There's really no other way to slice it than to just say it. 2023 has been an outstanding year for movies.
After three years in the doldrums, cinemas have sold out in 2023 not seen since the pandemic - or even before that. The twin behemoths of 'Oppenheimer' and 'Barbie' turned the summer cinema experience into a cultural event. Elsewhere, the grip of Marvel finally slipped in 2023 as 'Ant-Man & The Wasp: Quantumania' and 'The Marvels' settled for less than desirable box office returns. Further beyond, arthouse cinema has enjoyed terrific reviews, with the likes of 'Passages', 'One Fine Morning', and 'How To Have Sex' enjoying rapturous reviews and audience acclaim.
But what topped our list of the best of the year?
Much like The Cruiser, ageless wonder Keanu Reeves is bowing out of the action franchise in 2023 that helped to revitalise his career. Where 'John Wick' was a study in simplicity, 'John Wick: Chapter 4' goes to the other end of the canvas. It's outsized, over-the-top, firing everything at the screen, and with action sequences finally meeting the limits of ambition. Who would have the balls to put Scott Adkins in a sumo suit and have him fight in a 'Flashdance'-inspired nightclub? As well as this, the franchise finally got the villain it deserved in Bill Skarsgard's iconic Eurotrash aristocrat. As for Reeves, for a man pushing sexagenarian status, he is more than capable of flinging himself through plate glass and throwing henchmen over his shoulders. We will not see his kind again.
It's a testament to the versatility of animation that it can take a character so absolutely wrung out, yet make it feel completely new and fresh. It goes without saying that Spider-Man as a concept has jumped the shark cinematically several times over, yet in 'Across The Spider-Verse', it's still a going concern. Much of it is down to the incredible visual choices and the keen eye for the idiosyncrasies inherent in the character. He's a teenager, but not a teenager, and a superhero, but often an inept one. While it may be the middle point of the trilogy, 'Across The Spider-Verse' has more than enough style and substance to stand out and - in some parts - outshine the first.
Irish cinema is so often concerned with domestic matters and the kind of stories that audiences are able to immediately identify and recognise. While this has meant that much of our national output has a deep reservoir of emotions, it's rare that they would strain into - whisper it - genre. 'LOLA' is a tear through the sci-fi genre with all of the ambition and daring of the greats. It's a time-travelling, mind-bending, genre-defying romp and the kind of which is sorely missed from mainstream cinema, never mind our national cinema.
Even when 'One Fine Morning' pauses itself to simply take in its central character, played with simple grace by Léa Seydoux, we still find ourselves caught up in the moment. Like the best slice-of-life dramas, it's just so enjoyable to be around the world, take in the sights and the sounds, imagining the smells and the tastes, and all that it has to offer. There are inconsistencies, some scenes simply run out rather than conclude, and the ending is left open to interpretation - but even we can't find a clean answer, we're still left with a fascinating, vital examination of life, love and grief.
Romantic comedies have, of late, suffered at the hands of mediocre talent and been cast in the deep pit of streaming algorithms where movies of its kind have never arisen from. Where once the genre was able to produce movies like 'When Harry Met Sally', it's now forced to contend with utter crap like 'Red, White, and Royal Blue'. Further evidence of the genre's inability to save itself from itself is the fact that 'Rye Lane' isn't being talked about nearly enough. Raine Allen-Miller's determination to turn South London into a place of joy and colour with undeniably charismatic performances from David Jonsson and Vivian Oparah shone through in every scene. 'Rye Lane' is far and away the best romantic comedy of the year, and perhaps the best British romantic comedy in decades.
No doubt you're wondering how a movie about a bunch of mutated reptiles named after Renaissance scholars could feature in a best movies of the year list, never mind in the top five. For starters, there's a lot to be said for lowered expectations. Walking into 'Mutant Mayhem', I will freely admit that I didn't have lowered expectations. I had absolutely none. I was fully prepared to chalk this down as another failed attempt at enlivening a piece of childhood ephemera. What I got was something else altogether. It's one of the few pieces of animation I have seen this year where it felt like the people working on it and voicing it actually cared about it. The music choices were matched perfectly. How often do you see a fight sequence set to 'No Diggity', much less making it work? How often are the central characters not voiced by recognisable talent? It's an animated movie with personality. Something that's practically non-existent in the medium today. That's why it's here.
Genocide is a crime and a topic that is so vast in its evil that it's often difficult to completely wrap our minds around it. We can scroll through Instagram and see relentless slaughter interspersed with makeup tutorials, yet trying to make sense of the cruelty and the violence of it is something that takes time and careful mapping. Though it's wrapped up in prestige and with true crime bonafides, 'Killers of the Flower Moon' is in essence a microcosm of the genocide wrought upon Native Americans by those who now dominate the land and equivocate around the term elsewhere. Martin Scorsese, no stranger to criminals, places the story in context and skilfully plays his cast against type. Leonardo DiCaprio's depleting looks are an advantage, as is Lily Gladstone's relative unfamiliarity with audiences. Beyond the cast and the setting, 'Killers of the Flower Moon' is a study in how endless greed - for money, for land, for control - ends in murder.
Compared to its counterpart, 'Barbie' is a movie made out of thin air. That's almost the point. There is no deep lore, no endless Wikipedia articles, no documentaries, no way for it to disappoint or dissuade hardcore fandoms. This was, in effect, what Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach explored. Barbie as a character was one without introspection, without any inner life, without any soul - and yet, by its end, 'Barbie' is a fascinating exploration of feminity, of the modern woman, of the expectations and the realities, and further beyond to what it means to be a woman itself. All of that out of a plastic doll previously utilised either as a symbol of vacuity or as a punchline. Enough ink has been spilled extolling Margot Robbie's clear-eyed, completely realised performance, but not enough about Ryan Gosling's Ken-ergy. Though we're only in the early days of the Oscar season, there's good reason to expect a golden statue in Gosling's future and if for nothing else, the Academy must honour his commitment to the bit - on screen and off screen.
As much as Ryan Gosling gave one of the most stirring male performances of the year, Cillian Murphy is virtually unchallenged in 'Oppenheimer'. For three hours, we witness the dark night of the soul and can see the light go out in his eyes as the pressure closes in. Though his work to date has been concerned with size and spectacle, 'Oppenheimer' has the weight and feel of a tightly fought courtroom battle, with Jason Clarke's prosecutor blasting away like an artillery cannon. As mentioned, Ryan Gosling is a shoe-in for Best Supporting Actor, but his only rival comes in the form of Robert Downey Jr., who played the venomous Lewis Strauss with frightening ease. Though he's been so closely associated with wisecracks and goatees, Downey Jr. was able to completely flatten these urges and turned in one of the best performances of his career in 'Oppenheimer'. Christopher Nolan's ability to navigate time and space on screen has often befuddled audiences, yet here it's lucid in a way without being simplistic. Over the course of three hours, we see the agony and the ecstasy that went into one of the defining moments of the modern age, and the weight that came from it.
It's difficult to articulate what it is about 'Past Lives' that has so gotten underneath people's skin. Maybe it's that it has an understated, but powerful beauty about its visuals. Maybe it's the sense of longing that seeps out of every scene with Greta Lee and Teo Yoo. It could be that the immigrant story is something we as Irish people easily identify with, to say nothing of the repressed state of emotions both cultures often possess as part of their daily lives. Whatever it is, 'Past Lives' is a phenomenal piece of work for a writer-director on her first feature-length movie. There is an exquisite sense of style, understated but purposeful, in every moment. The choice of setting it in New York and Seoul, comparing and contrasting the two, works wonders. The use of quiet, intimate moments to convey the most devastating realisations about relationships and love. Even some lines of dialogue are just seared into memory in a way that isn't easy to talk about (or write about) without offering up a personal reflection and the connection 'Past Lives' brings to it.
There's a kind of romanticism at work in 'Past Lives', but it's not so unbelievable as to make it distant and insincere. It's human and vulnerable in a way that is so often ignored or neglected in stories like this. The central idea - the path taken and not taken - is one that is treated humanely, not with a cheap kind of sentimentality, but earnestly and without cheap payoffs. In the end, it's a quietly staggering piece of work. How many of us have wondered where we ended up, and if we made the right choices? How many of us have confronted it? 'Past Lives' takes us into that qunadary, and walks us out the other side as different people.