Welcome back to Film Feeder’s all-new countdown of the year’s best films, where I take a fond look back on some of the films that warmed my heart in 2023.
No novel of an introduction this time – other than to say that if you want to see #30-21 on this list before reading this one, click right here! – so let’s just get straight into it… (use the hyperlinks below to go to whichever number on the list)
20 – The Old Oak (dir. Ken Loach)
After almost sixty years in the profession, 87-year-old director Ken Loach appeared to have made his final film – and it was one hell of an emotional note to go out on.
Loach teamed with regular writer Paul Laverty once more for the final part of their unofficial trilogy of films set in the North of England (after I, Daniel Blake and Sorry We Missed You), which was a tender and heartfelt story of a struggling publican in a former mining town bond with newly-arrived Syrian refugees. With Loach’s ever-observant eye, the film tackled various hard-hitting social issues like immigration, racism, and even thoughts of suicide – the latter getting me particularly worked up, having made a similar attempt on my life not too long ago – with grace, care, and a whole lot of near-unintelligible Scouse accents.
Joking aside, this was a truly special film, one that Loach should be happy to bow out on if this is indeed the end of the line for him…
19 – Passages (dir. Ira Sachs)
Filmmaker Ira Sachs’ deeply complex romantic drama was a difficult but ultimately sobering watch, largely due to featuring one of the year’s most flawed and intentionally unlikeable protagonists.
Franz Rogowski played Tomas, a filmmaker who ends up cheating on his husband Ben Whishaw with primary school teacher Adèle Exarchopoulos, and as the film dived into a rather toxic love triangle where Tomas is the common denominator for the others’ misery, Sachs intriguingly set the central narcissist on a path where you didn’t necessarily feel sorry for him but were still interested in where he would eventually end up. Few lead characters can be this detestable yet compelling all at the same time, and Sachs’ careful direction as well as Rogowski’s unflinching performance made Tomas, and the quietly devastating film around him, feel more real than he ought to be.
Smart, sexy, and intelligently brutal, Passages was a study of both its main character and the viewer’s patience with him, and I can’t not respect it for that…
18 – Wonka (dir. Paul King)
Few could, or even should, have doubted Paddington director Paul King’s all-singing, all-dancing and all-endearing new take on the classic Roald Dahl character, and to nobody’s surprise it turned out to be an absolute delight.
With a winning star turn by Timothée Chalamet as a young Willy Wonka, and a strong ensemble cast including Olivia Colman, Rowan Atkinson, Hugh Grant (as an Oompa Loompa, natch) and young breakout Calah Lane, King and co-writer Simon Farnaby brought their wholesome and delightfully silly nature to a story that audiences have fallen in love with, not to mention songs by Neil Hannon that are still hummable to this day. Of course, nothing can ever beat the nostalgia for both the original Dahl book or the famous 1971 adaptation starring Gene Wilder (which this film owes much of its iconic music and imagery to), but for modern audiences this is surely a family classic in the making.
And if you weren’t sold already, let me reiterate: Hugh Grant plays an Oompa Loompah. And yes, he does the song and dance. That alone should get you salivating…
17 – Air (dir. Ben Affleck)
One of the year’s first major “buy-opics” – again, thank Wendy Ide for that phrase – was a return to form for director Ben Affleck, who along with screenwriter Alex Convery not only told the inspiring story of Nike’s development of the Air Jordan, but did so with such crowd-pleasing passion that reminded us all of Affleck’s true directorial power.
With an all-star squad of actors at his disposal, from best bud Matt Damon to Jason Bateman to Viola Davis to Affleck himself as Nike CEO Phil Knight, the director achieved the impossible by making a movie about a product not feel so corporate, while still doing a good job of selling the shoe itself. He did so with a charming and witty script that even works well when depicting Michael Jordan himself, who despite being a central figure is only ever shown via a body double, with Davis doing the talking for him. Most of all, though, it was Affleck’s drive that carries the film through an unapologetically 80s world to a rousing conclusion with statistics that’ll make anyone gasp in absolute shock.
If you’re still on the fence about watching a movie about a shoe, then take Nike’s own advice: just do it…
16 – Creed III (dir. Michael B. Jordan)
The third instalment in Adonis Creed’s rise to boxing glory in the world of Rocky Balboa seems to have become largely forgotten since its release earlier this year, so consider this a handy reminder that it is yet another rousing sequel that continues the legacy with awesome might.
Series star Michael B. Jordan also made his directorial debut with the film, and he knocked it out of the park with a mesmerising style that called back to the actor’s love of anime, while continuing the character’s journey in ways that ensured he could survive on his own with the assistance of Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky. As for the elephant in the ring, that being the inclusion of recently convicted assaulter Jonathan Majors (whose rapid fall from grace has been one of the year’s most disheartening stories), from a purely critical standpoint he is a force of nature in a role that could easily have been written and performed like any other adversary, but is made compelling by the considerate writing and – yes – the towering performance.
Overall, it’s an awesome sequel that proves the series still has legs – but the fact that it still isn’t named Threed is a missed opportunity that I will never get over…
15 – Anatomy of a Fall (dir. Justine Triet)
In recent years, the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme D’Or prize has become more of accurate predictor for some of the year’s most memorable titles, and Justine Triet’s compelling courtroom drama is certainly of them.
With a simple but complex mystery at its centre, as well as a magnificent lead turn by Sandra Hüller, Triet and co-writer Arthur Harari’s layered script rarely gave any easy answers, but always reeled you in with revelation after revelation about a fractured family unit that’s more damaged than it first seems. Triet’s filmmaking retains a strong sense of ambiguity as it challenges the viewer, in addition to characters in the film, to settle on a verdict that makes the most sense to them, as opposed to just spelling it out in plain sight, thereby leaving you in a state of unease over now having to live with our accepted version of the truth.
It’s a deserving winner of both the Palme D’Or, and the amount of praise it’s received from critics and audiences alike…
14 – How to Have Sex (dir. Molly Manning Walker)
Within a year filled with stunning directorial debuts by new and exciting filmmakers, Molly Manning Walker’s sobering and deeply ponderous teen drama became one of the most provocative and even disturbing.
Walker’s film dissected the wild and deeply misogynist party culture in the resort town of Malia, where impressionable young teens come for booze, clubbing, cheesy chips, and a whole lot of shagging. However, for Mia McKenna-Bruce’s Tara, the experience got deeply uncomfortable as she faced peer pressure from her friends, and unwanted advances that further blurred the lines of consent, which Walker captured with a steady gaze that avoided easy condemnation but also showed how sleazy and unsafe this culture can be. It’s a film that teenagers should definitely be required to watch, especially as they reach an age where their sexuality becomes more apparent, and as the conversation about consent becomes more and more vital in today’s climate.
At times shocking and even suspenseful, this was a resounding announcement for Molly Manning Walker and her uncompromising new vision…
13 – A Thousand and One (dir. A.V. Rockwell)
One of the year’s least talked-about gems, A.V. Rockwell’s heart-wrenching directorial debut was an unflinching portrayal of motherhood and what it is to sacrifice for the sake of a young child.
Teyana Taylor was absolutely magnificent as Inez, an ex-con who impulsively abducted her son from the foster system, and what followed was a deeply moving and even surprising multi-year drama that explored just how far that deception could go. Rockwell also incorporated many of the changes made to predominantly Black neighbourhoods in New York, including then-mayor Rudy Giuliani’s stop-and-frisk policy and the growing gentrification that racked up rent and forced out lifelong residents, which added a strong layer of historic discrimination that put even more weight onto Inez’s emotional journey.
Don’t sleep on this one, for it’s a drama that is worth bringing up in conversations about some of the year’s finest achievements…
12 – Reality (dir. Tina Satter)
Sometimes, the truth is stranger than fiction, which is something that director Tina Satter took to heart as she adapted her own stage play Is This A Room into a tightly compressed and unique depiction of actual events.
Taken word-for-word from the real transcript between FBI agents and government whistleblower Reality Winner, played exceptionally by Sydney Sweeney, the film blended matter-of-fact everyday conversation with hard-hitting facts about the title character’s leaking of private information regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election. Ingeniously, Satter also captured the somewhat sinister interrogation techniques of the FBI, and made the reenactment feel so much more like a contained thriller than any much more dramatized film could have done (which makes me a bit worried about director Susanna Fogel’s upcoming version with Emilia Jones in the role).
No matter how that one turns out, it’ll be hard to top the astoundingly original methods of this riveting docu-drama, which is chilling in the most unexpected ways…
11 – Typist Artist Pirate King (dir. Carol Morley)
The strange and unfiltered world of lesser-known artist Audrey Amiss was the subject of filmmaker Carol Morley’s equally unpredictable, and rather joyous, celebration of her life and work.
Not so much a film about Amiss but more of Amiss, Morley captured the artist’s eccentric creative vision as well as her difficult mental health issues, in the guise of a road trip movie with Amiss, played exceptionally by Monica Dolan, and her fictional nurse Kelly Macdonald where just about anything could happen out of the blue (and the red, and the yellow, and all the colours on her paint palette). It was funny when it needed to be, but also incredibly emotional, avoiding easy sentiment for a gentle and extremely empathetic study of mental illness and its long-lasting consequences, which left most viewers on the verge of tears at some parts.
It’s unusual in all the best ways, and a wild interpretation of a life spent under the radar but is now, thanks to Morley, well above the surface…