Describing the diversity of films that made it to the best Malayalam films list of last year, we called it the “year of contradictions”. Acknowledging how it was a year that had a super-hit mass movie like Bheesma Parvam run along with a 15-song mega musical like Hridayam, one felt there was no method in finding patterns in the way the Malayali audiences were choosing their movies. Looking back at 2023, though, the contradictions have only become more obvious with the underdogs taking on giants at the box office. If one were to tell you at the start of 2023 that the industry’s biggest hit would come in the form a disaster movie like 2018, you’d think they were joking and if you sensed a controversial movie like RDX would end up as the hot Onam champion, you’d have perhaps given the stock market a shot. But if there was anything that requires no debate, it has to be the sublime form Mammooty has been in for the last two years. With three films making the top nine this year, that too 52 years after his first film, imagine having the best career year when you’re 72 years old: that was this year for Mammootty.
Joju George’s devastating drama did not get the love it deserved when it was released along with a huge hit like Romancham, but the film lives on after it was able to gather nationwide attention upon its Netflix release. The police drama featuring Joju playing twins, had the most shocking twist of the year and a heartbreaking ending that will leave you motionless.
The tagline of the film holds true even for the Malayalam movie industry this year. Given the mid pre-release buzz, the first day first show of the Jude Anthany Joseph movie remains an unforgettable experience, proving once again that any film can end up becoming the industry’s biggest hit. The connection every Malayali felt with the story, bringing back memories of the 2018 deluge, created an atmosphere in the theater no mass movie or comedy could create. It brought back the spirit of Kerala, adding to the irony of how it was released alongside a movie like The Kerala Story.
Arguably the best comedy of the year came in the form of this little-known sleeper success directed by Stephy Xaviour. From decades of having men play the lovable philanderer in our comedies, we finally got a comedy where a woman got to do the same albeit in an even funnier fashion. Not only did it poke fun at a Savarna family’s caste obsession, but it did this without any preachiness or posturing. Along with lovely comedies like Falimy, Padmini and Madanolsavam, a hit like Madura Manohara Moham proved that there will always be an audience for family comedy.
In this perplexing tragicomedy, a strict theater troupe owner walks out of his company bus and into the life of a man who has been missing for years. The Lijo Jose Pellissery film is one of Malayalam cinema’s greatest tributes to both theater and classic Tamil cinema, with the use of dialogues and music from old films taking over the need for any conventional musical scores. The film’s most heartbreaking scene, where Mammootty finally looks up at a mirror to see his ‘true’ self, is instant cinematic gold and it leaves you wondering about the masks we wear and the moments we catch ourselves in the act of performance. It leaves you thinking about Sundaram, the man who went missing, and if it was a curse or a blessing for him to be able to live one last day in his village, albeit in the body of another man.
The most fun surprise of this year came in the form of an Onam release no one expected much out of. But this ultra cool action movie reinvented the notion that you need ONE major mass superstar to create a 100 crore movie. It’s director Nahas Hidayath who brought together three mid-level stars and gave them the country’s biggest action choreographers (Anbariv) to create a clean, no-fuss action movie with the most brilliant set pieces. The fact that the film's old-school dance duet ‘Neela Nilave’ became the year’s biggest song, is also a superb bonus.
The audiences were just getting around to watching Krishand’s brilliant Aavasavyuham, and the director has returned with an equally compelling film in the form of Purusha Pretham. This engaging police “de-glorification comedy” is populated with some of this year’s most fascinating characters and it also comes with the soul of a classic noir. Not only does the film function like a missing person investigation that begins with the discovery of the victim’s body, but it also doubles up as a botched-up procedural where everything that can go wrong, eventually does, ensuring that we have one wild laugh every 10 minutes or so. If you’re not already a fan of the filmmaker, I would strongly recommend his Vrithakrithiyulla Chathuram - A Minor Inconvenience, a personal favourite.
One needs to give credit to the writer-director duo (Rony and Roby David) of Kannur Squad to figure out the perfect balance to turn a dry police procedural into the most elegant mass action police movie. It’s like the makers found the sweet spot between the loud and wild Theeran and the subtle pro max Kuttavum Shikshyum for a movie that caters to both the actors in Mammootty apart from the megastar. With a delicate control over the volume button, the movie slowly dials up giving us two solid action blocks that take off from a terrifically well-written setup and two superb villains.
Perhaps the most surprising title on this list is also perhaps the film that was too ahead of its time this year. Featuring a series of brilliant performances, the deceptive drama is unlike any friendship movie you are likely to have seen. The film itself is as enigmatic as Kannan, Vineeth Sreenivasan in one of his best performances. Just when you feel you’ve figured it out, the movie takes you on a journey that is also a journey into the psyche of one man. How much do you know your best friend or your spouse? This is a question the film begs you to ask of yourself, often without giving you any answers.
In all the positive talk about the manner in which Mammootty plays a homosexual man in Jeo Baby’s excellent film, one forgets how the megastar has also backed a Malayalam film that may perhaps be the most beautiful depiction of a healthy divorce. The non-judgemental drama takes you into a dysfunctional family with several skeletons in its closet but it’s careful to address those without any high-handedness. The coming-out scene towards the climax should feature in the best performance by any actor this year and the film is just as good with its writing with something as simple as a peanut candy being used to create a deep, layered bond between Jyothika’s Omana and her father-in-law, with very few words being spoken.