Where Cinema Faltered
Despite the year’s successes, 2023 also witnessed its share of cinematic disappointments. These films, with their potential unfulfilled, remind us that not every risk yields a reward. From underwhelming narratives to lacklustre executions, these titles illustrated the challenges of filmmaking. Here we explore the misfires that, despite their promise or pedigree, failed to resonate with audiences and critics alike, providing valuable lessons in the ever-evolving art of cinema.
- Your Place or Mine
In an era craving the revival of the romantic comedy genre, “Your Place or Mine” stands as a missed opportunity. Despite a promising premise and a capable cast that stars RomCom royalty, Reese Witherspoon, and Ashton Kutcher, the film falls flat with its uninspired storytelling and predictable plot. The lack of chemistry between the leads contributes to its underwhelming impact, failing to evoke the charm and wit essential to a successful rom-com. Its 36% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes reflects a general consensus of disappointment, signalling the need for more innovation and depth in the genre.
- Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey
Scary Winnie the Pooh…need I say more? While certainly a bold reimagining of a beloved childhood story, the film attempts to blend horror with nostalgia and fails to deliver on both fronts. The innovative concept of transforming Winnie-the-Pooh into a horror narrative initially intrigued audiences, but the movie’s execution fell short. Hindered by weak plot development, inconsistent acting, and lacklustre editing, the film struggles to maintain a coherent or compelling narrative. Its 50% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes suggests a disconnect between the intriguing premise and its realisation on screen.
“Ghosted” ambitiously tries the often-successful formula of merging comedy with action, but ends up delivering a muddled experience. Given the star power of Chris Evans and Anna de Armas, this movie should have been an instant hit. Sadly, the film’s inability to strike a balance between its mix of genres results in a lack of coherence and identity. While some moments aim for humour, they often fall flat, and the action sequences lack the excitement or innovation to compensate. The low Tomatometer score of 25% and mixed reviews indicate a consensus on its shortcomings, highlighting the challenges of successfully blending disparate genres in a single film.
The fourth instalment in the “Expendables” series is a prime example of not knowing when to call it quits. The film suffers from overused tropes, poor visual effects and uninspired dialogue, failing to recapture the appeal of its predecessors. The action scenes, once the franchise’s hallmark, now feel tired and formulaic. Its 13% rating on the Tomatometer and low IMDb score reflect a general sense of franchise fatigue, as well as the need for more originality and substance in action cinema.
- Black Noise
“Black Noise” represents another missed opportunity in the thriller genre. Plagued by wooden dialogue and a terribly confusing plot, the film struggles to build suspense or engage the audience. Its low-budget production becomes evident in the subpar special effects and disjointed storytelling. The abysmal 2.6/10 IMDb rating underscores the film’s failure to captivate its audience, serving as a reminder of the importance of a coherent narrative and decent character development in crafting a successful thriller.
In 2023, cinema’s been a canvas of diverse narratives, bold visions, and some misjudged ventures. From the nostalgic and profound to the innovative and experimental, this year has offered a rich tapestry of cinematic experiences, reaffirming the medium’s power to captivate, challenge and entertain. As we look forward to the cinematic journeys of 2024, we celebrate the triumphs and learn from the missteps of this year, eager for the stories yet to be told.