2023 has been an excellent year for films. Whether it is innovative new indie projectors, daring sci-fi epics, enthralling biopics, action-packed thrillers or hair-raising scares that will make you think twice before visiting your local church, there has been something for everyone this year.
Some of these films have especially impressed us in the visual and audio departments; as you likely know we test all of our AV equipment with some of the latest releases as part of our thorough review process. We look out for scenes that involve lots of dark details to test black depths, and wide open scenes of grandeur to test colour, depth and contrast, meaning we often rely on many films per review.
So, as we round out 2023, we're taking a look back at some of the best movies to come out this year, which we plan on incorporating into our rotation of test discs. Get used to these movies, as they'll be popping up in reviews for the next few months to come.
It was tough whittling this list down to our very favourites for each member of the What Hi-Fi? team, so there will undoubtedly be some films that didn't make the cut. A few notable exceptions from this list that are certainly worth watching are Killer of the Flower Moon, Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 3, The Boy and the Heron, and (we're shocked this didn't make the list) Barbie.
Tom Parsons, TV and AV Editor
The Creator is an astonishing achievement that doesn’t simply outperform its tiny (by the standards of modern sci-fi blockbusters) $80-million budget but actually delivers more convincing special effects than most films that cost vastly more to make. The movie’s brilliantly designed AI characters feel genuinely real and present in the beautiful scenery of Thailand and next to fully human actors, and the scale is both epic and believable.
The story is unfortunately much less interesting than the setting and there are some weirdly unconvincing character moments (it’s hard to tell if these are down to the script, the acting or both), but this is still a cracking test disc (or stream) that will put both the picture and sound elements of your system through their paces. It’s also a great way to show off your system to friends and family.
On the picture side, you want colours that are vibrant but not over the top (pay particular attention to the greens of the lush Thai landscape), and lots of detail without the inherent film grain becoming distractingly fizzy. Your TV or projector needs to be capable of digging up lots of dark detail, too, so that you don’t miss little details such as the tear rolling down Colonel Howell’s cheek as she recounts a family tragedy on the troop transport near the start of the movie.
This scene is where the movie really kicks into gear: as the opening bars of Radiohead’s Everything In Its Right Place swing around your room, making use of every speaker you have, you’re well advised to strap in for a rip-roaring 12 minutes of action.
Pre-order The Creator on Amazon
Becky Roberts, Managing Editor
Charging soldiers on horseback, firing cannons and a battleground on a thin layer of ice – the Battle of Austerlitz is just one (albeit the best) example of Ridley Scott playing to his directorial strengths in this spectacle-filled Bonaparte biopic.
His first film with Joaquin Phoenix since 2000's Gladiator isn't the most compelling historical epic, a tad unfocused in its portrayal of the French Emperor and his wife Josephine and other associations – but it is epic. The sets and cinematography are expectedly big-scale gorgeous – think snowy Austrian landscapes, unrelenting rain and mud in Russia, and sweeping wide shots of Egypt desert – while the equally colossal Dolby Atmos treatment for those combat sequences will have those who've gone big with their Atmos set-ups squealing with delight.
Napoleon on Apple TV (coming soon) and in theatres now
The Nun II
Alastair Stevenson, Editor-in-Chief
The Nun II is the latest movie set in the “Conjuring-verse”. But unlike the full-fat Conjuring films, which tell a heavily fictionalised version of the exploits of infamous “real world paranormal investigators” Ed and Lorraine Warren, it follows a Nun’s battle against an evil demon. While the movie isn’t going to win any Oscars, it’s a great stress test for any home cinema system thanks to its fantastic use of Dolby Atmos.
Like The Conjuring 2, which features in our best horror movies to test your Atmos system guide, The Nun II takes full advantage of the surround sound tech’s dome of sound to ramp up the terror level. Highlights include hearing the demon creep above you as it stalks a young girl in her bed offscreen, to powerful jump scare moments that frequently caused more than a few of our testers to bolt out of their seats.
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse
Kashfia Kabir, Hi-Fi and Audio Editor
There hasn’t been anything more visually inventive and breathtakingly creative put on screen than Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. While the first Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse film (2018) wowed us with its particular brand fun, fluid and clever animation, the 2023 sequel pushed the boundaries even further to dizzying heights.
From the shifting impressionist colours of Gwen’s watercolour world to villain Spot’s increasingly unhinged scribbly drawings to Hobie’s unique punk aesthetic coming to life thanks to being animated at a different frame rate than the rest of the cast – this is an animation team being allowed to unleash their creativity to the fullest, and the result is a visual feast that will make you gasp with delight at every turn.
And that’s before you take in about 7000 different variations of Spider-Man (this is a multiverse story after all), the exciting web-slinging action, the very tender and real family dynamics, and beautifully drawn characters (and backgrounds) that reveal more personality than any live-action film. The best AV system will handle the dynamic colours, punchy contrasts, smooth (or intentionally not-smooth) motions and hip-hop-themed soundtrack with aplomb.
There’s still time to put the 4K Blu-ray on your Christmas wishlist… you owe it to yourself.
Kashfia Kabir, Hi-Fi and Audio Editor
This Fincher/Fassbender slow-burn thriller doesn’t quite have the instant pizazz of John Wick’s bloody revenge or the charismatic intensity of Fight Club; it’s a more meditative story of one man’s focus, along with the expected skewering of capitalism and overconsumption peppered throughout. But the almost-mundane routines of the titular Killer's journey are rendered in lush contrasts and terrific clarity afforded by the 4K Dolby Vision picture that immerses you in a contemporary world that’s very familiar, very real, but with a slick sheen over it all.
From the busy greyness of Paris to the dark, headlight-lit nights in Florida, from the humid-drenched Caribbean greenery to the cold sleekness of a very expensive gym, the film will test just how capable your system is at revealing subtleties in detail and handling bursts of light and colour among dark backgrounds and shadowy alleys. Unlike many films that equate ‘dark’ with ‘moody’ but at the expense of allowing the viewer to actually see what’s happening, The Killer – on a very good 4K OLED HDR screen – will reveal every detail of the ‘action’ and every line and texture on characters’ faces.
The stark soundtrack is dominated by Fassbender’s emotionally detached narration and too many songs from The Smiths. A good sound system, however, will envelop you in all the precise and realistic city noises and sounds of travel, punctuated by the everyday technology we surround ourselves with (the ping of notifications, the beep of keycards) – all the more to immerse you in a film that you may not immediately love, but will get under your skin.
Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning - Part One
Harry McKerrell, Staff Writer
It was a slightly odd quirk of cinematic history that the seventh Mission Impossible didn’t quite make the returns that the studio had hoped for from such a mammoth franchise, but that’s what you get when you stick your new movie in between the pop cultural phenomenon of a sandwich that is Barbenheimer.
Either way, Dead Reckoning is a rollicking, only slightly terrifying action treat (AI is coming, be very afraid!) that ticks two major boxes regarding its test movie credentials. First, it has some of the most outstanding set pieces you’ll find anywhere on the big screen, from the sands of the Arabian desert to Tom Cruise biking off a cliff in Norway. Second, that Lorne Balfe soundtrack, full of ominous rumbles and piercing, siren-esque horns, will give you a chance to see whether your system can truly convey the dread of automated nuclear warfare.
Lewis Empson, Staff Writer
Saving the absolute best for last (perhaps I'm biased after the excellent IMAX experience), Oppenheimer is nothing short of a triumph. Captivating in everything from its story to its performances and direction, Christopher Nolan has delivered yet another cinematic marvel that requires an equally cinematic setup to truly appreciate it.
While its three-hour runtime may be offputting for some and the dense themes (both scientifically and morally) might seem imposing, this film is certainly worth facing both of those challenges. Its cast is so ludicrously star-studded that it would put the Oscars red carpet to shame, with the likes of Cillian Murphy, Robert Downey Jr, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Florence Pugh, Kenneth Branagh, Dane DeHaan, Jack Quaid, Benny Safdie, Gary Oldman and more all providing their absolute A-game.
In my eyes, Oppenheimer belongs on a projector. Its grand scale and clever use of grainy, black-and-white sections of the film feel like they just belong on a projector, although the same could be said about practically all of Nolan's filmography. Everything from the jaw-dropping Trinity Test scene in Los Alamos, to the unnerving close-ups as the committee interrogates the titular scientist, to the gut punch of a final scene all looked frankly astounding on an IMAX screen, and the best way to replicate that at home would be with a quality home cinema projector. If money was no object, then the JVC DLA-NZ7 would be my weapon of choice to watch this blockbuster.
Not only is it a visual feast; but it also sounds absolutely incredible. I've never seen a movie where silence is as deafening as Oppenheimer, as the brief moments of quiet stipulated by (soon to be Oscar winner, mark my words) Cillian Murphy's hushed vocals before an eruption of bass as the nuclear bomb detonates is nothing short of goosebumps-inducing. As is Ludwig Gorransen's almighty score, which is frenetic at times, while introspective and strangely whimsical at others. It's begging to be paired with a decent home cinema speaker package, ideally with dedicated Dolby Atmos speakers to experience the full spatial effects as we take a look into Oppenheimer's troubled but brilliant mind periodically.
I've yet to see a Christopher Nolan film that's disappointed me both in the narrative sense (yes I'm a die-hard The Dark Knight Rises supporter) and in the presentation, so expect mentions of this film in all of my 2024 reviews.
And I can't mention Oppenheimer without its counterpart. Barbie also completely stole the show this year, offering a glitzy pink antidote to the heavy themes of nuclear annihilation, but it also offered its own thematic challenges which made it equally brilliant. If you haven't tried it yet, then I certainly recommend giving this unlikely double bill a shot – long live Barbenheimer!
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