Sunday, December 31, 2023

The Best Films of 2023

25 – The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial (William Friedkin)
The last feature by one of the great filmmakers didn’t get anywhere near a cinema, being dumped straight onto streaming. I guess some people may dismiss The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial as not being particularly ‘cinematic’ but I was more thrilled and gripped by this modestly scaled drama than I was by a lot of pictures deemed worthy of the big screen this year. Friedkin’s direction is a lesson in cripst staging and control. The play is set almost entirely within the military courtroom where Lt. Stephen Maryk (Jake Lacy) stands accused of an act of mutiny against Captain Queeg (Kiefer Sutherland), and Friedkin doesn’t waste a moment, using smart blocking and camera angles to emphasise shifts in the dynamic of the case, as defence lawyer Lt. Barney (Jason Clarke) argues under the watchful glare of head judge Captain Blakely (a typically commanding Lance Reddick, to whom the film is dedicated. The film has some razor-sharp editing and the build-up to Queeg’s climactic crack-up is expertly escalated, with Sutherland nailing his increasingly unhinged monologue. With the superb closing scene, Friedkin proved he was a master right down to the last cut.

24 – While We Watched (Vinay Shukla)
This is an absorbing and infuriating film about the prevalence of nationalism in India and the silencing of dissent. NDTV journalist Ravish Kumar's determination to maintain his integrity and give people real news in a considered way is admirable, but this documentary shows him being forced into an increasingly untenable position. His station has been made something of a pariah through a government boycott and constant attacks by other networks, all of whom kowtow to Modi's regime and stoke nationalistic fervour (and violent reprisals) by labelling any opposition as traitors. Kumar deals with dwindling staff (the repeated scenes of office goodbye parties are poignant), disruptions to the broadcast feed and frequent death threats with a quiet dignity and courage, and his refusal to buckle as the odds stack up against NDTV is inspiring. "Not all battles are fought for victory. Some are fought simply to tell the world that someone was there on the battlefield." While We Watched is an eye-opening portrait of Indian politics and media, but it's also a film that resonates depressingly in our own coarsening news landscape.

23 – You Hurt My Feelings (Nicole Holofcener)
You Hurt My Feelings could have been the title of any of Nicole Holofcener’s films – hurt feelings are this filmmaker’s stock-in-trade. Her films are reliably funny, but beneath the laughs she is always displaying an acute understanding of the myriad small ways in which people can wound each other. This film is another study of the importance of truth in relationships, with writer Beth (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) overhearing her husband Don (Tobias Menzies) criticising her new book having told her that he loved it, and Holofcener mines this situation for both hilarious comedy and real emotional pain. This is Holofcener’s second collaboration with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and she walks this funny/sad/awkward tightrope with marvellous timing and authenticity, sharing a strong rapport with Menzies, whose character is simultaneously going through his own crisis of confidence. “This whole world is falling apart, and this is what’s concerning you?” an exasperated Don complains when Beth confronts him, but Holofcener understands that the problems that seem trivial on the surface are often the ones that burrow deep under the skin and hit us most personally, and her perceptive studies of human behaviour are a class apart from anything else in contemporary American comedy.

22 – The Goldman Case (Cédric Kahn)
While Saint Omer and Anatomy of a Fall both offered much to admire, my favourite French courtroom drama of the year was probably the most unheralded. This fascinating true-life tale hinges on the innocence of Pierre Goldman, who admits to a number of robberies but denies the double murder he’s accused of. He believes his innocence is so self-evident he refuses to call character witnesses, and he frequently goes against the advice of his legal team to say whatever the hell he wants from the dock. There’s a lot of showboating and rhetoric in this film, which is in part about the performative nature of courtroom trials. It’s also about the unreliability of witnesses, who often rely on fuzzy or manipulated memories, or are guided by their own prejudices. Shooting on 35mm in Academy ratio, Kahn’s compositions are simple but effective, and he creates a real rhythm in his cutting, as we move from one statement and argument to the next. As Goldman, Arieh Worthalter – a permanent snarl on his lips – is absolutely tremendous, and he has a very funny rapport with Arthur Harari as his exasperated counsel. It’s easy to imagine this being a dutiful and dry picture in many hands, but Kahn makes it something riveting, hilarious and cinematic.

21 – Pictures of Ghosts (Kleber Mendonça Filho)
Kleber Mendonça Filho's new film is a personal exploration of his home town Recife, notably the cinemas that shaped him. He begins in the apartment where he grew up and took his first steps to becoming a filmmaker, and then he looks outwards into the city, which has evolved in a number of ways over the years. In the multiplex era, the great picture palaces of his youth are long gone, having been left derelict or transformed into shopping malls and churches. The title is apt: Mendonça Filho expresses his sense of loss, but he also marvels at cinema's ability to keep these places and the people who inhabited them alive. One of the loveliest sections of the film focuses on footage he shot of an old projectionist who spent decades screening films before his cinema closed in the ‘90s, and tells stories of getting so tired of hearing The Godfather’s theme music he’d swap with another projectionist from across the street. It's a beautiful film about time, memory, cinema, community and architecture, and it has been put together in a way that's simultaneously reflective, discursive and playful, right up to the wonderfully funny and inventive closing scene. It will resonate with any of us who have lost these spaces that meant so much to us and have watched the cities around us change.

20 – Afire (Christian Petzold)
As a longtime Petzold agnostic, I was surprised by how much I loved Afire. It feels like one of his least plot-driven and (on the surface) least ambitious films, but to my eyes it's his most purely enjoyable and satisfying. It's a sharp portrait of insecurity, solipsism and arrogance in a callow aspiring artist; even when staring death in the face and watching the world around him burn, Leon can only think of how everything relates to him. Thomas Schubert is incredibly good as this infuriatingly bitter and prickly protagonist, and his performance is full of nuances and deadpan comic moments. Petzold is very good at capturing these great little moments – like Leon's forced laugh after he falls over, or the look on the hotel manager's face when he mocks her pronunciation – and the excerpts we hear of his book Club Sandwich (in which he uses the word "cleavage" twice in a few paragraphs) is a perfect pastiche of an insular young novelist's terrible writing. Afire is very funny and engaging in its loose Rohmer-esque fashion, but by the time it tightens in its darker final third it has developed imperceptibly into a surprisingly rich and poignant character study.

19 – Our Body (Claire Simon)
Shooting at a gynaecology hospital in Paris, Claire Simon explores the stories of multiple women at all stages of their journey through life. We only spend a little time with each woman, there is no narrative thread carried throughout the film, but by moving from one case to another, Simon gives us a wide-ranging perspective on the female experience. Some of these woman are preparing to give birth, some are trying to get pregnant, some are going through gender transition, some are dealing with cancer, and as we observe their consultations and treatment, Simon's camera is intimate and empathetic throughout. One middle-aged woman even welcomes Simon’s camera, proclaiming herself a great cinema fan and inviting the director closer to the operating table. Towards the end of Our Body, Simon puts her own story in the film – she learned that she had breast cancer during the course of shooting and she receives her diagnosis on camera – adding another moving layer to the film. As we watch these women of different ages, races and faiths going through often painful trials, it's impossible not to be touched by their resilience, or by the patience and care shown by the hospital staff.

18 – Close (Lukas Dhont)
I entered the cinema with no expectations after firmly disliking Lukas Dhont's debut film Girl, but I found Close to be a shattering experience. Dhont swiftly establishes the deep intimacy and unbreakable bond between his two main characters in the opening minutes, then his film gradually pulls them apart, with a single comment at school being enough to plant a seed of doubt and insecurity in their innocent paradise. As the two boys whose relationship is at the story's centre, Eden Dambrine and Gustav de Waele give incredibly expressive performances; these characters can't articulate the complex emotions they're feeling, and so we have to read so much into their faces and body language. Dhont's blocking highlights the changing nature of this friendship, and Frank van den Eeden's cinematography superbly incorporates the changing seasons as the film charts a year that Leo will never forget. It's an astonishing film that I found perceptive and profoundly moving on friendship, cruelty, grief and guilt.

17 – Hit Man (Richard Linklater)
I’m not sure I understand why a terrible Glen Powell-starring romantic comedy is currently playing in a number of cinemas, while an exceptional Glen Powell-starring romantic comedy has been left on the shelf by Netflix, despite receiving spontaneous mid-film applause at almost every festival screening it has had. Powell and Adria Arjona have a fizzing chemistry as the as the mundane college professor posing as a slick professional assassin and the one-time client who falls in love with his adopted persona, and at its best Hit Man generates a snappy screwball comedy momentum that’s irresistible. There’s never really a sense of peril or tension in the film, but Powell and Linklater's screenplay is smartly constructed and touches on ideas of identity, role-playing and the perception of self. It’s Linklater’s best film in years and in another era it would have an chance to be his biggest box-office hit, but God only know what chance it will get when Netflix finally decides to do something with it next year.

16 – The Beast (Bertrand Bonello)
Bonello's mind-boggling, centuries-spanning sci-fi love story contains about as many ideas that don't work as ones that do, but I was agog throughout and it has remained firmly lodged in my brain ever since. Bonello puts together some spellbinding sequences (the scene in the doll factory had me holding my breath) and I couldn't have guessed where it was going to go from one moment to the next, with the director employing a number of sharp, disorienting cuts. It's a film about holding on to our humanity as we march into our AI-dominated future, and the final scene is viscerally powerful. Léa Seydoux is absolutely tremendous – what else is new? – but I think this is also the first time I've ever really enjoyed a George MacKay performance. His work in the film’s American section is both hilarious and chilling. There's a lot to parse here and it's a film I'm already keen to revisit. I also need to try and see the end credits, presented here as an onscreen QR code (surely a first), as I heard there’s an additional scene in there!

15 – Godzilla Minus One (Takashi Yamazaki)
It's probably not a good idea for Warner Brothers to run the trailer for their forthcoming Godzilla x Kong blockbuster before screenings of Godzilla Minus One. It looked like shit while I was watching it, and it looked even worse two hours later after I'd seen Takashi Yamazaki's film. Set in the immediate aftermath of World War II, Godzilla emerges into a devastated nation attempting to build a future out of the ashes, and a population struggling with complex feelings of grief, shame, anger and survivor's guilt. The film is a character-driven drama first and a monster spectacle second, with the development of its central figures giving us relationships that we can become fully invested in when Godzilla comes stomping into town. The destructive set-pieces are skilfully handled by the writer-director, who squeezes this film's relatively meagre budget for all it's worth ($15 million? Did I read that correctly?!) and shows a real knack for intelligent pacing and staging. The ambitious attempt to finish Godzilla off in the film's final half-hour generates a genuinely gripping sense of tension, and it's a masterclass in how to keep personal stakes at the forefront of a large-scale action sequence.

14 – The Nature of Love (Monia Chokri)
This film is so witty and astute on different kinds of love, on the challenge of moving between social circles, and on desire and disillusionment. Magalie Lépine Blondeau is outstanding as the 40-year-old philosophy professor who falls into a lusty affair with a rural handyman (Pierre-Yves Cardinal) but can't figure out if she should leave her staid relationship or if this is just a burst of passion that will pass. Chokri plays up the contrast between Sophia’s bourgeois lifestyle and the more rugged, down-to-earth background that Sylvain hails from, but all of the characters feel fully realised and specific in the writing and performances; Chokri herself has a fun cameo as Sophia’s friend, who is embarking on her own sexual adventure. It's a thoughtful and frequently very funny romance, but what really elevates The Nature of Love into something special is Chokri's direction. The camera is constantly probing for unexpected angles on the drama – often employing crash zooms to hilarious effect – and André Turpin's 35mm cinematography has a rich, autumnal glow. So many romantic comedies are made in a nondescript fashion, it’s such a treat to see one with real craft and intelligence behind it.

13 – The Eight Mountains (Felix Van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch)
A decades-spanning story of friendship between two characters from different worlds who remain deeply connected even as the physical and emotional distance between them grows. City boy Pietro (Luca Marinelli) is directionless and unable to commit while the rural Bruno (Alessandro Borghi) is sure of his place and purpose, but over the course of the film, this dynamic shifts so Pietro finds his place while Bruno seems incapable of seeing beyond the life he's always known. As in The Broken Circle Breakdown, Van Groeningen and Vandermeersch prove adept at charting their characters' development over the course of many years, and in The Eight Mountains' carefully paced 2½ hours we gain a real sense of lives lived, fortunes changing and regrets growing. It's an incredibly accomplished and impressive piece of filmmaking, with cinematographer Ruben Impens finding endless exquisite compositions in the mountains that are so central to the lives of these characters, and Daniel Norgren's evocative music adding to the film's emotional texture. I found it overwhelmingly beautiful and moving.

12 – Oppenheimer (Christopher Nolan)
I loved the monumental scale of this, but what's most powerful in the film is the way Nolan shoots close-ups of his actors. Cillian Murphy is mesmerising as he balances the thrill of an intellectual challenge and scientific breakthrough with the overwhelming dread of that breakthrough's potential consequences, and being left to shoulder the responsibility of unleashing true horror on the world. There’s a wonderful tactility and texture to the images – the black-and-white 65mm cinematography is particularly gorgeous – and the sound is extraordinary, including the remarkably potent use of silence around the Trinity test. I’ve always admired the craft in Nolan’s films but I didn’t think he had it in him to make a film with this kind of moral seriousness. The second half of the film, with its cutting between the two hearings and the way it engages with the moral weight of Oppenheimer's actions, is hugely impressive, and the haunting ending is beautifully done: "Just remember, it won't be for you. It will be for them." A captivating and stimulating experience.

11 – May December (Todd Haynes)
An incisive, pitch-black comic melodrama about living with fame and infamy, and the warped relationships arising from these conditions. Haynes has so often employed a degree of distance and artifice in his films as a means of exploring deeper emotional truths, and he is in full command of the slippery tone demanded by Samy Burch’s remarkable screenplay; it’s a dark comedy, a melodrama, a satire and an exploration of our lurid fascination with celebrity and scandal, which increasingly pushes deeper into more uncomfortable territory. May December is a film about acting and creating a sense of reality, and the pitch-perfect performances from Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman brilliantly negotiate the layers of these characters’ performative nature and self-deception, while Charles Melton is extraordinarily vulnerable as a young man only now coming to terms with the way his life has been stunted and manipulated. May December is both hilarious and unnerving, often simultaneously (I cackled at Portman dismissing the kids auditioning for her film as “not sexy enough”), and Haynes’ use of Michel Legrand’s music from The Go-Between couldn’t be more perfect.

10 – Occupied City (Steve McQueen)
Over the course of its 4½ hours (including 15-minute intermission) I was entranced by Occupied City. McQueen's approach is so simple, but it builds into something so rich. Presenting us with footage of Amsterdam shot over the past three years, he takes us from street to street, building to building, while telling us exactly what happened to the people in each place during the Nazi occupation. Amsterdam lost around 80% of its Jewish population and even this exhaustive film is barely scratching the surface. The narration is superbly delivered by Melanie Hyams, who recites each bit of information in a measured, matter-of-fact way, not emphasising any single atrocity, and often ending her description of a particular site with one word: "Demolished." If this approach sometimes risks growing monotonous, McQueen occasionally breaks things up with lyrical interludes; a montage unexpectedly set to Bowie, for example, or a nocturnal tram ride through the empty streets. The film is skilfully edited, and McQueen's 35mm images of Amsterdam are beautifully composed. He has created a portrait of a vibrant, religiously and racially diverse modern city (a point emphasised in the touching ending), but one where every single location is haunted by the ghosts of its very recent past.

9 – The Fabelmans (Steven Spielberg)
It's no coincidence that Sammy goes to see The Man who Shot Liberty Valance in this. There's an element of "print the legend" self-mythology in Spielberg's retelling of his origin story, from his attempts to recreate The Greatest Show on Earth with his train set to his often-told anecdote about meeting John Ford. But beyond all the moments of Spielbergian wonder, he is exploring something deeply painful and unresolved here about his parents' failing marriage and individual sadness, his own myopic obsession with cinema, and the impossibility of reconciling his loves. “Family. Art. It will tear you in two." The emotions that burst through in this film feel jagged and messy, and even Sammy's triumphant presentation at the prom is complicated by his own woes and by the bully's wholly unexpected reaction to seeing himself on screen. Sammy's camera reveals the truth and creates myths; it hurts and it heals. I found The Fabelmans to be extraordinarily funny, vivid, revealing and moving. Spielberg's uncanny visual instinct is as peerless as ever, and Gabriel LaBelle is wonderful, holding his own brilliantly alongside his more experienced co-stars, who are all on fine form. The film ends on one of Spielberg's greatest final shots too.

8 – Trenque Lauquen (Laura Citarella)
I was a little wary of this one going in, having largely disliked the fourteen hours I spent watching La Flor. Thankfully, Trenque Lauquen is not only much shorter but it's considerably more involving too. It begins with a nod to Antonioni, as the first of its twelve chapters is titled La Aventura, and the story that follows is about the search for a missing woman, with this initial mystery having multiple further mysteries nested within it. The point is not to ultimately find the answer to all these questions, but to take pleasure in the investigation, the curiosity, the storytelling, and the feeling of meandering away from the familiar path, getting lost, and being open to where this new path may lead you. Every individual chapter feels so rich in character and sense of place, and even if the second half of the film didn't captivate me quite as much as the first, it's never less than witty, surprising and charming, with Laura Paredes and Ezequiel Pierri in particular bringing an understated emotional heft to their nuanced performances. Trenque Lauquen is structured in a way that progressively fills in some of the mysteries and answers some questions while leaving others hanging, creating an experience that feels both satisfyingly complete and tantalisingly elusive. 

7 – Close Your Eyes (Victor Erice)
"Miracles haven't existed in cinema since Dreyer died," a character states in Victor Erice's new film. Well, I don't know about that, Victor. This felt pretty miraculous to me. Erice's return to filmmaking after a thirty-year absence is a deeply personal tale of lost time, memories and cinema. Throughout Close Your Eyes, physical objects are totems, potentially triggering a Proustian recollection of things long forgotten  a book, a postcard, a photograph, a chess piece  but of course a film print is the best repository for our memories. Erice's film is a mystery, but he reveals new details at an unhurried pace, giving us the room to get to know these characters and study their faces, each of which has been marked by time. I was totally entranced by the film, overwhelmed by the ending, and elated with Erice's unexpected but joyous homage to Howard Hawks.

6 – Do Not Expect Too Much From the End of the World (Radu Jude)
A manic and scattered satire on modern life from Radu Jude, following an underpaid and overworked PA as she races around Bucharest trying to locate and film victims of workplace injuries to take part in a corporation's safety video. She's perpetually exhausted, but she also finds time to shoot her own little TikTok videos, using a filter to make herself look like Andrew Tate and playing the role of a misogynistic right-wing social media star to the hilt  it's amazing how many laughs Jude gets out of this comic device. On top of all this, Jude intercuts her story with a 1981 Romanian feature called Angela Moves On, a choice that works surprisingly well. Do Not Expect Too Much From the End of the World is dense, pointed, provocative and frequently hilarious, packing in so many ideas and observations on our capitalist world, and constantly taking wild detours. The extended final scene is amazing, and I never thought I'd see cameos from Uwe Boll and Nina Hoss in the same movie.

5 – Fallen Leaves (Aki Kaurismäki)
What a pleasure it is to be back in Aki's world, six years after he announced his retirement from filmmaking. Fallen Leaves touches on some of the same themes that he has explored in previous films, such as The Match Factory Girl and Drifting Clouds, but this sweet and melancholy story about a tentative romance between two lonely souls, one of whom is a depressed alcoholic, is a more optimistic and uplifting tale. It’s also a model of classic Kaurismäki minimalism, running for eighty minutes but feeling so rich, and Kaurismäki frequently evokes his characters’ loneliness and desire for connection with a visuals shorthand that is so poignant; like Ansa having to buy a second plate and set of cutlery for her dinner guest, or the pile of cigarette butts outside the cinema entrance that indicates how long Holappa has been waiting there in the hope that Ansa will pass by. It's a film of gloomy apartments and memorable faces, all of which are beautifully captured on 35mm in Timo Salminen’s carefully composed images. 

4 – Tár (Todd Field)
I had a sense that I was going to love Tár in the early Juilliard scene, which is not only superbly written and performed, but is beautifully filmed in a single take with the camera constantly moving around the space to re-frame the characters. I admired Todd Field's previous films but he's working on another level here. Tár is a hugely ambitious and complex film, and what Field has achieved is something that feels so rich and fully realised it is thrilling to watch. It's a wholly absorbing character study and a thorny exploration of artistry, ego, power, exploitation and guilt. The world that Field builds around his protagonist feels so authentic and immediate, but he also layers in these ambiguous and mysterious elements – like the inexplicable sounds that plague Lydia, or her venturing into that apparently abandoned building – that are incredibly unnerving. Lydia's humbling in the film's final third is agonising to watch but also completely riveting, and often funny, especially the reveal of where she finally ends up. Excellent work from the actors across the board but Blanchett's performance is simply monumental.

3 – The Zone of Interest (Jonathan Glazer)
A perfect confluence of form and content. Glazer directs with cold precision and brutal efficiency. It's a film about the things we choose not to see and hear, and the sound design is extraordinary. There are muffled shouts, barks, screams and gunshots carried on the wind  not to mention the constant droning hum of the machinery of death  but the family living next door to Auschwitz have learned to tune it out as if it was the noise of a busy road. How easy it is to wave away this horror when it becomes such a normalised and everyday part of life, and when you can build a bubble of safety and comfort around yourself. Glazer's crisp compositions give us striking images where we can just catch glimpses of the Hell that exists beyond the Höss family's small paradise, and he maintains a disquieting sense of unease that only tightens as the film progresses, with its series of banal encounters and conversations occasionally being interrupted by nightmarish interludes and by Mica Levi's guttural score. The Zone of Interest is a probing and resonant exploration of personal culpability, complicity and the convenience of wilful ignorance in times of great evil.

2 – Menus-Plaisirs: Les Troisgros (Frederick Wiseman)
It's hard to imagine a more purely pleasurable way to spend four hours at this festival than with this utterly captivating documentary from the legendary Frederick Wiseman. As ever, he is fascinated by process and by the interconnectedness of things, and we see the inner workings of every aspect of the Troisgros family's restaurants: planning the menus, working with suppliers, fine-tuning recipes, serving meals, engaging with the clientele. Wiseman's eye for details and human interactions is as sharp as ever, and his editing is a thing of beauty. It never feels like we're looking at anything extraneous, and his pacing ensures the film flows in a way that makes the four hours zip by. Menus-Plaisirs is a celebration of knowledge, collaboration, artistry, care and passion, and it's another masterpiece from arguably the greatest living filmmaker.

1 – Killers of the Flower Moon (Martin Scorsese)
I'm astonished by the ways Scorsese continues to push himself and his audience in this phase of his career. Killers of the Flower Moon is a towering achievement that bears witness to a story of rapacious greed and insidious evil. That evil is personified by William Hale, who has established himself as a loyal friend to the Osage community only to destroy them from within, and De Niro is frankly incredible here. It's one of his greatest performances. Di Caprio's Ernest is cut from the same cloth as Frank Sheeran – a spineless, passive stooge who dumbly follows orders even if it means betraying those closest to him – and the scenes he shares with the heart-wrenching Lily Gladstone as Mollie are so painful to watch, especially their last meeting. Subverting the investigative narrative of David Grann’s book, there is no mystery here, the crimes happen in plain sight and are often committed by idiots, but these are white men who know they live in a place where “You've got more chance of convicting a guy for kicking a dog than killing an Indian.” Justice is slow and insufficient, and I was knocked sideways by the choices that Scorsese and Eric Roth make with the film's audacious coda, which is as igneous as it is deeply moving. Along with The Wolf of Wall Street and The Irishman, Killers of the Flower Moon constitutes a stunning late-career trilogy examining moral rot at the heart of 20th-century America.