The past year in film was one of often startling contrasts. The “Barbenheimer” phenomenon existed alongside simultaneous Hollywood writer and actor strikes. Streaming services like Disney+ and Max savagely axed their catalogues to cut costs, even shelving finished projects. And, for every Sound of Freedom and Super Mario Bros Movie that supercharged the global box office, there was an equally massive commercial and critical disappointment (especially for Marvel or DC Comics properties).
However, if you were to judge 2023 solely by its creative output, you would be hard-pressed to deny the great year that it was. Yes, “Barbenheimer” was a huge win for original filmmaking, but outstanding international films continued to gain both box office and critical attention. From The Boy and the Heron and Godzilla Minus One to Past Lives and Anatomy of a Fall, this feels like a year where, due to the often-underwhelming output of American franchise filmmaking, audiences sought out sincere and moving stories from around the globe.
The year was also full of thematic contrasts. It seemed like every other acclaimed film was about the banality of evil and how cruel humanity can be. And yet, my list of the best films of the year also includes celebrations of joy, love, peace, and understanding. And even, sometimes, of hope. So, cheers to the beautiful and chaotic year that was 2023 in film, and I hope you enjoy my picks for the 20 best films I saw this past year.
10. AMERICAN FICTION
American Fiction is a razor-sharp and thought-provoking satire of the modern world of book publishing and the intellectual gatekeepers that marginalize and fetishize black voices. And, while the film is often hilarious, it’s also sad and profound in a way that knocked me off balance and left me walking away mightily impressed. In what seems a banner year for debut features, Cord Jefferson’s adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel “Erasure” is also a welcome star-turn for the always-excellent character actor Jeffrey Wright.
Here, Wright plays Monk, a college professor and writer who is struggling to sell books. He is an African American author who would rather be known as “author” first, but lives in a world where being “black” carries a certain set of expectations from white publishers. At a writing conference, he discovers fellow black author Sintara Golden (Isaa Rae) and her latest wildly successful novel full of black stereotypes. Exasperated, he decides to punk his editor by submitting “My Pafology,” a supposedly semi-autobiographical novel that plays to similar tropes. Of course, the publishers love it, and Monk decides to see how far he can take the ruse without becoming the sellout he so despises.
The film obviously touches on some provocative themes, but it does so in a warm and very believable way. A good chunk of the film is taken up with Monk’s strained relationship with his family, including his aging mother Agnes (Leslie Uggams), his sister Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross), and his volatile brother Cliff (Sterling K. Brown). Thanks to smart writing and excellent performances, the satire never becomes overwhelming or too preachy. Instead, Jefferson weaves a tight narrative where most scenes and conversations are filled with meanings and subtexts that flesh themselves out beautifully over the course of the film. The movie is memorable throughout, but it’s the ending that truly cements it as a great one. It’s just as surprising and disorienting as the rest of the film, but it’s also a multidimensional commentary on the ephemeral nature of storytelling and the way that lies can easily become truth if we let them. This truly wonderful film goes on a confident high note.
9. AMERICAN SYMPHONY/STILL: A MICHAEL J. FOX MOVIE/BONO & THE EDGE: A SORT OF HOMECOMING WITH DAVID LETTERMAN
I present to you three equally engrossing documentary portraits of artists and the joys and sacrifices of bringing your art into the world. American Symphony is the deeply moving portrait of musician Jon Batiste, whose career skyrockets into the stratosphere while his wife, writer Suleika Jaouad, faces a prolonged and brutal battle with cancer. This is an utterly compelling tearjerker of the best kind, one that attempts to understand how the spiritual ecstasy of creating beautiful sounds can exist beside heartbreak over our own mortality. It’s also one of the best love stories brought to film, as we see that no amount of notoriety can replace the innate human desire to be deeply known and loved.
Speaking of love, that’s an emotion that radiates off the screen in Davis Guggenheim’s portrait of actor Michael J. Fox entitled Still. Narrated by Fox himself, and bolstered by some tasteful and well-done reenactments, this documentary shows the famous actor as a man with a lot of love to give. It’s the kind of love that transcends something like a Parkinson’s diagnosis. Fox’s retrospective of his career—and how he hid his condition from the world for years—is fascinating, but the film is more concerned with how one perseveres through adversity. Although it can be difficult to see him in his condition as he works with a physical trainer to continue basic motor function, we see the love Fox has for his wife and kids, for his career, and for the community that has gathered around him in the wake of his diagnosis and tireless advocacy for Parkinson’s research and treatment. As with much of Guggenheim’s other work, this is a documentary for people who don’t like documentaries, filled with gorgeous compositions and a steadfast commitment to never water down the material or lionize his subject. Whether you are a fan of Fox and his work or not, this is a can’t-miss experience.
Although Guggenheim directed the terrific U2 documentary From the Sky Down, this year brought us another intimate look at the boys from Dublin courtesy of Oscar-winning director Morgan Neville. Unlike the other two documentaries that share this spot, Bono & The Edge: A Sort of Homecoming with David Letterman is a bit of a tougher sell for non-fans of the prolific Irish rock band. But I think that everyone should be fans of U2, and this film presents the best case I’ve seen for why their music matters. U2 superfan David Letterman leads us on an intimate journey with frontman Bono and guitarist The Edge. Through their eyes we get a moving portrait of the power of community when it comes to making music. Bono and The Edge are humble throughout, taking the time to share memories of their hometown and their gratitude for the experiences that informed who they are as artists. We are treated to some undeniably thrilling jam sessions throughout the film, including some with Dublin musician Glen Hansard, known for his role in the classic music film Once. While in their hometown, the boys decide to put on an impromptu concert for locals; David Letterman joyfully inviting people to the free show is one of the more delightful cinematic experiences I had this year. The concert itself is interspersed throughout the film, and the result is breathtaking. Neville’s veteran filmmaking style and the band’s connection with the audience help to create some truly unmissable footage.
8. RYE LANE
Think of it as a funnier Before Sunrise. Yes, Raine Allen-Miller’s south London-set romantic comedy draws heavy comparisons to Richard Linklater’s iconic trilogy. It’s about two young, idealistic people who spend the day together, taking in the sights of the city after a chance encounter. But the film’s bold stylistic choices, vibrant colors, and cheeky tone set it apart from its influences.
Allen-Miller’s secret sauce is in the wonderful performers she found to make her characters come to life. Yas (Vivian Oparah) and Dom (Damian Jones) are two struggling black artists who meet at an art exhibition. Almost immediately, the film makes these two loveable and relatable despite their flaws. Dom is grieving the loss of a long-term relationship and has moved back in with his parents. Yas is a free spirit and aspiring costume designer who has also recently gone through a break-up. Their relationship and banter feel quite natural, despite the artificial nature of the setup, and the performances and dialogue shine throughout.
The movie also is a great slice-of-life portrait of south London, capturing some truly hilarious and bizarre background characters that may have been staged but could just have easily been filmed guerilla style. That’s how authentic the movie feels. There’s even a cameo from a famous actor that I won’t spoil, but it’s to the film’s credit that I almost didn’t recognize him, and totally bought him as a purveyor of uncomfortably spicy burritos.
Perhaps the film’s greatest strength is that it tells its delightful tale in a brief 82 minutes. Obviously, given the rest of this list, I have no qualms with long movies that earn their runtime, but there’s something so refreshing about a movie this good being this short. Even more reason to check out this underrated gem of a film.
7. THE HOLDOVERS
Some might call Alexander Payne’s wonderful 70’s throwback film a new holiday classic, but it deserves to be so much more than a “Christmas” movie. Payne and screenwriter David Hemingson craft a funny, soulful, and redemptive portrait of love as sacrifice, and of finding out what it means to really “see” someone different from yourself.
The trio of performances at the film’s center are what draw us in and keep us glued to our seats. There’s the curmudgeonly “walleyed” boarding school professor Paul Hunham (a never-better Paul Giamatti), his intelligent but volatile student Angus (newcomer Dominic Sessa), and the school cafeteria administrator Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph). Through the machinations of the film, all three are “held over” and forced to wander the cold and lonely halls of Barton Academy while the other students get to enjoy their Christmas break.
From the beginning, the trio does not get along. Paul is strict and set in his ways. Angus is lashing out from the emotional wounds inflicted by a volatile home life. And Mary is grieving the loss of her young son in the Vietnam War. The way that Hemingson’s script peels back the layers of these characters is mighty impressive, and I found even more depth and richness to his approach upon a second viewing. As Paul and Angus begin to “see” one another through their various escapades, they begin to form a deep connection that is hard to put into words. And, while Mary often acts as the mediator between the two stubborn men, she may require someone to really see her as well.
The Holdovers is heartwarming without being sappy and emotionally raw without being depressing. Every moment of understanding and reconciliation feels earned, because we intimately understand what makes these characters tick. The sum of the film’s lessons may not be particularly revelatory, but it is undeniably effective. Oh, and I should also mention that Eigil Bryld’s grainy 70’s cinematography and the on-point retro soundtrack endear the film to my heart even further.
6. PAST LIVES
This film may be one of the saddest I have ever seen, and by that, I mean it is heartbreaking in all the best ways. Rooted in the concept of reincarnation, Celine Song’s extraordinary directorial debut wonders what our worlds may have looked like in “past lives,” and connects the themes of love, loneliness, and destiny through this idea that the end is never the end.
Consistently throughout, Song never gives us exactly what we expect from a story like this. When Nora (Greta Lee) reconnects with her childhood crush Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) decades after their childhood in South Korea, we expect the pair to re-energize a romance and for Nora to leave her husband Arthur (John Magaro) for the man she seems destined to be with. But Song’s concept of destiny is far more bittersweet, played out as Nora and Hae Sung continue to try and reconnect over the years. Eventually, they are forced to acknowledge that, perhaps, the moment has passed, and they’ll have to take comfort in who they were to one another in a “past” life.
The film is beautiful, with marvelous cinematography, haunting music, and astonishing performances. We feel for all three of these characters, even Arthur, whom a lesser film might have made into some kind of snob or villain. Instead, Arthur is a wonderful and understanding husband, even if he is not entirely sure what to make of Nora and Hae Sung’s relationship. The movie is emotionally honest in a way that is unfortunately rare in contemporary cinema, and it has a deep understanding of the inherent dignity of love and commitment, even when such things are crushingly hard.
5. JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 4
I think it’s safe to say that John Wick is the one of the premiere action movie franchises. Keanu Reeves’ iconic character’s relentless campaign against the High Table has produced increasingly legendary movies with boundary-pushing stunts. Thankfully, this trend continued with Chapter 4, which is nothing less than action movie nirvana. Clocking in at close to three hours, this is another very long movie on this year’s list. And, while the early minutes of the film lay a lot of plot groundwork, the remainder of the time is filled with a litany of banger action sequences.
Is it possible to choose a favorite? There’s the brutal ninja melee in Japan, the brawl in Harkan’s nightclub, the car chase around the Arc de Triomphe, the “bird’s eye” shotgun sequence, and the climactic shootout among the steps of the Rue Foyatier, just to name a few. This film is the ultimate test: is there such a thing as too much John Wick? The answer is a definitive “no.”
It’s not just the action set pieces that make this franchise so great, but also the characters and worldbuilding. There’s a whole internal logic to this world of gentlemen (and women) assassins that I find absolutely riveting, and what reinforces this high action concept is the strength of the performances. Every supporting player up to Reeves himself sells this material and brings the weight needed to raise the stakes with each action sequence. In particular, Donnie Yen’s blind swordsman Caine is a welcome addition to the cast, and Yen is such a charismatic performer that it’s an absolute delight to see him show off again. What else can I say? I’m sure there are lots of things about this franchise that you could nitpick, but, for me, it’s entirely too impressive to ignore. I’d say John Wick is back, and it feels better than ever.
4. KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON
Whatever happened to bring about Martin Scorsese’s late-career renaissance, I am thankful. The legendary filmmaker’s latest string of masterpieces reveals the depth and introspection of a man who is determined to wrestle with his legacy through painful but undeniably effective means. Silence was his haunting dissection of the religious epic. The Irishman was his reckoning with the legacy of gangster flicks. And now, Killers of the Flower Moon arrives as both an epic tale of the American West and a tragedy about the ways in which white men have coerced, killed, and manipulated to ensure that they are the winners who write the history books.
The film is startling in its stark and unfussed depiction of the Osage murders, a string of violence against Native Americans that occurred in 1920’s Oklahoma after oil was discovered on Native land. Of course, white men show up to ensure that such a rich resource, and the wealth that comes with it, stay in the most “responsible” hands. In steps the ruthless entrepreneur William Hale (played with cold perfection by Robert DeNiro) who ingratiates himself with the Osage and lures his gullible nephew Earnest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) into his schemes. One of their most nefarious scams involves courting Osage women from wealthy oil families and then legally taking their money through marriage. And they have no qualms about murdering and blackmailing anyone who gets in their way.
The warmer and more idealistic filmmaker who crafted stories like The Aviator and Hugo is almost completely gone here. This movie is ice cold, as Eric Roth’s script refuses to editorialize the hard truth and brutality of this shameful period in American history. In that way, it reminded me very much of 12 Years A Slave, another film that took an almost documentary-style approach to cataloguing the horrors of our not-so-distant past. This is, in my view, the appropriate way to approach such heavy material. No one is asking for comic relief or levity in such a weighty story.
At 3 and a half hours, the movie is definitely a long sit, and it feels its length. That’s not to say that the movie is boring or slow, only that Scorsese takes the time to tell the story right. There are layers that reveal themselves over the unspooling of the hours, and the film ultimately weaves an intoxicating spell. It’s the rare movie of such length that mostly earns its runtime, although I do admit the film could have used a little more trimming.
The other aspect of the movie that truly kept my attention was the acting. The heart and soul of the film is Lily Gladstone, who plays Earnest’s wife and eventual mark Mollie. In a heartbreaking performance, Gladstone portrays Mollie with nuance and depth as her genuine love for Earnest curdles into hatred and, eventually, pity. She does so in a physically demanding performance that is nothing short of astonishing.
Killers of the Flower Moon is ultimately a movie that fires on all cylinders. Scorsese’s assured direction combines with great acting, a memorable score, stunning cinematography, and stellar production design to create a truly must-see epic tragedy.
3. SPIDER-MAN: ACROSS THE SPIDER VERSE
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was an intimidating act to follow. Not only was it an Oscar winner and critical darling, but it was also a cultural phenomenon, ushering in a new era of animation that moves away from more “realistic” 3D modeling and embraces a more painterly or “drawn on” aesthetic (see also this year’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem). It was, in short, a landmark. Thankfully, the creators of the first film didn’t let all that praise go to their heads. Instead, they created an impressive sequel that takes the resonant themes and endearing characters of the original and expands upon them in epic fashion.
The allure of this particular Spidey franchise goes well beyond mere eye candy. It’s the way the animation is incorporated into the storytelling that truly sets it apart. For example, when we begin the film with Spider Gwen’s narration, we see her perspective through a visual style that immediately marks it as her own. We don’t even need dialogue; we just know we’re in Gwen Stacy’s world. The film’s knack for trusting its audience to gel with its unique storytelling is its greatest strength, as each universe we see is distinctly animated. Of course, we also see the return of Miles Morales as he is drawn into a dizzying multiversal saga. Yes, multiverses in pop culture are played out, but Across the Spider-Verse proves a potent last gasp (in easy contrast to the sloppy worldbuilding in something like The Flash).
At 2 hours and 20 minutes, the movie is admittedly lengthy, but it’s so breathlessly paced and visually dazzling that the minutes fly by. It’s a lot of movie, but thankfully that just means that the film demands to be seen more than once. On second viewing, my appreciation for the intricate storytelling and litany of “wow” moments only deepened. This is truly the Empire Strikes Back of Spidey flicks. Were it not for the unsatisfying cliffhanger ending, it may have earned the top spot on my list.
I am not sure “filmmaker” is an apt title to apply to veteran director Christopher Nolan. “Magician” might be a more appropriate moniker. Who else but a magician could conjure up such an engrossing, artistically daring, and intricately beautiful three-hour epic about the father of the atomic bomb? With Oppenheimer, Nolan establishes himself as the modern-day David Lean, taking an almost impossibly grand subject and scope and making it feel both heartbreakingly intimate and larger-than-life. Nolan has sometimes struggled in his career to balance his narratives with his grand visual and technological ambitions. In other words, he hasn’t always passed the “will I still like it when I watch it again on streaming?” test. Yes, his latest masterwork should absolutely be seen on the biggest screen possible. But the complex, layered storytelling, masterful characterization, and relentless pacing make it a biopic for the history books, one that will be studied and analyzed for years to come.
Why is it that a film with such manic jumps between time periods and complex technical jargon never feels like its daunting run time? It has a lot to do with vision. Nolan’s staunch commitment to showing both the benefits and the horrors of such an endeavor is woven throughout the movie, as he refuses to paint characters with a broad brush or convey anyone as truly hero or villain (minus the Nazis, of course). Rober J. Oppenheimer, played brilliantly by a never-better Cillian Murphy, is a daring and committed visionary who also alienates friends, cheats on his wife, and is haunted by the specter of what he has unleased upon the world. The film is based on the book American Prometheus, and I can’t imagine a more apt title for what Oppenheimer brought to the world. We have the great and terrible gift of a new kind of fire, and we can never go back. This culminates in a Nolan staple—a technically daring and nail-biting trailer-fodder sequence. Here, it’s the Trinity test—the first detonation of the atomic bomb. It’s an extraordinary scene, but it’s a later scene that cements the film as a classic. Oppenheimer, giving a speech to a gymnasium full of cheering Americans waving their patriotic flags—sees an apocalyptic and horrifying vision. He sees skin peeling off a woman’s face, people crying and vomiting, and the ashy husk of a human being. It’s a terrifying moment of moral crisis—and a true testament to the power of film when performance, direction, sound design, music, visual effects, cinematography, and editing all come together to create something unforgettable. Nolan and his team’s commitment to their vision and the morally knotty conclusions that result help to create a haunting magnum opus.
- Anatomy of a Fall
This is the kind of movie that makes me feel bad for other movies. Justine Triet’s scorching Palme d’Or winner is both a gripping courtroom drama and a clear-eyed portrait of the disintegration of a marriage. The “fall” of the title refers both to the fatal fall of Samuel Maleski (Samuel Theis) at his winter Grenoble chalet and to the resulting fallout for wife Sandra (Sandra Huller). She is the prime suspect and their vision-impaired son Daniel (Milo Machado Graner) is the sole witness. The film’s Golden Globe-winning script (written by Triet and Arthur Harari) is remarkably perceptive about human nature and the lies and resentments that build up when couples see their paths in life as separate. The film masterfully teases out revelations as a seemingly happy marriage begins to show cracks. While Sandra is being interrogated by a ruthless prosecutor in court, we find out, for example, that Samuel began recording his and Sandra’s conversations in the days leading up to his death. Well, that’s not normal. We also get conflicting statements about the husband and wife’s character from therapists and other folks who hovered around the periphery of their lives.
Without giving too much away, it does the film a disservice to ask “Did Sandra kill her husband, or was it an accident?” Instead, the film is more interested in the irreparable harm that is done to a person when his or her life is dissected in public, every intimate detail and off-hand remark suddenly a confession or a clue. Nowhere is this theme more powerfully conveyed than through the character of Daniel. As a young boy being asked to shoulder a tremendous burden, he is torn between the love he feels for both parents and the shock of his father’s sudden death. Graner’s performance is a revelation, as he is often asked to convey such deep emotion with little more than facial expressions and body language.
Anatomy of a Fall is, above all, a convicting film, pointing the finger at us, the audience, for being so engrossed in the salacious details of true-crime documentaries and tabloid headlines that we forget the human beings—who are never entirely heroes or victims—behind the media frenzy. I braced myself for a “twist” ending that would shed a definitive light on what happened to Samuel. But, thankfully, that moment never came. This movie is way too good to resort to such cheap storytelling tricks. No, the ending of this masterpiece reminds us that life keeps on going, even if we never get the closure we desire this side of heaven. It’s a hard, bitter truth, but one that the film conveys with a beauty and grace that feels effortless.
Here are my #11-20 picks:
- Are You there God? It’s Me, Margaret
- Mission: Impossible: Dead Reckoning—Part 1
- A Thousand and One
- May December
- Creed III
Some of this year’s major blind spots include Poor Things, Showing Up, Godland, Close, You Hurt My Feelings, Blackberry, The Iron Claw, Ferrari, The Zone of Interest, Sisu, Rustin, The Blackening, Saltburn, Godzilla Minus One, Dumb Money, and Nyad. Let me know which of these or others are worth checking out!