2023 was a good year for international cinema with many strong films premiering at the Berlin, Cannes, Venice and Toronto film festivals.

In the post-pandemic situation, as restrictions were lifted, the festivals finally opened up with a strong quality of cinema.

This year saw a good mix of films from Asia, Africa, Europe, Latin America and of course, Hollywood.

Aseem Chhabra lists his best international films of 2023.

10. The Mother of All Lies (Morocco)

Moroccan film-maker Asmae ElMoudir often wondered why there was only one photograph of her childhood and why her grandmother resented keeping images at home. Until she finally works with her father to find answers to this puzzling question and uncovers family secrets.

The Mother of All Lies, Morocco’s Oscar entry for the Best International Film trophy, is a startling and creative documentary where ElMoudir, with the help of her father, builds models of her home, neighbourhood and streets and populates them with wooden dolls that represent her family and neighbours.

In the process, a beautiful work of art, politics and secrets is born.

Winner of the two awards at Cannes, including Best Director in the Un Certain Regard section, The Mother of All Lies is like a therapy session that ElMoudir sets up for her family and herself.

It is quite unlike any documentary you will watch, following more the path of fiction and narrative cinema. Except that this is a real story.


9. Zone of Interest (UK/US)

Over the years, there have been countless films that focus on the Holocaust.

The Zone of Interest, based on the late Martin Amis’s 2014 novel, Jonathan Glazer (Under the Skin, Sexy Beast) presents a unique and disturbing perspective of one the greatest tragedies of the 20th century.

The UK’s official entry for the Best International Oscar, The Zone of Interest is shot mostly in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland. But we do not actually see the concentration camp — other than towards the end of the film.

Instead, we see the happy life of a German officer and his family, their beautiful house, the kids playing, and a garden with a swimming pool.

But something menacing and tragic is lurking in the background as smoke rises from chimneys behind the perfectly manicured garden.

There is a constant hum of machines working and sounds of trains pulling into stations. It is all very unnerving.

The Zone of Interest is a stunning work of art that gives us a harrowing account of hell on earth.


8. Oppenheimer (US)

Oppenheimer is Christopher Nolan’s grand scale (even grander than Nolan’s regular standards) biopic of J Robert Oppenheimer, the man who built the atomic bomb.

For a while, the three-and-a-half hour long drama was overshadowed by conversations about technical details of how to watch the film — in IMAX, 70 mm print and even where to sit in the theatre. Nolan also voiced his opinion about the ideal spot in the middle of the theatre to watch the film.

The audience soon realised the behind all the hype was a great American drama, a stupendous study of ingenuity, a genius mind, and the battles Oppenheimer had to fight against political and personal enemies, forces who tried hard to undermine his talent and success until the end of his life.

Cillian Murphy gives a career best performance as Oppenheimer, followed by a large ensemble cast many who are now being considered front runners for Oscars, including Robert Downey Jr, Emily Blunt and Matt Damon.

Oppenheimer is Hollywood at its best.

British film-maker Nolan has long had a box office draw. Now finally, he had found a lot of love from stateside critics with his most American film.


7. Killers of the Flower Moon (US)

Clocking in at three-and-a-half hours, and based on David Grann’s non-fiction book, Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon is an engaging drama about the wrongs white America did to the Osage people, a Native American community in Oklahoma which became wealthy after oil was found within its territory.

It is a shocking story that most Americans are not aware of.

In Scorsese’s hands, his most political drama is more than just a history lesson.

The action, violence, manipulations, emotions, especially guilt that envelope the film’s main characters, makes Killers of the Flower Moon one of the best cinematic experiences from a master who seemed to be losing his grip in recent times.

Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio, playing William Hale and Ernest Burkhart, an uncle and nephew who are at the centre of the plot to rob the Osage of their wealth, are in top form. But it is Lily Gladstone’s Oscar-worthy take as Mollie, a rich woman whom Burkhart marries, that the film will be remembered for.


6. Poor Things (US/UK)

Greek director Yargos Lanthimos is known for his eccentric and at times, shocking cinema. His previous works, including Dogtooth, The Favourite and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, are landmark films where high art marries big budget and star-studded dramas.

But nothing Lanthimos has done in the past will prepare you for Poor Things, a gorgeous and yet outrageous story about a Frankenstein-like creature Bella (Emma Stone), created by a crazy scientist Dr Goodwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe).

Bella wants to grow, walk, speak and travel around the world and she manages to have amazing adventures with the help of a slick lawyer, Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo).

Poor Things is a wildly imaginative film, a visual treat, with grand, spectacular sets and costumes that often become a bigger part of the dark, yet humorous narrative.

The film has strong performances with Stone is considered a front runner for the Best Actress Oscar trophy. The film should also be recognised for other awards, including those for its production design and cinematography.


5. All Of Us Strangers (UK/US)

In a newly constructed building, a gay screenplay writer Adam (Andrew Scott, the hot priest from Fleabag) encounters a mysterious man Harry (Paul Mescal of Aftersun), also gay and the only other resident of the building.

There is attraction and soon a relationship develops between the two. But the writer is also obsessed by his past and personal narrative.

In Andrew Haigh’s deeply felt drama, one day Adam finds himself on a train heading to his childhood home, where he meets his parents’ ghosts (Claire Foy and Jaime Bell) just as he remembered them from the day they died in an accident. Adam was 12 at that time.

Haigh has a filmography of heartbreaking dramas like Weekend, 45 Years and Lean on Pete.

In All of Us Strangers, adapted from the Japanese novel Strangers by Taichi Yamada, Haigh beautifully captures Adam’s grief, that he did not fully express when he was a child. So he gets one more chance to start conversations he never had with his parents.


4. Totem (Mexico)

Sol, the seven-year-old protagonist of Mexican director Lila Avilés’s lovely film, just wants to spend time with her father.

But the adults around Sol (Naíma Sentíes, a natural actor) — her mother and father’s siblings — do not seem to sense her need. Instead, they are busy preparing a birthday party for the girl’s father, who has a terminal disease, and bicker over his medical needs.

Totem is set mostly during one day and night, when Sol’s father Tonatiuh (Mateo Garcia) finally steps out of his room and manages to meet many of his friends for the last time.

But Sol is left wondering if she will ever spend time alone with her father, as she also begins to sense that her life is beginning to change.

Mexico’s entry for the Best International Film Oscar, Totem is a beautifully made small film that captures the quietude of a young child, as the world around her is cluttered with noise and confusion.

Lovingly shot, there is a glow in the film that brings warmth to a story that is heading towards a cold closure.


3. Slow (Lithuania)

In Lithuania’s entry for the Oscar for Best International Film Slow, Elena, a contemporary dancer, meets Dovydas, a sign language expert, who has been assigned to work with her deaf students. A friendship develops, which blossoms into a romantic relationship.

But there is one concern.

Dovydas (Kestutis Cicenas) is asexual. He is in love with Elena, but not interested in a physical relationship.

He is a handsome, charming man and so Elena (Greta Grineviciute) finds it hard fathom how she can be with him and yet not engage in sex.

Slow is moving film, a rare exploration of a relationship between a man and a woman where sex is set aside, until their compromise strains their emotional attachment.


2. Past Lives (US/South Korea)

When she was in her early teens, Nora migrated to Canada with her parents from South Korea. She left behind memories of her first love, a Korean school boy Hae Sung. Now an adult living in New York, Nora (Greta Lee) is married to a Jewish-American man Arthur (John Magaro).

Suddenly one day, she hears from her childhood friend Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), who is planning a trip to New York to meet her.

In Director and playwright Celine Song’s autobiographical film, Hae Sung and Nora rekindle their friendship and as they walk through the streets of New York city, they wonder what if life had shaped out differently.

Past Lives is a sweet ode to the memories of those who remember their first love, or did not have the courage to express their love, or perhaps feel the pain of unrequited love.


1. Perfect Days (Germany/Japan)

German film-maker Wim Wenders has spent his career making cinema of compassion, focusing often on lost souls in different parts of the world: Wings of Desire (Berlin), Paris Texas (Texas).

His new film Perfect Days, Japan’s official Oscar submission, is set in Tokyo.

The film’s protagonist, Hirayama is a middle-aged man played by the Japanese actor Koji Yakusho, and is in harmony with his rather mundane life.

Hirayama is a toilet cleaner and has a routine. He wakes up early, sprays water on his plants, wears a Tokyo Toilets jumpsuit, gets canned coffee out of a vending machine and drives to work. He takes a break for lunch, stops over at a local bar on his way home and then reads a bit before he sleeps.

His personal life does not seem to be perfect but he seems satisfied with his sparse, minimal existence.

Yakusho (Shall We Dance, 13 Assassins), who won the Best Actor award at Cannes, brings a lot of warmth to the character whose simplicity and Zen-like existence is something we could all strive for.

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