Arts & Culture: The Ten Best Movies of 2023
Optimists had a lot to point to this year. While the prolonged Writers’ and Actors’ Guilds strikes certainly did little to bring about such optimism, new works from a large number of this century’s most acclaimed filmmakers, delivering on both the biggest and smallest of narrative scales, brought a lot of hope to fans of film. The sheer number of great works makes picking just ten a near-impossible task; any year that can’t provide room for a new Christopher Nolan or Martin Scorsese film, even while characteristically excellent, is one worth celebrating. It may be trendy to complain about the state of movie theaters or to express disdain for some great films being sidelined in popular culture. But when going through the year’s highlights, it’s hard not to get excited. And so, the following ten films are not just great but genuine crème de la crème; truly exceptional works.
Just missed: “Killers of the Flower Moon, “Asteroid City,” “Barbie,” “Oppenheimer,” “Perfect Days.”
10. “Monster” (dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda)
Kore-eda, miraculously both one of global cinema’s most prolific and most consistent filmmakers, shifts tones with “Monster.” He built a reputation for himself as a humanist master and has often been compared to the great Yasujiro Ozu. With his latest, he surprisingly evokes Akira Kurosawa’s “Rashomon.” “Monster” presents competing narratives regarding both the troubling developments of a young boy and his schoolteacher and that same boy’s relationship with a classmate he is accused of bullying. The twisty and unpredictable storytelling choices provide for surprises not typically found in Kore-eda’s movies. Yet the film’s richness in character and profound sense of nuanced feeling, albeit darker than normal, remind us that he remains one of the most exciting filmmakers in the world today.
9. “Anatomy of a Fall” (dir. Justine Triet)
Not every year features a leading performance as mesmerizing and dynamic as Sandra Hüller’s (see Cate Blanchett in “Tár” for another example). Yet “Anatomy of a Fall” is too well-crafted and well-written to be praised only for its star. A husband is dead, and his wife is on trial for the murder. “Anatomy” is too smart to resort to cheap narrative tricks; for two and a half hours, that basic premise, along with a small handful of gradually progressing developments, is more than enough to hold the viewer’s attention. The Cannes Film Festival’s Palme D’Or is an incredibly hit-or-miss award, and thankfully, this year’s winner is an absolute hit.
8. “Fallen Leaves” (dir. Aki Kaurismäki)
While walking into a Lincoln Square theater to catch this one, I had almost no precedent or set of reference to craft any expectations. I’m sure if I had any, it’d have surpassed them. This movie is deeply, achingly wonderful — a decidedly modern love story set with the aesthetics of a picture from the mid-70s. Aki Kaurismäki’s newest movie is hardly structurally novel: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, and, spoiler alert, boy wins girl back. It’s the unique tone, mixing modern cynicism with a sense of classic magic, that makes this one stand out. It would certainly be an inspired choice for a Best International Feature Oscar if Kaurismäki doesn’t withdraw again. And who knew the Finns had such a sense of humor?
7. “Green Border” (dir. Agnieszka Holland)
Scorsese is quoted as saying, “Cinema is a matter of what's in the frame and what's out.” It’s unclear what the source of this quote is, and that ambiguity may explain why only the first part of the quote made its way to Poland. The raw brutality of much of the film is a focal point; little is left to the imagination. Refugees try to make their way into Poland from Belarus, and Holland’s storytelling method is to tell it exactly how she sees it, nothing less. As I noted in my article on the New York Film Festival, “Green Border” is uniquely upsetting and violent, and it evokes more than anything else “Come and See,” which I think to be one of, if not the greatest war film I’ve seen. Poland would be proud of this one if it wasn’t so wildly damning to its national pride.
6. “The Killer” (dir. David Fincher)
If “Green Border” shows how horrible contemporary violence is, “The Killer” shows just how fun it can be. Michael Fassbender plays a sociopathic hitman who, while typically efficient, shoots and hits the wrong target, spiraling into a global chase and revenge story. One need not watch the film to understand that Fincher sees himself in this character, a worker identified by his precision of method. Yet only in watching “The Killer” can one appreciate just how exact and calculated Fincher’s filmmaking can be. This is a movie defined not by its broader themes and ideas but by the thrilling, breathtaking achievement of its moment-to-moment filmmaking.
5. “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” (dir. Kelly Fremon Craig)
I’ve put four foreign movies on this list so far, so it is within my right to get a little less pretentious with this one. It’s hard to imagine a more successful or effective version of this story. In a perfect world, “Are You There God?” becomes a seventh grade sleepover classic (one of the only optimistic ways to explain its box office performance). With loving insight and poignant emotional heft, Fremon Craig’s second movie is more than a worthy adaptation of the beloved Judy Blume novel. Rachel McAdams is the highlight of a lot of things she’s in, and “Are You There God?” may be her crowning achievement, bringing a lived-in depth to the mother character that perfectly utilizes her likeability and the audience’s immediate sympathy for her.
4. “Maestro” (dir. Bradley Cooper)
The “I’m sorry, I wasn’t familiar with your game” movie experience of the year, Cooper’s second directorial effort is leaps and bounds ahead of his already wonderful “A Star is Born.” If that film was the pinnacle of a contemporary crowd-pleaser, with genuine filmic talent crafting an accessible and popular narrative, this one is a portrait about and from someone attempting to solidify his name in the halls of elite American artists. Some have used the phrase “impressionist” to describe the storytelling methods Cooper utilizes, and while the word is likely misused, it highlights the unique and deep beauty “Maestro” exudes. While the visible excitement of the artistic endeavor echoes an American sensibility, it’s the English Carey Mulligan who has rightly been deemed the movie’s most valuable piece, bringing the perfect marriage of melodrama and groundedness the movie demands. I’m unsure if this is a masterpiece in a global sense, but I’d say it’s a profoundly American one, nose controversy and all.
3. “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” (dir. Raven Jackson)
Movie fans often want, paradoxically, to have a wholly unique perspective on the greatness of a movie while also receiving validation from others. In practice, I thought I had a hot take with “All Dirt Roads,” describing Jackson’s debut as the arrival of a giant and a monumental debut. I then learned, through other rapturous reviews and “best of” lists, that I wasn’t alone. This is to be expected, though, since the greatness of “All Dirt Roads” is evident to all those who have been privileged enough to bathe in its warmth, its composition and its investigation of the cycling of generations. Certain images and fragments of narrative (which is, in truth, all the narrative you get here) have become indelible in my mind, imprinting themselves into my mind with the weight of any other recent major work.
2. “The Zone of Interest” (dir. Jonathan Glazer)
I hate the cheapness people place on the word “important” when describing certain films. Yet it’s hard to find a more accurate one for “The Zone of Interest.” In truth, this may be the first truly important movie of the decade. The movie portrays the Höss household, their domestic endeavors and daily motions, while living next door to their patriarch’s worksite, Auschwitz. Much has been written about the intellectually appropriate method of portraying the horrors of the Holocaust without exploiting Jewish pain for thematic effect; Haneke’s critique of “Schindler’s List” for creating tension out of whether a shower has gas or water rings fair. Yet less has been written about how focusing the movie on the wicked makes its observations all the more unsettling and effective. This is not a movie that merely describes the unspeakable; it confronts the viewer with it, making the unspeakable be itself the point. If the Polish took the first half of the aforementioned Scorsese quote, the British took the second. Witness.
1. “Past Lives” (dir. Celine Song)
Was there ever a doubt about the top spot? Since seeing “Past Lives” in June, I figured the rest of the year would be a competition for second place. Celine Song’s debut features a marriage of profound thought and hard-hitting melancholy found rarely on the screen, in this year or in any other. Following a thirty-something Korean immigrant confronted with a childhood love (whatever a “love” can look like at age 12), “Past Lives” explores the intensely human frustration of, by necessity, living one life and having one single trajectory. Anyone who has ever been confronted with regret, self-doubt, or is interested in the notion of soulmates or connections external to circumstance would find themselves in “Past Lives.” There is no cheap drama or silly narrative developments; this is raw human feeling, the good and the bad, nothing more, nothing less. No new release has hit me like “Past Lives” in this young decade.
Photo Caption: Between the world’s most acclaimed filmmakers making some of their best work and new filmmakers firmly cementing themselves on the scene, 2023 brought a lot to be excited about.
Photo Credit: Clem Onojeghuo / Pexels