Sonntag, 31. Dezember 2023

The Best Films of 2023

2023 is almost over, so it’s time to look back and to once again take stock of the films that stood out over the past twelve months. And although I, much like last year, can’t claim to have been able to wholly stay on top of my viewing, I am fairly confident that I have seen most of the films I wanted to see before making my list.

In terms of eligibility, I continue to stick with the system that has served me well since my first end-of-the-year list in 2008: my picks are drawn from all the titles that premiered in the German-speaking part of Switzerland between 1 January and 31 December 2023, both theatrically (not including festival exclusives) and on VOD and streaming platforms.

Loyal readers of my writing – or at least my lists – will notice that the number of films on the list has grown in comparison to previous years. The reason for this is that, as I was compiling my favourites of the year, I realised I was facing a choice between a top ten and an exceedingly narrow selection of honourable mentions and a more encompassing top twenty. And given that my ultimate goal with this list – apart from satisfying my own predilection for these kinds of compendia – is to provide readers with personally approved movie recommendations, I opted for expansion rather than arbitrary restraint.

This doesn't mean, however, that these twenty titles are all the films I enjoyed in 2023. In fact, in lieu of honourable mentions, let me give a shoutout to Hayao Miyazaki's The Boy and the Heron, Ali Asgari's Until Tomorrow, and Justine Triet's Anatomy of a Fall, which all missed out on a top-twenty spot by the thinnest of margins. Yet, such is the nature of end-of-year lists. If you are curious about which other films that are not listed here struck my fancy in 2023 (and which ones didn't), I heartily recommend a stroll through my Letterboxd profile, which contains ratings and nutshell reviews of everything I watched this year. And now, without further ado, here are my favourite films of 2023.

The Top Twenty

© A24

The Eternal Daughter
directed by Joanna Hogg
(United Kingdom/United States, 2022)

A spiritual sequel – pun partially intended – to The Souvenir (2019) and The Souvenir Part II (2021), writer-director Joanna Hogg’s stylised autobiographical accounts of coming of age in the arts scene of 1980s London, The Eternal Daughter is both a wispy Gothic ghost story about a haunted hotel in the Welsh countryside and a gently devastating exploration of filial grief. Anchored by an ever so slightly ironic double performance by Tilda Swinton – whose own daughter played Hogg’s on-screen stand-in in her Souvenirs – the film offers a potent, admirably pared-down variation on the old idea that ghosts are memories and extends it into a reflection of the spectral figures, narratives, and genres that haunt our movie screens. If The Eternal Daughter is indeed the cap to a trilogy of memoirs, Hogg has saved the best for last. The Eternal Daughter is available on Paramount+, DVD, and Blu-ray.

© 2022 Focus Features, LLC. / Universal Schweiz

directed by Todd Field
(United States/Germany, 2022)

Tár arrived on the international cinema circuit with all the fanfare and portent one would expect from the first film by the director of In the Bedroom (2001) and Little Children (2006) in 16 years. Yet this aura of seriousness belies the wicked sense of humour Todd Field weaves into his epic tale about a star conductor’s fall from grace: from its slippery flirtations with so-called "cancel culture" discourse to the unexpectedly comical finale, Tár is a film that refuses easy classification and ideological didacticism, serving instead as a diligently styled, tonally ambiguous Rorschach test. In equal parts entertaining and unamenable – not least thanks to Cate Blanchett’s stellar lead performance – this is the type of mainstream-ready film that is actually a joy to unpack and discuss. Tár is available on blue TV, Sky, Microsoft Store, Apple TV, Google Play, Rakuten, DVD, and Blu-ray. (Read my full review.)

© Filmcoopi Zürich AG

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed
directed by Laura Poitras
(United States, 2022)

Against the backdrop of a United States in which decrying the pop-cultural visibility of queer people and people of colour as an undue "politicisation of art" has become part of the right-wing establishment’s rhetoric, Laura Poitras’ documentary about photographer Nan Goldin serves as a timely reminder that all art is political – and that artists would do well to accept and embrace that fact. Poitras’ formal approach may be more conventional in All the Beauty and the Bloodshed than it was in her investigative films on Edward Snowden (Citizenfour) and Julian Assange (Risk); yet through her evocative narrative structure – switching back and forth between Goldin’s life as a chronicler of queer New York life during the AIDS crisis and her activism against the Sackler family’s instrumentalisation of art as a means of whitewashing their role in creating the present-day opioid epidemic in the U.S. – she fashions a stirring portrait of the artist to whom the alleged border between art and political activism has always been a bourgeois indulgence. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is available on Kino on Demand, Rakuten, blue TV, Apple TV, Google Play, and DVD. (Read my full review.)

© Netflix 2023

The Killer
directed by David Fincher
(United States, 2023)

To some, David Fincher’s adaptation of the eponymous comic by Alexis "Matz" Nolent and Luc Jacamon is not all that much more than an unspectacular routine genre exercise from the director of Seven (1995), Fight Club (1999), and The Social Network (2010). Yet therein lies The Killer’s brilliance: after the sumptuous but lifeless Mank (2020), there is a special kind of pleasure in seeing Fincher work through cheap paperback material – a professional assassin (a hilariously sociopathic Michael Fassbender) finds himself on the run after botching his latest contract – in his typically sleek, detached style. What’s more, The Killer, for all its violent thrills, is ultimately all about humorously deconstructing its Tyler Durden-esque protagonist, whose self-seriousness and cynical self-importance is consistently played for laughs and unmasked as the delusion of a deeply insecure man. The Killer is available on Netflix.

© Universal Pictures International Switzerland. All Rights Reserved.

Knock at the Cabin
directed by M. Night Shyamalan
(United States, 2023)

His cinematic output may be notoriously hit and miss, but when M. Night Shyamalan gets his high-concept mystery-thriller mixture right, there are few mid-budget genre filmmakers on the American scene who can touch him. Case in point: Knock at the Cabin, adapted from Paul G. Tremblay’s novel The Cabin at the End of the World, in which a couple and their adopted child are confronted in their secluded cabin in the woods by four strangers claiming to be prophets on a quest to stop the apocalypse. The result is a tense chamber play, whose confidently and appealingly ludicrous premise never descends into parody, thanks to an engaging end-of-days atmosphere, well-dosed glimpses of existential horror, a range of strong performances, and a persistent underlying sense that the film is Shyamalan’s – very successful – attempt at articulating climate change anxiety in a genre context. Knock at the Cabin is available on blue TV, Sky, Sunrise TV, Apple TV, Google Play, Rakuten, DVD, and Blu-ray.

© trigon-film

About Dry Grasses
directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan
(Kuru Otlar Üstüne, Turkey/France/Germany, 2023)

Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s latest, a 197-minute drama about an unsympathetic schoolteacher in remote Eastern Anatolia dreaming of a more fulfilling life in Istanbul, is, first and foremost, a triumph of long-form storytelling: About Dry Grasses may sport Ceylan’s usual painterly exteriors – and an unexpected, unapologetically unelaborated-on breaking of the fourth wall two-and-a-half hours in – but it is in its expansive, brilliantly acted dialogue scenes that it truly comes alive, bursting at the seams with ideas about the folly and the necessity of optimism, the challenge to renounce opportunistic egotism in a world that rewards it, and the patchwork of identities and ideologies that make up modern Turkey. About Dry Grasses is currently playing in Swiss cinemas.

© Ciné ABC GmbH Distr.

directed by Atlee
(जवान, India, 2023)

In a year where a lot of ink was spilt – and a lot of video-essay time was spent – discussing the creeping death of the Western movie star, Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan helmed no fewer than three major Indian tentpoles, to critical acclaim and commercial success. One of these, Arun "Atlee" Kumar’s Hindi-language debut Jawan, made international headlines in particular – likely thanks to both its global Netflix release and the fact that it stars Khan in an eye-catching double role, playing both an idealistic prison warden, who seeks to fix India’s structural problems through a series of daring terrorist attacks, and his amnesiac super-soldier father. Not only does this result in an engagingly tongue-in-cheek reflection on Khan’s own star persona; it also provides Atlee with an appropriately large canvas on which to indulge in a number of delightful, gloriously maximalist action set pieces, culminating in a strikingly direct indictment of India’s current right-wing government. Jawan is available on Netflix.

© Frenetic Films AG

Both Sides of the Blade
directed by Claire Denis
(Avec amour et acharnement, France, 2022)

Cinematic convention may hold that mutual romantic attraction is generally a good thing, but Claire Denis, in her troubling psychological drama Both Sides of the Blade, manages to formulate a striking counterpoint to this notion: starring two acting titans of contemporary cinema – Juliette Binoche and Vincent Lindon – as a married couple facing the irresolvable conflicts of the past, Denis’ film unflinchingly explores the brute destructive force of unbridled romanticism and nostalgia and how it can impact the invisible lines of connection and separation that pervade any long-term relationship. The set-up may be simpler than a lot of other films by the director of Beau Travail (1999) and High Life (2018), but the emotional landscapes she charts – with the help of her impeccable sense of how to visually navigate physical spaces – are as complex and labyrinthine as ever. Both Sides of the Blade is available on Filmingo, Apple TV, blue TV, and DVD.

© Sony Pictures Releasing Switzerland GmbH

directed by Makoto Shinkai
(すずめの戸締まり, Suzume no Tojimari, Japan, 2022)

Colourful clouds of otherworldly beauty and lone doors leading nowhere, the threat of natural disaster looming over a teenage protagonist’s everyday routine: it is never less than obvious that Suzume was made by Makoto Shinkai, the celebrated Japanese filmmaker behind Your Name (2016) and Weathering with You (2019), who, over the last decade or so, has established himself as the designated heir to Hayao Miyazaki’s reputation as Japan’s foremost anime artist. And although Miyazaki’s own The Boy and the Heron made it clear this year that it’s still far too early to think of the Studio Ghibli co-founder’s artistry in the past tense, Suzume’s Ghibli-inspired visual splendour and ambitious, admirably cogent, unabashedly emotional attempt to wrestle with the traumas of Japan’s recent past make a strong case for why it’s not all that frivolous to already think of Shinkai in those terms. Suzume will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on 5 April 2024. (Read my full review.)

© Filmcoopi Zürich AG

Decision to Leave
directed by Park Chan-wook
(헤어질 결심, Heeojil gyeolsim, South Korea, 2022)

South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook has always had a knack for marrying the tragic and the morbid, for combining gritty thriller material and sweeping romance with a slapstick sensibility for the all the bizarre ways in which human minds and bodies can break – and his latest, the Hitchcockian thriller farce Decision to Leave, is a particularly fine example of what makes the director of Oldboy (2003) and The Handmaiden (2016) such a compelling artist. Carried by two committed lead performances – which deftly mix sensuality with melodramatic pathos and a sense of absurdist humour – the story about an obsessive homicide detective (Park Hae-il) and his investigation into a Chinese-Korean widow (Tang Wei) gradually escalates into an elaborate tale of lust, murder, and the pitfalls of using other people as projection spaces for one’s own desires, before concluding on a note of achingly beautiful artifice that only a director of Park’s calibre could pull off. Decision to Leave is available on MUBI, blue TV, Apple TV, Google Play, Sky, Kino on Demand, Microsoft Store, Rakuten, DVD, and Blu-ray. (Read my full review.)

© Cineworx GmbH

Saint Omer
directed by Alice Diop
(France, 2022)

Even though it is Justine Triet’s engrossing Golden Palm winner Anatomy of a Fall that will go down in history as 2023’s premier French courtroom drama about the slippery nature of allegedly "objective" reality, Swiss cinemas were graced with an even better variation on this theme earlier this year in the form of Alice Diop’s Saint Omer. In her fiction debut, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2022, the seasoned French documentarian behind Danton’s Death (2011) and We (2021) dramatises the 2016 murder trial of Fabienne Kabou, a Senegalese-born woman who killed her 15-month-old baby by abandoning it on a beach in the northern-French town of Saint-Omer. Told through the eyes of a taciturn Diop avatar (played by Kayije Kagame) attending the trial against the film’s Kabou stand-in (played by a fascinatingly unreadable Guslagie Malanda), Saint Omer pits the hallowed, rigorously codified French judiciary against the supposedly postcolonial state it operates in: the protocols of establishing innocence and criminal guilt are applied to the letter, but, faced with a defendant who doesn’t deny her crime but rather her moral culpability, they signally fail to uncover the murder’s deeper truths – exposing instead the instability of the French social contract and the ways in which official, self-avowedly neutral structures are merely mirrors of existing social hierarchies. Beyond this thematic potency, Saint Omer is also a prime example of form following function: by gradually stripping away the well-worn trappings of Dardennes-style Francophone “naturalism” – a type of drama that routinely deals in the same reductive stereotypes that the protagonists of the Saint-Omer trial fling at the film’s Kabou character – and embracing a more "documentarian" approach, which is then complicated further by the intrusion of dramatic fiction, Diop demonstrates the tenuous status of truth not only in law but in filmmaking as well, be it fictive or fact-based. It takes a documentarian to remind us of the manipulative power of cinema. Saint Omer is available on Filmingo, Kino on Demand, blue TV, DVD, and Blu-ray. (Read my full review.)

© Universal Pictures Switzerland / Storyteller Distribution Co., LLC. All Rights Reserved.

The Fabelmans
directed by Steven Spielberg
(United States, 2022)

Making nostalgic movies about one’s own childhood and/or the source of one’s own cinephilia has become a popular pastime among white male directors of a certain age, from Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma (2018) and Paolo Sorrentino’s The Hand of God (2021) to Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) and Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast (2021). So one could be forgiven for raising an eyebrow at the prospect of Steven Spielberg joining the bandwagon, and in quite an indulgent fashion at that: The Fabelmans, clocking in at two-and-a-half hours, tells the loosely fictionalised story of Spielberg’s own upbringing in 1950s New Jersey, Arizona, and California. Yet the film serves as a potent reminder for why Spielberg is generally considered to be one of the best American filmmakers of all time: instead of a myopic victory lap by an elder Hollywood statesman, The Fabelmans delivers an incisive, appropriately thorny portrait of a neurotic teenager, whose only means of confronting the reality of his own dysfunctional family is filtering that dysfunction through the distorting, manipulable funhouse mirror of cinema. The sequence where Spielberg stand-in Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) appropriates the aesthetics of Nazi propaganda films in order to get back at his antisemitic high-school bully is startlingly clear-eyed reflection on the power of the moving image and the filmmaker’s complicated relationship with the darker corners of its history. And, in addition to the thematic depth Spielberg lends to an often rather trite format, The Fabelmans also shines as a showcase for the qualities its director is most famous for – pure, unbridled entertainment value. The Fabelmans is available on blue TV, Microsoft Store, Apple TV, Google Play, Sky, Rakuten, DVD, and Blu-ray. (Read my full review.)

© Praesens-Film AG

Godzilla Minus One
directed by Takashi Yamazaki
(ゴジラ-1.0, Gojira Mainasu Wan, Japan, 2023)

The first live-action Japanese Godzilla movie since 2016’s Shin Godzilla by Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi – itself one of the best films of the last decade – is a stark reminder of both the metaphorical power and the entertainment value the titular monster continues to wield, almost 70 years into its existence. Focusing on a disgraced kamikaze pilot’s quest for redemption in the rubble of post-war Tokyo – and in the face of the threat posed by an unsettlingly bloodthirsty Godzilla – Takashi Yamazaki’s Godzilla Minus One is part prequel, part remake, part reimagining of Ishirō Honda’s 1954 original, de-emphasising the gargantuan lizard’s nuclear origins and reframing it as a logistical and civic challenge to a disillusioned late-1940s Japan: how to forge a community, a sense of purpose and pride, and a functioning nation out of the leftovers of a fascist dictatorship? That this approach does not end up veering into revisionist historical apologia – though its incipient traces are definitely there, ripe for unpacking – is a testament to the strength of Yamazaki’s narrative, with its themes of learning from the mistakes of the past, being granted second chances, and found families proving more durable and more reliable than governmental structures. Indeed, Godzilla Minus One’s canny blend of men-on-a-mission action comedy and heart-wrenching romantic melodrama is an emphatic rebuttal to the oft-repeated claim that a Godzilla movie cannot reasonably be expected to deliver a meaningful human story in between its obligatory bouts of large-scale destruction. But take nothing away from Yamazaki and his visual effects collaborator Kiyoko Shibuya: whenever they do lean into the menace of Godzilla – be it in a tense Jaws-like ocean set piece, a night-time assault on a military station, or the flattening of Tokyo’s Ginza district – the images, soundscapes, and pure kaiju spectacle they come up with is simply undeniable. Godzilla Minus One easily earns the title of 2023’s premier action movie. Godzilla Minus One is currently playing in Swiss cinemas.

© Universal Pictures International Switzerland. All Rights Reserved.

directed by Christopher Nolan
(United States/United Kingdom, 2023)

Love him, hate him, be ambivalent about him – but other than British-American blockbuster auteur Christopher Nolan, there is probably no filmmaker working today who could make a dialogue-driven three-hour historical drama that concludes with the assertion that its viewers stand a decent chance of dying in a nuclear apocalypse and have it be one of the year’s biggest box office hits. However, that’s not the reason – or at least not the only one – why Nolan’s Oppenheimer has ended up on this list. Adapted from American Prometheus, Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s acclaimed biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the "father of the atomic bomb," the film’s dramatisation of Oppenheimer’s life leading up to Hiroshima and Nagasaki and his later efforts to curtail the American rush to nuclear world domination is, in typical Nolan fashion, as excitingly fast-paced as it is intricately structured. However, after the narrative gambits of Interstellar (2014), Dunkirk (2017), and Tenet (2020), which were all frustrating for different reasons, Oppenheimer finally sees Nolan’s formal reach not exceed his thematic grasp: by focusing not only on the titular character (played with uncanny intensity by Cillian Murphy) but also on his primary post-war antagonist, government official Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), the film perceptively puts both Oppenheimer’s co-creation of a doomsday device and his moral qualms regarding its use in a political and historical context, making tangible the precarious – and often perfidious – process of scientific theory becoming military practice. The result is a captivating and deeply unsettling film about mid-century America and the realisation that we’re all still living in its radioactive afterglow. Oppenheimer is currently playing in Swiss cinemas, and it is available on Sunrise TV, Google Play, Microsoft Store, blue TV, Apple TV, Rakuten, Sky, DVD, and Blu-ray. (Read my full review.)

© 2023 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Killers of the Flower Moon
directed by Martin Scorsese
(United States, 2023)

In 2019, Martin Scorsese made headlines both for directing The Irishman, whose three-and-a-half-hour runtime was seen by some as excessively indulgent, and for making the now-infamous – and since copiously elaborated-on – pronouncement that superhero movies, specifically those produced by Disney’s Marvel Studios, are "not cinema." Four years on, the discourse seems to have progressed only slightly: some corners of the media landscape continue to insist on painting Scorsese as an elitist gatekeeper for failing to pay sufficient fealty to some of the most popular pieces of entertainment in the current era; and a lot of ink has been spilled yet again about the fact that his latest film, the fact-based drama Killers of the Flower Moon, is 206 minutes long. Here’s hoping that all that ambient noise won’t drown out the primary reason why Scorsese should be making headlines this year: Killers of the Flower Moon is a stirring piece of historical filmmaking – a striking artistic and political statement from a major Hollywood director, who, at 81, is continuing his career-long exploration of the sickening violence in which the modern United States’ wealth and power are rooted. Set in Oklahoma’s Osage County in the 1920s, during a years-long campaign of murder committed against the county’s oil-rich Native American population, the film modifies the dramaturgy of its source material – David Grann’s eponymous non-fiction book – in order to minimise the story’s conventional genre thrills, emphasising instead the insidious openness with which white America carried on its genocidal legacy well into the 20th century. The result – carried by Thelma Schoonmaker’s poignant narrative editing and indelible performances from Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, and, most of all, Lily Gladstone – is a chillingly matter-of-fact account of colonial exploitation and the ways in which it is baked every facet of contemporary America, capped by a breathtaking final sequence that stands tall as one of the most forceful passages in Scorsese’s entire body of work. Killers of the Flower Moon is currently playing in Swiss cinemas, and it is available on Apple TV, blue TV, Sky, Google Play, Microsoft Store, and Rakuten as well as on DVD and Blu-ray (as of 25 January 2024). (Read my full review.)

© Universal Pictures Switzerland / © 2023 Focus Features, LLC.

Asteroid City
directed by Wes Anderson
(United States, 2023)

By its own internal logic, Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City is a film based on a play performed in the context of a television documentary about the inner workings of a theatre. It’s a Russian-doll narrative Anderson has used many times before – most recently in 2021’s highly underrated The French Dispatch – and which might, along with his trademark pastel-colour palette and symmetrical approach to shot composition, prompt some viewers to dismiss his latest as a complacent calcification of a once-novel style, as rote repetition veering into self-parody. In fact, those criticisms have been levied against Anderson for at least a decade at this point – yet so far, his films have steadfastly refused to make them seem justified. And Asteroid City is no exception. Like many of Anderson’s works, it is, at its core, a very simple affair – a self-reflexive paean to the collective nature of art, baked into a deeply affecting story of grief and self-discovery. Indeed, Asteroid City makes much of this explicit: its narrative revolves around a freshly-widowed war photographer (played by Jason Schwartzman, delivering a career-best performance) struggling to break the news to his four children whilst stranded in a desert town that is about to have a brush with infinity (and the military-industrial complex) – a narrative that doubles as a celebration of storytelling itself, considering that its emotional impact isn’t hampered in the slightest by the various framing devices and their repeated insistence that the central story is completely fictional. What’s more, the film also features perhaps Anderson’s most beautiful imagery to date, courtesy of Robert Yeoman’s sumptuous desert location photography that harmonises effortlessly with the emphatic artifice of Adam Stockhausen’s production design. Don’t listen to the naysayers: Asteroid City is further proof that Anderson is one of the finest American directors working today. Asteroid City is available on Sunrise TV, Microsoft Store, blue TV, Apple TV, Google Play, Rakuten, Sky, DVD, and Blu-ray. (Read my full review.)

© Filmcoopi Zürich AG

directed by Christian Petzold
(Roter Himmel, Germany, 2023)

"Love’s gonna make us, gonna make us blind," goes the song by Austrian indie pop band Wallners that plays over the opening moments of Afire – providing something of a thesis statement for a film that expertly balances an Old-Hollywood sensibility for romantic attraction with a keen sense of all the lies people tend to tell themselves when they don’t want to hear an inconvenient truth. What may sound like an unwieldy pairing at first is, at this point, par for the course for Christian Petzold, the 63-year-old German director whose works – Barbara (2012), Phoenix (2014), Transit (2018), and Undine (2020) among them – routinely toe the line between swooning melodrama and the leftist essay filmmaking of Petzold’s late erstwhile collaborator Harun Farocki. Unsurprisingly, then, Afire is a demonstration of Petzold’s mastery of tonal, thematic, and emotional control. Set in and around a holiday home by the German Baltic Sea coast, the film stars Thomas Schubert, Paula Beer, Langston Uibel, and Enno Trebs as a quartet of twentysomethings trying to navigate the awkward group dynamics, which start to develop mostly as a result of Schubert’s protagonist’s refusal to enjoy himself – all while the nearby seaside resort is anxiously watching the approaching wildfires on the horizon. Around this set-up, Petzold constructs an enormously appealing summer hangout movie – indulging in all the lengthy conversations, narrative deceleration, and lush hues of green and blue that the genre implies – which, thanks to Schubert’s almost hilariously abrasive lead performance, is pervaded by a constant feeling of unease. And indeed, once Afire tips its hand well into the second half, it reveals itself as both a densely layered romantic melodrama about self-delusion and the soul-healing capacity of emotional sincerity and a sharply perceptive parable about coming of age in the era of runaway climate change. This is Petzold at his novelistic, atmospheric, and slyly political best. Afire is available on Sunrise TV, Filmingo, Kino on Demand, blue TV, Apple TV, Google Play, Sky, DVD, and Blu-ray.

© Outside the Box

directed by Charlotte Wells
(United Kingdom/United States, 2022)

The emotionally intimate directorial debut drawn from personal experience has become a staple of the international festival circuit, to a point where most of its representatives struggle to add anything particularly noteworthy to the format – which, as a result, is starting to look increasingly stale. Enter Aftersun, which, like Saint Omer, premiered at Cannes in 2022: told as a series of memories of a trip to Turkey the adult protagonist took with her young father when she was eleven – memories triggered by video camera footage, an innocuous rug, a baby crying in the next room – Charlotte Wells’ sun-drenched, movingly low-key, purposefully elliptical father-daughter drama accumulates carefully observed character, milieu, and 1990s period detail over the course of its lovingly languid 100-minute runtime, before delivering a truly breathtaking emotional coda that only becomes more rewarding with repeated viewings. Aftersun, for all its gentle touches and bursts of affability, courtesy of Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio’s layered lead performances, is a strikingly incisive, quietly devastating exploration of childhood recollection and the formative realisation that one’s own parents are neither omniscient nor omnipotent, but flawed human beings in perennial search of happiness themselves. Aftersun is available on DVD and Blu-ray. (Read my full review.)

© Filmcoopi Zürich AG

Fallen Leaves
directed by Aki Kaurismäki
(Kuolleet lehdet, Finland/Germany, 2023)

66-year-old Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismäki shares some similarities with Wes Anderson: both work with a consistent colour palette (light pastels here, nicotine-stained saturation there); both have a predilection for hyper-stylised dialogue delivered in a deadpan monotone; both directors’ instantly recognisable styles have drawn undeserved criticism for allegedly keeping them from evolving artistically. And both had a new film in cinemas in 2023, both of which are among the best of the year. Fallen Leaves, Kaurismäki’s 21st feature and his first since 2017’s The Other Side of Hope, is yet another masterpiece of Finnish sad-sack tragicomedy, chronicling, in Chaplinesque simplicity, the beleaguered romance between supermarket shelf stocker Ansa (Alma Pöysti) and alcoholic builder Holappa (Jussi Vatanen): amid capitalist exploitation and the increasingly dire news about war-torn Ukraine being reported on their respective radios, the two engage in the simplest of joys – having coffee together, eating dinner, going to see a movie. But Kaurismäki, as much a believer in working-class solidarity as he is an Old-Hollywood romantic, isn’t advocating for apathetic solipsism here: rather, Fallen Leaves is a timely – and gently funny – reminder of the importance of holding on to one’s humanity, to one’s principles, to one’s own belief in love and friendship in times of social and political upheaval. Not only does the film manage to convey these layered emotions without succumbing to cheap sentimentality and – at just 82 minutes – with a minimum of narrative fuss; Kaurismäki and cinematographer Timo Salminen convey them in some of the most evocative combinations of colour, light, and shadow that graced cinema screens in 2023. Like the best cinematic romances, Fallen Leaves is at once melancholy and hopeful, full of heightened artifice and genuine feeling, fully subscribing to the old adage that in order to improve the world, we must first imagine a better one. Fallen Leaves is currently playing in Swiss cinema, and it is available on Filmingo as well as on DVD and Blu-ray (as of 18 January 2024). (Read my full review.)

© Filmcoopi Zürich AG

La chimera
directed by Alice Rohrwacher
(Italy/France/Switzerland, 2023)

With 2018’s Happy as Lazzaro, her fourth feature, Italian writer-director Alice Rohrwacher emphatically made herself known to a wider international audience, thanks to her canny blend of grounded fantasy, playful Christian parable, and a magic-infused social realism borrowed from the likes of Francesco Rosi (Christ Stopped at Eboli) and Ettore Scola (We All Loved Each Other So Much). With her latest, the achingly poetic – and wryly funny – La chimera, she firmly establishes herself as one of Europe’s premier filmmakers under 45. Set in 1980s Tuscany and following a group of amateur archaeologists, who make a living by robbing Etruscan graves in a countryside that’s gradually being overtaken by both industry and poverty, Rohrwacher’s narratively and tonally freewheeling film deepens many of the themes that made Happy as Lazzaro such a rewarding experience: La chimera, too, features a protagonist out of step with his time, place, and plane of existence; and he, too, is confronted with – and has to learn how to navigate – the ineffable connections between the land and the people who walk upon it. While this is a risky proposition especially in a European context – given the continent’s bloody history of nativist ideology – Rohrwacher expertly sidesteps these pitfalls, focusing not on who "truly" belongs where, but on all the ways in which a place can become imbued with meaning and soul. "What do you see?", a character asks in one of the opening scenes; and the response he receives – "People" – reverberates throughout the rest of the film’s explorations of cultural heritage, the facelessness of capital, and the question how seriously one must take the beliefs of those who came before us and whose names, faces, and beliefs were forgotten thousands of years ago. The ideas La chimera works through are endlessly fascinating, and, in true Rohrwacher fashion, it does so with visual verve, the courage to break conventional modes of storytelling, and an infectious sense of whimsy. La chimera is currently playing in cinemas in the French- and Italian-speaking regions of Switzerland. (Read my full review.)

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