Tuesday, February 27, 2024

NBP Top 10 Best Films Of 2023 – Dan Bayer

Over the years, I’ve come to fear writing my end-of-year top ten list. Summarizing one’s feelings about the films one loved most in a given year can seem impossible when one’s love for the films runs so deep. Where does one even start? I want to shout from the rooftops about how wonderful every aspect of these films is, but then again, that’s also true for plenty of other films from the past year that just missed out on my top ten.

My official runner-up to this list, “Elemental,” made me more emotional than a Pixar film has in years. I fell in love with the characters and setting almost instantly, and the relationship between Ember and Wade touched me deeply with its slow build. I was not exactly looking forward to either of two acclaimed Asian genre films this year, “Concrete Utopia” and “Godzilla Minus One,” but both won me over with their well-drawn characters and focus on plot and theme over generic genre thrills (although both offered up fantastic genre thrills when called upon to do so). The boldness of Ari Aster’s “Beau Is Afraid” bowled me over, although the film’s more subtle moments are the ones that really took my breath away. I allowed myself to be bullied into not reading Judy Blume’s “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” when I was a kid, but as an adult, I proudly saw Kelly Fremon Craig’s beautifully judged adaptation and marveled at how seamlessly Blume’s style transitioned to the screen, not to mention how sensitively told the story was. The sexually-charged duet between Christopher Abbott and Margaret Qualley in “Sanctuary” thrilled me at TIFF ‘22 and lost none of its pulpy potency over multiple rewatches this past year. Lastly, I would be lying if I said I had a better time watching any film in my top ten than I did watching “Barbie” and “Theater Camp,” two films that I have larger issues with but which are also absolutely perfect in ways that most films aren’t allowed to be because of the deep connection their filmmakers have to their subjects.

My top ten consists of the films that connected with me most over the past year. These are the characters I felt the most for, the technique that most reflected and amplified the themes at play, the stories that inspired my soul. They are the films that filled my belly with the biggest laughs, my brain with the stickiest thoughts, and my eyes with the wettest tears. Without any of them, my 2023 cinematic diet would have been missing an essential course.

10. The Taste Of Things

If you don’t consider yourself a foodie, that may change after watching Trần Anh Hùng’s delectable French romance. Effortlessly combining the stately grace of Old Hollywood melodramas with the low-stakes thrill of cooking shows, “The Taste of Things” offers a sumptuous array of gastronomic and cinematic pleasures. The film’s style is on full display in its opening sequence, in which Juliette Binoche’s cook Eugenie prepares a consommé in gorgeously lit, smoothly filmed shots with no soundtrack other than the scraping of utensils, the bubbling of cooking food, and the birds singing just outside the door of the country estate of one Dodin Bouffant (Binoche’s former husband Benoît Magimel), whose gourmet kitchen this is. Eugenie and Dodin have had a relationship for many years, but while Eugenie wants to keep it about the food, Dodin wants more. The spectacular cooking scenes, shot and performed with the grace of a ballet, act as the equivalent of the dance numbers in any old Astaire & Rogers film, standing in for sex by showing how deeply the characters’ connection goes. Watching Binoche’s earthy warmth cut through Magimel’s elegant airs humanizes both characters, crystallizing everything that has drawn them together. Sumptuously crafted with the elegance of films from a bygone era, “The Taste of Things” encourages you to stop and savor not just this film but all the relationships in your life.

9. Fallen Leaves

Fallen LeavesFinnish legend Aki Kaurismäki’s darkly droll films speak perfectly to my sense of humor. Still, I’ve never felt more connected to any of his characters than I did to Ansa and Holappa in this working-class romance. Kaurismäki’s warmest film by a significant measure, despite the bone-chilling climate, “Fallen Leaves” endears itself to the audience with the sneaky humor and weighted glances of any number of Euro-centric arthouse romances but goes deeper by emphasizing the desolation and despair surrounding its characters. Set in present-day Helsinki, where the skies are seemingly always gray, the film’s score mixes sad pop songs and news reports on the war in Ukraine, giving the world an air of melancholy desperation verging on hopelessness. But supermarket worker Ansa (the luminous Golden Globe nominee Alma Pöysti) and alcoholic construction worker Holappa (the stealthily soulful Jussi Vatanen) have a connection that transcends the unhappiness surrounding them. They are each other’s light in the dark, and Kaurismäki’s trademark deadpan style ensures that every clichéd romantic beat hits its mark. Simplicity is the name of the game for Kaurismäki, and the unadorned realism with which he presents the story is the perfect antidote to the sweetness of the central romance, which charms thanks to Pöysti and Vatanen’s chemistry and sense of playfulness within the stylistic constraints of Kaurismäki’s direction. When the inevitable finally happens, it feels earned in ways that cut deeper than most romances. I can’t wait to dance at their wedding.

8. How To Have Sex

Em, Skye, and Tara. Those are the three friends at the heart of Molly Manning Walker’s electric debut feature, and from the moment they appeared on screen, I fell in love with them. Enva Lewis, Lara Peake, and Mia McKenna-Bruce, the brilliant actresses who play them, have tapped into something unbelievably endearing in their portrayals that instantly bonds you to them, making you feel like they were your best friends or even your sisters. That bond, more potent than the shout-along chorus of a hit pop song, makes “How To Have Sex” even more powerful than it would be otherwise, which makes it almost unbearably powerful due to the strength of Manning Walker’s filmmaking. One of the most impactful sound mixes of the year puts you right into Tara’s shoes as the lone virgin of this friend group, on a mission to have sex for the first time before she gets the final exam results that could determine the rest of her life. We do not talk nearly enough about sex in our culture, which can make it a confusing, at times lonely experience when you realize that maybe you’re actually not ready for this, or at least not right now with this particular person, and over the course of their vacation, Tara learns a lot about herself the hard way. McKenna-Bruce gives a star-making performance, so expressive that you always know exactly what she’s feeling no matter what she says, to the point where you want to tell Em and Skye to snap out of it and help her. That is, until you realize they’re also teenagers blinded by their own experiences. I was with them all the way, screaming at the screen, futilely praying that things wouldn’t go wrong, holding my head in my hands, laughing, and crying. What a journey. And what a crime that so many young women have to go through much worse than this. But now, there’s this film, and hopefully enough people will see it and realize that the only instruction it has to offer is something so basic that we sometimes need to be reminded: Listen. Listen to yourself, and listen to others with your heart as well as your eyes and ears.

7. Bottoms

BottomsAfter 2020’s “Shiva Baby,” it was clear that Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott were a filmmaking match made in heaven. Based on their previous work, though, no one could have guessed that their next project, high school sex comedy satire “Bottoms,” would be such a wild, raucous middle finger to all the established rules of high school comedies. Delectably raunchy, defiantly queer, and most of all deliriously funny, “Bottoms” is this generation’s touchstone high school movie, the one that they’ll quote to each other endlessly for decades because of how perfectly the dialogue reflects the current moment. But Seligman and Sennott (who co-wrote the screenplay) do so much more than they have to, creating something that feels deliberately timeless (I don’t think there’s a single cell phone in the whole movie) and so densely packed with jokes of every kind that it demands multiple viewings just to get them all. By a significant margin the funniest film of the year, the film never takes itself seriously, which sometimes lends it a surreal quality that only adds to the humor. But when the time comes to give their horndog “ugly untalented gays” some heart, neither Sennott nor costar Ayo Edebiri pussy out, giving their all in the serious moments just as in the ridiculously over-the-top moments when they’re punching each other in the face or monologuing about their imagined future as the unhappy closeted wife of a closeted minister. It’s easy to reduce Seligman’s film to its lesbian high school fight club plot, but it’s so much more than that in every way imaginable: “Bottoms” is the most original film of the year.

6. Rye Lane

Rye LaneRaine Allen-Miller’s funky London-set rom-com was poised to be one of the big breakouts of Sundance 2023, but it was dumped on Hulu in March to seemingly little fanfare. It’s everybody’s loss, as “Rye Lane” easily outpaces every other romantic comedy this year. Leads David Jonsson and Vivian Oparah give star-making performances as two newly single 20-somethings who help each other get over their breakups over the course of a day. Naturally, they fall in love, but neither the performers nor Allen-Miller push the characters too hard in that direction, letting their relationship start off genuinely (if playfully) antagonistic and slowly building a rapport that eventually blossoms into something deeper. The vibrancy of the South London setting comes alive thanks to the offbeat music (including some choice needle drops) and cinematography, infusing the film with a unique energy. Colorful in every sense of the word, “Rye Lane” is joy personified.

5. National Anthem

National AnthemThe best film at 2023’s SXSW festival is seemingly still awaiting distribution, a crime someone in the industry should have to answer for. Director Luke Gilford spent three years documenting the gay rodeo subculture, culminating in a collection of stories and photographs called “National Anthem: America’s Queer Rodeo.” The film, written by Gilford alongside David Largman Murray and Kevin Best and starring Charlie Plummer as a young day laborer who finds himself working on a ranch entirely run by queer people and learns the value of freedom of self-expression, marks Gilford’s directorial debut. Shot on film on location in just seventeen days, “National Anthem” is so stunningly photographed that it puts every other big-budget release this past year to shame. Plummer has never been better, and Eve Lindley is magnetically charismatic as Sky, the girl he falls in love with at the ranch. Quietly radical, “National Anthem” is the best kind of queer film: One that radiates empathy for everybody, queer or not, one that engenders support by showing how powerful it is to be able to explore all aspects of your sexuality and self-expression without fear or reprisal. In both form and content, it’s the most beautiful film of the year, one that I hope gets the platform it deserves.

​4. Oppenheimer

Barbie” – forever linked to this film because of the Barbenheimer phenomenon that accompanied their shared release date – may have gotten all the praise for being such a perfect blend of art and commerce, but Christopher Nolan did much the same thing here to much different ends. “Oppenheimer” is an imposing beast of a film, a dark three-hour epic about a theoretical physicist that just so happened to make nearly a billion dollars and played on IMAX screens for months on end. That does not happen for non-franchise films these days, but Nolan is one of the few directors working today who is the franchise himself. Because of his name, audiences came out in droves to see as vicious a takedown of American exceptionalism as has ever been put on film. And they loved it. It’s not hard to see why – the film is as grandiose in its imagery as in its ideas, and Ludwig Göransson’s propulsive score makes the film fly by while still being chair-grippingly tense. Brilliantly tying together Americans’ distrust in politicians and their skepticism toward scientists, Nolan frames the film as a battle between two self-made men: Oppenheimer and Lewis Strauss, two self-made men who worked their way to the top of their fields in pursuit of very different things. Strauss’s myopically self-obsessed worldview, using his power as a weapon to further his own cause at the expense of the truth, can stand in for any number of present-day figures, but Nolan’s message rings loud and clear: We need politicians who think about the well-being of people other than themselves – how can they adequately serve the country otherwise?

3. The Zone of Interest

The Zone Of InterestUnquestionably the masterpiece of the year, destined to be taught in schools and placed high on “Greatest Films Ever Made” lists, “The Zone of Interest” is so good that it made me physically ill while seeing it, without a single drop of blood shown on screen. This look at the lives of an ordinary family whose patriarch just so happens to be the Commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp gets under your skin in the most insidious of ways. Just when it was looking like there were no more interesting ways to make a film about the Holocaust, Glazer made not only a Holocaust film that completely defied all expectations, but the new definitive film about the Holocaust. Knowing that we have all seen the images and heard the stories over and over, Glazer focuses instead on what life was like for the Germans who lived with such hideous acts happening in their actual backyard. The parallels to the present day are undeniable, and Glazer could not put his message more powerfully: These were people doing what their leader told them was the right thing to do, and they looked away from genocide because it gave them a better life. If you’re sickened by this, how are you not sickened by what’s happening in America today? We cannot ignore fascism so blithely, a fact that “The Zone of Interest” makes painfully clear. It’s the most challenging sit of 2023 but also the most powerful..

2. Poor Things

I’m so happy to be living at the same time that Yorgos Lanthimos is making movies. His oddball sensibilities as a filmmaker are right in line with my own as a filmgoer, and his mastery of the craft is unimpeachable. “Poor Things,” Lanthimos’s second project with writer Tony McNamara and star Emma Stone, is in some ways his most mainstream film to date, but it’s also in many ways his weirdest, with wild colors, opulent sets, and flamboyant costumes creating an atmosphere that you could describe as “steampunk-adjacent” but is very much its own thing. Stone has never been better, fully embracing her inner weirdo to embody Bella Baxter, a woman with a baby’s brain in her skull slowly learning about the world and her place in it. Mark Ruffalo has never been funnier, eliciting laughter from the tiniest of movements as the pompous rake who whisks her away, thinking he can control her. Underlying it all is Jerskin Fendrix’s fantastically off-kilter music, the most original-sounding film score of the year, and the element that really makes this fractured fairy tale sing.

1. Past Lives

I can’t remember the last film that messed me up as deeply and for as long as Celine Song’s wondrous debut feature. For weeks after my initial viewing, I spent every waking moment turning over the film’s beautifully nuanced exploration of a woman caught between the life she has and the possible life she could have had with her childhood sweetheart. While I was thinking about the film – about how thoroughly Song uses our knowledge of romantic tropes to goad us into expecting a completely different film at every turn, how warm and generous the film is to each of its three main characters, how cinematographer Shabier Kirchner found a way to make even the most ordinary parts of New York City look magical – I was mostly thinking about people in my own life who were so important to me for a period and then moved on. Elementary school classmates, acquaintances from summer camp, family friends… my head swirled with questions: Where did they go? Where are they now? What are they like? Would there still be something between us now? The true power of the immaculately-crafted “Past Lives,” though, lies in how it reveals its layers of meaning over time. Realizing upon second viewing that the film is just as much about Nora’s status as an immigrant – a person caught between two countries, two cultures, two different versions of herself – as it is about her will-they-won’t-they with Hae Sung, revealed a depth that belies the film’s unassuming surface. “Past Lives” may appear simplistic, but Song has sharply honed every tiny detail to support multiple layers of meaning. That devastating ending – that gasp-inducing smash cut! those perfect final three words! the wave of emotion that comes over Greta Lee in her final moments! – works so well in large part because of Song’s graceful, patient storytelling. Song has said that the film is about three people just being kind to each other, which dovetails beautifully with Roger Ebert’s quote about how the films that made him cry were those that focused on human goodness. The generosity of “Past Lives,” extended not just to its characters but to its audience, is what has kept it in the front of my mind for so long, what has put a smile on my face every time I think about it. It is a film that evokes the warmest of feelings, just like the memories its central relationship brings to its characters. While Song’s subtle subversion of romance tropes puts your heart through a blender, she also puts it back together: “If you leave something behind, you gain something, too.” I couldn’t be more thankful for a film’s existence this year than “Past Lives.”

What do you think of my list? Please let us know in the comments section below or on our Twitter account. Please check out Matt Neglia’s Top 10 Films Of 2023 here, Brendan Hodges’s Top 10 here, Daniel Howat’s Top 10 here, Josh Parham’s Top 10 here and Tom O’Brien’s Top 10 here. The annual NBP Film Awards and the NBP Film Community Awards will come in a few days to allow you all some time to see those final 2023 awards season contenders and vote on what you thought was the best 2023 had to offer.

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Dan Bayer
Dan Bayer
Performer since birth, tap dancer since the age of 10. Life-long book, film and theatre lover.

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