The Top Ten Films of 2023

Years from now, film historians may look back at 2023 as the year the movies came back.

Superhero movies, after dominating the box office for more than a decade, struggled to make a lasting impression. A three hour long biopic about the man who invented the atomic bomb was one of the biggest hits of the year. The "Barbenheimer" phenomenon brought people back to movie theaters in droves, catapulting Barbie (IP though it may be), an original film by a respected filmmaker with no prior franchise history to become the biggest box office hit of the year. People are getting out and going to the movies again - once again turning theatrical movies into must-see events after the COVID-induced streaming surge.

For the first time in a long time, I found myself almost at a loss to whittle down a list of my 10 favorite films of the year. Had I written this on a different day, this list might look completely different. But after shuffling and reshuffling and reflecting on the movies that resonated with me most over the last year, these are the ones I just couldn't get out of my head; films that managed to find uncertainty, absurdity, and even beauty helping us make sense of an increasingly unsettled world, for better and for worse. The movies are indeed back, and 2023 reminded us of why we can't look away.


(Justine Triet, France)

Accused of murdering her husband after he is found dead in the snow from an apparent fall from the balcony of their remote home in the French Alps, a woman is put on trial faced with the seemingly impossible task of convincing a jury that he had in fact committed suicide.

Justin Triet's Palme D'Or winner is a deeply perceptive study of the very concept of reasonable doubt, and how arriving at "truth" when so many perspectives are involved can be all but impossible, even for those who are actually impacted. Anatomy of a Fall is a masterclass from start to finish; the courtroom scenes make up some of the most riveting cinema in recent memory, but it's the scenes of martial strife at home that really linger. The ways in which couples zero in on each other's insecurities seemingly innocuous disagreements hits especially hard. But Triet reminds us that we're merely observers, seeing a few minutes of a much larger relationship - can we truly judge what's going on here from just a brief glimpse of two hurt people at their most vulnerable? Ultimately, the tagline "did she do it?" matters far less than the unnerving impactions at how humans convince themselves of what the truth is.  No other film this year has asked questions so powerful or left doubts so haunting.


(Cristian Mungiu, Romania)

Set in a rural village in Transylvania, Cristian Mungiu's R.M.N. centers around a man who returns home to his wife and son after losing his job aboard. His search for work in a place where work is scarce puts him in the middle of a long simmering conflict between locals and migrant workers and xenophobic locals who see them as invaders taking their jobs. The conflict reaches a boiling point as locals issue an ultimatum to a local bakery - fire your foreign workers or face a boycott they cannot survive. Suddenly, the biggest employer in town faces bankruptcy, even as local workers continue to leave the impoverished area for more lucrative jobs abroad without a hint of self-awareness.

It's an explosive witch's brew of xenophobia, isolationist politics, and global economics and depression, set amongst the wintry, desolate backdrop of the Transylvanian mountains. Mungiu directs with his trademark austerity, a hallmark of the Romanian New Wave that his monumental 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days helped to kickstart. But R.M.N. also has a dry sense of humor that turns this dark tale into a kind of cautionary satire, an incisive mockery of small town politics and nationalist fervor. The climactic town hall meeting, shot in one, unmoving take, has a white knuckle intensity, and the explosive ending in which an actual threat from outside takes terrifying shape, is truly haunting stuff.


(Sofia Coppola, USA)

Whereas Baz Luhrmann's Elvis was an examination of Elvis the myth and cultural phenomenon, Priscilla is a demythologizing of Elvis the man. By focusing on Priscilla, the film is able to take a different approach than Lurhmann's energetic hagiography. Coppola doesn't portray him as a monster, however. And that's what makes the film so frequently unnerving. This is a young girl infatuated with an older man, a rock star no less, and Coppola intoxicatingly captures that hazy sense of starstruck love with dreamlike aplomb. The glue that holds it all together is Cailee Spaeny's delicately calibrated performance, a thing of such beauty that one almost forgets they're watching someone acting.

She and Coppola have created something that feels major, a graceful yet forceful evocation of infatuation and romantic toxicity, of girlhood dreams quickly turning into painful realities. And yet, Coppola isn't afraid to explore the conflicts and occasional contradictions under the surface. Her Priscilla isn't a wilting victim, but someone who fulfills a dream only to find it both thrilling and wholly different than she imagined. The film wisely avoids using Elvis' music for the most part, opting for a mix of popular music from the period and Coppola's signature dreamy anachronisms, refusing to let his voice define hers. And that is perhaps the film's greatest achievement, giving Priscilla a voice of her own apart from the all-encompassing presence of her legendary ex-husband. It reminds us all that he, like all legends of his ilk, is just a man like any other.


(Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey)

Nuri Bilge Ceylan's three-and-a-half hour drama about a teacher's existential crisis brought on by accusations of inappropriate behavior with a student may sound a bit like a parody of an arthouse film, but Ceylan's novelistic sensibilities create something singular here - a haunting examination of how men project their insecurities onto women, and the ramifications that can have on the rest of their lives. It's clear that protagonist Samet is crossing boundaries with his student - what isn't clear is if there is actual, inappropriate intent behind it, and Ceylan is purposefully leaving that opaque. It's unsettling, but it's meant to be.

Nothing sexual ever happens, but it still feels inappropriate. And it is. But I think the film is more interested in the ways that men punish women by using them as outlets for their own insecurities. Young Sevim herself isn't something he can't have, but because she is young and has her whole life ahead of her, she represents the boundless possibilities of life that he feels he's wasted. He's jealous of her, so he seeks to destroy her. It IS abusive and manipulative, but whether or not it's sexual remains disturbingly murky. In the end, that's not really the point. The inappropriateness of the relationship goes beyond unseemly desire and is becomes something far deeper and more disquieting. Sevim is a child caught in an adult's existential crisis that she can't possibly understand. He's projected so much on to her and he's enraged when she responds not as an adult, but as exactly what she is - a child. I can't get this movie out of my head. It's troubling and beautiful and heartbreaking and endlessly fascinating - a movie with an unreliable protagonist who's mostly awful, a petulant, petty, small man. But is he despicable? Or simply pitiable? Ceylan never answers.


(Andrew Haigh, UK)

Two lonely men find an unexpected connection as the only tenants of their new apartment building. At the same time, one of them visits his childhood home to discover his parents, who'd died years before when he was a child, still living there, frozen in time. Now the same age as they were when they died, he is at last able to have difficult conversations with them he was never able to have when they were alive - coming out as gay, introducing his new boyfriend, and finally learning to understand each other in ways that were never before possible.

Andrew Haigh's delicate and devastating ghost story may often feel like queer wish fulfillment, but there's a darkness to it that feels at once heavy and liberating. It grapples head on with hard topics about growing up queer and finding oneself in a world that doesn't quite seem to understand, and coming to terms with your past in order to navigate your future. It's a film I felt deep in my bones, and Haigh navigates extremely tricky and often incredibly heavy topics with grace, his piercing screenplay speaking deeply to ideas of queer disaffection and longing for human connection. 


(Martin Scorsese, USA)

At more than three and a half hours long, Martin Scorsese's Killers of the Flower Moon certainly feels as gargantuan and expansive as the midwestern plans that provide the backdrop for its harrowing, real life tale of murder, greed, and betrayal. But as intimidating as its length may seem, it earns every second. 

Scorsese crafts the film like a great American epic, infused with the spirit of John Ford and Howard Hawkes, examining the rot beneath the mystique of the American west. It's a film that feels crafted rather than cobbled together, the work of someone in full command of their craft. And even at the age of 80, he still has new tricks up his sleeve. Watching what he does with Killers of the Flower Moon is a masterclass, as he pulls the rug out from the audience and forces us to examine our own complicity, and his, in this story's fading from memory. How the horrors of the past become entertainment fodder for future generations, names and places and dates lost to time, consigned to footnotes in a long forgotten history book. Scorsese is inviting us, no, forcing us not to look away; to bear witness to the since of the past, of a nation built on blood and oil on the backs of people of color, and the result is a work of great and terrible beauty.


(Greta Gerwig, USA)

It should come as no surprise, given the quality of Greta Gerwig's first two efforts behind the camera (Lady Bird and Little Women), that Barbie is as good as it is, but it's still somewhat disarming that a film based around Mattel's legendary doll is as incisive, heartfelt, and human as it is. It's a kind of Toy Story for adults, squarely taking aim at millennial angst about our place in an ever changing world that isn't as good as the one we thought we were building, and how relics form our past may be able to help us understand where we came from to see where we're going. And it does so not by wallowing in nostalgia for an intellectual property, but by using that property as a mirror in which to see ourselves. 

Individual mileage may vary, of course, but I think a movie that is as boldly conceptualized as Barbie doing massive numbers at the box office can only be a good thing. It shows audiences are willing to take risks - even if the IP is familiar, this looks and feels nothing like a typical summer tentpole. No, this is something rare and special; a film that helps us see something in ourselves that maybe we forgot. When Barbie first arrives in the real world, she sits next to an old woman at a bus stop and says with a kind of awe, "you're beautiful!" The woman looks at Barbie, and rather than acting surprised or moved, she smiles and says "I know it!" And in that moment, we believe that we are too.


(Aki Kaurismäki, Finland)

Ansa (Alma Pöysti) is an overnight stocker at a small grocery store. Holappa (Jussi Vatanen) is an alcoholic factory worker. After both of them lose their jobs, Ansa takes a job washing dishes at a local bar, where she meets Holappa - and the two begin a tentative romance. But his alcoholism threatens to derail that train before it even leaves the station, as Ansa's tragic history with alcoholism forces her to draw a line in the sand for both their sakes. Therein lies the simple conflict of legendary Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki's new film, Fallen Leaves, a delicately balanced tale of two disaffected loners finding love in an unlikely place. Kaurismäki's incredibly droll sense of humor is on full display here - characters spend a lot of time standing around and staring off into middle space, but that sense of cultural disaffection is what makes the film so indelible. Radio broadcasts constantly deliver updates of the war in Ukraine. The world around them seems cold, distant, unforgiving, making the warmth of their brief encounter all the more palpable.

Watching Fallen Leaves truly feels like being in the hands of a master, a keen observer of human behavior whose wry sense of humor comes from a great sense of love for his characters. There's a certain sadness at play here too - a world weariness that gives way to a heartwarming sense of optimism and hope even amidst the dreary state of an increasingly uncertain world. Kaurismäki has crafted something truly special here, a small scale wonder whose impact feels much greater than the sum of its parts.


(Takashi Yamazaki, Japan)

The 33rd film in Toho's legendary Godzilla franchise, Godzilla Minus One is a surprisingly moving story, a tale of a war survivor struggling to overcome his deep-seated guilt and embrace the newfound love that has found him seemingly out of nowhere. In that regard, Godzilla represents the protagonist's personal demons as much as he does the terror of nuclear destruction - giving him a deeply intimate challenge to overcome in order to feel truly whole again. It's not about saving Japan as much as it is saving his family and wrestling with the ghosts of his past in order to be the person they need him to be. That personal aspect makes Godzilla Minus One a disarmingly heart wrenching epic, a grand scale adventure with an unexpected heart that puts its American counterparts to shame. This is blockbuster filmmaking at its best - a visually striking and thrilling spectacle that never loses sight of the human story that makes its conflict so compelling. It's a film with real stakes, earned emotional beats, and a true sense of the gravity of Godzilla's destructive powers. It's not only arguably the best Godzilla film since the 1954 original, it's one of the great blockbusters of the modern era.


(Todd Haynes, USA)

Todd Haynes directs May December like a Lifetime original movie by way of Pedro Almodóvar, a purposefully overwrought melodrama that about how stories of abuse and victimhood become fodder for tabloid sleaze at the expense of the real people who lived them. Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore are excellent, and Portman's transformation into Moore is both transfixing and disturbing. But it's Charles Melton who really steals the show as a man stuck in perpetual boyhood, a father of college-aged children who is barely an adult himself, struggling to cope with the loss of a life that has been stolen from him.

The subtle ways in which Gracie wields her power are some of the most potent depictions of abuse I've ever seen on screen (a cutting remark disguised as a compliment to her teenage daughter while trying on graduation dresses is especially disquieting). Gracie not only sexually abused a child, but her narcissism fuels continued emotional manipulation. Throw in a B-list actress researching a role in a trashy TV movie, and you have a veritable witches brew of pulpy melodrama through which Haynes explores America's fascination with the tawdry, no matter how many lives are destroyed in the process. It's a thorny, unsettling piece of work, beautiful to look at but just as uncomfortable to contemplate. Haynes confronts the audience with its own complicity in sensationalizing the abuse of real human victims, challenging a society whose fascination with tabloid excesses has deeply painful, real-world consequences.

Honorable Mentions

PERFECT DAYS (Wim Wenders, Japan)
IN WATER (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)
THE ZONE OF INTEREST (Jonathan Glazer, UK)
LA CHIMERA (Alice Rohwacher, Italy)


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