10 Best Films 2023: Joseph Wade

5. Barbie

Barbie Review

“Now feel,” Rhea Perlman tells Barbie as former Mattel CEO and Barbie creator Ruth Handler. And feel we did. Not a single film released in the 2020s has captured the imagination quite like Barbie. There have been bigger box office hits, there have been more artistically accomplished films, but nothing felt like Barbenheimer; nothing grasped our culture, our moment, like Barbie.

It shouldn’t have been this good. An IP-first studio tentpole created to sell toys and increase the marketability of a brand shouldn’t have been anything more than cookie-cutter nonsense, but this was special. Greta Gerwig had developed a reputation in original work and in adaptation for being able to capture something so unique to the experience of women in our current time, and co-writer Noah Baumbach has long been phenomenal in his presentation of character dynamics and his writing of dialogue. With Gerwig leading from the director’s chair, they presented an endlessly enjoyable existential coming-of-age film in which the naïve stereotypical Barbie is put through a crash course in all that women face in our current culture, sexism at the top of the list. As Margot Robbie bashes around into every problem facing women in the West, she grows and learns to love herself, and in doing so teaches us to love ourselves a little bit more too.

Women around the world sported pink outfits to attend day one screenings of Barbie. Together, they illuminated spaces that had felt relatively dormant since the pandemic, engaging with cinema in ways we hadn’t seen since Avengers: Endgame (2019) and perhaps have never seen from young women in such a loud and proud manner. It was a moment in time, a special part of this year in cinema, and the filmmakers repaid such an embrace with a specifically current evaluation of women in our cultural moment. In twenty years, audiences likely won’t get why it’s so relatable and funny that Barbie watches the BBC’s ‘Pride & Prejudice’, but that’s exactly what made Barbie so great. It was for us. It was for now. And in a world ravaged by war, and rampant with sexism, it felt necessary that something would come along and lift our spirits. Infused with the entire history of cinema from a technical point of view – not least the great musicals of Gene Kelly (from soundstages to song and dance numbers) – and noble in its intentions, Barbie may not have been the deepest presentation of feminism ever put to screen, but it was an important one, and a loud message to everyone out there that self-love and equality are vital to whatever comes next. A lot of people felt seen by this movie, and the impact of that is likely to outlive anything the other films on this list have been able to achieve.

4. Oppenheimer

Oppenheimer Review

Barbenheimer was the weekend that brought back that special cinemagoing feeling. While the audiences that sought out Oppenheimer might not have been as obvious to spot as their Barbie-going counterparts, they too arrived in massive numbers, embracing a 3-hour Based on True Events film presented partly in black and white like it was one of the biggest Marvel blockbusters – only iconic 21st century filmmaker Christopher Nolan could earn close to one billion dollars from a film featuring so many elements the studio executives had long considered to be “box office poison”.

Together, the masses of people who went to see the movie about developing the first atom bomb experienced a truly phenomenal feat in filmmaking; a sensational technical construction married to an engaging narrative and powerful thematic exploration that seemed designed from the ground up to evolve cinema beyond its current constraints. Nolan, inspired by the work of Stanley Kubrick and using the visual effects supervisor his idol Terrence Malick used on The Tree of Life, made a movie about science and the explosion of a bomb feel real. His work illuminated how lacking in tangible reality so many features in the 21st century have been, and the film’s use of first-time-ever-developed black and white IMAX film stock was intrinsic to the way the film looked and felt, and was arguably even more impactful off-screen to cinema as an artform. In addition, Ludwig Göransson’s shape-shifting score was used to ramp up tension at a rate about as alarming as a bomb detonation countdown, his music’s changes in rhythm alerting our subconsciouses to the anticipation (and at times panic) of what was to occur.

Undoubtedly the director’s most focused character study, Oppenheimer was also the tightest of Nolan’s films despite it being the longest. Cillian Murphy proved himself once again as one of the great actors of our time as the struggling lead scientist being pulled in so many philosophical, political and romantic directions, while the supporting cast became presences that coloured in his journey and in some cases forged their own unmissable portrayals – Emily Blunt, Matt Damon and David Krumholtz being particularly noteworthy. Perhaps for the first time in his critically acclaimed career, the criticism of Nolan’s work lacking humanity could be dismissed.

All the excitement and opening weekend anticipation was eventually compacted into a film experience that added weight to your bones, and forced a sense of dread regarding our species’ unrivalled power and horrifying self-destructive tendencies. Oppenheimer, like few other films in 2023, was more than something to think about or to appreciate, it was a glum feeling you could barely muster the words to explain.

Recommended for you: Christopher Nolan Films Ranked

3. The Old Oak

The Old Oak Review

87-year-old Ken Loach is the United Kingdom’s greatest filmmaker. The Old Oak, his social-realist tale of a group of asylum seekers being housed in a small and impoverished community in the North East of England, is his final film. Written by former human rights lawyer and regular collaborator Paul Laverty, it is one of Loach’s most emphatically humane statements on how we should make choices with empathy, not with fear.

As has long been the case, Loach doesn’t tend to work with reputable or even professional actors. In The Old Oak, his lead Dave Turner is exceptional, offering a tough north eastern sensibility whilst holding a deeper fragility that only surfaces at times of great sadness. His performance is a tribute to the talents of the filmmaker under whom he works, as are the rest of this colourful neighbourhood’s residents. Turner, like co-lead Ebla Mari, is utterly convincing, demanding empathy from scene to scene as we witness the racism and prejudice that can tear communities apart.

Loach has long fought the good fight in promoting and supporting togetherness, community empowerment, empathy and love. Sorry We Missed You was a film of the year in 2019, while I, Daniel Blake was a film of the decade for the 2010s. The Old Oak is just as impressive if not as on the pulse of the zeitgeist. It also marks a moment in which the director is evidently taking steps to reflect on his own legacy as a filmmaker in an increasingly volatile industry to ask whether anything he has ever made has been worthwhile – a question he must often ponder given the volatile reception each of his films receive at the hands of the UK’s right-wing press. He does so through sequences in which the fictional community gather to experience video projected against a wall. It reinforces the film’s themes of togetherness and questions the current political leaders’ insistence upon shutting down and redeveloping every public and/or communal space, thus dividing us and isolating us, but it equally asks us how important we find films, and makes a definitive statement on how important the public consumption of cinema is to understanding one another and ourselves. This is a broadcast message from one of the great filmmakers in history to keep cinema alive, to fight for our communal spaces, to find value in meeting with our neighbours and overcoming our differences.

The lens may have been pointed more towards Loach than in any of his other late career work here, but The Old Oak is no less engrossing or emotive as a result. This film speaks truth to power, highlighting the strength of community and togetherness in a time when individualism and divide are most prominent in our news and other media. This is a phenomenal and important film, as so many of Ken Loach’s are, and this makes it all the more devastating to have to say goodbye.

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