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The Best Films of 2023

Anatomy of a Fall (Dir. Justine Triet)
This fitting and worthy Palme d’Or winner, with lead player Sandra Huller surely destined to pick up more awards, is something of a miracle, raw and real yet magnificently melodramatic in its courtroom twists and turns (writer-director Triet studied some classics, Anatomy of a Murder and Compulsion, both 1959, and 1960’s La Verite, among others). Huller is undeniably watchable throughout and delivers an emotionally weighty, brave and adventurous performance, not least in the “key” scene when a much-anticipated, evidential audio recording is played out by Huller and Samuel Theis, the two characters’ relationship spectacularly but heartbreakingly dissected and deconstructed, words flying like shellfire.

One of the many fascinating components of this unforgettable movie is the “performance” of the canine “conspirator”, a dog called Snoop (played by “Messi”). But do we ever get to the woof, the whole woof, and nothing but the woof? The moral enigmas and factual complexities at the heart of Anatomy of a Fall help mark it out as an individual and fascinating picture.
-Callum Reid (CR)

The Boy and the Heron (Dir. Hayao Miyazaki)
The Boy and the Heron is another masterpiece by Hayao Miyazaki. Once again, he creates a narrative of tremendously rich imagination, a breathtaking interplay between wartime drama and magic, reality and the supernatural. This animated film exhibits a number of the director’s hallmarks – characters assuming dreamlike forms, anthropomorphic animals, animated food, fragile-looking old women with disproportionately big heads – to which Miyazaki adds a great number of innovative elements. The Boy and the Heron, set during the Pacific War, evokes a traumatic past that still lingers in present-day Japan but also some of Miyazaki’s other concerns such as pacifism, love, family and the sense of wonder in children. In his film, he reveals the vulnerability of young people but also their sense of responsibility. The original Japanese title could be translated as “How Do You Live?”, and life and death are topics at the very core of the film. Miyazaki’s approach to death is almost joyful, seeing it as a step towards a new beginning and thereby turning the film into a harbinger of hope – highly appropriate to Miyazaki’s cinematic oeuvre, which continues to surprise its viewers with new and fresh ideas.
-Andrea Grunert (AG)

Close Your Eyes (Dir. Victor Erice)
A Spanish actor, Julio Arenas (José Coronado), disappears during the filming of a movie. After twenty years, a tv show brings new light into his disappearance and an investigation by the director of the film, Miguel Garay (Manolo Solo), Julio’s friend, brings us to the present day, to an adrift life, un uncertain future and the frailty of our memory. What also unfolds is a tribute to the magic of film. It speaks of something irreplaceable that is missing in the digital age, a more tactile film and movie-going experience, but also about how certain images can take permanent residence inside us even if life, loss, memory or old age are dragging away. Victor Erice’s film patiently, almost silently, informs about the profound power of movies. You almost miss it if you don’t pay attention. Maybe a movie cannot bring out a miracle (a remark made by Miguel’s editor friend), maybe the future of cinema is dimmer than ever before, but we can sure still appreciate and revel in the irresistible beauty and power of movies whenever a film like Cerrar los ojos comes along. The camera should be used as if it were a curious child. Maybe our mind is like a curious child, too. When we stop using it as such, it may be lost forever.
-Ada Pirvu (AP)

The Eight Mountains (Dirs. Felix van Groeningen & Charlotte Vandermeersch)
For someone who loves the mountains as much as I do, this film felt like a call home. It is an ode to mountain peaks and friendship. Is there anything more beautiful than that? A film that aligns with the rhythm of the seasons, a film that takes its time to unfold. A city boy, Pietro, and Bruno, a village boy, meet in an isolated village in the Italian Alps, where Pietro’s family spends the summers. A profound bond forms between the two, which will shape and mark their adult lives. Childhood unites them (the film is also an ode to childhood and its free and unspoiled spirit), life takes them on different paths, and tragedy reunites them again, with the mountain and the beauty of nature, with its untamed and unpredictable force, always presiding over their existence.

Godzilla Minus One (Dir. Takashi Yamazaki)
The Wind Rises (2013). The Dam Busters (1955). Letters From Iwo Jima (2006). To The White Sea (the 1993 James Dickey novel). Jaws (1975). Just some of the titles recalled as I experienced Yamazaki’s highly emotional crowd-pleaser – a Kaiju deserving of perpetual haiku. In a world still blighted by the chaos of conflict, Minus One redefines the titular monster/god/legend as the collective challenges facing Japan beyond Word War 2, boldly barreling back in time to throw into stark relief the continuing, modern-day struggle for human dignity and survival.

There’s a fine line where slick becomes schtick, balls becomes schmaltz, but the central performances (particularly male lead Ryunosuke Kamiki), excellent support (Munetaka Aoki, Minami Hamabe, etc.) and the generous sprinkling of humour all help to keep things balanced, even if the “science” might not survive Oppenheimer scrutiny. Making the very most of a relatively modest budget, Yamazaki pays fulsome homage to the canon while lovingly sculpting a heartfelt tribute to the enduring worth of every individual living soul on the planet as we run panicked in the ferocious face of stomping ideological vacuity, destructive political apathy and crippling heat rays of obfuscation, misinformation and newspeak.

The Holdovers (Dir. Alexander Payne)
Paul Giamatti – who has one of contemporary film’s great faces, one that only improves with age – is Paul Hunham, a cantankerous history teacher tasked with watching the titular students (those ignored or forgotten by their parents) over Christmas break at an East Coast boarding school. Everything – the supporting performances (newcomer Dominic Sessa and Da’Vine Joy Randolph are both fantastic); the melancholic, wintry atmosphere; the early ’70s period details; those perfect needle drops – comes together seamlessly under Alexander Payne’s direction. He makes it look so easy; anyone familiar with the holiday sludge dumped on streaming services this time of year, though, will know that crafting a feel-good comedy of this caliber is anything but. The Holdovers is an instant classic – a great big bear hug of a movie that should melt the heart of many a cynic.
-Thomas M. Puhr

Kill Boksoon (Dir. Byun Sung-hyun)
In Kill Boksoon, Byun Sung-hyun cleverly combines fast-moving storytelling with human feelings, action with deep thoughts on human relationships. Meaningful dialogues interconnect with spectacular scenes, social criticism with stunning visual effects. The film’s eponymous heroine (Jeon Do-yeon) is a single mother who leads a double life as a parent and a high-profile killer. Byun’s film is a dystopian tale, the acid portrait of a world marked by sharp divisions between the rich and the poor. Exploring topics such as manipulation by the media and exploitation of the vulnerable, it transcends genre conventions in a most convincing manner. Violence is linked to the entertainment industry, contributing to the film’s harsh criticism of social injustice. Despite its length – 137 minutes – Kill Boksoon is consistently entertaining while never losing sight of its social concern.

The Killer (Dir. David Fincher)
David Fincher takes on something of a cinematic experiment here, putting his titular character through an existential wringer with the apparent aim of morphing him into a “changed” beast by the end, via only very lean drama and strictly kinetic, action-based character development. The fact that The Killer is such an entertaining, engrossing and drum-tight thriller with an expert, hi-tech sheen helps too, of course.

Perhaps there are too many paragraphs of narration, but they give voice to the overarching metaphor of killer as worker and corporation as ruthless machine, offering the whole enterprise a modern-day, everyman relevance. Michael Fassbender’s assassin is suitably cool yet off-kilter enough to be believable as he listens to The Smiths and uses aliases of 1970s TV characters, from Happy Days’ Howard Cunningham to The Odd Couple of Felix Unger and Oscar Madison, to worm his way through the sinister network of security portals.

Fincher earns his place beside Michael Mann (Heat, 1995) as a special, palatial, glacial talent – glacial not in pace or tone but in sheer scale and inexorable advance.

Killers of the Flower Moon (Dir. Martin Scorsese)
Scorsese’s three-hour plus epic is definitely (defiantly?) not the book – not the adaptation I was anticipating, having read the engrossing and memorable true-crime masterwork by David Grann. But this is Marty, and Marty knows what he is doing. With true crime you are often left on the outside, ogling in, while Scorsese takes us right inside, to the guts of the story.

The performances of Scorsese regulars Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro have been seen, by some, as an extended series of grim grimaces but both have their magic moments and ultimately convince, particularly DiCaprio in the scenes where his duplicitous character is forced to confront his guilt. Lily Gladstone is a dignified, soulful human presence throughout and every one of the small performances, the “bit” parts, resonate equally believably as the chilling court-room testimonies and repeated, emotional funeral scenes hammer home the significance of each horrendous betrayal. All in all, a great Western, in the grand tradition of “the corrupt birth of America” tales, from Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), to Heaven’s Gate (1980), Gangs of New York (2002) and There Will Be Blood (2007). Killers has as its beating heart the sparse but effective and affecting original music by another of Scorsese’s long-time collaborators, the late, great Robbie Robertson.

On the Wandering Paths (Dir. Denis Imbert)
Dylan: “And you? Why are you walking?”
Pierre: “I’ve always walked. Everyone walks at their own pace. That’s why it’s hard walking with other people. If a man walks out of step with his companions, he’s hearing a different drum.”
Dylan: “That’s nice.”
Pierre: “It’s Thoreau, Henry David Thoreau.”
Dylan: “Zorro?”
Pierre: “Thoreau!”
Dylan: “Never heard of him.”
Pierre: “He’s a great writer. He’s written lots about nature and… walking.”
Dylan: “Sorry, but school was never my thing.”
Pierre: “Literature isn’t school.”
Dylan: “No, but…”
Pierre: “It’s another kind of school. Lots of writers never went to school.”
Dylan: “Sorry, but it’s really not my thing.”
Pierre: “Not your thing? You’re right, stay as you are.”

Jean Dujardin is Pierre Girard, a famous writer and explorer. One night, after a foolish fall from a floor of his building, he is left in a coma. When he wakes up, scarred for life and barely standing, he decides to cross France on foot. If the scene above, taking place between Pierre and Dylan, a young man whom he meets on the road and who accompanies him for a while on his walk, is your only take-away from the film, it is worth it.

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