The Saturday Paper’s film critic looks back at the highlights of 2023. By Christos Tsiolkas.

Best films: Barbie’s mission was possible but fell just short

Cillian Murphy as the title character in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer.
Cillian Murphy as the title character in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer.
Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon / Universal Pictures

Perhaps it’s a churlish thought, but for me the blockbusters of 2023 all seemed to share an off-putting air of self-congratulation. Given the seismic shifts digital platforms have wrought on cinema attendance, I am glad Christopher McQuarrie’s Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One and Greta Gerwig’s Barbie put bums on seats – but I found it difficult to stomach the bloated script of the former and the smug a-bob-each-way cultural sarcasm of the latter. Intermittently, some of the action sequences in the new Mission: Impossible were impressive, but the film was as endless and as enervating as its title. Barbieland was colourful, but there was no trace of magic or invention in the rendition of its feminist utopia. When the dolls encountered the “real world”, I found myself staring glumly at the screen: the contemporary world seemed to be a clichéd version of the mid-20th century, with a sprinkling of “diversity”. There’s more subversion and wit to be found in ancient Doris Day and Rock Hudson comedies than anything on display in Barbie.

I was also disappointed by Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer and Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon. Nolan’s is the better film, but both strive for moral purpose and intellectual seriousness that isn’t justified by their pomposity or unsophisticated scripting. I expect them to win big at the Oscars next year. There’s nothing Hollywood likes better than slapping itself on the back.

On the plus side, La Chimera proved Alice Rohrwacher is one of the finest directors in the world today. What is remarkable about her work is she wears her debt to the great directors of Italian cinema so very lightly and joyfully: she has her own confident vision and sensibility. La Chimera is a film about ghosts and memory that dares to be resolutely responsive to the political and the sacred. Carol Duarte and Josh O’Connor gave outstanding performances in the film.

Outstanding too was Cate Blanchett in Todd Field’s Tár. This is a film that prioritised nuance and complexity in its script, performances and mise en scène. It was exhilarating to watch a film that treated its audience as mature and curious. I felt a similar excitement watching Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s enthralling About Dry Grasses, which with unerring intellectual cogency probed questions of guilt and responsibility. It was also the year’s most visually impressive film.

Filmed in 2021 but only now distributed in Australia through streaming, Stephen Karam’s The Humans was a real discovery. It is claustrophobic and intense – a genuinely unnerving mixture of horror and domestic noir. Based on Karam’s own play, it is a striking cinematic debut.

I have a soft spot for Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn, a sometimes bewildering mashup of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley and Pasolini’s Theorem. It is less coherent than her previous film, Promising Young Woman, but also less constrained, less closeted. It is slyly and perversely sexual – unshackled from zeitgeist politics, Fennell indulges the surreal eroticism that clearly enthuses her imagination. Barry Keoghan is terrific in it.

Zero Fucks Given (Rien à foutre) was another highlight. Directed by Julie Lecoustre and Emmanuel Marre, it is an expertly crafted social-realist film about a young woman who works as a flight attendant for a cut-price airline in Europe. The film nails perfectly the wearying struggle of navigating the gig economy. For all the harshness of its subject matter, the film is often buoyant. A large reason is the wonderful Adèle Exarchopoulos, who is fearless and coolly likeable in the main role. She’s also striking in Ira Sachs’s drôle sex comedy from this year, Passages.

David Easteal’s The Plains was largely ignored by cinema distributors and found a home on MUBI, an arthouse streaming service. This near three-hour film, set mostly in a car driving through Melbourne’s peak-hour traffic, is formally rigorous and exacting yet never less than mesmerising. Within its minimalist structure and framing, it captures both the alienating sterility of contemporary life and our indomitable need for empathy and fellowship. Easteal’s short films throughout the past decade have impressed me immensely. His debut feature is undoubtedly one of the year’s best films. It is superb, and deeply moving.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 23, 2023 as "The year in reviews".

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