From atomic bombs (Oppenheimer, Asteroid City) to atomic blondes (Barbie, Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour), 2023 was a year when cinema looked ahead by going back to the past. With reliable franchises like Marvel, DC, Indiana Jones, and Transformers failing and streaming still a question mark, the movie landscape expanded, allowing for a Hayao Miyazaki film about death to be the number one movie in America and for a three-hour movie filmed partly in black and white about nuclear physics to become a summertime critical and commercial smash.
It’s a weird time for movies, but it was also a great year for films of all kinds: American ones, international ones, comedies, horror, sci-fi, dramas…heck, even a Godzilla movie (Godzilla Minus One) was excellent. I saw hundreds of movies this year, and to make a 10-best list this year was incredibly hard but always enjoyable. These are the 10 best movies of 2023.
What a nasty, deceptive little thing The Killer is! An exercise in weightless style, the movie is perhaps the best distillation of what constitutes a David Fincher movie: a blank slate hero who narrates via a sardonic voiceover; a shot setup that borders on the painterly; a thumping, urgent score by frequent collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross; and a limited color scheme of deep yellows and light blues that evoke the decayed urban landscapes of Fincher’s earlier works like Zodiac and Fight Club. The Killer is a great example of pure cinema, a movie tailor-made to be in the Letterboxd accounts of teenaged boys or middle-aged film critics.
It’s also a great workplace comedy, and the big joke of The Killer is that being an assassin can be just as boring as any other 9 to 5 gig. Michael Fassbender is one of our gifted comedians, and his nameless assassin, a soulless killer with great taste in music, is a great guide into this world of meaningless subterfuge. The Killer can seem empty and a bit hollow, but it works as a Fincher compilation album, an entertaining and streamlined package of the director’s greatest hits that remind you why he’s still one of the best in the business.
No movie surprised me more this year than Asteroid City. For close to 20 years, I haven’t been the biggest Wes Anderson fan. The boy genius who crafted those mischievous comedies Bottle Rocket and Rushmore in the ’90s had been gradually replaced by an auteur terrible who made big, lifeless dioramas and stuck exaggerated, lifeless cardboard characters in them. The Life Aquatic, The Darjeeling Limited, that 2004 AmEx commercial — they were all the same, all motion pictures without any true motion or life, all showcases for a now-parodied style that’s instantly recognizable and almost always suffocatingly precious.
A human cartoon of a movie, Asteroid City doubles down on Anderson’s love of artifice, and for the first 40 minutes, it seems like just another exercise in stylistic emptiness. But what makes this movie great, and certainly the best thing the director has done since Rushmore, is that the artifice is part of the point. This is a movie about masks, the metaphorical ones that characters wear to hide their hurt and the one Anderson has worn almost his entire career to hide his reluctance to tackle anything deeper than superficial pleasures.
It’s also the rare film where the director openly asks himself what the point of the stuff he creates is and if any of it matters. “Just keeping telling the story,” a character says at one point, and Anderson does, in his own way, on his own terms, but a bit different now, wiser, less precious, and more vulnerable. With a great lead performance by Jason Schwartzman and memorable supporting turns by Tom Hanks and Scarlett Johansson, Asteroid City is Wes Anderson’s late-period masterpiece.
It feels like Christopher Nolan’s entire career has led to Oppenheimer, an epic movie about smart men in dusty rooms talking about nuclear physics. Yes, the movie is much more than that, but the great thing about Nolan’s cinematic achievement is how exciting he made a field of science that isn’t known for its populist appeal. That he did so on his own terms, with as much time as he needed, filming roughly half of it in black and white and using a 47-year-old lead actor who has never anchored a multimillion-dollar studio movie before, only emphasizes the rarity of his success, artistically, financially, and culturally.
Oppenheimer is in many ways a good old-fashioned Hollywood movie, a big movie about big ideas, big actors (an excellent Cillian Murphy led a cast that included Robert Downey Jr., Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Florence Pugh, Rami Malek, Gary Oldman, and a who’s who of young and old character actors), and big set pieces (the first test of the atom bomb at Los Alamos was the most thrilling sequence of the year), told on the biggest canvas available for directors as visions as big as this one: IMAX. More than Barbie, Oppenheimer is the defining movie of 2023. What better analogy to global warming, another doomsday of our own making, than a 3-hour movie about the making of a weapon that can, and eventually will, undo us all?
Alexander Payne isn’t the hippest director to exalt, and The Holdovers is about as square as they come. Does the world really need another tale of dudes bonding and redemption set at a prestigious all-male boarding school? Yet the key to The Holdovers‘ shaggy dog appeal, and one that’s always made Payne’s movies work, for the most part, is that the director never lets his characters off the hook. Paul, Angus, and Mary have all been unlucky in life, either by choice or by circumstance, and they don’t really like each other that much. But they’re stuck with each other, at least for a little bit, and how they muddle through a Christmas break alone together makes for a comedy of errors that’s equal parts sentimental and cynical.
It’s a delicate balance, and The Holdovers works partly because Payne trusts his talented cast to pull it off. Da’Vine Joy Randolph brings real hurt and dimension to Mary, while newcomer Dominic Sessa has a nervous, slightly annoying energy that’s perfect for the spoiled teenager Angus. But The Holdovers is ultimately Paul Giamatti’s show, and the role of Paul is his best ever. Cranky, irritable, and finally tragic, Paul is the teacher you can’t stand, and the man you want most at your side, and it’s a testament to Giamatti’s gifts as an actor that the character never feels phony. Paul is the real deal, and so is The Holdovers.
For some reason, film critics go gaga over movies about food. From Babette’s Feast in the ’80s to Like Water for Chocolate in the ’90s, these movies have reaped Academy Awards and other prestigious prizes over the years. These films, of course, are more than about food, and The Taste of Things carries on that grand tradition of international cinema suffusing great cooking with deep meaning.
Trân Anh Hùng’s movie, about a chef and a restaurant owner preparing a big meal for a visiting guest, is an understated romance and shows how, through the art of cooking, two people, now middle-aged and familiar with one another, can communicate their love and respect for each other. That sounds simple, and maybe it is, but the beauty of The Taste of Things is how unfussy it is. It takes its time, both in depicting the process of making a meal and in how the central romance develops, and it gives a showcase to two of France’s best actors, Juliette Binoche and Benoît Magimel, who, as former real-life lovers themselves, bring their own history and intimacy to their roles. The last scene is a gut punch and is perhaps the finest illustration of what love actually means between two people.
A great, expansive portrait of the evolving friendship between two Italian men throughout the decades, The Eight Mountains feels as glorious and beautiful as its picturesque cinematography. The movie focuses on two boys, Bruno and Pietro, and how fate and circumstance push them together and drive them apart as they grow into teenagers and then men with lovers and families of their own.
It’s hard to capture just what makes The Eight Mountains so special because everything about it works: the slow, deliberate direction by Felix von Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch; the sensitive portrayals from Luca Marinelli and Alessandro Borghi as the grown-up Pietro and Bruno: or the stunning cinematography Ruben Impens. What I ultimately walk away with from The Eight Mountains is the brotherly intimacy the two characters show for one another and the care, complexity, and depth the movie gives them. What a gift this movie was in 2023.
Was there any movie in 2023 more devastating, and yet also cautiously hopeful, than The Night of the 12th? This is the rare suspense movie that didn’t need a satisfying resolution to its mystery; its incompleteness was the point of it. Dominik Moll’s movie, released in France in 2022 and the U.S. this past summer, starts out as your typical thriller: a pretty young girl is brutally burned to death, and two detectives, one young and eager and the other older and disillusioned, try to solve the murder.
But Moll chips away at the surface bit by bit, and gradually reveals something deeper and far more troubling: a society that allows for aggression against women to go unchecked, and an underfunded and uncaring police bureaucracy that lets it go unpunished. It would be appropriate for The Night of The 12th to end on a dour and pessimistic note; that it chooses to take a different road (both literally and figuratively) makes it one of the best French thrillers ever and one of the best movies of 2023.
A masterpiece of creeping dread, The Zone of Interest is one of the most uncomfortable and unsettling movies ever made. The director, in adapting Martin Amis’ acclaimed novel, throws almost all of it out and focuses on the bare minimum: a German family occupying a big house; the father flush with success from work; the mother proud of the home’s made for everyone and the fur coats she gets from her husband; and the children playing happily in the backyard, oblivious to the neighbors the next door.
The neighbors are prisoners of the Auschwitz concentration camp that killed millions of Jews, and the German husband is a high-ranking Nazi Commandant. The genius of Jonathan Glazer’s powerful film is in how it doesn’t show any actual scenes of violence; it’s all implied, primarily through Johnnie Burn’s brilliant sound design, and leaves us to use our imaginations, which is far worse than anything he could up with.
In the movie’s devastating coda, Glazer also links the past to the present and asks how could anyone, be it a German family who tucks away their humanity to feed their ambition or one of many tourists who visit the camp today, live side-by-side with such tragedy? That question is left for the audience to answer, and that’s just one reason why The Zone of Interest, along with Night and Fog and Shoah, is one of the most important Holocaust movies ever made.
Is it a comedy? Or is it camp? Or is it all about trauma and an indictment of its audience, who relentlessly consumes the tabloid melodrama on which the movie is based? May December intentionally blurs the lines and throws you off, and it’s this delicate imbalance, the ever-present uncertainty of just what it is, that makes it so mesmerizing to watch and impossible to forget.
Todd Haynes gave us a great portrait of actresses performing for the audience and for each other, a modern iteration of All About Eve with just a touch of Persona. Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, and Charles Melton all gave the best performances of the year, with Portman’s lispy monologue an instant classic, Moore adding yet another unhinged character to her impressive repertoire of desperate housewives, and newcomer Melton blowing everyone away with his tragic take on stunted male adolescence.
Credit also should go to Christopher Blauvelt’s gauzy, dream-like cinematography, Marcelo Zarvos’ intentionally melodramatic score, and Haynes himself, who once again puts several genres in a blender, mixes them up, and creates something so uniquely, enjoyably funny, sad, and weird.
It’s a ghost story, it’s a love story, it’s a movie about memory and loneliness—that All of Us Strangers is all of these things speaks to its universality and how it feels so intimate at the same time. In telling the story of Adam (Andrew Scott), a fortysomething London screenwriter who literally takes a trip down memory lane and converses with his long-dead parents, the director, Andrew Haigh, sets up several narratives that should clash with each other but instead co-exist in beautiful harmony.
To a gay audience, there’s a specificity in Adam’s eagerness to reconcile the past and in his cautious romance with Harry (Foe‘s Paul Mescal), who has demons of his own to face, that speaks to a particular kind of experience. For everyone, there’s a common recognition of the desire for parental approval, which doesn’t ebb with time or death; we’re all needy children, even when we grow up and become adults, and we want mom or dad to say we’re doing okay.
That All of Us Strangers recognizes this and does so by blending fantasy and reality, waking life and dream states, is partly why it’s the best movie of 2023. There are plenty of other reasons, too: the quiet, tender performances from Scott, Mescal, Claire Foy, and Jamie Bell; Haigh’s delicate direction; and the ambient score by Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch. But what makes All of Us Strangers stand out for me is how it portrays loneliness as something inevitable and affirming. There’s melancholy in being alone, but also strength and the genius of the movie is that it gets this right without passing any judgment.
Best of the rest: Eileen; Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, Skinamarink, Afire, Desperate Souls, Dark City, and the Making of Midnight Cowboy, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, Infinity Pool, and Godzilla Minus One.
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