With films like “Barbie,” “Oppenheimer” and “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” receiving acclaim from audiences and critics alike, 2023 has been a good year for film. However, it isn’t just the summer blockbusters that have impressed — there have been numerous independent films exemplifying the power of filmmaking. Here are four films from 2023 that may have flown under your radar.
“Past Lives” — writer and director Celine Song’s feature film debut — beautifully tells the story of Nora, played by Greta Lee. Twenty years after immigrating from South Korea to North America as a child, Nora reunites with her childhood crush Hae Sung, played by Teo Yoo. Nora, who is married to another man, played by John Magaro, must confront her past while meditating on her current life.
Song’s writing is captivating, insightfully exploring a Korean perspective on fate and soulmates. Her direction, too, captures the cities of the film — from Seoul to New York City — with so much care as she invokes imagery of a failed American dream. Nora and Hae Sung go on a Statue of Liberty boat ride together where Lady Liberty turns her back on them, a haunting if not overt moment of symbolism.
Yoo and Magaro’s respective portrayals of the men caught in this triangle ground Lee’s incredible and touching lead performance. After the film's emotional finale — accompanied by a delicately beautiful score — audiences will be moved and may even begin to rethink human relationships.
Another directorial debut — this time from Raine Allen-Miller — “Rye Lane” follows Dom, played by David Jonsson, and Yas, played by Vivian Oparah, who meet by chance in South London, both having recently broken up with their significant others. Dom doesn’t seem to be taking his breakup very well, and the two spend the day together, pulling hijinks and possibly falling for each other.
“Rye Lane” has its own unique feel due to its cinematography — wide-angle lenses that capture the bustle of the streets, for example — as well as the vibrant costumes and production design. The film also provokes nonstop laughs throughout. The chemistry between the two leads is infectious, making it easy to become invested in their relationship. Because of its vibrancy and exuberance, “Rye Lane” is an endearing film that can warm any heart.
“Theater Camp” is a mockumentary following attempts to revitalize a theater camp after its beloved founder, played by Amy Sedaris, falls into a coma. The camp’s ownership falls into the hands of her son Troy, played by Jimmy Tatro. Troy knows nothing about musical theater, so the other teachers must band together to save the camp they love so much.
With impeccable comedic timing throughout, “Theater Camp” stands out as one of the funniest films of the year. Tatro hilariously embodies the aura of a clueless online vlogger, while Molly Gordon and Ben Platt also effectively execute much of the film’s humor. Many of the film’s dramatic moments fail to compel, but its ability to acknowledge the power of musical theater while also being self-aware makes “Theater Camp” an endlessly fun watch.
Netflix’s recent animated feature “Nimona” follows its young, shapeshifting titular character, voiced by Chloë Grace Moretz, in a technologically advanced medieval world. She befriends Ballister Boldheart, voiced by Riz Ahmed, who is a former knight accused of murdering the queen. Together, they join forces in an attempt to prove that Ballister was framed.
“Nimona” is a fun, energetic and action-packed film from start to finish. More importantly, however, it tells a heartfelt story about accepting one’s own identity in spite of societal pressures. Nimona’s eccentric ability to shapeshift, as well as Ballister’s status as an outlaw, are parallels to Ballister’s feelings of isolation due to his queerness. “Nimona” is a positive step forward for representation in animation, while also standing on its own as a well-made film.