Had you told us at the beginning of 2023 that an internet joke about summer-movie counterprogramming would give birth to a major pop-cultural phenomenon; that both a lo-fi Canadian horror flick and a $200 million epic from the greatest living American filmmaker would provide twin poles of cinematic ingenuity; that Marvel Studios would run into what’s possibly its own endgame in terms of keeping its successful cinematic universe afloat; that dual strikes from both the WGA and the Screen Actors Guild would nearly crater Hollywood entertainment as we know it; and that Taylor Swift would be the one to save the motion picture industry (not to mention the music industry, the NFL, and Western civilization as a whole), we might have questioned whether your crystal ball was on the fritz.
At the end of a long, unpredictable and thoroughly upended year at the movies, however, we know now that the double mantras for 2023 were: anything goes; and there is no such thing as a sure thing. This was a year in which disruption seemed to be the only constant, streamers continued to terraform the landscape of theatrical distribution (though they aren’t so stable either), and salvation seemed to come from some unlikely places. To go from “Barbenheimer? Seriously?” to “Barbenheimer! Seriously!!!” was a journey and then some. The hope is that even though the industry was reluctantly forced to recognize that, I dunno, people should be properly paid for their work and having software programs substituting for real people would be problematic (understatement alert!), the long, stalled summer of ’23 and the slightly delayed awards season will lead to genuine progress. Business as usual is no longer an option.
Not that all this sturm und drang and the feeling that things are very much still in a transactional phase stopped great movies from coming out. Both big studios and hipper, scrappier distributors hit the equivalent of home runs, critically and commercially. Festivals like Sundance, Cannes, and Venice delivered more than their share of spirit-raising, faith-restoring highlights. There were movies that harkened back to that ol’ time religion feel of Hollywood in its heyday, and those that reminded you that sometimes all you need is a phone, some actors, and a vision to make it work. Our top 20 movies for 2023 run the gamut in terms of genre, scope, running time, and subject matter. The only thing all of these have in common is that they reminded us of how thrilling it is to feel a sense of communion between the artists who make films and those of us who watch them. The circle remains unbroken in that respect.
(A quick note: We’re going by official theatrical release dates and not qualifying runs, which is why you will see titles like The Quiet Girl and Return to Seoul here, and will not see, say, Perfect Days and The Taste of Things — two great movies that officially bow in the first half of 2024 and will likely be on next year’s best-of list. Also, some additional 2023 shout-outs go out to: American Symphony, Earth Mama, Infinity Pool, May December, Menus-Plaisirs — Les Troisgos, Reality, R.M.N., Smoking Causes Coughing, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, A Thousand and One.)
Christopher Nolan’s sprawling biopic on the Man Who Would Be Destroyer of Worlds benefits from a depth-charge of a performance by Cillian Murphy, a meticulous sound design that prizes both dead silence and deafening booms, and a cast featuring every third actor with a SAG card. (The fact that it was also one half of the most unlikely cinematic coupling in the history of the movies didn’t hurt, either.) Yet so much of it works because of the characteristic rigor that Nolan, one of the last name-above-the-title auteurs standing, brings to the filmmaking; even when the competing timelines and set pieces start to mash up against each other, there’s a genuine thrill to watching the Inception director try to get inside the mind of this towering, often inscrutable 20th-century figurehead. It’s a movie that brings to mind the difficult era-spanning epics of yesteryear, from Reds to The Right Stuff, as well as a movie made by adults for adults, yet done with the sweep and majesty we now associate with movies made for kids and teens. Read the full review here.
‘The Boy and the Heron’
Hayao Miyazaki’s latest — and possibly last — gives us surreal imagery, cuddly-to-creepy creatures, excitement, sorrow, space, silence, and emotional currents that run leagues deep. It’s a Miyazaki film, in other words, but one particularly suffused with wisdom, boundless empathy and grief. A tween named Mahito (voiced by Soma Santoki) moves to the countryside with his widower father, right after his mother has perished in a hospital fire in Tokyo. While he’s getting accustomed to his new surroundings, the boy meets a mysterious and somewhat aggressive heron, who seems to be harboring a secret. Or maybe it’s simply the key to a secret world, where Mahito can start to process his trauma. “Create a world without malice, and full of beauty,” one character tells our hero — a profound statement that sums up not just this potential swan song but Miyazaki’s entire career. If this is indeed it, the animation godhead is going out on a high note. Read the full review here.
P.J. (Rachel Sennott) and Josie (The Bear’s Ayo Edebiri) are at the bottom of the high-school social-order food chain. Then these best friends accidentally start an afterschool fight club, partially to get out of a jam and partially to pick up hot cherleaders who wouldn’t otherwise give them the time of day. Guess who’s suddenly the most popular seniors on campus? Filmmaker Emma Seligman follows up her nerve-shredding character study Shiva Baby with a a wild, anarchic raunchcom fueled by overworked libidos, bloody knuckles and pure chaos energy. It’s both a perfect showcase for a next-gen comic duo and the Heathers that Gen Z deserves. Read full review here.
‘You Hurt My Feelings’
The cringe-comedy equivalent of Scorsese and De Niro — albeit with a slightly lower body count — director Nicole Holofcener and Julia Louis-Dreyfus reunite for this Upper West Side farce about an author who overhears her husband (Tobias Menzies) saying he doesn’t care for her new in-progress book. He’s been white-lying to her in order to be supportive; she feels she can no longer trust him. It’s the perfect setup for JLD to flex her chops, and for the O.G. Sundance filmmaker to turn good people behaving badly into painful, witty, and painfully-witty bullseyes. May these two make a million more movies together. Read the full review here.
All hail Franz Rogowski, the man behind the all-consuming black hole at the center of director Ira Sachs’ gloriously messy love-triangle romance. The German actor plays Tomas Freiburg, a filmmaker who’s a charismatic box of bon-bons with biohazard stickers plastered with biohazard stickers. He’s just struck up an impromptu relationship with Agathe (Blue Is the Warmest Color‘s Adèle Exarchopoulos), a young woman he meets at a nightclub during his latest project’s wrap party. Soon, he’s moving in with her… much to the consternation of his husband, Martin (Ben Whishaw). Sachs is an indie-film veteran who’s no stranger to turning the spotlight on dysfunctional relationships and/or showcasing raw, explicit sex scenes, and this drama has plenty of the latter. But it’s ultimately about being an artist, and the way that gives someone license to assume, rightly or wrongly, that the world revolves around them. Read the full review here.
The oddest and most welcome up-from-the-underground success story of 2023, Kyle Edward Ball’s ghost story adapts the grainy, lo-fi look of found-footage horror and the cut-and-paste vocabulary of experimental movies to stunning effect — it’s the rare genre flick that fans of both Paranormal Activity and Maya Deren can love. A four-year-old boy (Lucas Paul) finds himself alone in his house late at night, seemingly by himself; his mother, father, and older sister (Dali Rose Tetreault) disappear one by one, as do many of the doors and windows leading to the outside world. Odd images of dolls and chairs affixed to the ceiling suggest something wicked this way comes, and that’s before an unknown voice whispers for the boy to pick up a knife. Anyone with longstanding abandonment issues may want to have their therapist on speed-dial before they dip into this waking nightmare. But you don’t need a firsthand knowledge of trauma to appreciate the way the Canadian filmmaker so deftly channels the free-form fear and anxieties of childhood. Appreciate, and feel extremely unnerved by.
‘Beau Is Afraid’
Meet Beau (Joaquin Phoenix), your typical 21st-century schizoid man. He’s just found out his mother has died, which means he has to travel from his Bosch painting of a downtown neighborhood to the family mansion by the sea. Such Freudian journeys are easier said than done. Ari Aster (Hereditary, Midsommar) returns with a long, dark comedy of the soul, following his Oedipal wreck of an everyman into a fairy-tale world of grieving suburbanites, PTSD-suffering soldiers, traveling theater troupes, and a truly monstrous maternal figure. There are so many baroque touches and visionary flourishes on display that it’s tempting to dub Aster’s self-incriminating masterwork the Citizen Kane of mommy-issues movies. It’s truly a sui generis nightmare all its own. Read the full review here.
‘Return to Seoul’
The idea that Park Ji-min, a visual artist who works with plastics, had never acted before filmmaker Davy Chou cast her in his identity-crisis drama is, frankly, almost as astonishing as what she’s doing onscreen. There’s a lot going on in his tale of a young woman sifting through her past in search of answers, and this newbie actor is responsible for 99 percent of it. Playing a Korean-born, French-bred millennial who’s come back to her native country in search of her birth parents, Park lets you ride shotgun as her character Frédérique spends her days trying to connect with her biological mom and dad, and nights indulging in the sort of free-for-all hedonism that characterizes the interzone between teendom and responsible adulthood. It’s a perfect complement to Chou’s stylish storytelling, which leaves you woozy and punch-drunk by proxy. Such a gem, this one. Read the full review here.
‘All of Us Strangers’
A writer (Andrew Scott) meets a handsome, young man (handsome, young Paul Mescal) who lives in his apartment building. Sparks immediately fly, but the emotionally closed-off scribe is reluctant to see where a potential hook-up might lead. Several days later, he ventures from London back to the house he grew up in, where he finds his Mum (Claire Foy) and Dad (Jamie Bell) welcoming him with open arms. The fact that his parents appear to be the same age as he is, however, suggests something else is going on here. Writer-director Andrew Haigh’s extraordinary ode to memory, family, and the rocky terrain of unfinished business in regards to both turns a what-if scenario into a quietly shattering look at one man’s reluctance to love. You can never truly go home again, they say. And yet, as this delicate, devastating tearjerker reminds you, the good, the bad, and the ugly of home never truly leaves you, either.
Frustrated by the lack of interest in his “important” novels, author Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) decides to write the most cliché-filled book about Black life imaginable under a pseudonym. Cue: the literary event of the season. If Emmy-winning writer Cord Jefferson’s directorial debut was simply a satire in the tradition of, say, Bamboozled or Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, it would still be scathing, sharp, and funny as hell. But he’s also threaded a character study and a tender family drama within the broad comic strokes and cutting barbs about the publishing world, and captured the push-pull dynamics of siblings in a way that feels beautifully, painfully spot-on. Plus, he’s handed Jeffrey Wright a gift of a role, which the actor responds to by doing some of the best work of his career.
It’s tough to sell a decades-old doll and actively make you question why you’d still buy a toy that comes with so much baggage. (Metaphorically speaking, of course — literal baggage sold separately.) Filmmaker Greta Gerwig knew this going in to this big-screen take on the pinkest of I.P.s. So did her cowriter Noah Baumbach, producer and star Margot Robbie, the Ken-for-all-seasons Ryan Gosling, and everyone else involved with what, you’d assumed, would have been a feature-length commercial. Such tongue-in-cheek self-awareness still does not prepare you for what turns out to be a saga of self-realization, filtered through both the spirit of free play and the sense that it’s not all fun and games in the real world — a doll’s story that continually drifts into the territory of A Doll’s House. Rather than turn away from the baggage, Gerwig & co. unpack it, while still delivering a deliriously big, broad, mega-box office bonanza. Our minds are still reeling. Behold, the most subversive blockbuster of the 21st century. Read the full review here.
‘All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt’
You more or less pray that a directorial debut like the one from poet-turned-filmmaker Raven Jackson comes along every so often — the sort of out-of-the-gate announcement of a new talent that makes you feel like you’ve just been hit and hugged at the exact same time. Both a free-form look at a young Black woman (played by Kaylee Nicole Johnson as a child and Charleen McClure as a twentysomething) growing up in a Mississippi town circa the early 1970s and a tribute to the strong female figures that helped shape Jackson’s perspective, this coming-of-age story announces right from the start that you are not just watching a movie. You’re experiencing an immersive portrait of a life and a landscape intertwined, and one in which its creator’s voice retains its power as its translates from words on a page to sound and vision on a screen. Read the full review here.
It’s the “perfect” crime: A bank employee (Daniel Elías) steals a duffel bag’s worth of money from his job. He then asks a co-worker (Esteban Bigliardi) to hold on to it. His plan is to turn himself in, do a brief prison sentence, retrieve the cash, and then happily retire. After all, isn’t that better than working a soul-crushing gig for the next 25 years for the exact same payoff? His friend reluctantly agrees. Eventually, he stashes the loot deep in the countryside. And what happens after that turns Argentine writer-director Rodrigo Moreno’s debut feature into something way more thought-provoking, playful, and philosophical than your average heist movie. Does one live to work or work to live? What is your freedom worth to you? And where can I find a vinyl copy of the soundtrack, featuring the kick-ass Seventies South American rock band Pappo’s Blues? Read the full review here.
‘Anatomy of a Fall’
Filmmaker Justine Triet drops us into a mystery involving a German writer (Sandra Hüller, having a very good year — see also The Zone of Interest), a remote house in the French Alps, and a corpse. The dead man is her husband (Samuel Theis). The main suspect is the author herself. Whether her spouse fell or was pushed from the top floor of their dwelling becomes a matter for the courts to decide, at which point we begin to find out more and more about the couple’s highly mercurial history. A colleague described this as “Marriage Story but as a thriller,” which tracks — especially once an audio recording of an argument turns into a scathing, screaming, take-no-prisoners set piece. Bonus points for the most passive-aggressive use of 50 Cent’s “P.I.M.P” ever. Read the full review here.
‘The Quiet Girl’
A shy, withdrawn 12-year-old girl (Catherine Clinch) is sent to live with an older couple (Carrie Crawley and Andrew Bennett) on a farm for the summer. Her parents are neglectful at best and borderline abusive at worst; it takes a while for this lass to open up to these new guardians. Her caretakers have a tragedy in their past as well, and there’s a sense that the three of them need each other more than words can communicate. Director Colm Bairéad’s beautiful yet devastating story of the need for nurturing swept Ireland’s version of the Oscars last year, and it’s a great reminder that when you have a performer as emotionally open and expressive as Clinch, silence can indeed speak volumes. Rarely has a movie been this graceful in breaking your heart in two. Read the full review here.
In which Kelly Reichardt shows you why word work is a key part of “artwork.” Longtime collaborator/muse Michelle Williams is a Portland-based sculptor desperately trying to finish some final pieces for an upcoming gallery exhibit; everything from a wounded bird to her flighty landlord (Hong Chau, killing it as usual) seems to be conspiring against her, however. It’s a character study that, like so many of Reichardt’s best films (Old Joy, Wendy & Lucy, First Cow), makes you revise your opinion of the people at the center of these funky, oft-kilter portraits of off-balance lives. And it’s also a bone-dry comedy about the ways that the constant piling up of quotidian bullshit can send someone into a slow-burn meltdown. But it’s first and foremost a testimony not only to the labor involved in being creative but to those genuine artists — like Reichardt and Williams — who can make something this deep and complicated seem like the most naturally, casually brilliant masterwork around. Read the full review here.
Or: Frankenstein, but make it funnier, racier, and more feminist. Yorgos Lanthimos’ take on the Prometheus myth imagines a young woman named Bella Baxter — take a bow, Emma Stone — who’s resurrected from the dead by Willem Dafoe’s scarred scientist. Given the brain of a baby, Bella is forced to relearn everything from speaking to social graces. Then she discovers the joys of sex, and what follows is both a harsh education and well-earned empowerment. Reteaming with The Favourite screenwriter Tony McNamara, Lanthimos and his star gin up a throwback comedy of manners that revolves around a particularly repressive era’s attitudes toward women. The fairer sex may be married, imprisoned, fetishized, objectified, forced into motherhood, and treated like property. But they mustn’t feel physical pleasure. That way lies madness… for men. And thanks to Stone, we watch as the fallen angel stands up, dusts herself off and spreads her wings wide on her own sexed-up, pro-science terms. We’re all the richer for it. Read the full review here.
‘Killers of the Flower Moon’
Yes, the word “masterpiece” is overused a lot. But what else can you call a work that finds our greatest living American filmmaker Martin Scorsese turning a sprawling, three-and-a-half-hour drama involving power, corruption and our nation’s toxic past into an intimate story, without sacrificing its depth or scope? Less a straight adaptation of David Grann’s nonfiction bestseller than a complement to it, this throwback drama about a murder epidemic in the oil-rich Osage Nation circa the early 1920s narrows its focus on the love story between Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his wife Mollie (the extraordinary Lily Gladstone). She’s watched her mother and sisters perish via both a mysterious “wasting illness” and outright murder; the fear is that her husband and his big-shot uncle (Robert De Niro) are after her family’s wealth and land rights, and she’s next. It’s the closest thing Scorsese has made to a Western, and the extra emphasis on the clash between Jazz Age modernity and traditional Osage culture — as well as the threat of 20th century white supremacy — makes this a partial corrective to decades of movie mythology. Stunning, on every level. Read our full review here.
‘The Zone of Interest’
Jonathan Glazer‘s take on Martin Amis’s 2014 novel is a portrait of hell from the periphery. An S.S. officer (Christian Friedel) and his family live in the housing area surrounding Auschwitz; they throw pool parties and take afternoon tea with friends while chimneys belch black smoke in the distance. Glazer strips away the imagery we now associate with Holocaust dramas and puts his high-formalism style to perfect use, presenting an absolutely chilling look at how normalization works — at some point, you simply stop hearing the barking dogs, gunshots, and human suffering happening right outside your own backyard. This is what the banality around the banality of evil looks like. And Sandra Hüller, playing the officer’s raging wife, once again convinces you that she’s one of the most fearless international actors working today.
Once upon a time in Seoul, two kids — Na Young and Hae Sung — were the best of friends. Then her family immigrated to Canada, so whatever mutual childhood crush they harbored for each other is cut short. Years later, the now-grown Na Young (Greta Lee), who goes by Nora, reconnects with Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) over social media. She lives in New York. He’s still in South Korea. Eventually, communication stops. Life goes on. Nora gets married to a fellow writer (John Magaro). And then Hae finally makes good on his promise to come visit America. She offers to play tour guide. Every sightseeing excursion and catch-up exchange feels loaded. The feelings haven’t gone away. Neither of them know what’s going to happen next.
A playwright with a genuine feel for nuance and crafting characters so achingly real and recognizable that you feel like you’ve known them forever, writer-director Celine Song has a talent for letting things be left unsaid, and letting this central trio express themselves through unfinished sentences, casual asides, and glances; every hesitation and pause suggest short stories unto themselves. And with her first movie (drawn from her own autobiographical experiences), she already proves she can make the sort of intimate, character-driven romantic drama that never overplays its hand yet will gladly lubricate your tear ducts. It also makes you realize that Lee has been chronically underused as an actor — she’s never been given a chance like this to display her chops before, and takes full advantage of exploring this very complicated woman’s conflicted feelings. Most importantly, Past Lives takes what appears to be a simple story of unrequited love and gives it the depth, the feeling, and the emotional scope of something that feels so much larger than just a film. When we first saw this minor-key masterpiece back in January, we felt like we’d already seen the best movie of the year. All these months later, that feeling still remains. Read our full review here.