20 Best Movies Watched in 2023

Photo by Senad Palic on Unsplash

In total, I worked my way through 137 movies in 2023, which evens out as something like two and a half films each week, which isn’t that much in the grand scheme of things. That’s a few hours away from doom scrolling or other pointless activities like reading books or phoning up lonely relatives to see if they’re okay.

Anyway, these were the best ones I watched, all ranked, reviewed and rated on the world famous Covid Rating – 1 being v v bad, 19 being infectiously magnificent.

Secrets & Lies (1996)

Directed by Mike Leigh
Starring: Brenda Blethyn, Timothy Spall

Much of 2023 was spent going through Mike Leigh’s back catalogue, from the bigger movies to the littler TV ones, and the consensus is that they’re excellent – all of them, excellent (for the most part). All predominantly centred around ordinary people living relatively ordinary lives, but with a sharpened focus on the scars we try to hide, making for funny-mirror morality tales, though with the Holy Grail of never feeling preachy. In that sense, Mike Leigh might be the closest thing we’ve got to the master craftsman Yasujiro Ozu, and that’s no small praise.
Covid Rating: 18

Past Lives (2023)

Directed by Celine Song
Starring: Greta Lee, Teo Yoo

It’s hard to think of a more romantic movie in the last decade, perhaps even more than that, and it could yet join the pantheon of unrequited love films alongside Casablanca, In the Mood for Love, and yes, Titanic, and also yes, Brokeback Mountain. It’s certainly hard to think of a film that captures love and humanity in the same way. Lots of other movies have played around with the idea of the parallel universe where things are different, where you’re living the utopian life you feel you deserve, but all too often they do it in a way that’s convoluted, overcomplicated, top heavy with mysticism, or lunging too heavily at profundity (trying to be everything, everywhere, all at once, ahem) when all you need is simplicity, simple acknowledgements. To evoke the idea that we ultimately have to accept life for what it is without being bitter about what it could have been. And, as with Casablanca, to recognise that being in love can even mean not being together.
Covid Rating: 18

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Starring: Roger Livesey, Deborah Kerr

Rumour has it that Winston Churchill attempted to shut down production, though the reasons for his outrage are a little murky. Some say it’s because he feared he was being lampooned by the main character Clive Wynne-Candy (played by the very likeable Welsh fellow Roger Livesey) while another school of thought is that he took umbrage with the sympathetic mid-war portrayal of a German officer (played by Anton Walbrook). But thankfully it was one battle that managed to stall the Churchill steamroller, leaving us to marvel 80 years later at a spectacular gem that burrows into the ridiculousness of English pomposity. Oh hang on was that his problem? That was probably his problem wasn’t it?
Covid Rating: 18

Annie Hall (1977)

Directed by Woody Allen
Starring: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton

The film that spawned generations of modern romcoms, and still the Everest summit for the genre. It’s easy to forget after the maelstrom that’s pulverised his reputation that peak Woody Allen is about as good as comedy gets. Though it’s also worth pointing out that the real star of Annie Hall is Annie Hall herself, Diane Keaton. The template for everything that’s wonderful about the world.
Covid Rating: 18

Woodstock: 3 days of Peace and Music (1970)

Directed by Michael Wadleigh
Starring: Richie Havens, Joe Cocker, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix

What’s clear about the Woodstock documentary is that there’s a real sense of happening, of jarring generations extolling their own virtues, with frequent footage of bewildered older folk dumbfounded by the world developing around them – the loud music, the barefoot kids traipsing around high on psychedelic drugs, all seemingly in on the con. But then every so often one of the doddery yokels starts praising the liberation of this new crop, hailing the tectonic shift, applauding the changing of the guard despite looking like they should be ticking anticlockwise against counterculture. It’s heartening, there’s probably a lesson in there about not judging books by their covers. Anyway the whole shebang is famously sound-tracked by Joplin, Hendrix, Cocker (Joe, not Jarvis), Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Richie Havens, Crosby, Stills, Nash etc.  Some of whom even managed to stay with us.
Covid Rating: 18

The Mother and The Whore (1973)

Directed by Jean Eustache
Starring: Jean-Pierre Léaud, Bernadette Lafont, Françoise Lebrun

Three and a half hours of a man desperately trying to have it all. Not working, disdainful of those who do, yet determined to enjoy the finer things in life, particularly in terms of women. The whore in the title is sexually liberated rather than turning tricks, while the mother is childless, which makes them purported archetypes rather than literal depictions, perhaps aspirations in some sense. The key protagonist, played by Truffaut favourite Jean-Pierre Léaud, is stricken with a deep sense of entitlement, convinced he should be allowed both comfort and chaos, stability and non-conformity, though both things are constantly eluding him. It’s an interesting study, one that’s seen as misogynistic by some, but you could equally argue that it’s depicting the absurdity of misogyny, the abject failure of what’s ultimately a babyish ideal anyway. Because if there is a conclusion here, which there actually mightn’t be, it’s that you can’t objectify something/someone that isn’t an inanimate object.
Covid Rating: 17

Fanny and Alexander (1982)

Directed by Ingmar Bergman
Starring: Bertil Guve, Pernilla Allwin

Definitely more Alexander than Fanny, who barely gets a look-in, in what’s widely regarded as Ingmar Bergman’s most autobiographical film. One which deals with his usual fare of broken marriages, infidelity, death, and the baffling religious contradictions that dominate secular societies. What with it being Bergman’s final (and almost, but not quite, finest) hour, it’s a shame that both Max von Sydow and Liv Ullman turned it down – would’ve been like getting the old band back together to chuck one last TV out of the window.
Covid Rating: 17

Peeping Tom (1960)

Directed by Michael Powell
Starring: Karlheinz Böhm, Anna Massey

A twisted tale, a slasher flick about a loner making his own snuff movies, which seems crazy when you consider that it’s directed by one half of Powell and Pressburger, who gave us such romantic treats as A Matter of Life and Death and The Red Shoes. You suspect that audiences were rendered equally bewildered for precisely that reason, hence it was mercilessly panned by the critics, axe murdering Michael Powell’s career as it went. It’s a shame really, because it’s a brilliant film. Screen killer Karlheinz Böhm didn’t suffer such ignominy, and went on to do some great work with New German Cinema legend Rainer Werner Fassbinder a little further down life’s autobahn.   
Covid Rating: 17

Tampopo (1985)

Directed by Jûzô Itami
Starring: Nobuko Miyamoto, Tsutomu Yamazaki

In real life, director Jûzô Itami came a very curious cropper in extremely fishy circumstances, ‘jumping’ from a rooftop and leaving behind a particularly sterile suicide note that couldn’t possibly come from the poetic mind of one of Japan’s finest. Whatever really went down that day on the roof, whether there was some kind of mob involvement or not, the world lost a great film maker. And an inventive one too. In this, his “noodle western” – one from the pantheon of great movies about food – his real-life wife Nobuko Miyamoto plays a humble cook embarking on a quest to make the greatest ramen the world has ever seen.
Covid Rating: 17

The French Connection (1971)

Directed by William Friedkin
Starring: Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider

Lauded for its notorious car chase that finds Popeye Doyle pitting motor against locomotion. What’s lesser acknowledged is that director William Friedkin (two years from scaring the shit out of everyone with The Exorcist) was desperate to make his lead man anyone but Hackman, knocking on the doors of Newman, McQueen, Caan, Mitchum, even pleading with a couple of pug-faced non-actors to take the role. But in the end he got the man he definitely didn’t want, and together they played an absolute blinder.
Covid Rating: 17

A Touch of Zen (1971)

Directed by King Hu
Starring: Hsu Feng, Shih Chun

The one that inspired Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and from a time when enlightened martial arts movies were being barged out of the way by less spiritually taxing Bruce Lee flicks (no bad thing, btw) – here dealing with patriarchal issues long before Barbie got stuck in, while peddling Confucian philosophy alongside balletic forest fights. But perhaps the real feather in its cap is the genius of watching the story play out through the eyes of a secondary character – delightful touch, that.
Covid Rating: 17

Boogie Nights (1997)

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Burt Reynolds

Burt Reynolds famously distanced himself from the final product, washed his hands of it, despite it being his career climax, his money shot. He wasn’t this good before or since (not even in Deliverance), yet off he trundled in a grump despite having just given you the boning of a lifetime. The rest of the cast is equally pulsating.
Covid Rating: 17

Life is Sweet (1990)

Directed by Mike Leigh
Starring: Alison Steadman, Jane Horrocks

Mike Leigh weaves his magic yet again, mining the mess that people make of their lives and peeling away the layers. Whether it’s Timothy Spall’s clumsy attempts to rocket fuel his appeal with a shambolic French restaurant, or particularly Jane Horrocks being devoured by an eating disorder, he always manages to find love, humanity and laughter in the chaos.
Covid Rating: 16

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman

There was a point when this was going to be a full-blown comedy starring Steve Martin or Woody Allen, which would’ve made for a very different kind of trip – but not an illogical one. Because what’s so great about Eyes Wide Shut is that it’s one joke, one gag (no pun), with everything coming together (no pun) in the payoff. Much was made of the strange chemistry between Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman (married at the time), but it genuinely might be the best thing they’ve done – either of them.
Covid Rating: 16

Midnight Cowboy (1969)

Directed by John Schlesinger
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Jon Voight

Lost souls in the big city, the big city being New York City and the time being the 1960s. Not the New York now with its mad gentrification and ironic moustaches, but porno New York with its hustlers and prostitutes and junkies, people with moustaches they really believed in. Two of those boxes are ticked by Hoffman’s hustler (exhibiting severe COVID-like symptoms) and Jon Voight’s big-hearted rent boy Joe Buck. History will tell you it got the Oscar for Best Picture that year beating off (stop it) Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (seriously, stop it).
Covid Rating: 16

Magnolia (1999)

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Tom Cruise, Philip Seymour Hoffman

The 1990s saw the emergence of Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson as big-league directors, both of whom appear to deal predominantly in restructuring fairy tales – but where QT veers towards exploitation-style violence, PTA tends to shift further towards melancholia. To making sad fairy tales with unhappy people living broken lives, often searching for meaning or companionship or just hope. And then, in the case of this one, it starts raining frogs. Hallelujah for that.
Covid Rating: 16

Lift to the Scaffold (1958)

Directed by Louis Malle
Starring: Jeanne Moreau, Maurice Ronet

A murder plot hits the skids when a lift breaks down with the killer still in it. If you wanted a gripping elevator pitch, there it is. Then all you need is Jeanne Moreau, once correctly described by Orson Welles as “the world’s greatest actress”, the legendary French director Louis Malle (Atlantic City, My Dinner with Andre), and an entirely improvised soundtrack by Miles Davis.
Covid Rating: 16

Wanda (1970)

Directed by Barbara Loden
Starring: Barbara Loden, Michael Higgins

An exploration of apathy. A woman walks out on her family to roam around, mostly aimlessly, before she unwittingly finds herself on the run with a bank robber. Even then she remains mostly blank, or as the legendary critic Pauline Kael would have it “dumb”, but that feels like the whole point of it. An existential numbness, an exploration of what it’s like to be empty. With added potency when you consider that the director/star Barbara Foden’s husband was the great Elia Kazan, who made movies densely packed with driven protagonists striving towards specific goals (On the Waterfront, East of Eden). Yet this is the total antithesis of that, her yin to his yang.
Covid Rating: 16

Aftersun (2022)

Directed by Charlotte Wells
Starring: Paul Mescal, Frankie Corio

A little burdened by the weight of expectation, but this matched the hype, managing to depict real human agony without ever being explicit. The ending is utterly devastating, and that it leaves you to fill in the blanks is a surprisingly refreshing move, particularly at a time when people often seem unable or unwilling to accept ambiguity.
Covid Rating: 16

The Lion in Winter (1968)

Directed by Anthony Harvey
Starring: Peter O’Toole, Katharine Hepburn

O’Toole and Hepburn (K) are a warring couple verbally jousting through an entire night oscillating between hatred and adoration, making it not unlike Burton and Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and frankly they don’t come any better than that. This was also the film that found a young Timothy Dalton impressing so much that he was offered, though politely rejected, the part of 007 in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
Covid Rating: 16

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