Maverick Life


The best must-see movies you may have missed or overlooked in 2023

The best must-see movies you may have missed or overlooked in 2023
'Killers of the Flower Moon' by Martin Scorcese. (Photo: Apple TV+, Paramount Pictures)

Moviegoers may no longer swarm to even the biggest of big-screen spectacles as reliably as we used to — which means that any movie released in 2023 is a movie you may have missed.

The world of movies appears to be in sharp decline. It’s not the breadth or the quality or the diversity of cinema that is faltering, but the sheer cultural primacy, measured in dishearteningly cold numbers. 

In 2019, Box Office Mojo reported that there were 910 movies released worldwide. In 2023, there were 522, a fall of almost 50%. When theatres were still blissfully unwary of lockdowns and pandemics, there was a string of years when the worldwide box office exceeded $11-billion. Last year, at a measly $7.3-billion, yielded only 60% of that radiant peak. 

Unless James Cameron insists on it, moviegoers no longer swarm to even the biggest of big-screen spectacles as reliably as they used to. In short, any movie released in 2023 is a movie you may have missed.

This current reality looks bleak to both studio shareholders and to the many artists and artisans who hoped to make a career in movies. 

The causes have been much discussed: the rise of streaming, the rapid proliferation of new forms of media, the increase in pressures of daily life that keep viewers from visiting theatres, and the irrevocable changes to consumer habits brought by Covid. 

The inevitable effects on the industry have blown into plain view this year: Hollywood Writers’ and Actors’ strikes highlighted the precarious position of many people who try to earn an income from filmmaking, and just how starkly their situations have changed in recent decades.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Hollywood actors reach tentative deal with studios to end strike

However, this is not all bad news for movie lovers. A mass of productions has never guaranteed a rise in quality: in the 1930s, Hollywood alone was producing a thousand movies a year; just as many were trash then as now. And the shifts in the 21st century don’t indicate a decline in artistry, but a vast expansion across the globe. Centres have shrunk, and margins have burgeoned, so that there are no longer the same 100 movies that get seen everywhere, but rather 10,000 different localities with their own productions, their own favourites, their own neural connections to remote corners of daring and deep-diving artistry across the globe. 

Just as the odeons of the 18th century and the operas of the 19th century no longer hold the position of cultural dominance they once did, the movies of the 20th century may no longer be cultural kingmakers, but they have given way to a bright and brave new world of creation that was simply not possible before.

As mass audiences swapped symphony concerts for home television, and novels for celebrity magazines, discussion of movies is being overtaken by reels and shorts. 

This is not a tragedy, but a new province and a new position for movies in the realm of art. Classical music underwent similar shifts in the early 19th century, when fewer and fewer works by living composers were played, and attention fell on a growing canon of works and creators of the past. 

Ever since Beethoven, people have taken composers far more seriously than they did in the days of Haydn and Mozart, even if fewer people on the street knew their names. Today, unlike fifty years ago, we have scholars around the world studying the output of filmmakers from every country imaginable, and there’s a host of institutions dedicated to the preservation of important and meaningful cinematic art. 

The movies aren’t dead — they’re living new lives in a myriad of different places, more meaningful than ever before to those who watch.

My list is a snapshot of my own tastes and enthusiasms this year, and I hope it brings some attention to overlooked or underrated works by deserving artists. 

There is the proviso that there is a lot that I missed this year, and the further caveat that much of what I enjoyed and included is not readily available to South African moviegoers. 

Only a few of my choices were in fact, released in South African theatres; some can be found easily on streaming services; the rest need a lot of online wheedling to locate.

Asteroid City (Wes Anderson)

Streaming on Apple TV+

Anderson evokes the deepest and darkest of emotions with the height of artifice. His joy in wonders and new horizons is linked to his urgent vision of political resistance and empathetic human connections.

Killers of the Flower Moon (Martin Scorsese)

Currently in theatres

Scorsese highlights the story of a genocide and its suppression from the established historical record, by honing on a single community at a specific time, and deepens its emotional impact with the darkly fascinating story of a passionate yet baneful marriage. Lily Gladstone’s dignified solemnity lends the entire movie a shuddering spiritual weight.

Descendant (Margaret Brown)

Streaming on Netflix

History is the rich loam in which the lives of this movie are lived, and history is lived in the present tense. People’s individual lives add up to make an entire stricken country, and the crimes of the past link to today’s inequities.

Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game (Meredith Bragg, Austin Bragg)

A particular genre, where the small-scale action in a person’s life has far-reaching political effects, combined with a humorously reflexive approach to a biopic, has yielded one of the greatest movie pleasures of the year. 

Barbie (Greta Gerwig)

A filigreed fantasy that you need to see twice to see once: a viewer who sees it just once would indeed miss a lot of frame-filling detail. And the world-building extends beyond art direction: an entire political milieu of civil blind spots and artistic liberation is conjured in Gerwig’s joyous movie. 

A Thousand and One (AV Rockwell)

Rockwell engrossingly highlights the connections between public policy and the fraught domestic lives that they play out on. Teyana Taylor’s furiously focused performance as a mother instilling discipline in her son, to better his life, is at once disturbing and inspiring. 

Rewind & Play (Alain Gomis)

A transfixing documentary of Thelonious Monk’s trying time filming an interview and performance segment for French television, made entirely of offcuts from archival footage. 

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar (Wes Anderson)

Streaming on Netflix

A complex, frame-breaking fantasy that evokes imperialist folly and foppishness through a special form of spiritual appropriation and money-laundering philanthropy. 

Passages (Ira Sachs)

A director lives the artistic ideal of spontaneity, sensitivity, and febrile drama, but leaves a wake of irreparable pain and frustration. Ira Sachs films impassioned sex scenes of rare emotional urgency and dramatic integration.

The Inspection (Elegance Bratton)

Streaming on Prime Video

Bratton infuses what would otherwise be a conventional drama of queer persecution with intimate anguish and a direct personal involvement in the story’s family ties. 

The Adults (Dustin Guy Defa)

The mumblecore genre has matured, and Defa’s story highlights characters and artists who themselves have matured. Performance emerges on the wing, which both conceals difficult emotions and reveals what’s left unsaid. 

Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. (Adamma Ebo)

Streaming on Showmax

This narrow view of a scandal and abuse of power is given serious emotional weight, within a comedic framework, by the tensely composed performance from Regina Hall. 

Kimi (Steven Soderbergh)

Streaming on Showmax

A thriller for the Covid age, unwound tautly and stylishly by an unrestrained master, in the midst of a very productive retirement.

Don’t hesitate to let me know in the comment section of some of the best movies that I may have missed. DM


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