by Anwesha Dutta
I’m realizing that if my cynicism has begun to show itself most starkly in any aspect of my life, it has been in my affective relationship with contemporary cinema. Almost nothing new in our cultural landscape moves me enough to make an impression anymore, and when it does it feels miraculous. Am I alone in this apathy or are movies just kind of...bad now? Moreso, in a year when an active, ongoing genocide keeps proliferating in our screens and feeds, it reveals the rotten core that lies at the centre of our cultural amnesia. I have a lot to say about certain kinds of films being celebrated in this attention economy that perfunctorily capitalize on the insurgence of internet subcultures based off of parasocial attachments, screencaps, “dark academia” (ahem Saltburn), trauma plots and what have you, but for now, I'll only talk about the good ones! Some films shone so brightly in my consciousness that they warranted being called the best of the year. There are many I haven’t been able to see yet like Poor Things, Our Body, Return To Seoul, Fallen Leaves, etc. for lack of access, but here goes my humble suggestions for a good time!
A slight caveat before I begin - even though I’ve categorized these as ‘films released in 2023’, many of these could be a little older, festival releases or releases only of the US and UK where I do not reside. So, I won’t be too strict about it.
1. Rotting in the Sun
My film of the year. This is everything I love in a bottle made into a concoction so sticky and funny and unhinged and gay and self-reflexive and chronically online and indicting of our contemporary predicament of relentless parasociality that it could only have existed in a post-pandemic, influencer-economic, and AI-haunted moment like this one. Sebastián Silva writes himself to death in this gay, autofictional meta-comedy that shows its ass like nothing else (pun intended!). Also, perhaps the funniest and my favourite ending to a film in years which still makes me cackle when I think about it. Unrelatedly, the title of this film is literally me. I do be rotting in the sun.
2. Kaathal - The Core
This subtle and glorious little Malayalam film was my most anticipated release of the year and boy, did it deliver. The restraint and patience that informed every facet of the film, and that delivered a nuanced rendering of our willful and cyclic participation in hegemonic institutions to adhere to the rubric of our society was entirely unexpected. When the premise of the film slowly unravels itself, I found myself wishing for this very nuance that I was so sure I was not going to get because we are so used to being bluntly talked down to by the cinema of today that assumes the stupidity of the audience. It is a joy to witness, thus, that South Indian cinema has consistently taken an increasingly political stance that doesn’t shy away from agitprop or metafiction. Kaathal - The Core is thus a strikingly important film that develops the turmoils of its characters gradually and through their self-reflection, invites the audience to share in their common humanity.
3. All That Breathes
I would be utterly remiss if I didn’t mention this tremendous feat of a documentary by Shaunak Sen. It is about two brothers with a singular mission - to save the black kites in the nightmare of an environment that is Delhi from its fatal air pollution. The best documentaries are not ones with a safe distance from their subjects, but ones that indict themselves in their making. All That Breathes painstakingly shows you how much it cares about its subjects - the kites, the brothers, their survival, their habitats - and through that, asks us why we don’t care about them enough, and why we should - “Life itself is a kinship. We’re all a community of air.” It is a breathtakingly tender portrayal of a tiny community of people, birds and animals taking care of each other, and a critical contemporary document of the Anthropocene.
4. Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World
This was my first Radu Jude film and even though I knew of his anarchic sensibilities, nothing could have prepared me for the poetic and postmodern riot that this was. I haven’t experienced something this formally committed to its politics since maybe Brecht that it risks being this utterly revolting and incomprehensible. By the end of the film, it was not only uncomfortable to witness the growing complicity of the production company, it was excruciating to sit through the 40-minute final shot of the unbearable ordeal of the family, almost mirroring their discomfort. This gives me hope that culture isn’t quite dead after all. It isn’t possible to expect too much from this one.
5. May December
I have realized that movies that inspire in me some degree of absolute awe in terms of its emotional resonance still to some degree are the ones I tend to hold closer to my heart than ones that open themselves up on later speculation and meditation. Yet, only the latter has the potential to crack that very heart open wider than anything I previously knew or sensed possible. May December may have been a similar experience. Todd Haynes’ subtle, mysterious suburban dramas have consistently had an ambivalent affect on me, and May December fell in the same camp. I was only able to peel back its surface days after having seen it. Not only did it inspire a lot of discourse online about whether its camp, melodrama, tragedy or comedy, it continues to elevate in every direction the more you reconcile with its many layers. Based vaguely on a real tabloid scandal about a high school teacher who groomed, statutorily raped and then years later, married a student of hers, May December is precinct and devastating for the implications it has about our endless schadenfreude appetite for true crime and the morality we project onto the art we consume. As Haynes says in an interview, “...they do notice how uncomfortable they’re made to feel watching the movie, and how impossible it is to hold on to the kind of moral grounding that we like to bring to movies, and that these days in particular, we want movies to absolutely, totally affirm for us. I wanted to make this movie, because I liked feeling uncertain and displaced and unnerved. It’s the way movies are supposed to make you feel.”
6. Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour
The Eras Tour film was a singular theatre experience for me that I will fondly remember for years to come even if I increasingly grow tired of the TS machine otherwise. No amount of reels or concert clips could have prepared me to shout through an entire duration of a concert film, on my hands and knees, violently gulping down coke just to be able to sustain my voice for the second half. The pride I felt to be one of the few people singing perfectly to Our Song was only a little embarrassing. If the little 15 year old fan in me had grown out of her in recent years, this film brought me right back to that age - as if time had stood still and nothing had changed, because really how can a person know everything at eighteen but nothing and twenty-two?
7. Last Summer
The best films are ones that are ceaselessly rewarding when you think about them later for days and weeks and even months after watching them, not because of what they are about, but the approach they take to their subject matter. Sometimes you enjoy something cognitively and momentarily, but their emotional core stays hollow, but sometimes, a film can be cognitively challenging in a number of ways but at their core, they get at something so simple, true and treacherous. Last Summer was one such film. I was disturbed, amused and violently moved in the 90 minutes it lasted. It is seemingly about a stepmother who begins an affair with her newly spawned teenage son, but it really is about the way people in the world wield power in unexpected ways to get what they want. Catherine Breillat, in true provocateur fashion, continues to shock and astonish with her late-career comeback.
8. How to Have Sex
Anyone who knows me knows that if there is one genre of film that I champion and have devoured at any given stage in my life and will continue to seek out relentlessly, it is coming-of-age films. I’m rarely disappointed by them even when they reiterate the same tenets of their subjects simply because I don’t think I will ever come of age enough to feel an end to their ongoingness in my life. I have watched enough of them to expect all the usual beats of a teenage, girlhood, coming-of-age movie but How To Have Sex astonished me all the same, and more. Molly Manning Walker understands the casual cruelties of female friendships and the unwieldy evolution of our sexualities so well that it made me flinch, cry, and cringe all within its short runtime. The last Romy needledrop was too perfectly catered to me and I will still be a puddle of tears everytime I think of the moment when the credits started rolling.
The effortless lyricism and beauty of Joyland is unparalleled in the cultural climate of South Asian cinema today. There are only a handful of films that have peeled the mask off of our society with such an astute feeling of personal obligation, which is why even though the film strikes a note of being entirely from the perspective of its male protagonist, the respect and care it shows to each of its characters shines through brilliantly and is the reason I would champion this film regardless of its disappointing third act. It is rare for a film to hold the narrative space for the desire of every single one of its characters and the fact that Saim Sadiq achieves this with such naturalness is a magnificent triumph.
The only film of 2023 that I watched twice at the movies. I was conflicted about including it here given I’ve left out some pretty big names from my list because they weren’t as memorable to me but this one snagged a spot regardless. I still remember how absolutely uninterested I was in Oppenheimer before watching it because the chatter around any of Christopher Nolan’s films just didn’t seem like my cup of tea, but I was delighted to be proved wrong by this one. I didn’t know the kind of psychological subtlety and nuance that I witnessed here was available in the Nolan universe. I cannot forget the scene where Oppenheimer's excruciating knowledge of the destruction he has caused deafens him to the applause of the audience. I’m just glad many of the things I usually don’t take an active interest in, namely physics and men and wars and bombs, came together to make a good film.
About the Writer:
Anwesha Dutta is a writer and researcher. She is interested in articulating the subtle gaps at the intersection of culture, literature, and interpersonal relationships to make the world a place of nuance, justice, and equity. Find their newsletter at bimbopoetica.substack.com.