My Best Movies in 2023 – by Mwaka Mulavu

2020 was weird for everyone in some way. Everything felt stuck in place and transformational at the same time. I won’t bother going through the whole Covid business as everyone is probably tired of that. For me, it was a chance to both rekindle and kickstart my love for movies. I have always enjoyed watching movies, including ‘serious movies’ (usually the Oscar fair). However, during that dogshit year, I realized there was so much I hadn’t seen and desperately wanted to.

I do not have the film literacy that other movie lovers possess but all I can say is that I believe that at its best, it has the potential to be the greatest art form to ever exist. That idea is silly anyway, but maybe?

I have never done any writing on movies before, even if I often have thoughts raging in my head, not just on movies but on the culture that surrounds them. So as a way to help me put my thoughts into words, I decided what better way than to make an ordered list? A classic of literary film engagement. These are the best movies I watched this year. They need not have come out this year, the only requirement for their appearance here is that I saw them in 2023. Some are also acting as recommendations as I am sure you have probably seen some of these. Well, here goes nothing.

Showing Up (2022) Dir: Kelly Reichardt

My first Kelly Reichardt film was First Cow (2019), a beautiful, sweet, humanist depiction of an unlikely friendship in 1820s America. Since then, I have decided to go back and watch some of her other films. I saw Certain Women (2016) this year, equally as moving. I have fallen in love with her understated filmmaking style that does not explode into heightened melodrama. Showing Up follows Lizzy (Michelle Williams) as she navigates her largely uneventful life as an artist at a small Arts college. What I enjoyed most about this movie was its depiction of artists at work. I often tend to bristle at the more abstract depictions of artists’ lives in film, as I’ll admit they can be annoying and self-regarding. This one works for me because it shows her doing the work while having to deal with several small family crises’. Amazingly acted and directed, this is the number ten film I watched in 2023.

MICHAEL CLAYTON (2007) Dir: Tony Gilroy

I probably won’t relitigate the Movies of 2007 discussion (The Best Year in Moviestm?). Of the big hitters of that year, this is the one I spent the most time planning to watch eventually. It has been on my watchlist for several years. The thing that pushed me to finally watch it was something I wouldn’t have thought, which was the Star Wars Disney Plus show Andor. The show impressed me because it explored a cold and bureaucratic fascist Empire, from its hyper-competent climbers and schemers, snake-like true believers to its exhausted and cold-blooded pragmatic bureaucrats. The cadence and precision of the dialogue pushed me to finally give Michael Clayton a long overdue watch. I should have watched this movie ages ago because holy shit did I miss it. It has a lot of things I love in movies that depict certain world-destroying white-collar professions, in this case, an Agribusiness conglomerate and a large, luxurious law firm. The cold indifference, the greed, the use of financial power to chew people up and spit them out, all there for you to chew on. That is until our degenerate gambler of a protagonist, lawyer and fixer Michael Clayton, has a change of heart after an emotional breakdown by one of his law firm’s employers’ sharklike lawyers. Of course, the dialogue brings all this systemic rot to the fore and makes the movie truly sing.

MEMORIES OF MURDER (2003) Dir: Bong Joon-Ho

Set in 1980s South Korea, this movie follows several buffoonish local detectives and an out-of-town investigator from Seoul as they attempt to catch a serial killer. Overall, this film is often incredibly bleak and gut-wrenching, especially as you observe the terror that the killer has wrought on the lives of the town’s residents, especially its women. The incompetent ways in which the case is handled are frustrating to observe. The various technological shortcomings of the Police at the time also enhanced the underlying mystery and sense of dread. What I didn’t expect was that it would also be one of the funniest movies I watched this year. Song Kang Ho and Kim Roi Ha’s Bumbling detectives are a symbol of unchecked police power while also being funny in their idiotic behaviour. The drop-kick sequence was some really juicy comedy. This balance of tone is incredibly difficult to achieve and very few directors can pull it off. The movie explores several big themes about the South Korean state at the time, under a military dictatorship, its various failures and overall brutality. The filmmaking is obviously exquisite but what also stands out is the final third of the film. Amazing exercise in tension and obfuscation. Not to be that guy but, I thought this exceeded Parasite (2019) for me.

RAN (1985) Dir: Akira Kurosawa

This action epic is my second interaction with a Kurosawa Shakespeare adaption. The first is Throne of Blood (which rules by the way). The obvious things that stand out are the epic scale, lush colours and epic, bloody violence. All that is true; but what worked for me was seeing an achievement in technical execution, seeing some things put to film I’ve never seen before. I will be honest and say that the narrative’s broader themes were not that stimulating for me. The characters were broad and obvious, which worked for me in spots. I presume that was intentional as the melodrama and epic scale worked well together. It would be simple to say the movie worked because of its amazing setpieces, but at the end of the day, I am a simple person with very simple needs sometimes. These are honestly some of the greatest battle sequences that I have ever witnessed. Beautiful and brutal, they honestly left me in awe. I honestly want to know how the hell they pulled some of these off.

KOYAANISQATSI (1982) Dir: Godfrey Reggio

How do you capture the dichotomy between the beauty of the natural world and the high-speed, impersonal, soulless modern world? You make a completely voiceless, transcendent documentary that shows, with amazing clarity and skill, how the modern world is encroaching on and corrupting the natural world. At some point in my life, I would have scoffed and called the creators of this documentary anti-technological progress. I have reached the point where I do not see the progress of human nature as simply a greater number of things for people to consume. The film pretty much states that any attempt to extract resources from the earth is an affront to the natural world. How we exploit nature and each other will probably be the thing that destroys our species. The thing that stands out most about this film to a lot of people, as well as to me, is the amazing soundtrack by Phillip Glass that essentially makes the movie operate as one lengthy montage. Using highspeed footage, quick cuts and wide panning shots, this is a documentary you experience viscerally. It does not make overt and concrete explanations of the images but the editing and music will pretty much inform you of all its thoughts on humanity and the natural world.

ARE YOU THERE GOD, IT’S ME MAGARET (2023) Dir: Kelly Freemon Craig

A coming of age comedy-drama that essentially serves as a beautiful look at the relationship between three generations of women. Our protagonist, Margaret is having a deep religious existential crisis due to being raised without an overt, organized religious structure in her life. All this is happening while she navigates puberty, making new friends and being away from the person that gets her the most, in this case, her grandma. Her spiritual crisis and need for some form of religious affirmation work as an important part of the puzzle that is her early adolescence. For me, and plenty of others, the obvious stand-out part of the movie is Rachel McAdams’s role as mother of the titular Magaret, as she tries to overcome a new rudderless existence, dealing with parental responsibility at her daughter’s school PTA and a need to deepen her relationship with her daughter. Her backstory, walking away from a deeply religious and intolerant family to marry her Jewish husband (shout out Benny Safdie), acts as a vital part of her present relationship with her child. Kathy Bates also knocks it out of the park the grandma with a wonderful, yet slightly unhealthy relationship with her son’s family, especially her granddaughter. They share a sweet bond that was beautiful to watch. The movie features amazing performances from every cast member, even from the child actors, which is difficult. The scene in the restaurant bathroom was heartbreaking. A very sweet and heartfelt movie that I hope people see.

KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON (2023) Dir: Martin Scorsese

An epic, sprawling tale from arguably the greatest American film director, getting to see a master at this age still at the top of his game is a genuine gift. Based on a non-fiction book by writer David Grann about a series of gruesome murders of an indigenous tribe, The Osage. The tribe were at the time some of the wealthiest Americans alive but due to the various indignities rendered to their people, their wealth was effectively managed by separate actors. Though controversial to some, the decision to have large parts of the narrative be from the people who carried out the terror on the Osage people is very effective in my opinion. It shows how incompetent, callous and savage these people were as they committed their crimes with impunity. They are shown as greedy, craven and bloodthirsty, even harming their loved ones all for a chance at the wealth they see as theirs. Several other themes include the loss of the connection between the indigenous people and their traditional ways as they are slowly subsumed by capitalism. On one hand, you want them to have full autonomy over their wealth but also recognize that what that wealth represents will see them eaten from the inside out by the forces of consumerism. Their wealth is expressed through expensive clothes, modern houses, cars and jewellery and they cannot use it to actually build a strong society that challenges power structures. This was probably all by design by the State. A cynical and bleak look at the capacity for violence from those who see their indigenous population as subhuman. Also manages to be in conversation with other Scorsese gangster epics as it pulls no punches in showing those types of people as being the violent demons that they truly are. A true epic and another feather in the cap of a legendary filmmaker.

THE GENERAL (1926) Dir: Buster Keaton

My very first silent film and is considered one of the very best ever made. Great place to start for me as I plan on exploring more silent films over time. Directed by and starring Buster Keaton and set during the American Civil War, featuring the story of a stolen train and the engineer that tries to get it back, this thing moves. Obviously not the first of what we can now consider the action comedy genre, I can still see a lot of the hallmarks of modern action cinema. To be honest, certain sequences in this movie are way more impressive than many that we see in modern movies. However, that’s probably also because they were extremely dangerous and unsafe. They are still a wonder to behold though. Surprisingly for a 1920s movie, it was interesting to have a female lead that wasn’t completely relegated to damsel in distress, at least not completely. She was an important part of plenty of the movie’s best gags. It was the 1920’s, it could have been worse. The intricate, slapstick action sequences all left me in awe, from the ‘simpler’ basic gags to the clockwork scenes involving multiple moving parts. Definitely one that I need to engage with more behind-the-scenes scholarship on. This has also pushed me to watch more Buster Keaton movies and more silent movies as well.

Dir: Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers and Justin K. Thompson

The sequel to the best superhero movie ever made somehow tops it in many ways. While in some ways I still slightly prefer the first movie, this one is undeniable. The obvious stand-out is the elevated animation, featuring different styles of incredible artistic expression. Legitimately some of the best animation I have ever seen in a movie. The elevation of Gwen’s character arc helped make the movie feel more complete and not like the first half of a two-parter, a thing that frustrated some people. Whip-smart comedy, amazing sight gags and Miles being a loveable character are all things that pull you in. I’ve always wondered why these movies awe me despite my general scepticism of superhero movies, multiversal storytelling and intellectual property references. I think at their heart, like all good Spiderman stories, is a kid (or in this case, kids) just trying to figure their lives out. The thing that elevates it for me is that it is a love letter to the medium of animation, which I will always be an easy mark for. The elements of the movie that I did not like deal directly with some of my general superhero movie bugbears like the Venom live-action sequence. Also, probably loses some juice with me because of the reported labour issues on the project. Otherwise, the movie is proof of why you should give your animators more freedom and time to work because imagine what they could have done without the crunch and the sprint to release both movies a year apart. Justifies my opinion that most superhero movies should be animated instead. You know am right.

PLAYTIME (1967) Dir: Jacques Tati

In another year of firsts, this was my first Jacques Tati movie. Often sighted as an inspiration for Wes Anderson, once you watch this masterpiece, the comparisons are obvious. If it isn’t obvious by now, I am drawn to the technical execution of film craft, even when narratives don’t entirely make sense to me. Is that good or bad? I don’t know, probably. The intricate craft and playhouse-like structure are honestly breathtaking at times. Filled with layers and layers of amazing visual delights that somehow don’t overwhelm you as you take them in. The pacing, editing, and amazing comedic performances all now make it one of my favourite movies ever. This also validates my continuing opinion that the greatest form of comedy is slapstick/ physical comedy. All in all, a towering masterpiece that should be watched by everyone with an even passing interest in movies.

Additional Recommendations

Here are some recommendations that I think people should watch, I loved them but could not fit them in:
Desert Hearts (1985), Bad Lieutenant (1992), A Pigeon Sat on a Bench Reflecting on Existence (2014), Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016), Black Narcissus (1947), John Wick 4 (2023), Jackie Brown (1997), The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love (1995), The Night of the Hunter (1955), The Naked City (1948), The killer (2023), Panic Room (2002), Past Lives (2023), Klute (1971), Le Samourai (1967)

Mwaka Mulavu

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