2023 was another great year for movies, some from our finest living directors, others from unexpected places, and, in some cases, a bit of both. Here are the best of the best:
10. The Boy and the Heron
We’re fortunate to be living in a time when Hayao Miyazaki is still making movies. Now in his early 80s, we can only hope that Miyazaki will fulfill his desire to direct even more. The end seems to be top of mind in The Boy and the Heron, but the film is just as much about contemplating the next journey. Taking in this stunning, strange, and at times out-of-body experience, it’s as if we’re watching Miyazaki’s life flash before our eyes while also looking ahead to new horizons. Whether this is his swan song or another stepping stone, Miyazaki’s craft remains ageless in every sense.
9. American Fiction
Has Hollywood “solved” its diversity problem? The optimistic answer is that the industry has taken the first steps. The protagonist of American Fiction might argue that nothing has changed. While we are seeing more portrayals of “the Black experience,” most of them still seem to center on slaves and young men from underprivileged neighborhoods. Occasionally we’ll get a biopic about a Black trailblazer or civil rights activist, but there’s a 50% chance it’ll end in their assassination. American Fiction raises the questions that society is either too uncomfortable to ask or never thought to ask. The film is a critique of Black portrayals in pop culture, but it’s just as much a meditation on the white guilt and the universal creative process.
8. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.
Even if you haven’t read the book, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is a title you’ve surely heard of. It’s perhaps Judy Blume’s most famous work, launching the author to another level of popularity after it was published in 1970. Having been in print for more than fifty years, you’d think that the book would’ve been adapted into a film by now. Then again, this material is trickier to translate than some may assume. Margaret might be a middle-grade novel, but that doesn’t mean it’s a simple novel. Exploring puberty, religion, peer pressure, and the search for identity, Blume understood how difficult being 11 is. Writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig unearths the same authenticity with warmth, humor, and brutal honesty.
7. Poor Things
Poor Things is a cinematic experience not quite like any other. That’s not to say you can’t draw parallels to other classic stories about reanimation like Frankenstein. It also won’t come as a surprise that this surreal masterstroke comes from Yorgos Lanthimos, who previously brought us The Lobster and The Favourite. Aesthetically and thematically, though, Poor Things is a concoction of ingredients that transcends all known tastes. The film isn’t grounded in science, fantasy, the past, the present, or the future. Yet, it manages to encompass all of the above. It finds honesty in the most unrelatable circumstances, as if we’re looking into a bizarro reflection of our world.
6. Past Lives
Past Lives possesses echoes of Lost in Translations, although a few elements play in reverse. Instead of two Americans meeting against a Tokyo backdrop, Past Lives centers on two South Korean natives reuniting in New York. However, not since Lost in Translation has a relationship reflected such an unspoken sense of longing. As beautifully crafted as director Celine Song’s dialogue is, the film’s true power resides in the quiet glances between our leads. In a summer of edge-of-your-seat action sequences, the season’s most suspenseful moment is a practically silent exchange towards the conclusion of Past Lives. The stakes might not seem high, but it encompasses the intensity of a bomb-defusing scene as we contemplate where these characters will go from here.
5. The Holdovers
It’s the last day of school before winter break. Final exams are turned in and everybody is checked out, including the teachers. What better way to coast through the day than by putting on a movie, preferably The Holdovers? Ironically, the tightly wound teacher at the center of The Holdovers would never consider rounding out the semester with a laidback movie – even if DVDs existed in the 70s. He not only has the audacity to fail practically every student on the last day, but he’s already preparing them for the next semester. With the wrong actor in the role, we’d immediately despise this guy. Since he’s played by Paul Giamatti, though, we hate him in all the right ways and come to empathize with him in unexpected ones.
Barbie exists in an idyllic dream world removed from anything resembling reality. At the same time, Barbie reflects every woman’s aspirations, whether they want to be a judge, lawyer, or mermaid. In this film, Barbie also provides a platform for every woman to share in their mutual frustration. America Ferrera delivers a powerhouse monologue about the impossible system that’s been designed to hold women back. Yet, the film cleverly doesn’t turn its male characters into straight-up villains. Every character is empathetic, showing that we’re all human (even the plastic ones without reproductive organs). And yes, Barbie touches upon this, resulting in some of the year’s biggest laughs to go with the unexpected tears. A somewhat chaotic second act aside, Barbie epitomizes everything right about cinema, unapologetically taking creative risks that pay off in wonderful ways.
3. Killers of the Flower Moon
Killers of the Flower Moon revolves around the Osage Nation murders in the early 20th century. A more conventional film would focus on Jesse Plemons as Tom White, a BOI agent sent to investigate the case. Actually, the Osage murders were briefly touched upon in 1959’s The FBI Story, which cast James Stewart as the hero. Although Tom White is the most heroic figure in Martin Scorsese’s latest masterpiece, he isn’t the protagonist. Scorsese has always excelled in unearthing the layers of deeply flawed, often unsympathetic men. Ernest Burkhart is among the most pathetic figures that Scorsese has tackled. The decision to tell this story from his perspective is what makes the film so engrossing, however.
We go into every Christopher Nolan movie expecting a major set piece that defines “cinema.” The truck flip in The Dark Knight and the rotating hallway in Inception come to mind. In Oppenheimer, the defining set piece is an explosion. This sounds straightforward for Nolan, especially since we’ve seen so many explosions in movies that we’re desensitized to them. This is the first explosion in a long time, though, where we feel the gravitas. Part of that’s because Nolan executes it practically. The real reason, though, is that we sense another explosion brewing within our titular character. After the explosion comes the aftershock, which is where the real meat of this story lies.
1. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse
Every once in a while, an animated film comes along that propels the medium to a new frontier. Snow White, Toy Story, and Spirited Away are a few titles that come to mind. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is another example with several subsequent films replicating its style. With Into the Spider-Verse being such a game-changer and trendsetter, Across the Spider-Verse seemed destined to live in its predecessor’s shadow. Against every conceivable odd, this team has made a follow-up that makes the Oscar-winning original almost seem like a dress rehearsal. While Into the Spider-Verse remains a masterstroke, the sequel elevates the artistry, drama, and stakes. It not only deserves to be in the Best Animated Feature race, but the Best Picture conversation.
Honorable Mentions (In Alphabetical Order): Air, All of Us Strangers, Anatomy of a Fall, BlackBerry, Bottoms, The Color Purple, Elemental, Fair Play, Godzilla Minus One, John Wick: Chapter 4, Joy Ride, Maestro, May December, Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, Nimona, Polite Society, Robot Dreams, The Super Mario Bros. Movie, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, The Zone of Interest.