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  • Writer's pictureSophie Black

2023 - The Year In Cinemas


[Above: 'Saltburn', dir. Emerald Fennell, DOP Linus Sandgren.]


In some ways, I wouldn't say that 2023 was the most memorable year for films. For me, there was no immediate, stand-out 'film of the year', as there was in 2022 (Everything Everywhere All At Once felt like an instant cult classic). But the more I think about it, this was an interesting year for cinematic releases; the big 'Hollywood blockbusters' may not have caught my attention as much, but I saw a lot of smaller and independent films in mainstream cinemas, which was partly due to the WGA & SAG-AFTRA strikes causing delays. It reminded me of the limited cinema trips in the pandemic, when it was mostly just indie films that made it to the big screen, giving us a chance to watch films we might have otherwise missed.


One particularly positive note is how many films I saw this year which were directed by women. It was pretty much an even male/female split for me, and actually 10 out of my top 15 films from this year had a woman at the helm. Whether this means that the industry is moving in a more equal direction, or whether it was down to the fact that less 'big' films were released this year (women still thrive in an independent space more than they do in Hollywood), it's still something worth celebrating.


And of course, this year will be remembered for Barbenheimer (when Barbie and Oppenheimer were released on the same day), which was the cinematic event of 2023, if not the biggest cinematic event in recent memory. People flooded back to the cinemas, boosting the economy of a struggling industry, and the screens were packed with audience members dressed in costumes and buzzing with excitement. It reminded me of the cinema trips of my childhood, and I hope it will be the start of a new era for cinemas, rather than a last throwback to a time we'll never see again.



[Above: my 'Barbenheimer' outfits, and the cinema I saw both films in, Derby Odeon.]


So, what did I think of the movies I caught on the silver screen in 2023, and which were my top films of the year? Read on to find out more. Spoiler warning for all films, of course!


(Oh, and if you're new to my blog: this annual breakdown of cinema trips is something I've been doing since the end of 2017. You can read my reviews from previous years here, over on my old blog platform.)



[Above: 'Corsage', dir. Marie Kreutzer, DOP Judith Kaufmann.]

JANUARY 2023

Films: Corsage, Empire of Light, Buckaroo Banzai, Babylon.


My 2023 cinema trips got off to a very strong start with Marie Kreutzer's Corsage, a period drama with a freshly feminist, punky spirit. The cinematography was haunting and lovely, and the set design did a beautiful job of showing us the protagonist's state of mind (see the image above!), but particular kudos needs to go to Kreutzer herself, as it takes a strong director to weave together historical elements with modern touches (such as the film's music choices) whilst still keeping a sense of balance throughout. It took many months for me to see another film I liked as much as this one!


The second film I saw was Empire Of Light, directed by Sam Mendes. The film had a great cast and a wonderful location, which was fun to explore on screen, but it tried to tackle too many subjects within its runtime, and the way it handled its mental health and racism plot lines - in particular - were heavy-handed as a result.


Next up, I went to see Buckaroo Banzai at a special Derby QUAD 'Cult Film Club' screening, hosted by my partner's regular collaborator, Johann Chipol. Although I was happy to support the screening, the film was very, very strange, without reaching the usual 'so bad it's good' status that most B-movies have. Even Jeff Goldblum couldn't save it.


I ended the month with Babylon, which I'd really looked forward to, as I really liked Damien Chazelle's previous films. It ended up being one of my biggest cinematic disappointments of the year. There was a lot of enjoyment to be had from the dizzying spectacle of the opening party, as well as the hilarious behind-the-scenes look at a renegade Hollywood from a bygone era. But all of this was spoiled by the director's determination to break away from schmaltz by throwing every bodily fluid you can think of at the screen! The film had outstayed its welcome for me even before it presented the most grotesque final plot thread with Tobey Maguire's gangsters and their underground party... It frustrates me because, with a different editor (either a script editor in pre-production, or a picture editor in post), this could easily be made into a film that I'd love. Brad Pitt's character was a highlight, with a perfect ending scene... however, Margot Robbie's character wasn't even given the dignity of bowing out on-screen.


[Above: 'The Fabelmans', dir. Steven Spielberg, DOP Janusz Kaminski.]

FEBRUARY 2023

Films: Enys Men, The Fabelmans, TÁR, The Whale, Titanic, Women Talking.


My friends and I decided to check out Enys Men because it came so highly reviewed by Mark Kermode. It was a very interesting film, particularly with Mark Jenkin's signature method of adding all sound in post (his films should definitely be shown in film schools), and the sound design coupled with the coastal setting created a great sense of dread. But the film gave us a lot of mystery without many answers, making it slightly less satisfying as a result.


The Fabelmans - unlike Babylon - was definitely not afraid of sentimentality, and some people found that off-putting. For me, the film landed just when I needed it, and it made me so nostalgic about the early days of making films with your friends and family. As soon as the film was released on blu-ray, I bought a copy and organised a movie night with my parents so that I could share the film (and reminisce) with them.


TÁR ended up being my first five-star film of the year. I certainly didn't enjoy it as much as I did The Fabelmans, but I couldn't fault its execution. It's a film that deserves a re-watch, as you uncover more about it with every article you read, every behind-the-scenes video you watch. Cate Blanchett gives a powerhouse performance.


Speaking of memorable performances, the next film I saw was The Whale. I am so happy for Brendan Fraser, as he really does deserve his career reconnaissance, and he acted his socks off in this film. The make-up was also phenomenal, and I like how the film kept my attention even within such a small, singular setting. But overall, I found the tone to be too pessimistic, with a voyeuristic and almost mean treatment of its central character.


Next, I caught an anniversary screening of Titanic (in 3D!) at my local Odeon, as I'd never watched the film on a big screen before. I adored Titanic in my teens - it was one of my favourite films for years - and I was slightly disappointed to find that I didn't love it quite as much as I remembered (the dialogue is... questionable at times). But it was fascinating to realise how young Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio's characters were in it (that gives you a whole new perspective on the film), and of course the spectacle of the ship going down was worth seeing in a larger format.


And finally (I can't believe I saw six films in February!), my last cinema trip of the month was to see Women Talking. I was drawn to the film by the ensemble cast, who didn't disappoint, and although I thought that the filmmaking - in terms of cinematography and editing particularly - felt a little uncertain at times, the script was impeccable. I couldn't help but wonder if the story would've been better suited to the theatre, where the acting and script could be the main focus - but then we might not have had Hildur Guðnadóttir's fantastic score, and that would've been a loss.


[Above: 'Rye Lane', dir. Raine Allen-Miller, DOP Olan Collardy.]

MARCH 2023

Films: Blue Jean, Rye Lane, Pearl.


Blue Jean, the debut feature film of Georgia Oakley (who I was lucky enough to be in a round table with once), firmly cements her as a director to watch. It's a brilliant character study that does a great job of presenting the time period it's set in. I couldn't really fault it!


Another directorial debut I saw this month was Rye Lane. I saw this film on a whim, not knowing what to expect, and discovered a real feel-good gem as a result. Although I found the fish-eye cinematography to be stylish to the point of distraction, Rye Lane had me laughing from the very first scene. It's a love-note to London with a lot of heart - and it has one of the best surprise cameos I can think of.


Pearl was an interesting, memorable film that is on the 'top films of 2023' list of many people I know. For me, I didn't enjoy it as much as X (which I also watched for the first time this year, on blu-ray); I felt like it couldn't decide which genre to be. But Mia Goth was phenomenal, and I'd give the film an extra star for her monologue alone! She really shouldn't have been snubbed by this year's awards season.


[Above: 'The Five Devils', dir. Léa Mysius, DOP Paul Guilhaume.]

APRIL 2023

Films: The Five Devils, Renfield, One Fine Morning.


The Five Devils isn't just the kind of film I love to watch - it's the kind of film I love to make! The fantasy is present and earthy, but secondary to the emotional, human journey of the characters, and it all takes place in a scenic, rural location. There's also a memorable karaoke scene featuring Total Eclipse of the Heart by Bonnie Tyler! The magical elements do raise a few questions that the film doesn't answer, but I still loved it, and I've been thinking about it ever since.


Renfield was a lot of fun to watch, with plenty of belly laughs - particularly during a certain extreme-gore fight scene! Nicholas Cage was a wonderful Dracula (with lots of nods to the character's previous cinematic interpretations), but it's Nicholas Hoult's film, and he carries it wonderfully. The film is let down a little by its attempts at serious plot-threads (Awkwafina's character is determined to avenge her hero-cop father), but these scenes are brief, and the action and silliness soon return.


One Fine Morning - directed by Bergman Island's Mia Hansen-Løve - has a strong cast and a beautiful location (I haven't seen a camera love Paris this much since Before Sunset!). The film deals with every-day family matters in an efficient way, only occasionally slipping into melodrama. It's not the most memorable film of the year, but it was a pleasant watch.



(Note: I didn't make it to the cinema in May - I was too busy prepping for & shooting my episode of Ren: The Girl With The Mark!)



[Above: 'Asteroid City', dir. Wes Anderson, DOP Robert Yeoman.]

JUNE 2023

Films: Beau Is Afraid, Pretty Red Dress, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Asteroid City, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny.


What can I say about Beau Is Afraid without making this blog post longer than it already is...? Well, as with Babylon, I was really looking forward to this film because of its director, and I was very, very disappointed. It was bizarre to the point of immaturity, dealing with serious issues (extreme anxiety, the death of a parent) in a farcical way, and felt gratuitous and too personal to the filmmaker, alienating the audience in the process. It was also way, way too long. A part-animated dream sequence was visually engaging, but at that point, bums were really starting to shift in their seats. And just when I thought the film was going to have an interesting, intelligent twist on the mother-son relationship and the way he can never escape her control... Ari Aster throws a literal penis monster into the mix!! I wish that was something I'd never had to type. I also wish it was something I'd never had to watch...


Moving swiftly on... also in June, I was given the opportunity to watch Pretty Red Dress after an informal round table with writer/director Dionne Edwards and producer Georgia Goggin, who were really inspiring and so generous with their time. Pretty Red Dress is a strong debut which I'm sure will open doors for them - but the standout was male lead Natey Jones, who gave an incredible performance! I'll have all my fingers crossed for him come awards season next year.


At another Cult Film Club screening, at Derby QUAD, I saw Hedwig and the Angry Inch - which I enjoyed a heck of a lot more than Bookaroo Banzai! Hedwig is a film which means a lot to a lot of people, and I can see why. It's a rock and roll ride of humour and emotion, with genuinely great songs - 'The Origin of Love' is wonderfully poetic.


Next up, I saw Wes Anderson's latest offering, Asteroid City, which didn't disappoint. As with The French Dispatch, myself and my regular cinema-buddy Tommy Draper were the only ones laughing in the audience - but it really did tap into our specific sense of humour (the alien and the roadrunner had me crying!), so I loved it. There was also an unexpectedly beautiful, emotive scene with Margot Robbie delivering a monologue in the snow. So all in all, I can't recommend it enough.


My last film of the month was Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. This was one of the most memorable cinema trips of the year, for the wrong reasons because, sadly, the screen was almost empty - even though we were in a huge multiplex cinema, on the opening day of the film, in the teatime slot, on a Wednesday (when cinema-goers can get two-for-one tickets)! When I worked in a cinema, that was the busiest time of the week, particularly on the release of a big new film, and you wouldn't be able to move in the lobby... As for the film itself, I enjoyed it more than most people, but then again I'm not a devout Indiana Jones fan. I thought the film had an interesting message of accepting the time that you're alive in, and knowing you cannot go back to your 'glory days' or convert others to your old view of the world... but as my friend Jema Hewitt pointed out, that message might've been better placed in an essay, not a blockbuster movie!


[Above: 'Barbie' dir. Greta Gerwig, DOP Rodrigo Prieto.]

JULY 2023 (aka Barbenheimer month!)

Films: Barbie, Oppenheimer.


Word on the streets was that the best way to experience Barbenheimer was to watch Oppenheimer first, and then finish with Barbie as a palate-cleanser. We ended up watching Barbie first, which was surprisingly emotional, occasionally matching Oppenheimer's themes of existentialism! I certainly wouldn't recommend it to kids. But overall - aside from the office scenes with Will Ferrell, which felt too stylised for scenes which were supposed to be set in the 'real-world' - I loved it. I laughed, I cried, and Ryan Gosling's performance made me do both at once (at one point, he made me laugh so hard that I almost forgot to breathe!). He's another actor I want to see succeed in next year's awards season. Michael Cera was also a highlight, but the whole cast is brilliant.


The next day, we did Oppenheimer. I genuinely think that Christopher Nolan is a mastermind, and obviously Oppenheimer is a mega achievement - but at the same time, it frustrated me. The film fits in so much of J. Robert Oppenheimer's life that the first hour rushes through numerous years and characters, with no breathing room, all of which is accompanied by a score that's composed well but feels overbearing. I did wonder if the film would do better as a TV series, with an even-bigger run-time that allows each chapter of Oppenheimer's life to be explored in detail. As it it, not everyone in the cast had a enough screen time to really make us care, and Florence Pugh's character could've been written out of the film completely without much impact on the plot, which feels like a waste. BUT when the film hits the middle section, it calms down, steadily taking the audience up to the moment that the bomb is first tested, building up tension and emotion the whole time... and that whole chapter is cinematic perfection, in every sense of the word. The very last scene in the film hits you in the gut, too.


[Above: '2001: A Space Odyssey', dir. Stanley Kubrick, DOP Geoffrey Unsworth.]

AUGUST 2023

Film: 2001 - A Space Odyssey.


I only saw one film in August, as it was a busy season for me - but I saw a classic that I'd somehow never seen before: Kubrik's 2001: A Space Odyssey. As with The Shining, I went into the film knowing pretty much everything that was going to happen, as I'd seen numerous parodies and homages over the years. So my perception was a little tainted, and as a result I wasn't sure if I liked the iconic (but heavy) use of music, or some of the camera and editing choices in the first two chapters of the film... but then we hit the third chapter, the one everyone remembers most, and it was absolutely flawless. The set design, the cinematography, the practical effects, the use of breathing sounds in space suits to juxtapose the silence of space, even the way the film makes you come to pity an artificial intelligence... yes, I could see then why people list this film as one of the greatest of all time.


[Above: 'Past Lives', dir Celine Song, DOP Shabier Kirchner.]

SEPTEMBER 2023

Films: Past Lives, Passages, A Haunting in Venice.


Past Lives was another film I knew very little about - but it ended up being one of my films of the year. The film cleverly presents a love triangle where you want all three parties to find happiness, giving us a complex and honest human story that spans decades. When Past Lives reaches its final act, mourning a lost sense of childhood and home, of the person you used to be, as much as it mourns a love that didn't get chance to start... that's when I had the biggest lump in my throat.


On the flip side, Passages was a film I had anticipated for a while, and which I was drawn to because of the cast (I'll go to see anything Ben Whishaw stars in!), but I enjoyed it a little less than I thought I would. Rather than giving us the love triangle the poster suggests, this was a film about a narcissistic central character, making selfish decisions on a whim that messed up the lives of those around him. I hated that character from the very first scene, and it was hard to stay with him for the length of the film. It was, however, a very well-made film with strong performances throughout.


Next, I saw A Haunting in Venice - which, again, I saw for the cast. I was also in the mood for something a bit spooky, and Venice as a location is always a feast for the eyes. But Kenneth Branagh is no David Suchet, and I also felt that a lot of the camera choices were unusual - very much a matter of style over substance - and took away from the classically enjoyable storytelling of Agatha Christie.



(Note: I also didn't make it to the cinema in October, mostly because I was busy with client edits, but also because a lot of the films I wanted to see were delayed by the strikes.)



[Above: 'How To Have Sex', dir. Molly Manning Walker, DOP Nicolas Canniccioni.]

NOVEMBER 2023

Films: How to Have Sex, Fingernails, The Marvels, Saltburn, The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.


How to Have Sex is yet another example of an incredible debut by a female director that was released this year. Its noughties-inspired day-glow cinematography was a dizzying delight, but without taking away from the raw danger young girls can face. It gives a balanced portrayal of young men, too, not just painting them all as villains. The film perfectly captured the teenage experience, simultaneously making me nostalgic for my youth, and also so glad to have long-escaped that part of my life. It shook me up, and it's stuck with me in a similar way to how Aftersun did last year.


The second film of the month was Fingernails which, yet again, I was drawn to because of the cast. Jessie Buckley and Riz Ahmed always deliver, and the film is worth watching just for the single scene where Riz Ahmed dances! It does have its flaws, though; it's nostalgic-near-future setting is comparable to Her and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but without the strong world-building, and the methodical, almost childlike way the characters speak is clearly inspired by Yorgos Lanthimos (particularly The Lobster), but the singular steady pace of the edit feels at odds with some of the film's farcical - and genuinely funny - 'love testing' scenes.


The Marvels was - shockingly - the only Marvel film I saw this year, and the franchise's decline in quality was noticeable in this film too, particularly as I'd loved Captain Marvel. But in spite of the film's imperfect plot and poor villain scenes, it was still really, really fun! It was refreshingly short compared to many films this year, the fight scenes were well choreographed and exciting, and one particular scene - with an outstanding use of music - is the funniest scene I've seen in any entry to the Marvel franchise. My enjoyment of the film was aided by the fact that I saw it in one of the two oldest cinemas in the UK, The Scala in Ilkeston.


Next, and after numerous delays and postponements, my friends and I finally saw Saltburn. I adored it. I know that a lot of critics have disliked the film, and the last act did feel a tad rushed and unnecessary (plus the film's grotesque scenes - although beautifully done - may be off-putting to some) - but it was the perfect blend of modern-gothic meets nostalgic hot summer, with a class divide, that always speaks to my soul. The script was filled with zingy one-liners, the soundtrack was littered with noughties bangers (Tomcraft! Sophie Ellis Bextor!), and the cinematography - supported by outstanding set design, dripping with symbolism - was the best I've seen this year. Shout out to Kharmel Cochrane for her brilliant casting as well; Archie Madekwe, in particular, was magnetic. He's one to watch.


It was going to be hard for any film to follow Saltburn, and unfortunately the next film I saw was The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. I've seen and enjoyed all the Hunger Games films, but the arena fight is usually the most exciting part, and this film suffered by having the arena scenes fall in the middle of the film, before we've had time to know and care enough about the participants (and with the main female character mostly hiding through all of it!). After that, the final act felt tagged-on, almost like a different film completely, and it didn't help that the film was already two hours long before that final act even started!


[Above: 'The Eternal Daughter', dir. Joanna Hogg, DOP Ed Rutherford.]

DECEMBER 2023

Films: Anatomy of a Fall, The Eternal Daughter, Wonka.


As with Past Lives, I went into Anatomy of a Fall not knowing much about it... and ended up seeing a masterpiece. The script keeps you guessing throughout, even dangling a carrot of uncertainty after the credits roll, and it contains some of the most naturalistic dialogue I've heard in a film. The cast were all phenomenal - not only was the child actor brilliant, but the dog gives the best animal performance I've ever seen! You walk away thinking about the irreversible damage trials might do to a family, how much their perception of one another could change, even after justice has been served.


The Eternal Daughter was on my list of 'ones that got away' last year, as it had a very limited release in December 2022 and I couldn't find a screening near me. Well, the film came back again this winter, but I still had to travel to Leicester in order to watch it! Maybe it wasn't quite worth that much effort, but I still enjoyed it. The ghostly aspects of the film were genuinely haunting in a dark cinema - perfect for anyone who likes a spooky tale at Christmas - and although I didn't find the family drama elements (or the 'twist') as gripping, Tilda Swinton is always a reliable presence on screen, and this time she played two parts. Or is it three...?


And FINALLY, my last cinema trip of the year was to see Wonka, which my partner Edward really wanted to see as he loved Paddington (which had the same director). I'm not the biggest fan of family films, and I found the whole thing a tad too sickly-sweet, like the feeling you get after eating too much sugar (and very much at odds with Roald Dahl's original intentions, for better or worse). But the cast was great and there were some very funny scenes - particularly the security guard who gets 'drunk' on chocolate, and every scene with Rowan Atkinson's priest and his chocoholic monks!




[Above: 'Medusa Deluxe' - dir. Thomas Hardiman, DOP Robbie Ryan - looked amazing, but didn't come to any cinemas near me.]

THE ONES THAT GOT AWAY


After such a mammoth year of cinema trips, it's hard to believe that I missed anything I wanted to see. But I wasn't able to catch White Noise, Medusa Deluxe, or A Good Person as they all had a limited release and mostly didn't screen near me (although I later caught A Good Person on blu-ray at a movie night). I missed Close, Fallen Leaves, and Dream Scenario, all of which looked great, purely because I heard about them too late. I considered watching The Little Mermaid in May and The Nettle Dress in October, but was too busy to go to either. Finally, I booked to see Return to Seoul, and had to pull out because of work commitments, and also booked to see Bottoms, but cancelled that trip when Alan the guinea pig got sick (luckily he recovered!).



[Above: 'Yellowjackets' series 2 was some of this year's must-see television.]

BEST OF THE REST


Although I'll always promote cinema trips over streaming services, some of my best first-time-watches this year were brought to me by a Mubi trial - including The Handmaiden, Never Gonna Snow Again, Appropriate Behaviour, Drive My Car, An Angel At My Table, Orlando, and many others. I also really enjoyed The Menu and Wes Anderson's Roald Dahl shorts on Netflix (particularly The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar), and was gripped by the documentary Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields on Disney Plus.


In terms of TV, I don't think it was the strongest year - but Edward and I had a lot of fun catching up on previous seasons of Drag Race UK (Kate Butch forever!), South Park, and What We Do In The Shadows. We also caught up on American Horror Story, and although the allegory in AHS: NYC was a bit on-the-nose, it was still a powerful series (I'll never hear 'Radio-Activity' by Kraftwerk the same way again!). I finally caught up on last year's big fantasy series, The Rings of Power and House of The Dragon (to my surprise, I preferred HOTD - it was my TV highlight of the year!). The Mandalorian series 3 wasn't quite as good as its previous outings, but almost made up for it with the excitement of the last two episodes, and I also enjoyed the high-fantasy elements (and gorgeous score!) of Ahsoka. We saw the last series of Carnival Row, which felt a bit rushed but I still loved it (it ended up being one of my biggest inspirations for my episode of Ren: The Girl With The Mark), and we finally discovered - and binged - Yellowjackets. Towards the end of the year, I also binged two very different series on Netflix - The Fall of the House of Usher and the final series of Sex Education, which bowed out beautifully, even if it didn't bring a happy ending to all of the characters (in real life as well as on the show, tragically).


_


Well, this ended up being a massive blog post. I didn't realise I'd been to the cinema so many times this year! In spite of my opening comments, I did enjoy many of my cinematic outings. My top films of the year were Saltburn, Anatomy of a Fall, Past Lives, Corsage, The Fabelmans, Asteroid City, The Five Devils, and How To Have Sex, with Saltburn taking the top spot. Although Barbenheimer didn't quite make it to the top of my list, it definitely made for the most enjoyable cinema trip of the year, and I preferred Barbie out of the two.


As for my least favourite films? That would be Babylon and Beau Is Afraid!


My next cinema trip will be to see Sofia Coppola's Priscilla (I have tickets booked already), but I'm also looking forward to the much-delayed Poor Things, Dune: Part Two, Love Lies Bleeding, and The Beast. There's also The War Of The Rohirrim, which I'm really excited about, over all the other upcoming films, but now have to wait until December 2024 to see!



What was your favourite film of 2023? Let me know in the comments below.





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