21 Dec 2023

Critics' Choice: Films of the year

2:39 pm on 22 December 2023

We asked RNZ film critics to nominate their favourite international and local movies of 2023. Here's what they chose.

Alexander Bisley

Oppenheimer is head, shoulders and heart the blockbuster of 2023. Christopher Nolan deftly explores the complex history of Robert Oppenheimer’s team developing the atom bomb during World War II. Oppenheimer has striking and haunting cinematic form. Nolan intriguingly evokes the momentous era and its politics. Cillian Murphy is superb as Oppie.

Still from Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer featuring Cillian Murphy as Robert Oppenheimer.

Photo: Universal Pictures

New Zealand film of the year, and documentary of the year, goes to Stylebender. Whatever you may think of MMA, Zoe McIntosh’s account of the fascinating Nigerian Kiwi fighter Israel Adesanya is thrilling.  McIntosh plumbs compelling, wrenching themes like bullying and trauma, grief and therapy, forgiveness and hope. Like Oppenheimer, Stylebender has some unforgettable cinematic scenes that bought a tear to my eye.

UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya celebrates victory inside the octagon in 2018.

UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya celebrates victory inside the octagon in 2018. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Sam Hollis

Sometimes when the credits roll, you’re compelled to jump from your seat, turn to your pal and declare your enthusiasm for what you just saw. Sometimes you just sit there staring at the screen, unable to detach from the devastation you’re feeling. This was my experience with Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Monster.

Three perspectives are explored: a disoriented teen, a paranoid single mother and a teacher at the end of his rope. At first, we are led to make some harsh assumptions about them. Later, when the truth unfolds, we are forced to reckon with our own blind spots. This was the most insightful, emotionally intelligent and human film of the year.

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Photo: Screenshot

Sure, this doesn’t officially drop until New Year’s Day, but a highlight reel of my year at the cinema wouldn’t be complete without Poor Things. If The Lobster and The Favourite were Yorgos Lanthimos’ “ones for them”, this was undoubtedly his “one for me”. A melting pot of thrills, sci-fi and fantasy that spits out one of the freakiest (and funniest) coming-of-age movies you’ll ever see.

Uncompromisingly creative with dazzling visuals and a picture-perfect cast to boot, no film made me smile more.

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Photo: Searchlight Pictures

Dom Corry 

Christopher Nolan's examination of the father of the atomic bomb stood as a glorious throwback to the kind of serious, important movies that actually carried the weight of their convictions. Direct and nuanced at the same time, Oppenheimer indicted humanity for its self-destructive tendencies with a savage indignation all too rare in mainstream cinema.

The Argentinian horror movie When Evil Lurks came out of nowhere to upend all previous cinematic notions of demonic possession and set a new bar for such depictions. With a fascinating lore surrounding its supernatural elements, which here are perpetuated both by government inefficiencies and citizens denying realty, the shocking and original film projects a sense of impending doom that doesn't feel remotely out of place in the modern world. 

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Photo: Supplied

Simon Morris

So many good, small movies this year - Aftersun, Scrapper, little French gems, Bill Nighy in Living - but among the best was a Canadian-Korean romantic heartbreaker called Past Lives.  The greatest “eternal triangles” are ones where you can’t bear to miss one out - Nora, her Korean childhood sweetheart Hae Sung and her thoroughly decent husband Arthur.  Which way is destiny? it asks, and comes up with a brilliantly satisfying - and very Korean - answer.

A still from the 2023 film Past Lives

A still from the 2023 film Past Lives Photo: NZ International Film Festival

And in contrast, my favourite comic-book blockbuster in years, James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.  Unlike the competition, the point isn't to cram as much in as possible - as much spectacle, as much quirky comedy, as many cameo appearances.  Something for everyone, though, in the great wrap-up episode, and a reminder of why Karen Gillan was the greatest Dr Who sidekick of them all.

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Photo: Marvel

Dan Slevin

It’s been a great year for good films even if it hasn’t been a good year for great ones. In the absence of any better metric than “I would like to see this again” I have chosen two that – if I was given the afternoon off today – I would happily re-watch. There are others that might be empirically better or something (Oppenheimer comes to mind) but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I am in a great hurry to see them again.

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Photo: Paramount Pictures

I’ve read so many brilliant analyses – mostly ‘for’ but not all – of Killers of the Flower Moon that I can’t wait to go back to it. A richly textured and hugely sorrowful portrait of a scandalous period in American history, this film will bear multiple viewings focused on so many different angles. In a wonderful year for 80 plus screen talent, Martin Scorsese taking the opportunity to question his own relationship to this text and – by extension – all his previous work was the bravest film I saw this year.

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Photo: Supplied

Pan Nalin’s Last Film Show got a very limited mid-year release, but I have been raving about it to anyone who will listen. Films about film can be horribly self-indulgent but this semi-autobiographical story about a screen-besotted Indian kid being taught how to project films by a kindly Muslim projectionist in a small-town fleapit of a cinema broke and remade my heart.

Inspired by great directors like Tarkovsky, Coppola, Kubrick and Malick – but especially the Indian master Satyajit Ray – Last Film Show reminded me that moving pictures on a big screen truly is a kind of magic trick and that it’s not just ok to be in love with the medium, it’s as essential as literature and music and food.

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