2023 was a triumphant return to theatres after nearly three pandemic-ridden years. A cinematic year filled with clashes, mainstream hits, and indie gems. Despite falling short of my goal of 100 films at a comparatively measly 52, it's a number I'm content with, considering the challenges. Last year's count of 270 seems like a distant memory, but with a job now, the journey was different. Missed a few big names, but here's a roundup of the best films amongst the ones I did manage to watch.
Best of 2023
Dhuin: Something about Achal Mishra’s sophomore feature Dhuin feels very fresh and unlike anything I’ve seen in Indian cinema. Set in Darbhanga in Bihar, it feels very close to home for a boy from eastern UP. It’s an excellent commentary about the accessibility of art, the cost of dreams in small-town India. The acting is brilliant (Abhinav Jha is so damn good). It has been beautifully shot in a 4:3 ratio and the score by Tajdar Junaid captures the sense of melancholy perfectly.
Suzume: I didn’t know much going into the film and was expecting something closer to Shintai’s Your Name. But I was pleasantly surprised. The film beautifully captured the essence of Japanese sensibility, the country’s long standing relationship with disasters, trauma, and the power of memories. And it has a cute three-legged chair.
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse: I did not think it was possible to top off the original, but somehow Across the Spider-Verse managed to pull it off. In every way possible. The visuals are stunning, the humour works (unlike many superhero films), the soundtrack is fire and to tie it all is the simple idea of challenging your destiny. The film is pure magic. It’s a spectacle. It’s the embodiment of “every frame a painting”. 2023 was a year of superhero fatigue; is Spider-Verse the final vestige?
Past Lives: Past Lives rightfully earns its place among the best of 2023 on numerous year-end lists. The film poses a question that everyone has pondered at some point in their lives - what if. What would have happened if your life had turned out differently? It’s a heartbreaking film, but there’s closure (at least, I was able to find it). It also touches upon the lost sense of belonging that 1.5/2nd generation immigrants experience. And not to mention some devastating quotes that will soon (if not already) be canon in the yearning-verse.
Kohrra: I know it’s not a film, but hey, it’s on Letterboxd so I’ll count it. They did an excellent job at making this atmospheric - the cinematography especially was the highlight. Add to that the grim score and the rural Punjab setting. It reminded me of Bong Jon-ho's Memories of Murder. The ending felt a little lacking but overall a solid series with great acting. How good is Barun Sobti!?
Oppenheimer: This might just be Nolan’s best since 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises. It’s not as high concept as Tenet and not as grounded as Dunkirk. And I think that’s the sweet spot for the filmmaker. It’s a film that you should really have watched in the theatres. The score and sound design are riveting. I will go so far as to say that Ludwig Göransson’s score is one of the best in film history. Cillian Murphy is great, but Robert Downey Jr gives the performance of a lifetime. He deserves all the awards in the coming season.
Three of Us: Set in a town along the Konkan coastline, Three of Us is the gentlest of films about a woman with early-onset dementia trying to hold onto her memories. While sharing similarities with Past Lives, it distinctly possesses a unique voice. Shefali Shah’s eyes tell a story just on their own. Can’t praise Jaideep Ahlawat enough and Swanand Kirkire is a brilliant addition.
Pokhar Ke Dunu Paar: Parth Saurabh’s debut feature Pokha Ke Dunu Paar (On Either Sides of the Pond) is yet another film set in Darbhanga, that is filled with unadulterated authenticity. Considering how much impact the COVID pandemic had on our lives, the number of films that acknowledge it have only been a handful. I was pleased to see a depiction where lives are impacted as a direct result of the lockdown. The film makes us observers in the aftermath of a rebellious love - a concept that has been much-romanticised in films hardly explored. We never see the realities associated with it. The tension between characters keeps gradually increasing throughout the film, eventually culminating in an ending that felt inevitable from the start but still is hard to swallow. In the sense of palpable tension reaching a crescendo and erupting in catharsis, the film brings to mind Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman and Jeo Baby’s The Great Indian Kitchen. At this point, I am a certified Abhinav Jha fanboy. I would love to see him do more diverse roles. Darbhanga New Wave is real and it’s here.
Joyland: If I had to pick a film of the year, it would be Joyland. I loved how it touched upon so many themes within a single film. Queerness was of course one. But many many things apart from that - repressed desires, gender roles, patriarchy, the regressive aspects of Islam (or religion for that matter). The film also does a great job at showing the dynamics between every pair of characters and no character feels underdeveloped. Everyone is fleshed out as a real person. Joyland is also shot beautifully. The meticulous framing of each scene (especially the scenes set inside the house) is a visual masterpiece. The acting performances are nothing short of brilliant. In fact, a near perfect film.
Anatomy of a Fall: This year’s Palme d’Or (and more importantly, Palme Dog) winner is one of those courtroom dramas where “Did they do it?” matters less than why it could have happened. Language is a character of its own in the film, and is one of the many things seen as a “compromise” between the married couple. More than a courtroom drama, it’s a dissection of a marriage and the idea of balance, competitiveness, and jealousy in it. Sandra Hüller commands the screen whenever she is on, in a role that Triet wrote specifically with her in mind. But the goodest boy Snoop (Dog) steals the show.
The Holdovers: The moment I came to know that Alexander Payne and Paul Giamatti had reunited after nearly two decades, I knew this film would be something special. Their previous collaboration, Sideways (2004), is one of my all-time favourites. The Holdovers is like a warm hug from a loved one on a cold winter morning. I watched it on Christmas and I have a feeling that it’s going to become a holiday classic. Oscar buzz says that Giamatti might be getting a Best Actor nomination for this; I know who I’d be rooting for.
Old first watches
In Bruges: I had been meaning to watch In Bruges for the longest time and finally got around to it this year after being exposed to the genius of Martin McDonagh in The Banshees of Inisherin. In Bruges features the same duo of Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, who are exceptional together - the former playing a goof as he does so well and the latter being the stoic voice of reason. It’s a perfect blend of dark and funny, and, in my twisted opinion, makes for a great holiday season watch.
Lootera: A near perfect film. Cried for 30 minutes after it ended. Nothing else to say.
Life in a Metro: Lonely People in Neon Cities <3. I know it has ripped off several Hollywood films but nevertheless it is fairly well “adapted” in an Indian setting and objectively progressive for its time. Not to mention the absolutely GOATed soundtrack by Pritam. I really wished the Shilpa Shetty-Kay Kay Menon arc ended differently; her character deserved better.
Khoon Bhari Maang: Campy, cunty, and cool. Terrible attempt at trying to make Rekha look ugly though.
Talaash: Although I figured out the plot twist fairly early into the film, it didn’t keep me from enjoying it. Talaash does a stellar job at building an atmosphere that is lonely, dark, ripe with suspense and seduction. Kareena is mesmerising, Aamir and Rani are great, but Nawaz is in a league of his own.
Andhadhun: Andhadhun became an instant classic of Indian cinema right when it was released, and I can see why. Tight script. Mother Tabu mothering. Crisply shot. My only critique of the film is that it depends too much on the twists than on the characters.
Kahaani: Another 2012 release that I had been sleeping on for a long time. Starring Vidya Balan in what could be considered a career-defining role and of course, Nawaz, who was having his annus mirabilis. I adored the portrayal of Kolkata, and the climax is truly breathtaking.
Gamak Ghar: Achal Mishra’s debut feature is a visual treat. It tells the story of three generations of a family as we see them gather at the titular Gamak Ghar (transl. Village House). The ancestral home is a major, if not the biggest character in the film and, like the audience, is a quiet observer of the residents as generations pass. The film unfolds with minimal narrative, resembling more of a recording, which it might as well be. Yet, it skillfully weaves a relatable story that resonates with almost everyone. I am also at this point a certified Achal Mishra fanboy.
The entire list of 52 films watched can be viewed on the writer’s Letterboxd diary -