top of page
Search
  • Writer's pictureAlex First

Top Films of 2023 and the Stinker of the Year (scores after film titles are out of 10)

Updated: Feb 24

1/ Oppenheimer 10

Biography Drama History 3 hours

 

Was he the devil or a saviour? If J. Robert Oppenheimer didn’t invent the ultimate killing machine, would someone else from a rival superpower have done so? These are just some of the questions addressed in the superbly rendered film Oppenheimer.

 

Master filmmaker Christopher Nolan (Inception) has taken no short cuts and come up with a tension filled, intriguing look at how the world was changed irrevocably. 

Oppenheimer is infused with a series of scintillating performances, earnestly led by Cillian Murphy as the much-feted theoretical physicist. His representation of the genius is remarkable and insightful.

 

Equally imposing is Robert Downey Jr, who is cast as a concerned, but arrogant manipulator.

 

A phenomenal cinematic achievement, Oppenheimer is undoubtedly the film of the year. Surely Oscars await.

 

2/ Tar 9

Drama Music 2 hours 38 minutes

 

Cate Blanchett plays Lydia Tar, internationally acclaimed classical musical conductor and composer, and maestro at the Berlin Philharmonic. Considered one of the finest exponents of her craft in the world, she is widely sought after.

 

In short, Tar is brilliant, a perfectionist, self-centred and driven, but also a hard task master on herself and others. As the movie progresses, the cracks in Tar’s make-up begin to mount.

Tar, the film, is an astonishing, complex and sophisticated psychological drama from writer and director Todd Field, which has been brilliantly written and executed. For much of the way, it is a puzzle. We must try to figure out just what is going on.

 

Cate Blanchett was hard done by not snaring the Oscar for Best Actress.

 

3/ The Whale 9

Drama 1 hour 57 minutes

 

The Whale is the film that excited me more than any other after lockdown. While the story itself is remarkable, it is the acting that had me champing at the bit to recommend it.

 

It is set in a small, rundown, first floor apartment in Idaho. Charlie (Brendan Fraser) – a middle aged, online university English teacher – is morbidly obese. His blood pressure is off the charts and he is suffering from congestive heart failure.

He can hardly move … barely gets by with the aid of a Zimmer Frame and gorges himself on food, including daily pizzas. He lives alone in the apartment he never leaves and relies upon daily visits from a nurse friend, Liz (Hong Chau).

 

The Whale, which marked the stellar return of Brendan Fraser, is a film of rare quality that worked its way into my psyche as only the finest offerings can.

 

4/ Poor Things 9

Comedy Drama Romance 2 hours 21 minutes

 

Imagine you have been pieced together … reborn from an unlikely construct, not like you were before. In short, you are an experiment. That is Bella Baxter’s (Emma Stone) lot.

 

The eminent, deeply scarred surgeon who brought her back to life is Dr Godwin Baxter (William Dafoe) – God, for short. He himself is only kept alive by virtue of a machine that enables him to receive sustenance.

 

Bella is about to embark on a wild adventure. 

Poor Things deserves high praise for its outrageous plotting, buoyant characterisations and creative execution. I was left giddy with delight.


Unquestionably, it is among the year’s boldest and finest offerings. Rush out to see it.

 

5/ Saint Omer 9

Drama 2 hours 2 minutes

 

Slow moving but powerful and affecting, Saint Omer concerns the linked stories of a female writer and lecturer, and a young woman facing trial for infanticide. Rama is the taciturn Franco-Senegalese novelist looking to write a modern-day adaptation of the ancient myth of Medea. She has a loving husband, Adrien, but a fractured relationship with her mother.

 

At a tense family dinner, she withholds from her mum that she is pregnant. Thereafter, she travels to the Saint-Omer Criminal Court, as part of her research for her next project. That is where a 24-year-old Franco-Senegalese woman, Laurence Coly, is facing trial for killing her 15-month-old daughter.

The measured performances are utterly convincing and compelling. The silences – of which there are many – speak volumes. It is a deeply considered and moving film, in which much is left unsaid. There is an air of authenticity about all we are seeing and hearing.

 

Alice Diop is a documentary filmmaker. This is her first feature. What an extraordinary debut. Its pacing and open-ended finish will trouble some, but to me it is part of the picture’s glory.

 

6/ Marcel the Shell with Shoes On 8.5

Animation Comedy Drama 1 hour 30 minutes

 

Marcel is a super, original work … a delightful tale that is beautifully told. Marcel (the voice of Jenny Slate) is a one-inch-high shell that came from a large community of shells. Now only he and his grandmother Connie (Isabella Rossellini) remain.

 

Into their Airbnb residence and lives steps an amateur documentary filmmaker, Dean (Dean Fleischer-Camp). After engaging in conversation with Marcel, Dean decides to make a doco about him, which he posts on YouTube. To say that that goes viral is an understatement. 

It attracts the interest of 60 Minutes and Marcel’s favourite reporter on the program, who sets about interviewing Marcel and Dean. Meanwhile, Marcel reveals his desire to find his family, a search that ends up going global.

 

The film is something special. The stop motion animation is state of the art. Melding it so seamlessly with live action and such natural dialogue is a work of genius. I was left astounded at the sheer creativity and masterful execution.

 

7/ Aftersun 8.5

Drama 1 hour 42 minutes

 

Aftersun is a sensitive, heartfelt and naturalist film by debut writer and director Charlotte Wells.

 

It is a beautifully reflective piece concerning an 11-year-old girl, Sophie (Frankie Corio) and the last holiday she took with her father Calum (Paul Mescal) – about 20 years older – two decades earlier. The pair travels from Scotland to a fading resort in Turkey.

 

They swim, sunbathe, play pool, go to a Turkish bath and a mud bath, read, listen to an old crooner, attend a karaoke night, watch endless paragliders and more. Calum – who practices Tai chi – is separated from Sophie’s mum, but appears to have a good relationship with her.

 

Sophie reflects on the shared joy and private melancholy of that final hurrah.

Memories real and imagined fill the gaps between that which is captured on home video, as Sophie tries to reconcile the father she knew (loving and idealistic) with the man she didn’t.


There is joy and wonder in the relationship between the pair, which is exactly what Wells wanted to capture.

 

Much in Aftersun is left unsaid. It is up to us – the audience – to interpret. It is not clear until late in the piece as to the timeframe between the events captured and where Sophie is at in the present day. Having said that, that device used by Charlotte Wells works perfectly. While a film for selective tastes, Aftersun is a genuine piece of movie magic.

 

8/ Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse 8.5

Animation Action Adventure 2 hours 20 minutes

 

Mesmerising graphics and non-stop, often helter-skelter, action are the hallmarks of the thrilling new Spider-Man, which has no shortage of dark edges. It is a multi-layered thrill ride.

 

The animated adventure Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse takes off after the events of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018). It centres around 15-year-old Miles Morales. Grounded by his parents – a police officer and a doting mother – they don’t know he is Spider-Man.

Miles is reunited with Spider-Woman from another dimension, Gwen Stacy. Not realising that Spider-Woman is his daughter, a policeman by the name of George is relentlessly pursuing the masked warrior, who is accused of murder.

 

Miles travels across the Multi-Verse, where he comes face-to-face with a cavalcade of Spider-People charged with protecting the very same.

 

Concentration is needed to follow all the threads and not become overwhelmed or lost. I particularly enjoyed the family dynamics associated with Miles Morales and Gwen Stacy.

 

9/ Saltburn 8.5

Comedy Drama Thriller 2 hours 11 minutes

 

What a bombshell of a film, where the rules of engagement are constantly shifting. It is slow burn, but when the axe falls it is anything but blunt. Along the way there are some seriously outrageous moments.

 

Writer and director Emerald Fennell (who went “whack” with Promising Young Woman) set out to make a film about love.  More specifically, the kind of locust, scorched-earth, cannibal love that you feel at a certain age.  Saltburn is a modern gothic romance, in which class, power and sex collide.

In the lead, Barry Keoghan is the picture of restraint and conviction in one of the roles of his career. He is like an animal, watching and waiting for the right time to strike. Rosamund Pike has a wow of a time as an elegant, judgmental mother, while Richard E. Grant plays her aloof husband, with breakout joyous moments.

 

Prepare for a wild and wicked ride.

 

10/ Maestro 8.5

Biography Drama Music 2 hours 9 minutes

 

American conductor, composer, pianist, teacher and author Leonard Bernstein (25th August, 1918 to 14th October, 1990) was feted the world over for his talent. Bernstein (Bradley Cooper) enjoyed a close and loving relationship with his wife, Costa Rican/Chilean actress Felicia Montealegre Cohn (Carey Mulligan).

 

Despite fathering three children with Montealegre, who doted on him, Bernstein was more attracted to men than women. He and his wife had an understanding, but there were times when acting upon his impulses caused her frustration and distress.

Still, the pair always connected on an intellectual level and they enjoyed many happy times together. Maestro is an artistic retelling of their lives, primarily focused on him.

It starts as Bernstein gets his big break at the age of 25.

 

Stylistically, the film is impressionistic and moves from black and white to colour and different aspect ratios, to reflect time shifts. Maestro is a feast for the senses that will hold particular appeal to those with an artistic bent.

 

11/ The Crime is Mine 8.5

Comedy crime 1 hour 42 minutes

 

A French comedic crime caper, The Crime is Mine is a scrumptious delight.

It intoxicates from the get go and doesn’t let up.

 

We are in Paris in 1935. Madeleine Verdiere is a struggling, attractive young actress, who can’t land a role.

 

With money a major issue, she uses the murder of a lecherous, ageing film producer to her advantage. Verdiere claims he turned her down for a part in a movie and that she shot and killed him in self-defense, after he began pawing her.

 

Her motive in confessing is to ignite her acting career from all the publicity the case will generate. Pulling the strings – feeding her her lines – is her best friend and roommate Mauleon.

I loved everything about the movie. It is bright, breezy and charmingly preposterous, beautifully scripted and pieced together, with twists aplenty. The exaggerated affectations adopted by the actors suit the work perfectly. I can’t recommend The Crime is Mine any more highly. It is lighthearted and bewitching.

 

12/ Close 8.5

Drama 1 hour 44 minutes

 

Leo and Remi are inseparable best friends. The 13-year-olds play together, race one another in the fields and ride their bikes in tandem with reckless abandon.

 

Leo – whose family runs a flower farm – regularly stays over at Remi’s place and they even share a bed. For all intents and purposes, they are like brothers, ones that get along famously.

 

Before they know it, the holidays are over and they start their first day of high school, where others quickly notice their close bond. Questions are posed and although Leo pushes back at the inquisitors, clearly he is affected.

 

That manifests itself in his interactions with Remi. The dynamic between them changes.

But far worse is to follow.

Begium’s nomination for Best International Feature at the Oscars, Close won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes last year. It is a sensitive and distressing coming of age drama, characterised by beauty and darkness.

 

Featuring outstanding performances, the film allows the audience to interpret events as we will. It is a movie that stays with you long after you exit the theatre.

 

13/ My Old School 8.5

Documentary comedy drama 1 hour 44 minutes

 

The true tale of 16-year-old Scott Brandon Lee (not the actor son of Bruce Lee) is remarkable. Directed by Lee’s former classmate Jono McLeod, the way his story unfolds is mind blowing.

 

McLeod interviews former classmates and teachers from Bearsden Academy, located in a well to do suburb of Glasgow, where Lee went to school in 1993.

 

Lee himself did not agree to appear in the documentary, rather actor Alan Cumming lip syncs an audio interview McLeod conducted with Lee and he’s phenomenal. He morphs into Lee, perfecting facial expressions and tone – nothing forced.

My Old School intersperses interviews with historic footage and compelling animated sequences. The soundtrack to the era, too, is pitch perfect.

 

The full story is one that gripped Scotland … and McLeod’s endeavours in bringing it to life certainly had me absorbed. My Old School is a twisted tale in more ways than one. There is shock after surprise after shock. I couldn’t get enough of it.

 

Stinker of the Year 2023

 

Allelujah 2

Drama 1 hour 39 minutes

 

I can’t think of too many films I have detested more than Allelujah. The British drama is based on Alan Bennett’s 2018 play of the same name.

 

It is about a small geriatric hospital in West Yorkshire that is threatened with closure due National Health Service funding cuts.

 

The most loyal of staff is a doctor called Valentine (Bally Gill), for whom nothing to do with patient care is ever too much. The head nurse, Sister Alma Gilpin (Jennifer Saunders), is about to be honoured for her services to the hospital.

 

A film crew is invited to document a volunteer-led effort to save the institution. That includes interviewing the Chairman of the Board and several residents, including one played by Derek Jacobi. One that isn’t interviewed, but who is given an iPad to record her experiences, is a retired librarian played by Judi Dench.

Arriving at the hospital to visit his sick father – a former coalminer – is a management consultant to the Health Secretary, who recommended closure of the facility.

 

I thought I was watching a really bad play. Most of the elderly patients were nothing more than caricatures. The movie is mired in paternalistic nonsense. It looked like a PR exercise, extolling the virtues of caring for patients.

 

And when Bally Gill as Dr Valentine broke the fourth wall to speak directly to us – the audience – it made my skin crawl.

 

If you want to know what dull looks like, simply try to sit through the first five sixth of Allelujah. Very little happens. I was constantly looking at my watch, imploring the film to take off.

 

To me that gets down to the writing and direction because a decent list of actors has been assembled. So, here is the bottom line, if you are considering seeing Allelujah, please think again. I wished I had less than five minutes after entering the cinema.

Comments


bottom of page