2023 has witnessed some of the masters of the game return to peak form. Similarly, the year can boast about several fresh talents rising to the fore and collectively leaving an indelible mark on us.
2023 has been a year of box office figures, top stars returning to form and lots more. In the same vein, we have witnessed some of the best artists in business explore newer depths of filmmaking and deliver incredible films through the year. It's also been the season of fresh talents, who brought their own respective stories to the big screen and enthralled us with their inventiveness.
So, as we draw curtains on what's been an immensely eventful year, here are our picks for the ten best South Indian theatrical releases that have, collectively, left an indelible mark on us.
In 2023, Mammootty reaffirmed his status as a superstar who is willing to walk the extra mile to shed that image of his and become THE character his film needs him to be. In Lijo Jose Pelissery's 'Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam', the 72-year-old actor is at the top of his game as a man who has encountered a rather bizarre form of midlife crisis, if you will, and is found caught between two identities at the same time. Mammootty executes that emotion with such ease & finesse and despite the farcical or "weird" setup of the film, he never goes overboard with his performance.
Alongside, Lijo Jose Pelissery proves with the film that he is possibly the most inventive filmmaker in business today. If his previous ventures like 'Angamaly Diaries', 'Jallikattu' and 'Churuli' were products of his manic energy, 'Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam' is all about his restraint. Be it the static cinematography of the film or the observant style of direction, Pelissery displays great skill throughout the film.
'Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam' is currently streaming on Netflix.
Siddharth delivered arguably his best performance to date earlier this year in SU Arun Kumar's 'Chithha'. At its heart, the film is about the endearing relationship between Easwaran and his 8-year-old niece Sundari but when the latter goes missing and is found to be kidnapped by a child abuser, things take a rather dark turn. The story then traces how Easwaran grapples with reality while comforting Sundari's mother and also ensuring that all hope is not lost.
Aside from a gripping narrative that's both suspenseful and emotional, 'Chithha's charm lies in how SU Arun Kumar treats the subject with tenderness. The writer-director opts to tell the agonizing story through small but highly evocative moments and it helps that he has the support of an excellent ensemble cast, also including Nimisha Sajayan, Anjali Nair, Baalaji S.U, child artist S. Aafiyah Tasneem and others.
'Chithha' is currently streaming on Disney+ Hotstar.
Hemanth M Rao broke the mould of commercial cinema with 'Sapta Sagaradaache Ello' by choosing to tell an epic tale of love & redemption over two parts. 'Sapta Sagaradaache Ello Side A', the first of the two parts, comes as a mood piece that tells the story of two lovers in the form of visual poetry. Manu (Rakshit Shetty) and Priya (Rukmini Vasanth) imagine a life that's far from the chaos of the city and closer to the sea in which they can dip their feet together. However, one bad error in judgment causes their desired "place in the sun" to be a distant dream that, in all likelihood, may never be realized.
While not heavy on plot, 'Sapta Sagaradaache Ello Side A' unfolds at its own pace by capturing the many little moments, the melancholia between Manu and Priya. Hemanth Rao uses all his resources - including his cast, the cinematography, the music, etc - to their fullest potential and allows every element to contribute to the drama at heart. It's a film that is as heart-rending as it is beautiful and is easily among the best love stories to have come out of India in recent times.
'Sapta Sagaradaache Ello Side A' is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video
Mani Ratnam's decades-long of bringing Kalki Krishnamurthy's epic to life saw a grand culmination in 2023. While the first part of the sprawling story, released in 2022, introduced us to the convoluted world and its many unique characters, Ponniyin Selvan II unfolded more as a personal story that laid focus on the relationship between Aditha Karikalan (Vikram) and Nandini (Aishwarya Rai). The film also chronicles the exceptional threats faced by the Chola Empire from all corners and how Arulmozhi Varman/Ponniyin Selvan (Jayam Ravi), Kundavai (Trisha) and others overcome their adversities.
The veteran director is at his very best in exploring the complex love that exists between Aditha Karikalan and Nandini. At the same time, he is extremely skilful in navigating a dense narrative and ensuring that he is doing complete justice to the source material. Some might find his deviations from Kalki's text to be a little jarring but there is no doubt Mani Ratnam's interpretation is equally captivating. He strikes the right balance between keeping things intimate and also offering an alluring visual spectacle to audiences.
Ponniyin Selvan II is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Popular comic actor Venu Yeldandi sprung a pleasant surprise on everyone with his directorial debut, which is centred around a large dysfunctional family in a Telangana village. Following the passing of the chief patriarch, multiple estranged family members are forced to come together for the funeral but it so emerges that the deceased soul is potentially "dissatisfied" (after a crow refuses to eat the feast offered by the family). The patriarch's grandson Sayilu (Priyadarshi) then hatches an unusual plan to seemingly bring about peace in the conflict but could it be that he has a different motive altogether?
'Balagam' opened in theatres to positive reviews from audiences and critics alike with the film's engaging storyline and the writing attracting a lot of praise. Venu Yeldandi and his co-writers Ramesh Eligeti and Nagaraju Maduri imbue the film with a sense of familiarity but also manage to transport us to a distinctive world where characters are quirky, endearing and relatable. 'Balagam' ended up as a commercial success at the box office.
'Balagam' is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video
When the big guns of the Kannada Film Industry failed to fire in the first half of 2023, it was an unassuming crowd-funded film that got the audiences talking. 'Daredevil Musthafa' is based on a short story of the same name by the legendary Poornachandra Tejaswi and is set against the backdrop of the quaint town Abachuru. When the local pre-university college admits its only Muslim student, Ramanuja Iyengari and his gang are forced to confront their prejudices against a community that they know very, very little of.
Written and directed by debutant Shashank Soghal, 'Daredevil Musthafa' is an unhurried film that makes its point in simple yet effective strokes. Interestingly, for something dealing with a heavy subject such as communal harmony, the film is imbued with a lot of old-world innocence that one got to experience in shows like Malgudi Days. It is one of those films that you could watch either in its entirety or in small parts for your comfort. And that alone makes 'Daredevil Musthafa' one of the best South Indian releases of 2023.
'Daredevil Musthafa' is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video
Jeo Baby's latest film is another shining example of the courage that Mammootty, the actor, exudes. He plays Mathew Devassy, a retired bank manager who is now seeking a career in local politics but before that, he must first address a deeply pressing matter. Mathew's wife of nearly two decades, Omana (played by a wonderful Jyothika), has suddenly decided to file for divorce and it soon comes to the fore that he has been withholding a big secret from the rest of the world.
'Kaathal - The Core', in essence, is a portrait of a middle-aged man overcoming his struggles with his sexuality and reintroducing himself to society. Jeo Baby uses a familiar template of a family drama to tell this story but consistently subverts things by challenging our prejudices and expectations from a "hero" of a film. While Mammootty delivers a superb performance as the conflicted man, Jyothika holds her own and communicates more with her silences than her words.
'Kaathal - The Core' is yet to make its OTT debut
2023 has indeed been the season of fresh voices and Nithin Krishnamurthy could well be termed the breakout talent of the year. His debut film is a meta real-time comedy that's shot entirely in POV mode and set on the premises of a boys hostel, with as many as 400-500 artists filling up the frame at certain points.
If that wasn't enough, the film is also a mystery-comedy that bustles with energy and chaos that you just cannot take your eyes off. The humour is irreverent, the style very inventive and the story so layered that 'Hostel Hudugaru Bekagiddre' makes the 'Best of 2023' cut without any disputes. The film was a major commercial success during its theatrical run and was later dubbed and released in Telugu as 'Boys Hostel'.
'Hostel Hudugaru Bekagiddare' is currently streaming on Zee5
Not many can do a better job at paying homage to cinema than Karthik Subbaraj, a major cinephile himself. Having made heads turn with the very Tarantino-esque 'Jigarthanda' in 2014, the filmmaker returned to peak form earlier this year with its spiritual sequel 'Jigarthanda Double X', starring SJ Suryah, Raghava Lawrence and others.
A trademark Karthik Subbaraj meta film, 'Jigarthanda Double X' is a con job rolled into a Western that boasts countless quirky characters, high doses of dry humour, drama, catharsis and a plot so intricate and outrageous that you just cannot escape it. Of course, there's also a digitally recreated Clint Eastwood who appears in the film as a bonus feature.
'Jigarthanda Double X' is currently streaming on Netflix
Mahesh Babu Pachigolla's 'Miss Shetty Mr Polishetty' might not be the most imaginative romcom out there but the film oozes such charm that it is hard to ignore. Anvitha Shetty (Anushka Shetty) is a top chef who moves back to Hyderabad from the UK and chooses to go through an artificial insemination process to conceive a child. She in turn opts for a screening process, as it were, for potential male donors and runs into Sidhu Polishetty (Naveen Polishetty), a struggling stand-up comedian. Their encounter then gives rise to a series of hilarious yet sweet situations that form the crux of the film.
The main lure in 'Miss Shetty Mr Polishetty' is how the writer-director manages to bring two starkly different personalities together and offers them a slightly bizarre premise to work with. While Anushka Shetty charms us with her effortlessness, Naveen Polishetty lends his trademark comedic touch to the film with his slapstick/one-liner-heavy humour. Together, they ooze great chemistry and even manage to compensate for the slightly predictable narrative.
'Miss Shetty Mr Polishetty' is currently streaming on Netflix