Every year we poll our team to find out which new releases screened at the UPP that they enjoyed the most. In a year in which we’ve seen symphonic scandals, Alpine mysteries, and the arrival of a tiny walking, talking sea shell – let’s take a look at the top ten films of 2023 as voted for by the staff and volunteers here at the Ultimate Picture Palace.
10th: Empire of Light
A big emotional film about a beloved independent cinema. Sam Mendes’ latest had hit written all over it. Throw in a multifaceted performance by reliably great Olivia Colman as well as brilliant supporting turns by Toby Jones and Colin Firth and it was clear that Empire of Light was always going to win our hearts.
There’s probably only one filmmaker working today who could make a 3 hour biopic about J Robert Oppenheimer work. Christopher Nolan turned a seriously epic (and epically serious) historical drama about the development of the atom bomb into box office gold. Told with unrelenting tension, and with Cillian Murphy acting as the nucleus holding the whole thing together, Nolan must be building a trophy cabinet big enough to house all those Oscars coming his way.
One of the most talked about and hotly debated films of the past couple of months, Emerald Fennell’s horny social satire certainly got tongues wagging. Barry Keoghan is a magnetic screen presence as ever and Jacob Elordi definitely seems to be having “a moment” (returning to the screen in January for Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla), but it was the bold visuals and nostalgic needle drops that really stick in the memory.
Legendary director Martin Scorsese claimed that he felt “the clouds lifted” on “dark days” of cinema after he watched Todd Field’s TÁR. While morally ambiguous (or even downright unlikable) protagonists aren’t anything new in cinema, they do feel more rare these days. So in that sense, we’ll raise a glass to Cate Blanchett’s thorny composer for giving us a knotty character study which kept the brain cogs turning once the credits rolled.
Hlynur Pálmason’s A White, White Day from 2019 was great, but Godland was even better. Shot on grainy 35mm film, the rugged Icelandic landscape has rarely looked more stunning. Filmed with bracing visual flair, this tale of religious bigotry and colonial pomposity is one of the richest texts of the year. A film which merits multiple viewings.
When we first heard that a film about Barbie was being released, we weren’t that fussed. But then we heard that Greta Gerwig was directing, and the game had suddenly changed. Throw in Ryan Gosling as Ken and we were totally sold. While it’s probably fair to criticise the film for ‘having its cake and eating it too’, the cake (fittingly slathered in bright pink icing) sure was delicious.
4th: Anatomy of a Fall
Maybe it is strange that a crime drama about a suspected murder is actually less interested in the legal outcome than it is in the dynamic of the couple the heart of the story, but that is what makes Justine Triet’s Palme d’Or winner so remarkable. Combined with Sandra Hüller’s remarkable central performance, and a scene stealing turn by a border collie, Anatomy of a Fall (along with Alice Diop’s Saint Omer) breathed new life into the courtroom drama this year. Sandra Hüller returns to the screen in 2024 for Jonathan Glazer’s highly anticipated The Zone Of Interest. Hopefully we won’t have to wait long for Triet’s next venture.
3rd: The Beasts
Maybe the most slept on film of the year? Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s incredibly tense rural thriller wasn’t the year’s only film about the modern struggles of Spanish farmers (see Carla Simón’s similarly excellent Alcarràs), but The Beasts willingness to lean into almost an folk-horror-esque atmosphere (thanks to Olivier Arson’s brilliant score) made it a pleasingly uncomfortable and unforgettable viewing experience. And just when you think you’ve got a hold on the story, the film’s final third takes you in a completely different direction. Unmissable.
2nd: Marcel the Shell With Shoes On
A delight. An animation which showed Disney and Pixar that there’s a new sheriff in town and it’s a one-inch-tall talking sea shell wearing little orange tipped trainers. Beyond it’s obvious appeal (it’s a cute little shell wearing tiny little shoes), Marcel the Shell With Shoes On featured a brilliant mix of stop-animation and live action, but it was the film’s emotional heart which really connected with audiences.
1st: Past Lives
It can often be cause for hesitation when a film festival favourite subsequently earns rave reviews across the board. Will it live up the hype? Thankfully Celine Song’s tale of a reunion between long-lost childhood friends did exactly that. Beautifully structured and brilliantly acted, Past Lives presented a story which was specifically personal to the filmmakers own experience and suffused it with an emotional universality which made it impossible to resist.