Even as celebrated auteurs returned to the big screen with sweeping, three-hour-plus historical epics, the world of streaming brought us films that were succinct, contained and just as poignant. In other words, the movies are back in business, as was evident from the phenomenon that was Barbenheimer. The biggest box-office battle in recent history pitted Greta Gerwig’s exploration of the human condition, set in the ultra-pink world of Barbie, in a face-off against Christopher Nolan’s moody biography of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb. Barbie, armed with an influencer-driven promotional campaign, became the highest-grossing film of 2023, despite mixed reviews, and is the fastest movie by a female director to hit the $1 billion mark. Nolan’s magnum opus came close to reaching that magic figure (but stopped a little short at approximately $954 million). It also topped our list of favourite English films of 2023. Read on to see the whole list.
One of Christopher Nolan’s most staggering achievements – a thudding, thrilling, tremendously intimate story about a scientist who sometimes can’t see his own greatness, often can’t see past it, and tragically, can’t persuade people to believe him when he does. The director’s films have, in some way or the other, been about men attempting to exert control over vast cosmic forces so much greater than they are – time, science, space – and reckoning with the repercussions of their actions. Over his past few films, he’s broadened his focus, moving from individual obsession to widespread planetary destruction – climate change in Interstellar (2014) and Tenet (2020). Oppenheimer fuses both his thematic preoccupations. The end result is an alchemy of one man’s quest for scientific advancement, and the wielding of a power he can’t control, holding the Earth to a lit match.
Set in the 1920s, Killers of the Flower Moon is about a dark period of modern American history when the Osage Indians discovered oil on their land and became the richest people per capita in the world. Soon after, the Osage were killed, manipulated and swindled by white Americans. As with so much of Martin Scorsese’s work, Killers of the Flower Moon feels all the more compelling because it’s rooted in history. The plight of the Osage is seen through a number of minor characters, but central to the film is Mollie (Lily Gladstone). Her powerful performance elevates Mollie from a supporting character who flits in and out of the narrative, to the beating heart of Killers of the Flower Moon. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, seeing Killers of the Flower Moon mostly through Ernest’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) narrow perspective would leave audiences prickling with discomfort, but Scorsese is in fine form here.
Asteroid City might be one of Wes Anderson’s most vulnerable films, but it’s also his hardest to untangle, lending itself much more easily to being felt rather than understood. Its characters exist in a movie about a television programme about a play, the messy overlapping layers of art and life hard to keep track of, even if they do allow for the delightful conceit of Scarlett Johansson, an actress, playing an actress playing an actress. Anderson’s ability to conjure mood and memory, to spark genuine emotion, transcends the artifice on which it is built, even as he reinforces it by cutting to the behind-the-scenes making of the play. In Asteroid City, characters gaze up at the night sky but are more preoccupied with trying to navigate the vast emptiness of a life that stretches in front of them. Mirroring the audience’s confusion, they may not fully understand the play they’re in, but that doesn’t stop them from feeling their way through it. In art, as in grief, there are no easy answers. Asteroid City isn't real, as the movie repeatedly reminds us. But that doesn't make the experience of having visited it any less rewarding.
Long before Marvel took the cinematic concept of a multiverse down a predictable route of nostalgia bait, endless cameos and the definitive end of any sense of finality, there was Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse (2018). In an era of unimaginative superhero saturation, if any movie was going to fight back against the very idea of what a standard superhero story should be, Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse, with its ambitious, unrestrained canvas, was always going to be the one. Like its predecessor, Across The Spider-Verse is beautifully shot and strikingly composed, with the kind of head-spinning, world tilting sequences that are only possible in animation. It isn’t just that the vibrant colours pop off the screen or that the varied animated styles contrast and play off each other exquisitely, it’s also the little textural details that make the film such an immersive experience. Across the Spider-Verse refuses to adhere to the idea that every hero's journey must follow the same arc, and in doing so, insists on breaking the canon at a time when other superhero movies are trying to establish it.
Like in her directorial debut The Edge of Seventeen (2016), Kelly Fremon Craig nails the angst and awkwardness of adolescence in Are you There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Set in the Seventies, 11-year-old Margaret (Abby Ryder Fortson) comes of age — literally, she gets her period in the final scene of the film — amidst navigating anxieties in her faith, friendships and family. The adults in the film, too, come of age in a way, especially Margaret’s mother (a wonderful Rachel McAdams) who finally begins to put her own desires first by the end of the film. “We must! We must! We must increase our bust!” chant Margaret and her friends as they teeter on the brink of womanhood, eager to cross over to the other side. What’s striking is that the girls’ desire for breasts is less about catering to the male gaze, and more about wanting to feel grown-up, mature and what they believe to be the best, most beautiful version of themselves. Despite the vintage clothes, poofy hair and sepia tones, Are you There God? It’s Me, Margaret is a timeless, loving ode to the universal feminine experience.
Bookended by two departures, Celine Song’s delicate debut film Past Lives, in which a woman finds herself torn between two men, is less about the longing for someone you moved away from and more about the version of yourself that you left behind with them. Characters talk about fate and destiny, concepts that cede control of their circumstances to the universe, as a comforting counter-measure to the consequences of their actions. They’re frequently framed through windows – of cars, trains, homes – peering through the portals to another life, wondering “what if”. How does first love shape the subsequent paths you take? And how do you square the need to move forward with the impulse to keep looking back? Song contrasts the malleability of identity with the difficulty of knowing who we really are. Past Lives’ depictions of loneliness are so acute – the twinkling cityscape at night, a vacation spent almost entirely alone in one’s hotel room – that it ceases to matter which versions of ourselves we move on from, only that there have been people to share them with.
What’s better than a broody knight with Riz Ahmed’s rough velvet voice? A pink-haired, fang-toothed, shapeshifter with multiple piercings and a deliriously wicked attitude (thanks to Chloë Grace Moretz acing it as the voice actor). Meet Nimona, who refuses to be forced into categories and defies definition. One moment she’s a gigantic rhinoceros, the next second she’s a girl with freckles and a mullet, and before you know it, she’s become an armadillo, a bear, a bird, an otter and then a gorilla. Based on a brilliant web comic-turned-graphic novel by ND Stevenson, Nimona is an incandescent film about the friendship between two fugitives. One of them is Ballister Boldheart (Ahmed), a former knight who is accused of killing the queen. The other is Nimona, who mostly presents as a teenager and has been forced into hiding because her powers terrify people. Folded into this delightful (and frequently hilarious) adventure is a paean to gender fluidity and trans identity (Stevenson came out as non-binary and transmasculine after writing the comic. They served as co-producer on the film). If you look for layers and subtext, Nimona reveals itself to be a poignant and powerful story about fear, manipulation, ignorance and hope. However, its greatest strength is that even without overthinking, Nimona is a joy to watch. Beautifully illustrated, imaginatively rendered and packed with great action, this film was the best kind of adventure. Dear Santa, please give us a sequel?
The premise is familiar: The hunter becomes the hunted, becomes the hunter. But hidden within this film’s clichéd heart is a self-reflexive – and strangely poignant – relationship with storytelling. To understand the slow-burning subversions of The Killer, then, it’s important to look at it through the narrative lens of its director: David Fincher. The film’s protagonist isn’t your regular cold-blooded assassin. He waits a lot. His musings are philosophical, narrated through a droll and weary voice-over. It’s like he knows we’re watching him. In other words, the idle mind is Fincher’s workshop. The hitman’s existence suggests that what these movies don’t show us – the ordinary stillness before or after the extraordinary action – is what determines the skills of these people. The Killer is as tender as it is violent. It finds the will to invoke a love story between the in-betweens and the milestones; the personal and the generic; the existing and the doing; the assassin and his creed. But most of all, it becomes a tragic romance between the artist and his refined ambition.
In the last few years’ cinematic landscape of action spectacles and gritty thrillers, there has been a conspicuous lacuna in the romantic comedy genre. Raine Allen-Miller fills this gap and how, with her directorial debut, Rye Lane. The film, which is about a chance encounter between two perfect strangers, is anchored by the refreshing screenplay and buoyant performances by David Jonsson and Vivian Oparah. South London comes alive as Rye Lane’s charming leads walk around the city, embarking, unbeknownst to themselves, on an exhilarating journey of love and self-discovery. The cinematography is vibrant and quirky, from the use of the fish-eye to the dynamic visual re-enactment of narrated anecdotes. Stylish, funny and hopeful, Rye Lane is arguably one of the best modern rom-coms we’ve seen in a while. Watch out for a cameo by an OG romantic hero manning a roadside burrito booth called Love Guac’tually.
A sleek, twisty relationship drama about the secretive thrill of a workplace affair morphs into a psychological thriller fuelled by the prickly insecurity of having to report to your partner in Chloe Domont’s Fair Play. The film reimagines the workplace as a gladiatorial arena, and the work as a bloodsport. In laying out the gender dynamics of a toxic workplace, Domont sets up the power plays that will come to define this twisted relationship. Fair Play simmers a brew of male fragility and workplace sexism until the movie becomes harrowingly tense. Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich are fantastic sparring partners, inadvertently revealing just as much as they cautiously conceal. Even as it descends into a cat-and-mouse game of psychological warfare, the film remains rooted in an astute understanding of the delicate balance of any relationship.
With inputs from Gayle Sequeira, Deepanjana Pal and Rahul Desai.