It's that time of the year again. 2023 is coming to an end, and that means I'm taking a short breather to look back at all the amazing films I've seen this past year. It's been a pretty decent one, as new favorites came about pretty easily, though I have to say that I did miss a solid Top 50 contender. I'm not going to complain though, looking at my top 2023, I can only conclude film is still my all-time favorite medium. And if you need even more recommendations, I suggest you take a peek at my favorites of previous years: 2022, 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009 and 2008.
10. Parasite in Love [Koi Suru Kiseichu] by Kensaku Kakimoto
Kensaku Kakimoto made something very special here, and it's a shame the film isn't being recognized for it. The mix of drama, romance, and genre feels fresh and unique, and each part is executed with the proper flair, skill, and gravity to make a mark of its own. It's one of the most unique romances I've seen, and even though the film takes on some more traditional story beats towards the end, it certainly ends with a proper bang. Kakimoto shows he is an asset to the Japanese movie industry, hopefully, this isn't just a one-off and he can finally launch his career for real. I certainly wouldn't mind seeing more films in this vein.
09. Noise by Yusaku Matsumoto
Noise is a true calling card. It proves Matsumoto has a place in the Japanese drama scene, where he can deliver something most other directors simply cannot. It's good to see then that he finally managed to release his second feature film last year. As for Noise, expect a somewhat gritty but heartfelt and compassionate look at an underexposed part of Japanese youth culture, appropriately stylized and building up to a memorable finale. Getting to the film will be problematic, as international distribution has failed Matsumoto so far, but if you're given the chance and you have a penchant for this type of film, don't miss the opportunity.
08. Convenience Story [Konbiniensu Sutori] by Satoshi Miki
Even though Convenience Story is probably the furthest Miki has ever ventured from his trademark comedy, fans of his work should feel right at home and needn't worry about the quality on display. The cinematography is lovely, the plot is intriguing, the film is overflowing with weird and ridiculous details and the actors are on top of their game, all adding to the otherworldly experience. Fingers crossed that the film is doing well on the festival circuit, though looking at how other Miki films fared, chances of a Western-friendly home release appear to be slim. In other words, watch this one whenever you get the chance.
07. Bipolar [Zhishi Yici Ouran de Lüxing] by Mengqiao Li
I used to be a big fan of Chinese cinema, but the love has subsided a little over this past decade. Their film output has become more stale and risk-averse, but there are still some genuine treasures to be discovered. Bipolar is a stunning road movie, a mysterious trip through the heart of China that doesn't lose itself in the usual contradictions, but sculpts a delicate portrait of its lead character. Lovely cinematography, solid performances, and a fitting score all help to elevate Mengqiao Li's first feature film. Let's hope many more will follow.
06. Annular Eclipse [Ji Yi Qiu Long] by Chi Zhang
Now that China's film industry has settled down again, it's been quite a bit tougher to find interesting (genre) films. Luckily they're still there, only you have to dig a little deeper to find them. Annular Eclipse is a dashing genre effort, blending different genres, a conceptual story, and polished cinematography to create something that dazzles from start to finish. It bodes well for Chinese sci-fi if they can continue to produce films on this level, the only thing missing is a more consistent stream of genre efforts that can pad the niche. Well recommended, if you can get your hands on it.
05. Follow the Light [Hikari wo Oikakete] by Yoichi Narita
Japanese cinema is in a bit of a slump, but from time to time fresh talent surfaces, even though they may not get the (international) recognition they deserve. Yoichi Narita shows he has a knack for drama with a minor genre twist, serving intriguing characters and a playful plot while offering a stylistic finish that puts more expensive films to shame. Take a chance on this little indie brilliant, the worst that can happen is that you don't really care for it, but you might just discover one of Japan's latest gems, without having to pay a single cent or even having to leave your house.
04. xxxHolic by Mika Ninagawa
This is Mika Ninagawa's fifth film, and so far I've loved every single one of them. Regardless of the genre she works in, she stays true to her personal aesthetic, which always comes to dominate the experience. Her work is true maximalist heaven, especially when it comes to visual prowess. She was smart to adapt xxxHolic, a franchise allowing her to go full out with sets and costumes. The astounding visuals are a given, the soundtrack is a welcome surprise, the rest is just pure bonus. If Ninagawa keeps this up, she's well on her way to becoming one of my absolute favorite directors.
03. New Religion by Keishi Kondo
New Religion is exactly the type of cinema I love but is hard to come by these days. It's a film that is all vibe and mood, strengthened by meticulous stylistic choices, a mysterious and befuddling plot, and strong, captivating performances. Keishi Kondo establishes himself as a talented, confident, and gutsy director, someone who is bold enough to chase a personal vision instead of trying to please a broader audience. This film won't be everybody's cup of tea, but if you like films with a unique twist, be sure to give this one a go when you get the chance. Let's hope this is the start of a fruitful career for Keishi Kondo.
02. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse by Dos Santos, Powers, Thompson
There are some minor quibbles, mostly related to this being a big studio film that still needs to try its hardest to appeal to the largest audience possible. But this never dampened the energy I got from the constant, wild experimentation that drives the film. This is truly next-gen stuff, a peek into the future of animated cinema that will reshape what we consider acceptable, not just on a technical but also on a creative level. I'm really looking forward to the third and final part of this trilogy, then we'll see if this creative team can reinvent itself outside of the Spider-Man universe. An absolute delight.
01. Deep Sea [Shen Hai] by Xiaopeng Tian
I admit I went in with relatively low expectations, China's animation industry is still a little fickle and there are as many misses as there are hits. Deep Sea literally blew me away though. The film's overwhelming visuals and its bright and bustling fantasy universe were quick to pull me in, the experimental touches and the onslaught of visual detail kept me glued to the screen. All this lovely excess made it easy to forgive the film its somewhat lacking soundtrack and childish comedy. Fingers crossed this film makes it to the West, it would be a real affront if it didn't.