After a few years of suffering from Covid delays and other issues, it finally feels safe to say, “Cinema is BACK, baby!” Don’t get me wrong, there were loads of excellent films released over the last three years, but the sheer number of incredible movies this year makes it feel like we’re back in 2019 all over again. From major blockbusters, indie dramas, studio comedies, and tons of international cinema, nailing down a top ten was extraordinarily challenging. As an avid fan of animation, it was disheartening to watch Disney’s 100th anniversary play out like Lucy brutally pulling the football away from Charlie Brown. Nevertheless, the medium of animation soared this year. “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem” was shockingly good, while “The Peasants” proved that adult stories work perfectly in the medium. Documentaries also came out strong, with films like “Beyond Utopia” and “20 Days in Mariupol” showcasing painful stories of life lived at the mercy of dictators. And non-English language movies like “Society of the Snow” and “Green Border” deserve recognition for their challenging storytelling. It was difficult to leave these films off of my top ten. Narrowing down my list was no easy feat, but I’m thrilled with my top ten, comprised of movies that have stuck with me since watching them. They’re movies that I believe will remain favorites for a long time to come. To me, they’re the best films of 2023. Honorable Mentions include “Air,” “Anatomy of a Fall,” “The Killer” & “Society of the Snow.”
10. The Iron Claw
This may come as a shock to anyone who knows me (read that with sarcasm), but I know nothing about professional wrestling. I never watched wrestling growing up, and I only know of a few of the big names that crossed over into mainstream pop culture, like The Rock, John Cena, and Hulk Hogan. I had never heard of the Von Erich family or their tragic story before watching Sean Durkin’s “The Iron Claw,” so I was bowled over by the unrelenting tragedy they experienced. For many reasons, the film reminded me of “Manchester By The Sea,” not the least of which is the mournful tone. The brutal realism of the performances, led by the remarkable Zac Efron, never oversells a moment. But the real magic trick of the film is its ending, which has stuck in my head since I first saw it. The last fifteen minutes of “The Iron Claw” capture the deep love of brotherhood, the hope of a life after death, the tragedy of loss, and the uplifting power of a family. Despite such a tragic story, the end is shockingly inspiring. It’s possibly the greatest cinematic moment of 2023, and I’ve thought about it for weeks. I wonder how much “The Iron Claw” will continue to grow on me for years to come.
“Priscilla” walks such a delicate line between romance and manipulation that it’s kind of stunning how well Sofia Coppola pulls it off. Until the end, Priscilla Presley never saw herself as a victim, even though it’s clear Elvis groomed her from childhood. In centering Priscilla’s perspective, the film captures the thrilling whirlwind of first love and how Priscilla, even at 14, fell in love with the “King of Rock and Roll.” It also captures the sadness of realizing that life isn’t all you hoped it would be. Cailee Spaeny is just phenomenal here, capturing the genuinely complicated feelings of Priscilla’s story. With sneaky great editing, brilliant costume design, and gorgeous hair and makeup, “Priscilla” is an understated gem.
8. The Promised Land
From the simplified plot description – in the mid-1700s, a man seeks to cultivate land in the Danish heath while arguing over land rights with a wealthy, ruthless individual – “The Promised Land” might sound like a stuffy period drama, but the film is a genuine crowdpleaser. It’s not a crowdpleaser in the sense that it’s all happy and cheer-worthy, but in the sense that it works on so many levels. It’s entertaining and has romance, thrills, familial bonds, and a satisfyingly evil villain, played by the perfectly hateful Simon Bennebjerg. Mads Mikkelsen delivers another superb performance, capturing the isolation and singular determination of Ludvig Kahlen. This brutal epic is a triumph.
7. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.
I’m not sure any film has surprised me more this year than “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” Kelly Fremon Craig’s adaptation of the coming-of-age classic captures the pressures of a girl growing up. It’s effortlessly charming, largely thanks to the remarkable cast. Abby Ryder Fortson and Rachel McAdams deliver two of the year’s best performances. They’re so clearly mother and daughter, filled with the same humor and anxieties, just at different ages. Just as with Judy Blume’s novel, Craig’s film is destined to become a staple for kids growing up. “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” is so lovable.
6. Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse
Topping 2018’s “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is no easy task. It’s one of the greatest animated films ever made. Period. Did the sequel, “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse,” live up to the first film? They’re honestly neck-and-neck. This new film is bigger, darker, and even a bit experimental in the best way. The imagination and sheer artistry on screen are hard to believe, especially with the astonishing visuals. Places like Gwen’s world are just so beautiful, with the imagery perfectly amplifying her story’s emotions. “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” elevates the art form, pushing the boundaries of what’s expected from mainstream animation. And it does all of that while still telling a thrilling, more mature story than the first film. It only suffers from being a “part one,” not quite concluding its story. Regardless, this is one of the most energetic and artful animated films I’ve ever seen.
5. Killers Of The Flower Moon
“Killers of the Flower Moon” is an epic tragedy masterfully crafted by a master filmmaker. There’s justified frustration with how Scorsese chose to center the narrative with Burkhart’s perspective rather than from Mollie Kyle or other native voices. As is, the film grows increasingly haunting as it goes on, showcasing how evil takes root. Lily Gladstone carries the emotional weight of the story perfectly. Moreover, Scorsese uses his power and presence to comment on how native stories have been suppressed and ignored. The movie is a slow-moving, gripping reflection on American injustice. It’s sprawling in both scope and impact, with an ending I’ll be thinking about for ages.
Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” is one of my favorite movies of all time, and I’m a huge fan of her 2019 version of “Little Women.” But a Barbie movie? Could Gerwig make that work? Why, oh why, would I doubt her? “Barbie” is a genuine joy, fully committed to silliness. It’s so silly that I wasn’t fully prepared for the absurdity of it all in my first viewing, especially compared to Gerwig’s first two films. Subsequent viewings revealed the depth underneath the ample laughs. It’s an absurd comedy, but it still manages, as maybe only Gerwig could, to unwrap a fresh perspective about being a woman – and being human. Margot Robbie is perfectly cast as Stereotypical Barbie, of course, but she’s outshined by Ryan Gosling’s Ken. Ironically (and intentionally), it’s a juicier role, and Gosling doesn’t hold back for a moment. The same can be said about the entire cast. With stellar music, impeccable production design, and jokes that get funnier every time, “Barbie” is one of the most meaningful comedies in ages and one of the year’s best films.
3. The Holdovers
Paul Giamatti’s performance in “The Holdovers” is so good that after walking out of the film, my friend and I had a whole conversation trying to figure out if he…just looks like that now. We debated whether he genuinely had a lazy eye or if that was a construction of the film. Giamatti embodies Paul Hunham with such lived-in, subtle physicality that it was hard to believe that Giamatti doesn’t actually look like that. Even more remarkable is that Da’Vine Joy Randolph and Dominic Sessa deliver equally brilliant performances right alongside him. “The Holdovers” is an exceptional film about a found family, capturing a rare joyful melancholy. Sweet, wistful, but genuinely hilarious in equal measure, Alexander Payne somehow avoids any semblance of schmaltz. The movie is a big hug, charming and thoughtful, but with a sharp edge to it. It’s truly a magical film, likely to melt even the coldest heart.
2. Past Lives
Believe it or not, I try my best to avoid hyperbole when writing about movies. Yes, I’m aware that I fail in that endeavor from time to time. Nevertheless, here’s a statement I feel comfortable making with zero hyperbole: “Past Lives” is one of the best directorial debuts ever. It’s almost impossible to believe how confident Celine Song’s first feature film is. It’s not just the impeccable writing. It’s not just the brilliant performances. It’s the way in which every moment is layered with a dozen emotions, all tangled together but equally important. Few films have captured the grief over life’s possibilities like “Past Lives.” The wandering eyes throughout the movie, as each character tries to sneak a glance at another, capture the brilliance in each tiny moment. Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, and John Magaro don’t waste a moment, bringing Song’s layered writing to life. This is a masterpiece, and I cannot wait to see what magic Song will bring to us for years to come.
Christopher Nolan perfected the art of the blockbuster over the last two decades, finding ways to satisfy mass audiences while challenging them on both an artistic and intellectual level. Then, Nolan applied that skill to a biopic. The result is “Oppenheimer,” a new American epic. It shifts genres brilliantly, moving from profoundly human biopic, tense thriller to psychological courtroom drama, all on a massive scale. Wrestling with the man, the bomb, and even America itself, “Oppenheimer” is intimate, operatic, and captivating. Cillian Murphy holds immense weight in the title role, but he was born for this. His Oppenheimer is complicated and messy, anxious and confident, and he never misses a beat. Bring in a stellar ensemble, an insane Ludwig Göransson score, and gorgeous craftwork, and “Oppenheimer” becomes endlessly engaging, even at three hours. It’s the achievement of the year and my favorite film of 2023.
What do you think of my list? Please let us know in the comments section below or on our Twitter account. Be on the lookout for more of our Top 10’s for 2023 as we say goodbye to the year and say hello to 2024. Please check out Matt Neglia’s Top 10 Films Of 2023 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.