The Best Movies of 2023

As we enter the final week of 2023, it feels like all of the fears about “cinema dying” and movie theaters closing for good at the start of the decade can confidently be put in the past. The limitations of the pandemic only strengthened the desire for returning to a crowded room across from the big screen, and while that alone is a wonderful thing to witness, it is especially so when the movies people are watching are in fact very good. Five years ago, it seemed like blockbusters and interconnected franchises were going to become the norm for the medium and I, for one, could have never imagined a world where the sequels to billion-dollar movies like Aquaman and Captain Marvel end up bombing at the box office. However, I am not here to boast about some film categories failing while others succeed, as if this is a boxing match (especially when they can be as good as something like Top Gun: Maverick), but rather to just say how exciting and reassuring the future of cinema is looking to be from the turn out of 2023 alone. The choices highlighted below were the best this year had to offer and in a few cases some of the very best of the decade thus far. 

But before the list, some honorable mentions: The Iron Claw is a captivating story about brotherhood and dedication that, unlike its wrestling subject, is anything but cheap and gratuitous; The Killer is a proper addition to David Fincher’s filmography and a fascinating story of a hitman adapting to the modern era; Barbie rightfully took the world by storm with a hilarious script, already iconic performances, and eye-candy production design; Ferrari fits right into Michael Mann’s obsession with calculated, deterministic men while giving maybe the most shocking sequence of the entire year; Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning holds some thrilling sequences as Tom Cruise continues to do what he does best; Blackberry is a real standout of the many corporate rise and fall biopics that is carried by Glenn Howeron’s electric performance, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is an MCU movie that proves they still have some diamonds in the rough 15 years later. 

10. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

To many, it seemed impossible to top the first Spider-Verse movie, which took the infectious pathos of the Spider-Man character and combined it with jaw dropping visual effects and animation. It was also aware of the excessiveness to which the web slinger was pervading our screens, which made its multiverse concept feel unique from others of its kind and genuinely fun. Despite having different directors at the helm, however, and much weight on its shoulders, Across the Spider-Verse is proof that 2.5D lightning can strike twice. 

The magic of these films are almost impossible to pinpoint, so with that I will say that Across the Spider-Verse is everything I love about great animation and great superhero storytelling dialed up to 11, and I am confident SONY’s team will knock it out of the park a third time when this trilogy comes to a close. The fact that this film is one of only two comic movies out of many this year to not financially fail is proof that people are probably sick of the mediocre excess far more than they are of the genre itself. 

“Everyone keeps telling me how my story is supposed to go. Nah, imma do my own thing.”

9. May December

May December was the rare viewing I had this year where I felt immediately compelled to revisit it, as director Todd Haynes has always had a knack for telling stories that really linger with the audiences long after the credits roll (see: Safe, Carol). His latest might be his most unsettling work to date. 

This black comedy — and I mean comedy — starring Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore alongside a breakthrough performance by Charles Melton is a psychological deep dive into the media that helps ordinary people identify with horrible people. Portman’s character is playing Moore’s in a film and therefore feels she must spend time living in her shoes in order to authenticate her performance. The details of Moore’s crime is best left for the viewer to discover. Haynes and screenwriter Samy Burch’s magic trick is the way they slowly tear apart the false sense of security these people hold. In terms of films this year that left powerful messages, few have done it so boldly and so effectively. 

“This is what adults do.”

8. The Holdovers

Alexander Payne has a wonderful storytelling ability to turn the most hated characters in his movies into sympathetic, complex people, struggling like the rest of us. His latest film, and maybe the best holiday movie in years, is no exception, as he reunites with the always charming Paul Giamatti nearly 20 years after the funny and very touching Sideways.

Paul plays a high school teacher of the same name, who might be better off commanding an army unit with the discipline he brings to his lectures were it not for the pipe smoking and Jim Bean drinking. As all the students in this New England boarding school are eagerly awaiting Christmas vacation, Paul is stuck supervising all the students who had no plans to leave the facility. He begins to form a bond with one of the students, Angus, played by newcomer Dominic Sessa in an unbelievably good first performance, and the school cook, Mary. Da’Vine Joy Randolph plays Mary and she is perhaps the star of the show, bringing a gut wrenching sincerity to her character.   

The shenanigans these characters get into and the discoveries made about each other through their close quarters bonding make The Holdovers a worthy watch and the best student-teacher bonding movie since the late Robin Williams’ Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting. 

“If you truly want to understand the present or yourself, you must begin in the past. You see, history is not simply the study of the past. It is an explanation of the present.”

7. John Wick: Chapter 4

I saw the first John Wick movie at a young age on a random school night with my uncle, and to say that I had no idea how huge this franchise would ultimately become is an understatement. What was once a simple revenge story of a man’s final gift from his deceased wife has seamlessly turned into back-to-back shootout extravaganzas with some of the greatest set pieces, stunts, and choreography audiences could ever ask for in the action genre. The latest in this franchise brings palpable stakes to Reeves’ iconic, light-on-words protagonist and continues to introduce supporting characters who are just as exciting to see go through waves of bad guys (it’s like if video game movies had legitimate world building and were enjoyable). As for the final duel at the Sacré-Cœur in Paris, it makes for some of the tensest moments possible in the action genre and is a beautiful sendoff to the series. R.I.P. Lance Reddick!

“You and I left a good life behind a long time ago, my friend.”

6. Killers of the Flower Moon

Martin Scorsese is the greatest filmmaker alive. The past ten years have made this clearer than ever, whether through the three-hour non-stop thrill ride of The Wolf of Wall Street, the religion-based passion project Silence, or the confrontation with death that is The Irishman. Together, these movies paint a picture of a man approaching his last stages of life and wanting to tell every story possible without holding anything back. As Killers of the Flower Moon joins this unbelievably impressive lineup, Scorsese is again adding something new to his catalog: a story that not only centers around white America’s persecution of minority groups in the early 20th century but one told from a character’s point of view with whom it is literally impossible to empathize.

Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, and especially Lily Gladstone chew up each and every scene amidst the wide Southern landscape. The central relationship to this story is built on lies and deception, which Scorsese is familiar with presenting, except here it is certainly one-sided and much more vicious. Members of the Osage county are being killed left and right in order for the “wolves” to steal their fortune and this massacre certainly does not come to a halt when FBI agent Tom White (Jesse Plemmons) comes to town. The consequences of this systematic massacre do not go down the way one might expect. 

“Expecting a miracle to make all this go away? You know they don’t happen anymore.”

5. Godzilla Minus One 

The character of Godzila has always been a representation of nuclear dread and post-war destruction in Japan, but Godzilla Minus One is the most effective showcase of these universal themes since the 1954 original. Set immediately after Imperial Japan’s surrender during WWII, this film is here to remind us why Godzilla became such an iconic character to begin with (hint: it wasn’t to fight King Kong) and, as with the 2014 American remake, is both powerful and scary precisely because of his screen-time limitations. 

The story revolving around the big lizard’s attacks is devastating. Kamikaze pilot Shikishima fails time and time again to be the hero he always wanted to be, seeming to constantly escape death and never live up to the sense of duty he believes he must hold as a soldier. This seems to haunt him even more than Godzilla itself but when the rampage ultimately does come to Tokyo’s doorstep, the question remains as to whether or not Shikishima can become the hero he not only wants to be, but feels he needs to for his legacy. 

The nail-biting sea and aerial battles reminded me of the original Star Wars, the score by Naoki Satō was electrifying, and the VFX budget was so low and good looking that it puts everything else in theaters right now to shame. Godzilla Minus One is one of the best blockbusters of the century. 

“To have never gone to war is something to be proud of.”

4. Anatomy of a Fall

Out of the many wonderful child actor performances we have been gifted with in recent years, few have been able to balance the childlike senses of wonder and innocence with the mature complexity that is usually saved for adult performances. This is far from the case for Milo Machado Graner, the rising star of Justine Triet’s latest movie, who plays a boy both literally blind after an accident and figuratively blind to the crumbling marriage of his parents and the demons in their closet

Anatomy of a Fall is a gripping courtroom drama that examines one woman’s alibi after her husband is found dead with his head bashed outside of their winter cabin on an isolated French mountain. This story, and the back and forth interrogation in court that follows, lay the groundwork for larger questions about secrets and lies, relationships, infidelity, and how much a person has to show the world to prove their innocence. Sandra Hüller blurs the line brilliantly between portraying her character as an innocent victim to France’s seemingly invasive justice system and possibly as a woman who murdered her husband. Though fairly dense, the film uses up each of its 150+ minutes with ease. 

“I just want you to know that I’m not that monster, you know. Everything you hear in the trial, it’s just…it’s twisted.”

3. Poor Things 

Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest and wildest film yet is a Frankenstein tale for the modern age, and probably would have made Mary Shelley have a stroke if she saw just how erotic her iconic tale of bringing (wo)man back from the dead could be without losing any of its charm. Except in this contemporary twist, there are no townspeople looking to burn the big monster at the stake but rather a whole group of depraved, horny men competing for the love and attention of Emma Stone’s Bella Baxter. Stone brings a knock-out performance to the type of role that reads off as almost too absurd on paper, though of course it helps when you are surrounded by pros. Mark Ruffalo and Willem Dafoe both do outstanding work here but a big shoutout goes to Ramy Youssef, for tacking his television charm and translating to the big screen with ease. 

The set and costume design of Poor Things feels like the wicked sister to this year’s Barbie: just as colorful and full of texture in each frame but with a sinister angle to it that really works to complement both the Victorian period and the liberation that Baxter is experiencing. Like Barbie, too, this movie is hilarious and left the entire audience at my theater bursting into laughter. Credit must be given to Tony McNamara for writing dialogue that is perfectly fine-tuned to the farcical tone of the story. If you can manage to sit through the graphic sex and nudity then Poor Things is a perfect family watch for the holiday season!

“My father once told me, “Always carve with compassion.” He was a f–ing idiot but it’s not bad advice.”

2. Past Lives

The 2020s have confirmed without a doubt that A24 and directorial debuts are a match made in movie heaven. Last year gave us the devastating Aftersun, where director Charlotte Welles pieced together fragmented childhood memories of her father. In a similar vein, Past Lives is another close to the heart tale from director Celine Song about a woman emigrated as a child from Seoul to Toronto, and then New York, and in the process might have left behind a companionship she could never fully replace. Greta Lee plays Na Young (or Nora, as she is called in America), delicately balancing her role with a sense of assuredness in leaving her past behind and a longing for the palpable connection she had in Seoul with Hae Sung (Teo Yoo).

What makes Past Lives incredible beyond these layered performances is the way in which the script goes on a path that few love triangle movies are confident enough to attempt. The “you might be through with the past but the past isn’t through with you” approach is not a new concept to the romance genre, but Song gives every character the proper complexity and kindness they deserve. There is no grand moment where the men fight over the girl and give big monologues. Instead, there is a quiet pain that boils up in Nora that makes for a cathartic ending. 

“It’s true that if you leave you lose things, but you also gain things, too.” 

1. Oppenheimer

Right up there with Raging Bull, Malcolm X, and The Social Network, Christopher Nolan’s latest blockbuster is not only his finest work to date but will likely go down as one of the greatest and most impactful biopics of all time. It will be a story of legend as to how Nolan and his team turned a three-hour drama set behind the scenes of World War II — mainly in lecture halls, court rooms, and rural New Mexico landscape — into a film as invigorating and edge-of-your-seat as something the likes of the Indiana Jones franchise. Told in a non-linear, part black-and-white structure that might initially confuse some, Oppenheimer fits right in line with Nolan’s style and the overall motto of his work: it all makes sense if you pay attention.

Cillian Murphy owns the role of Robert J. Oppenheimer, or “Oppie” among his friends, and behind his eyes is a clear moral conflict between building this nuclear weapon to (theoretically) stop the Nazis and knowing the devastation that will follow. The entire surrounding cast is just as wonderful, from Robert Downey Jr.’s brilliant turn as the morally ambiguous Lewis Strauss to Emily Blunt’s performance as his wife Kitty, who is more conscious of the many enemies Oppie has than he would like to believe. On a technical level, cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema takes advantage of each frame and shoots everything from legal proceedings to the Trinity sequence on a massive 70mm scope. This is complemented beautifully by Ludwig Göransson’s score that really puts the audience into the tortured mind of Oppie (who says Nolan needs Hans Zimmer?).

With two global wars currently going on and existential questions about what “the day after” will look like for many paying attention, Oppenheimer — and its explicit warning of mankind’s ability to destroy everything in its path — could not have come out at a better time to remind its audience that perhaps there are some lines that we, as human beings, should not cross. 

“They won’t fear it until they understand it, and they won’t understand it until they’ve used it.”