My Top Films of 2023

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

    1. 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
    • Barbie
    • Suzume
    • A Thousand and One
    • May December
    • Creed III
    • Maestro
    • Linoleum
    • Reality 

    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!

    My top films of 2021

    The movie industry, much like the rest of society, found itself at an uncomfortable and crucial crossroads in 2021. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, traditional theatrical releases had to succumb to the whims of virus variants and picky moviegoers: risking severe illness and/or death to go see a movie is unsurprisingly not a good bargain for most movie fans. Thus, many of the year’s standout releases were once again streaming titles: from award-winning prestige dramas like The Power of the Dog on Netflix to hybrid releases like Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi epic Dune, many of the year’s most talked-about releases were enjoyed almost exclusively from the comfort and safety of home.

    Those films that did brave the theatrical waters fought an uphill battle. For every success (like Disney and Marvel’s smash hit Spider-Man: No Way Home) there was an equally calamitous disaster (West Side Story’s paltry $31 million total to date has signaled an inauspicious return for the traditional movie musical).

    But, from a creative standpoint, the year that was 2021 came out swinging. Many of cinema’s greatest auteurs, including Guillermo Del Toro, Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson and Jane Campion debuted highly anticipated new releases. Meanwhile, actors continued to make the successful transition to the director’s chair, including standout efforts from Maggie Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, to name a few.

    But what cinema ultimately represented this year is a powerful theme: that identity can only be found in the context of a loving and caring community. Almost every movie of note dealt with this theme, from the family bonds of Encanto to the unlikely brotherhood presented in Riders of Justice, countless films this year helped audiences ruminate on the importance of embracing our true individual identity by leaning on the people around us. And, for many exhausted, quarantined movie fans, such messages brought hope and healing. As art so often does, the cinema brought us together even when we seemed so impossibly far apart. And we should all be so thankful for that.

    So, without further ado, here are my picks for the best films of 2021!

    *Side note: with the extension of awards-season submissions, you will see several films represented here that are technically 2020 releases, including a prestigious Oscar winner. However, because no one in the general public was able to see these films until mid-February at the earliest, I went ahead and counted them as 2021 movies for my purposes, since this was the year most people outside of critics’ circles were able to experience them. *  

    10. Belfast

    Actor Kenneth Branaugh has had a spotty career as a director, but few would deny that the heartfelt, semi-autobiographical masterwork Belfast ranks among his best efforts. His unabashed crowd-pleaser about three generations of a family in Northern Ireland caught in the crossfires of the tumultuous late 1960s is a harrowing tale that nonetheless manages to uplift and inspire. Shot in stunning black-and-white, the film is told from the perspective of Buddy, played by Jude Hill, who gives one of the best child performances in years. He is a revelation, but the supporting cast is absolutely stacked: Caitriona Balfe, Judi Dench, Ciaran Hinds and Jamie Dornan all do some career-best work. It’s no surprise that Branaugh would be a keen director of actors, but what is more surprising is the beauty and sensitivity of his script. It recounts a tragic history with a light, nostalgic touch that conveys both the innocence and the startling perceptiveness of childhood. The result is an absolute delight from start to finish.

    9. Encanto/The Mitchells vs. the Machines (tie)

    The past year was a great one for fans of sophisticated, boundary-pushing animation. It was so good, in fact, that two movies I loved equally are sharing a spot here. Encanto is Disney’s Animation’s best effort in years, featuring vibrant visuals, brilliant songs written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, and a challenging and complex moral that proves equally impactful for kids and adults. For those who haven’t seen it, the less you know going in the better. It’s now available to stream on Disney+.

    The Mitchells vs. the Machines doesn’t have the same heartfelt story as Encanto, but it’s easily the funniest and most creative movie I saw this year. Producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller continue their hot streak of top-tier animation (these are the guys that brought us Spider-Man: Into the Spider verse and The Lego Movie) with a wonderful adventure about a family learning to accept each other, flaws and all, while trying to save the world from a robot apocalypse.

    The story and writing often feel influenced by classic Simpsons (very high praise), but the animation is boundary-pushing in true Lord-Miller fashion, with creative use of 2-D drawing, shading and stylistic changes that give this film a look unlike any animated movie before it. And trust me when I say you will be in tears of laughter throughout. With an inspiring message, stunning animation and a stellar voice cast, The Mitchells vs. the Machines absolutely slays. It’s available to stream on Netflix.

    8. Pig

    If you had told me at the beginning of 2021 that a movie starring Nicholas Cage as a truffle hunter who goes on a journey of self-discovery as he searches relentlessly for his beloved stolen truffle pig would wind up as one of the best films of the year, I would have sincerely questioned your sanity. And yet, Michael Sarnoski’s directorial debut is one of the most moving portraits of grief and loneliness I’ve seen in recent years.

    The film is also a showcase for just what a gift we have in Nicholas Cage. This is easily some of the best work of his career, a reminder that, when given the right material, the veteran actor can move us to tears. Yes, he’s known more for his camp and over-the-top performances these days, but the range he displays here is nothing short of breathtaking. There is a lengthy conversation scene between Cage’s character and a chef in a restaurant that is such an acting tour-de-force I had to pick my jaw off the floor when it was over. This is not your traditional renegade revenge thriller and thank God for that. The world needs more movies like Pig.

    7. Rocks

    This British import was quietly released on Netflix way back in February and received a rapturous response from the few critics and audience members who saw it. It’s a shame that this masterful coming-of-age story seems to have gotten lost in the embarrassment of riches that was 2021 cinema, because it’s one of the most raw and honest portraits of girlhood ever put to screen. Bukky Barkay is absolutely brilliant as Shola ‘Rocks’ Omotoso, a teenage girl navigating the trials of adolescence while also taking care of her sweet but challenging younger brother. After the two are abandoned by their mother, they are forced to fend for themselves while avoiding the specter of separation that would likely come from being taken in by Social Services.

    Director Sarah Gavron’s decision to hire mostly non-professional actors from in and around East London results in a realistic and pitch-perfect portrait of adolescent crisis. The movie is funny and uplifting, but also heartbreaking. The acting, writing and directing all work together to make us care for Rocks and wish the best for her, even as she understandably gets frustrated and makes mistakes. A young girl having to suddenly take on the responsibilities of an adult is something that happens in the real world far too often, and the film shines a harsh light on girls throughout the world who are dealt a similar unfair hand by life. And yet, hope remains, once again found in the context of lasting friendships and a faithful and loving community. Bring tissues for this one.

    6. West Side Story/In the Heights (tie)

    I sincerely hope that the meager box office returns of 2021 don’t scare Hollywood away from a musical renaissance. We need these stories, now more than ever, because musicals give us a feeling of joy and celebration that’s hard to replicate in other film genres. From Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tick…Tick…Boom and Vivo to Dear Evan Hansen (not nearly as terrible as its reputation suggests), fans of musicals had no shortage of movies to get excited about. But two films stood out above the rest, and they are sharing a spot because they are both examples of top-tier artistry and what this genre can do when given the creative freedom to fly.

    Believe it or not, Lin-Manuel Miranda had yet another critically acclaimed project this year (if this guy isn’t entertainer of the year, I can’t think of anyone else who could take that crown). Based on Miranda’s award-winning musical, In the Heights is a truly terrific film, combining toe-tapping tunes, endlessly creative dance numbers (seriously, that pool scene!) and an enviable amount of rising young acting talent that you will be hearing more from soon. Director Jon M. Chu (of Crazy Rich Asians fame) once again shows his knack for conveying the beauty and bonds of minority life in America as the immigrant community of Washington Heights grapples with the dissonance between the persistence of their dreams and the disappointments and missed opportunities of their daily lives. Chu wisely used lots of relatively unknown actors, which may have hurt the film’s box office receipts but lent a charming and lived-in vibe to the project. If you’re looking for a technically complex and engaging movie that will keep a smile on your face from beginning to end, this is the definition of a must-see.

    West Side Story, for the few people who may not know, is another classic musical about immigrant life in America that also happens to be a modernized song-and-dance interpretation of Romeo and Juliet. This story of the ethnic conflict between rival gangs the Jets and the Sharks, and the doomed lovers on both sides of the division, received a classic, Oscar-winning adaptation from Robert Wise back in 1961. That film, while undeniably a landmark, hasn’t aged particularly well; it has that glossy, manufactured quality that many stage-to-screen adaptations struggled with at the time. Steven Spielberg’s remake, however, is an improvement over the original film in almost every way. The choreography is stunning, the camerawork is consistently clever, and the performances are almost all outstanding. I especially loved Rachel Zegler as Maria, Ariana DeBose as Anita, Mike Faist as Rift, and original “Anita” Rita Moreno in a new role that will absolutely melt your heart. I had the pleasure of seeing this film in the theater, and what a joyous experience to be completely lost in a world and a story for 2.5 hours! This remake obviously had big shoes to fill, but Spielberg proves that he can still do what he does best—enchant us, transport us, and move us in a way no other living filmmaker can.

    5. The Green Knight

    Of any film on this list, this one comes with the most caveats. By which I mean that The Green Knight is a challenging film from a challenging filmmaker (David Lowery, whose previous credits include A Ghost Story, which I absolutely hated). And yet, I had high hopes for this idiosyncratic storyteller’s interpretation of an Arthurian legend. And man, was my hype ever justified. Let me repeat: this movie is not for everyone. I don’t even know if it’s for most people. But I was utterly transfixed from start to finish, lost in some of the most immersive cinematography and production design I’ve seen in years.

    The story, as much as there is one, follows Sir Gawain, King Arthur’s nephew, as he attempts to live up to his bloodline by embarking on a mythic quest to confront the Green Knight, an ominous and mysterious challenger. Gawain’s desire to prove himself in the eyes of his community is brought to life by actor Dev Patel, who was a bold casting choice and gives what is easily the best performance of his career. Patel plays Gawain as believable and relatable every step of the way, even as the character acts increasingly despicably to get the so-called “honor” he feels he deserves.

    The Green Knight is a psychologically intense and disturbing character study, and the film’s ending is likely the most cryptic of any film released this year. And yet, even when we can’t quite piece together everything that is going on, we trust the journey to the hands of an undeniably brilliant filmmaker. I could tell from beginning to end that every choice Lowery made was deliberate and purposeful. It’s a rare storyteller that can earn your trust while giving you so little to hold on to in terms of moment-to-moment plot and character development. You must have confidence in the journey. And, while you may love or hate the result, you’ll have a hard time denying that The Green Knight is quite unlike any film you’ve seen before.

    4. The Power of the Dog

    Jane Campion’s highly anticipated return to the director’s chair for the first time since 2009’s Bright Star did not disappoint, as the Kiwi auteur crafts a brilliant and emotionally brutal portrait of life lived on the margins. Her period piece tackles such potent themes as toxic masculinity, homophobia, and sexual repression through the landscape of the American west, where the very idea of what it means to be a man holds a very narrow definition. Benedict Cumberbatch is cast in a career-best role as Phil Burbank, a charismatic cattle rancher who simultaneously plays both victim and perpetrator of these societal restrictions and stereotypes. Cumberbatch plays Phil as a simmering kettle, all seething rage and cruelty, yet the film’s nuanced script reveals layers that almost make the man seem sympathetic, or at least human. And yet, the campaign of wounded terror he exerts over his family, including his brother (Jesse Plemmons), his brother’s wife (Kirsten Dunst) and her teenage son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), is anything but sympathetic.

    The Power of the Dog is the kind of film that reveals itself in layers, slowly peeling back the revelations and character motivations the way a master carver gradually changes common wood into something recognizable, a work of art.  It took me basically the entire length of the film to realize I hadn’t taken a true breath, so enthralled and terrified I was by the brutal artistry unfolding before me. Make no mistake, the film is Campion’s masterpiece, surpassing the already excellent The Piano and establishing herself as one of the most accomplished writer-directors in the world. The Power of the Dog is a true masterpiece in every sense of the word—all aspects from performance to writing to music, cinematography, and editing work together to weave an unforgettable tapestry that cuts deep. From its opening shot to its devastating and haunting climax, it’s truly a film that is not to be missed.

    3. The Father

    Legendary actor Anthony Hopkins deservedly won his second Best Actor Oscar last year for this astonishing portrait of a brilliant mind diminished by the ravages of dementia. Although the film made it to last year’s Oscars due to an extended eligibility deadline, it reached U.S. audiences at the end of February, making it truly a 2021 release. The film also took home an Oscar for best adapted screenplay, which director Florian Zeller adapted from his stage play. It’s astonishing that this accomplished playwright has never written or directed a film before, because this film is as close to perfect as movies get.

    The Father puts audiences in the shoes of someone dealing with memory loss like no film before it. It’s nothing short of breathtaking that a movie can so thoroughly and convincingly mess with your head. Told from Hopkins’ character’s perspective (who is also named Anthony), the film establishes the rules for how we think the events are going to play out, then pulls the rug out from under us. Characters we have been introduced to may suddenly reappear but played by a completely different actor. Entire conversations will be repeated, but suddenly take on a very different tone. The result is disorienting and profoundly upsetting. I remember shouting at the screen, “No, that’s not right. This person is an imposter!” Maybe they are, and maybe they’re not. Nothing is really answered until the film’s haunting final moments, where Hopkins can release the emotions that his character and the audience have been frustratingly unable to articulate for the previous 90 minutes. It’s a remarkably cathartic moment from an actor who is firing on all cylinders, and a potent reminder that film is an incredible tool for generating empathy for those whose experience we can’t directly relate to. What a gift this movie is, to the world of cinema but also to the world of those silently suffering, hoping for someone to understand their pain.

    2. Nomadland

    Here’s the big one, the film that had every critic singing its praises when the end-of-year lists were tallied at the end of 2020. I knew for a fact that this was not going to be on my list last year, because the first available opportunity I had to see it was when it released on Hulu in February. But man, was it ever worth the wait. Nomadland is a salve for a wounded society, a reminder that kindness, gentleness, courage, and compassion are what will bring us together in these trying times.

    Chloe Zhao’s Best Picture Oscar winner follows the life of Fern (played by Frances McDormand, who also won for her portrayal here), a woman in her sixties who loses everything during the Great Recession and embraces her new life as modern-day nomad, traveling across the American landscape as she takes on odd jobs and finds an incredible community of free people across the nation. The film also won a trophy for Zhao’s direction, which, in her trademark style, is both epic and intimate, imbued with tremendous compassion for the outcasts and forgotten members of society. I am so thankful that her work has been recognized and praised so highly (so much so that she took the helm of a big-budget Marvel film in The Eternals, which was also released in 2021).

    Zhao’s most brilliant choice was to cast mostly non-actors as those Fern meets across her travels. This gives the film a documentary-like authenticity, much like she did in The Rider when she cast Brady Jandreau to star in a fictionalized version of his own story suffering from a rodeo-induced skull fracture. Here, that technique works particularly well, as it allows us to get to know and love these people who all have a story and a reason for becoming “homeless,” although most nomads would shudder at that word. Once again, Zhao has crafted a masterpiece of empathy, one that results not in pity or sadness for so-called “outcasts” but, rather, respect and admiration. This life takes courage, grit, and a sense of self that isn’t tied to material possessions or earthly ideas of success. Truly, it feels like many of these folks are closer to God’s Kingdom than the rest of us, so distracted as we are by our politics and our romances and our egos and our stuff. One gets a sense that these folks are living the true American dream, rightly defined: a life of freedom, of purity, of gratitude. We should all be so lucky to hope for such a life, even as we recognize that we wouldn’t wish it upon ourselves or anyone we love. This movie left me feeling convicted, yes, but also uplifted. It truly is a masterpiece that will stand the test of time as an emotional and flawless ode to the lasting impact of the families we make in this life, not just the ones we are given.

    1. Summer of Soul/Procession (tie)

    For my top film of the year, I present to you a two-fer. Documentaries have a sneaky habit of topping my best films of the year list (Time and Won’t You Be My Neighbor being the examples in recent years), and despite the wide variety of films released in 2021, this year continues the trend. These films are very different, but they moved me in equally profound ways, and stand as two of the best documentaries I have ever seen.

    Summer of Soul (Or…When the Revolution Could Not be Televised), is a joyful celebration of the power of music to unite people around an identity rooted in a time and place. Legendary musician Questlove makes his directorial debut here, drawing upon reams of extraordinary footage taken during the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival (also known as black Woodstock) but rendered unused and unseen for 50 years. Questlove takes the time to set the stage, telling us through contemporary talking heads why this festival was so culturally impactful for African Americans and why its themes and revelations echo through to today. But what truly makes this film perhaps the greatest music documentary of all time is the performances, which are given room to play out in their entirety. From the joyous early-career performances of Gladys Knight and the Pips and Stevie Wonder to the socially conscious and controversial musings of Nina Simone, the Harlem Cultural Festival created a perfect storm of black pride and social consciousness. The rage and fear African Americans felt exist hand-in-hand with the hope, pride and redemptive messages that black America embraced despite their hardships. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the film’s emotional high point, a moving performance of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” by Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples that will have even the hardest cynic in tears. The word “transcendent” is not a word that should be used lightly or regularly when describing a work of art, but it’s the most appropriate word here. If you haven’t experienced it, stop whatever you’re doing and catch in on Hulu right now.

    An equally profound, but far more emotionally brutal, documentary premiered on Netflix at the tail end of November 2021. Procession is an unforgettable testament to the therapeutic power of art, as a group of men connected by the worst possible thread come together to confront the demons of their past and find healing and hope in the power of a brotherhood none of them ever expected or asked for.

    Veteran documentary filmmaker Robert Greene took a big risk in asking for these men to come together, as they all suffered boyhood sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic priests connected to the Kansas City, Missouri diocese. Greene gathered them along with their dedicated attorney and an art therapist to direct a series of short films about how the abuse has affected their lives to this day. In the wrong hands, such material can feel gross or exploitative, and yet, using a similar conceit as that in The Act of Killing, performance brings about revelation and the hope of a way forward. Seeing these men confront their abuse head-on and willingly confront long-buried demons is about the most inspiring thing you could possibly imagine witnessing. They are true heroes in every sense of the word; they have been bent but never broken, wounded, but refusing to be crushed.

    Procession is a remarkably clear-eyed and profound portrait, one that cuts deep by once again showing the healing that art can bring to long-festering wounds. The film balances an appropriate mix of rage and kindness, as the pure evil of what these men experienced is given the full weight it deserves. And yet, the emotional arc of their journey is one that rises out of the darkness into light, where all evil is exposed, and true reconciliation can occur. All the men who participated seem to realize that, while anger is an appropriate and useful emotion, it is not a place in which to make your home. Only by living a life of significance and purpose can we defeat those who have caused so much harm. This documentary is beautiful, haunting, and essential, and for those reasons it is the best film of 2021.

    And here are my 11-20 picks, all great movies that I wish I could have left room for above.

    11. Passing

    12. King Richard

    13. Minari

    14. Spider-Man: No Way Home

    15. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

    16. Last Night in Soho

    17. Derek Delgaudio’s In & Of Itself

    18. Judas and the Black Messiah

    19. CODA

    20. Spencer

    Blind spots: I saw a heck of a lot of movies this year, but not everything. Some major misses as of this writing include: Quo Vadis, Aida?, Drive My Car, Flee, Days, The Rescue, The Disciple, Limbo, Bergman Island, Mass, C’mon C’mon, Red Rocket, The Hand of God, The French Dispatch, Nine Days, Saint Frances, Pieces of a Woman, Annette, House of Gucci, and The Tragedy of MacBeth. Please let me know if any of these films are worth checking out, or if they rank as some of your favorites of the year!