As the pandemic slowed down in 2022, people across the world came back to movie theatres.
This summer, Tom Cruise's refurbished Top Gun: Maverick became a huge global hit.
And just around the time of the holidays, James Cameron, the second most successful film-maker of all time, gave us Avatar: The Way of Water, a sequel to his $3 billion grossing 2012 film, Avatar.
Meanwhile, a small indie and one of the most original American films Everything Everywhere All at Once found a large audience in North American cities.
International film festivals came back in full force, and a record number of remarkable international films were previewed on the big screens at these events.
Aseem Chhabra presents his list of 10 international films that mattered to him, stories that he connected with and characters that gave him a better understanding of the human condition.
Making year-end lists is always a challengem but this year's pool of films was so rich. So in addition to this list, Aseem adds a runners-up list of 15 films too.
10. Plan 75
In Director Chie Hayakawa's debut sci-fi feature, Japan is going through a crisis with an increasing senior citizen population. So the government comes up with a plan where people over 75 can opt to register for a euthanasia plan once their personal obligations are done with.
It is a morbid idea, but Hayakawa handles the subject with sensitivity, as the film follows a few elderly people, and the young caseworkers assigned to handle their cases.
The characters accept the idea of death, but some of them are still not done with living.
So what would happen if someone wanted to change her or his mind and decide to continue living?
Plan 75 is a precious film that weighs the idea to live with the choice of wanting to die. It won a special mention at this year's Cannes film festival in the Camera d'Or category, awarded to debut film-makers.
A remake of Akira Kurosawa's 1952 masterpiece Ikiru (To Live) and based on a script written by Kazuo Ishiguro, Living is directed by the South African film-maker Oliver Hermanus (Moffie).
Bill Nighy plays a dull British bureaucrat, who revisits his life and the choices he made after learning that he is terminally ill.
He wonders whether he has accomplished anything significant in life.
Estranged from his son and being a widower, he throws himself into new life experiences like drinking, hanging out in bars with people half his age, eating meals with an attractive young woman, all the while ignoring his work and personal commitments.
In the process, he does manage to achieve something meaningful: Get an approval to create a playground with swings in a working-class neighbourhood.
Nighy is heartbreakingly good in Living as a man who is given another chance to live again.
Hopefully, the film will encourage members of the audience to watch Ikiru with the veteran actor Takashi Shimura, whose performance inspired Ritesh Batra to mold Irrfan Khan's character Saajan Fernandes in The Lunchbox.
8. Saint Omer
French documentary film-maker Alice Diop's work has focused on immigrants living on the edge of Paris. Now, for her first feature, she has made a film about a Senegalese immigrant woman who is facing criminal charges for leaving her 15-month-old daughter on a beach to die.
Based on a true story that Diop read in a newspaper, Saint Omer, a riveting courtroom drama, is narrated from the point of view of a novelist, who is writing a modern-day interpretation of the Greek mythological story of Medea.
Diop's film shows a lot of compassion for Laurence Coly, the accused woman.
Although her action is shocking, it is perhaps understandable when seen from the perspective of a lonely, black ,immigrant woman's journey to France, racism and isolation.
Saint Omer stands out for the performances by the lead actors. Both Kayije Kagame (Rama, the novelist) and Guslagie Malanda (Laurence) are brilliant in their roles.
Saint Omer is shortlisted for Best International Feature at the Oscars.
7. Return to Dust
Youtie Ma and Guiying Cao are middle-aged people who have been cast aside by their families in rural China. In fact, Guiying has had a difficult life since she was often beaten as a child which led to her losing control of her bladder muscles.
One day, the families decide to arrange Ma and Cao's marriage.
The two meek people go along with the traditional arrangement, but as time passes, they start to care for each other and fall in love.
Beautifully shot in harsh winters and warm summers, Director-Writer Li Ruijun's Return To Dust follows the daily travails of the poor farming couple. They work hard planting wheat, corn, potatoes, harvesting and taking the produce to the market. They invest money in getting eggs that hatch into chicks, meanwhile, also caring for their donkey and pigs.
But despite the daily struggles, one thing remains clear: The love of Ma and Cao, and the dignity with which they live.
In Director Firas Khoury's debut, five Israeli-Palestinian teenagers decide to challenge the system in their own little way.
Their school is about to mark Israel's Independence Day. But instead, the teenagers, led by Tamer (Mahmood Bakri, the youngest brother from the Israeli-Palestinian Bakri family of actors), decide to observe Nakba, the Arabic word for displacement and ethnic cleansing or the day the Palestinians were removed from their own land.
So they plan to hoist the Palestinian flag (the Arabic word is alam) on their school building instead of the Israeli flag.
It is a highly dangerous move, but in this coming-of-age drama, the Arab teenagers, born and raised under Israeli occupation, have had enough. They are willing to take a risk.
The consequences of their action and what follows is devastating, a reminder of how tenuous the lives of Palestinians are.
Alam ends with the Leonard Cohen cover of the song The Partisan, originally composed by Anna Marly and an anti-fascist anthem of the French Resistance in World War II. It will be hard to control your tears when you hear the words Freedom Soon Will Come in Cohen's voice.
Pakistani film Joyland made history at Cannes when it became the first film from the country to be accepted in the competition section at Cannes and won the jury prize in the Un Certain Regard section. Now, Joyland has been shortlisted for the Best International Feature Oscar.
Columbia University film school graduate Saim Sadiq's debut work astutely observes the suffocating patriarchy in a lower middle-class family in Lahore, while also visiting gender and sexuality themes.
At the centre of the film is the romance between the younger married son of the family, Haider (Ali Junjo) and a stage dancer Bina, a stunning performance by a trans actress named Alina Khan, who also played the lead in Sadiq's Venice film festival award-winning short Darling (2019).
The relationship will eventually be challenged and the family's secrets will unravel, leaving every character broken.
In this beautifully realised film, co-winner of this year's Grand Prix award at Cannes and Belgium's official entry for the Oscars, film-maker Lukas Dhont explores the deep friendship of two teenage boys with tenderness.
All is good between Leo and Remi. They spend most of the time together, even sleeping over at each other's homes.
But when they move to a new school, other classmates question their friendship.
Are the 1 -years olds in a relationship? What does that even mean when children have not yet reached puberty?
Eventually, the close friendship between the two boys will be challenged and the consequences are heartbreaking.
Close is an achingly haunting film with moving performances.
3. The Banshees of Inisherin
Where to Watch? Disney+Hotstar
In a remote fictional island called Inisherin, Pádraic Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell, in his career best performance) is a simple farmer, who lives with his sister Siobhán and cares for his animals, cows, a horse and a pet donkey called Jenny.
One day, Pádraic realises that his friend Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson) has stopped talking to him.
Colm thinks that Pádraic is dull and wants peace of mind to focus on composing music.
And so begins Writer-Director Martin McDonagh's (In Bruges and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) The Banshees of Inisherin, as Pádraic makes it his mission to make Colm talk to him. Colm resists all such efforts, taking his annoyance at Pádraic to an extremely violent level.
McDonagh's writing is packed with great dialogues and a coterie of sad characters in the village. Especially endearing is Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk and The Killing of a Sacred Deer), as Dominic Kearney, the village fool, who often gets beaten by his father and is in love with Siobhán.
The Banshees of Inisherin is a hilarious, thoroughly enjoyable macabre black comedy. But despite the beauty in the world that McDonagh creates, the film is also dark, gruesome and tragic.
Where to Watch? MUBI (from January 6)
In Scottish film-maker Charlotte Wells' debut film, a woman recalls a vacation she took 20 years ago with her father, who was separated from her mother.
As the father Calum (a quiet, brooding, yet playful Paul Mescal from Normal People) and his then 11-year-old daughter Sophie (Frankie Corio) travel through the Turkish beach resort (including a fun stopover for mud baths), we sense that memories are never linear, and do not just focus on joy and happiness.
Rather what Sophie recollects is a tapestry of moments, some real fun, but others difficult and troubling.
Now, at 30, the same age as her father when they had gone on the vacation, Sophie comes to an understanding that her father was not perfect, and often, adults have to deal with their own demons.
One feels a lot of warmth watching Aftersun as Calum tries his best to make up for the time he has lost since Sophie lives with her mother. The film glows with love even when things are not smooth and perfect.
1. The Blue Caftan
In Director Maryam Touzani's second feature, Halim (played by Saleh Bakri, the older brother of Mahmood Bakri from Alam) is a closeted tailor, running his shop in the old neighbourhood of the Moroccan city of Salé, quietly working his way, stitching elaborate caftans for demanding customers. His wife Mina (Lubna Azabal from Incendies) manages the front section of the store, placating customers.
But Mina is unwell, and as we learn soon, she has incurable cancer. So to ease the work pressure, the couple hire a young apprentice named Youssef.
An attraction develops between Halim and Youssef, and Mina gets a sense of it.
The beauty of Touzani's script is that nothing is predictable as the story takes unexpected turns, all the while Halim is finishing an elaborate blue caftan, which will become a key element at the end of the film.
This year's Moroccan Oscar entry and winner of the FIPRESCI Prize in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes, The Blue Caftan is a beautiful film, which challenges traditional cultural narratives, and emphasises on acceptance, forgiveness and above all, love of all shades.
Runners up: A Gaza Weekend (Palestine), After Yang (US), Argentina, 1985 (Argentina; Where to Watch? Amazon Prime Video), Athena(France; Where to Watch? Netflix), Broker (Japan), Bones and All (Italy/US), Corsage (Austria), Decision to Leave (South Korea; Where to Watch? MUBI), Everything Everywhere All at Once (USA), Good Luck to You, Leo Grande (UK), Happiness (Kazakhstan), One Fine Morning (France), Return to Seoul (Cambodia), The Wonder (Ireland/UK; Where to Watch? Netflix), Triangle of Sadness (Sweden).