10 Best Films 2023: Joseph Wade

2. Killers of the Flower Moon

Killers of the Flower Moon Review

How often do you realise that you’re watching a masterpiece from one of the old grandmasters of the form as you’re watching it in real-time, away from the benefit of public opinion and textbook-driven hindsight? That’s what happened with Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, a mind-bogglingly cinephilic presentation of a story that is a century old but vital in our contemporary space.

The knowledge of cinema that Scorsese holds is apparent in every feature film he has ever released, but as he grows older and threats to the theatrical experience and to the creation of film as a means of artistic expression grow stronger, he seems to become more inspired to wear his influences on his sleeve, to pay homage to his favourites and thus encourage us to seek out those films he is borrowing from. In Killers of the Flower Moon there are countless examples of borrowing shot compositions, of re-appropriating camera movements and character archetypes, and yet the film doesn’t feel lost in homage like some of Quentin Tarantino’s films can become. Instead, it utilises these tributes to illuminate its meta sub-narrative of cinema’s role in reinforcing racial stereotypes and in the erasure of the Native American people from US history. His is a determined brush with which he paints his narrative, using the real-life tale of the Osage people being murdered out of their rights to oil-rich lands in Oklahoma as an endlessly engaging pathway to the deeper purpose of discussing representation in cinema and chastising filmmakers (including himself) for reinforcing racial stereotypes and propagating racially motivated myth throughout the history of film.

As with every year-topping release in 2023, the Killers of the Flower Moon performances are career-defining ones, even for those as respected as Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio. Every pawn plays their part here, shifting expectations where necessary, reinforcing a sense of comfort or danger depending on the scene, bringing depth to every choice and motivation to every movement. Breakout star Lily Gladstone is so powerful in her portrayal that she seems at home with screen greats like De Niro and DiCaprio, and is as magnetic as any screen presence in the calendar year. Their work combines beautifully with the sets and locations chosen by long-time Terrence Malick collaborator Jack Fisk (who himself offers some of the year’s great artistic input), and is given a beating heart by an unforgettable and wholly suitable score from the late Robbie Robertson.

For all of its artistic achievements, Killers of the Flower Moon is also a deeply moving story about a modern American tragedy that maintains engagement from start to finish, Scorsese’s now famously great pacing keeping love and betrayal at the forefront of every scene, not a single minute wasted. This is cinema with great surface-level storytelling and intrigue but legendary in its depth, in its meaning, in its filmmaking qualities, and in its importance to the form.

1. Babylon

Babylon Review

Cinema is a special and unique artform. It holds the distinction of being able to connect with the most amount of people, no matter the borders, the backgrounds or the resources. Hollywood has long perpetuated the myth that they’re in the business of entertaining, of capturing the feelings of any given time, of upholding the values of the American people. They don’t create propaganda, they simply relay the public’s anxieties, fears, hopes and dreams – it is the Dream Factory after all. The early days of Hollywood were not quite so well marketed, however, and before the Golden Era of Hollywood could paint the early days of American film history in a golden glow of fantasy adventures and big budget romances, there was another version of the film industry that was much more akin to the wild west. It is that version of Hollywood – the version lost to studio fires, film degradation, and the passing of time – that is the subject of Damien Chazelle’s fourth directorial feature Babylon, the best movie released in 2023.

Chazelle is a filmmaker whose music and camera movements create a sense of momentum that carry his films in a rhythm not too dissimilar to that of a jazz band, each element feeding the next, major instruments changing the trajectory of the entire piece. In Babylon, this is very much the case, the film beginning with faeces literally dousing the screen and a party of sex, drugs, prostitution, manipulation and murder, but evolving courtesy of tremendous leading performances from Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt and Diego Calva, and some moving story beats alongside huge developments in the timeline of cinema’s past, to present something more heartfelt and genuine in its examination of the human condition. Scored wonderfully by Chazelle’s regular collaborator Justin Hurwitz, whose composition seems to dictate the film’s rhythm even in the moments it isn’t playing, the film is accelerated through years of silent cinema, the coming of sound, and the eventual re-appropriation of the silent era by the major studios. It is cinema that shocks and challenges, and in doing so offers a fresh perspective on the silent age and the arrival of old money into the moviemaking business.

It’s an ambitious project in that it not only attempts to tell of a very real period in Hollywood history as recorded in its source material “Hollywood Babylon” by Kenneth Anger, but in how it marries the very real events to a fictional tale that is used to illuminate the filmmaker’s perspective. Chazelle paints the pre-code era as spectacular in its messiness, as gruesome and debaucherous but vitally fair – a space in which the American Dream is as likely to live as it is to die, and where those with nothing now have something (and maybe you can too). In contrast, he presents the coming of sound as limiting, the arrival of old money into Hollywood as the end of the real Dream Factory. It’s an interesting take, and we feel it wholeheartedly as we witness Margot Robbie’s loudmouthed and outgoing heroine get strangled by the old-fashioned social etiquette that the old money brings. Hers is an accent not appreciated by the ruling class, her behaviour frowned upon, and that is all in stark contrast to earlier scenes in which she is embraced for her remarkable acting talent.

Perhaps most impressively, the director constructs a film that in of itself tells of the history of cinema. Chazelle establishes this visually by evolving his presentation from simple long shots of wagons as if one of the early film pioneers to rapidly-paced costumed parties in the opening act and all the way through to a montage of great cinema moments that captures the YouTubeification/TikTokification of cinema in our current day and age. Narratively, the film follows a big dreaming young woman as if a silent black and white film from the 1910s or 20s, then progresses to huge musical interludes as were the force behind the dominant musical genre in the 1930s, then onto deception and drama like in the Film Noir era. It evolves even further still, all the while maintaining exclusive engagement with the characters at its heart and never growing too large to understand. Brad Pitt is given a number of particularly moving moments, his performance classy and as well-established as you’d expect from such a seasoned performer – he truly is an actor who understood the assignment.

Babylon is a film that received a somewhat mixed reception upon release and wasn’t embraced wholeheartedly by audiences either, but it is likely that it will be re-evaluated in the years and decades to come. It is great rhythmic filmmaking with real heart, it features the kind of visual masterclass that only the very best are capable of producing, it captures some of the most underrated performances of the decade, and it is so packed with meaning and intent and self-reflection that it is simply too great of a film to be dismissed. Babylon is the year’s biggest breakthrough into the list of all-time greats, the very best of a phenomenal year in cinema.

Recommended for you: 10 Best Films 2022: Joseph Wade

With so much turmoil lived through in the past few years both inside the industry and outside of it, films of this quality (and with these messages) come to mean a lot more. With strikes pausing productions and many a delay already announced, it is unlikely that 2024 will be able to live up to such outstanding standards as those set by the class of 2023, but as always you best be sure that there’s a life-changing viewing experience waiting just around the corner.

Which films did you choose as your Best of 2023? Let everyone know in the comments below, and be sure to follow @thefilmagazine on Facebook and X (Twitter) to never miss an insightful movie list.

Pages: 1 2 3 4


Leave a Comment