The 10 Best Films of 2023

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Written By Pinang Driod

Cinema continued to wobble back to its feet in 2023: Blockbuster events such as “Barbenheimer” proved that audiences had an appetite for more than just superhero movies at the box office, while the rippling effects of the writers’ and actors’ strikes forced Hollywood to examine the unsettling implications of the past decade’s streaming revolution. But as usual, the art form itself didn’t really suffer, especially if you knew where to look, and curating my list of the year’s best films proved extra difficult.

So strong were this year’s offerings that my honorable mentions include excellent films by some of my most-loved auteurs—Ferrari (from Michael Mann), May December (Todd Haynes), The Holdovers (Alexander Payne), and The Killer (David Fincher), all worthy additions to totemic bodies of work. There were wonderfully challenging entries, such as Ari Aster’s unhinged Beau Is Afraid, and Jonathan Glazer’s chilling The Zone of Interest, designed to rattle the viewer in their seat; Bradley Cooper’s Maestro takes the staid biographical film in directions I couldn’t have anticipated, as did Matt Johnson’s winsome Blackberry.

In the end, I opted for a mix of old and new, small and giant, with my apologies to many a runner-up. Here are my 10 favorites of the year, ranging from a modest YouTube documentary to a near-billion-dollar-grossing dramatic extravaganza. The business is still figuring itself out, perhaps, but the medium is as vibrant as ever.


TIFF

10. Scrapper (directed by Charlotte Regan)

The spirited opening minutes of Scrapper follow 12-year-old Georgie (Lola Campbell) as she tools around East London stealing bikes and dodging social workers, while “Turn the Page,” by the Streets, booms on the soundtrack; I was immediately enthralled. Regan’s debut feature film has an immersive sense of time and place but tells the straightforward story of a girl trying to live independently after the death of her mother. Eventually, a man she’s never met named Jason (Harris Dickinson) appears, saying he’s her father, and Campbell charts the halting partnership that develops between these two people, both living on the fringes of society but quietly craving a sense of stability. It’s a lovely, lively work, funny and touching without feeling remotely miserabilist or patronizing.


Jon Bois
Secret Base / Youtube

9. The History of the Minnesota Vikings (directed by Jon Bois)

Bois is a sportswriter and video creator at the website SB Nation who has, over the years, evolved from a funny and insightful blogger to one of the most groundbreaking directors in documentary filmmaking. His first true opus, 2019’s The Bob Emergency, explored the decline of athletes named Bob in America; in 2020, he unveiled The History of the Seattle Mariners, an exhaustive look at the baseball team that ran for more than three hours. Though at least twice as long, The History of the Minnesota Vikings does something similar and is just as compelling, investing me in the long history of a team I don’t care about that plays a sport I barely understand. Bois makes sports documentaries that ignore the genre’s tired hallmarks—there are no talking heads, there’s barely any footage from games, and the music is almost entirely bouncy yacht rock. Instead he focuses on hard statistics and idiosyncratic anecdotes, endlessly zooming in and out of a jumble of graphs and charts in ways that shed new light on old, hard facts.


Boy on man's shoulder
Universal Pictures

8. A Thousand and One (directed by A. V. Rockwell)

Rockwell’s debut feature film, the winner of this year’s dramatic Sundance Grand Jury Prize, is told on a personal scale that befits its small budget. But its story is sprawling, covering many years in the life of Inez (Teyana Taylor) as she struggles to raise her son in Harlem, having abducted him out of the foster-care system after she was released from prison. Their journey begins in the early ’90s, and over the ensuing decade-plus, Rockwell explores the ways New York changed under Rudy Giuliani’s administration, the rise of stop-and-frisk, and how the waves of gentrification broke so unfairly on so many communities. The film is extraordinarily ambitious for a debut, but Rockwell nails the novelistic scope without ever getting lost in her vision, creating a triumph I’ve been thinking about all year, since first seeing it in January.


Cast of film Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves
Paramount

7. Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves (directed by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley)

Truly good blockbusters, when they arrive on our screens, should be heralded and encouraged—big-budget films that care about their characters, put some thought into the visual presentation of their set pieces, and don’t just exist as one link in a long chain of connected intellectual property. Dungeons & Dragons is a fantasy action epic that doesn’t mind being funny, but it’s also a comedy that has no problem with jerking a few tears. It’s filled with great, compelling stars, such as Chris Pine, Michelle Rodriguez, and Hugh Grant, who know how to share the screen and never go on autopilot. It’s also told with a genuine love for its source material by Daley and Goldstein, who know that a Dungeons & Dragons story should fizz with improvisational glee, and Honor Among Thieves does exactly that, jumping from plot point to plot point like it’s making everything up as it goes along.


Woman holding sculpture
A24

6. Showing Up (directed by Kelly Reichardt)

Reichardt is the keenest observer of human behavior in cinema today, and her latest effort is a quietly majestic work about an artist who really just needs to take a shower before her gallery show. Reichardt’s frequent collaborator Michelle Williams plays Lizzy, a sculptor working at an art school in Portland, Oregon, who is besieged by too many of life’s minor dramas in a consequential week. As in all of Reichardt’s best movies, so much can be communicated with the littlest sigh or briefest glower; Lizzy’s woes never amount to much beyond niggling family drama and a busted boiler, but the viewer understands how much those minute peaks and valleys can affect the art one puts back into the world.


Two men looking crestfallen at a bar
Pandora Films

5. Fallen Leaves (directed by Aki Kaurismäki)

If you’re looking for some belly laughs for the holidays, let me recommend this soft-spoken Finnish comedy about two sad sacks stumbling into love against all odds, set in the shadow of the Russia-Ukraine war. If you’re unfamiliar with the work of Kaurismäki, Finland’s bard of droll melancholy, then Fallen Leaves is a perfect entry point. The film is a great summation of his mordant but quietly optimistic viewpoint, presenting both the dull drudgery of star-crossed lovers Ansa (Alma Pöysti) and Holappa (Jussi Vatanen), and the opportunity their partnership presents for change. This work is a prime example of what makes Kaurismäki so special decades into his career, spinning big laughs and even bigger feelings out of the subtlest interactions.


Scarlett Johansson
Focus Features

4. Asteroid City (directed by Wes Anderson)

The most important work Anderson has produced in a decade, Asteroid City is a soaring exegesis on art as a means of processing loss, heartbreak, and change. It’s also an incredibly funny romantic comedy, a sweet coming-of-age movie, a gentle parody of 1950s method acting, and Anderson’s first straightforward piece of science fiction, with an aesthetic summoned right out of a World’s Fair postcard. Few artists can jumble so many influences together on-screen and have them stand together so casually, but that’s the magic of a great Wes Anderson movie: He makes it look easy, even when you’re thinking about every element for weeks afterward.


Boy with bandage on his face
Studio Ghibli

3. The Boy and the Heron (directed by Hayao Miyazaki)

Whether it ends up being an elegiac farewell to Miyazaki’s storied career or not, The Boy and the Heron is a movie about legacy, and the ways people come to terms with what they’re leaving behind. The film is set in the strange, crumbling dreamscape of World War II–era Japan, navigated by a boy named Mahito Maki (voiced by Soma Santoki), who is mourning the loss of his mother. It’s populated with figures that fans of Miyazaki’s work should be quite familiar with—talking animals, busy old crones, and brassy, adventuresome heroines—but also suffused with bizarre dream logic that’s more abstract and challenging than Miyazaki has attempted before. The Boy and the Heron avoids ever feeling like a greatest-hits reel by exploring quite dark, odd narrative eddies, but its final takeaway is among the most emotionally satisfying the animation master has ever delivered.


Lily Gladstone and Martin Scorcese
Apple TV+

2. Killers of the Flower Moon (directed by Martin Scorsese)

Another elegiac work from a master of the form that feels more alive and buzzing with energy than that of filmmakers half his age, Scorsese’s roundabout adaptation of David Grann’s nonfiction work puts the viewer in uncomfortable shoes from minute one. Our protagonist is Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), a World War I veteran returning to Oklahoma to work for his glad-handing uncle William Hale (Robert De Niro), and the early portion of the film depicts his whirlwind romance with an Osage woman named Mollie (Lily Gladstone). A creeping dread follows Ernest, and this partnership, and Scorsese consistently challenges the audience’s preconceived notions about whom to root for, as it becomes clearer and clearer that William and Ernest are part of a brutal conspiracy to rob Mollie and the Osage of their wealth. It’s a compelling piece of true crime, but as cinema it’s also a brutal undercutting of the entire idea of the Western, of the romantic white cowboy heroes riding out to claim their destiny in land that was never their own.


Oppenheimer raising up his hat
Universal Pictures

1. Oppenheimer (directed by Christopher Nolan)

This summer, a three-hour epic about the birth of the atomic bomb and its terrible legacy became one of the year’s biggest hits, making a compelling case that people will go to theaters to see movies that actively challenge them. Oppenheimer might be Nolan’s best work yet; though he’s worked on bigger scales, his task here was to somehow translate the private life of an inscrutable scientific icon into a blockbuster told at breakneck pace. Oppenheimer is largely set in offices, lecture halls, and courtrooms, and its protagonist, played by Cillian Murphy, is a maddeningly opaque figure only vaguely able to reckon with the horrors he unleashed on a modern world. That all of this coalesces into the most thrilling movie of the year still feels like a miracle.

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