David O’Mahony, IFI’s Head of Cinema Programming, looks back at 2023, and offers his personal top ten of the year.
Did the theatrical exhibition ecosystem stabilise this year, having been derailed in spring 2020 by the Covid pandemic and the rolling lockdowns that ensued? Hard to say, though one can point to the unprecedented midsummer Barbenheimer phenomenon as evidence of the industry’s recovery; in truth, however, those stellar box-office returns tended to mask an already worrying trend, accelerated by the pandemic, which saw audiences grow more amendable to the charms of myriad streaming services, and less committed to the theatrical experience.
There are, however, upsides to unpredictable audience behaviour, chief among them being the pleasant surprise of large, highly diverse groups showing up for repertory programmes at IFI. Nothing will make the heart of a middle-aged arthouse film programmer swell with joy more than the sight of a sold-out screening of Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, packed with viewers born long after the film’s release in 1975, held rapt by the titular protagonist, who unravels in non-quite real time, clapping enthusiastically at the end of its 3.5 hours. Similarly, Bela Tarr’s monumental Satantango, an overwhelming, undeniably challenging, 7.5-hour (with two comfort breaks) epic was thronged with what to my weary eyes looked like actual teenagers who, again, clapped.
How do Gen Z cineastes learn about such outré offerings? Is it all TikTok and Letterboxd now that the old guard has claimed Twitter/X and FaceBook? Most importantly, how do we keep them coming back for more? Such questions haunt the mind of the programmer.
Buzzy new releases continue to connect, with the likes of TÁR at the beginning of year becoming part of the cultural conversation that can propel a film such as this – knotty, hard to classify – to a long run at IFI, twelve weeks in Lydia’s case. Past Lives, Celine Song’s achingly poignant debut, and Asteroid City from veteran symmetry-enthusiast Wes Anderson also boasted considerable staying power (though nothing is likely to topple An Cailín Ciúin’s staggering 52-week run).
Of course, not everything worked – unpredictable is the new normal. Two of my favourite films of the year, Beau is Afraid and The Plains, struggled to connect with audiences, unsurprising for the latter perhaps given that it is a three-hour quasi-documentary experiment set almost entirely in the back seat of a car on the driver’s daily commute in the Melbourne suburbs (trust me, it’s extraordinary). Beau is Afraid, however, is the studio-backed, Joaquin Phoenix-starring third feature from Ari Aster, erstwhile flavour of the month who directed Hereditary and Midsommar, and with it seemed destined to complete a hat trick of critical acclaim and audience adulation. It was not to be, and this dazzlingly inventive, hilarious, thrilling, utterly unique film came and went almost unnoticed. I can but hope that in time it is dusted off and reappraised.
But no matter. The early months of 2024 appear as enticing as any I can recall, with Priscilla, The Holdovers, Poor Things, All of Us Strangers, The Zone of Interest, and American Fiction all coming to IFI on consecutive weeks, several of which will no doubt feature prominently in next year’s roundup.
David O’Mahony’s Top Ten films of 2023
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