It’s sometimes difficult to fully reckon with such a statement, but it does seem as if 2023 will be remembered as a very strong year for cinema. From highly publicized film festivals to box-office behemoths, this year has felt like a true showcase of engaging works that capture a wide range of perspectives regarding storytelling. So many aspects of film were on full display, to the point that narrowing them down to form an arbitrary list was more difficult than usual. So many great films just missed out on being featured in this compilation, including “Full Time,” “John Wick: Chapter 4,” “Poor Things,” “Robot Dreams,” and “Rotting in the Sun.” There are so many deserving of recognition, but here is a small selection that I found to be worthy of a particular spotlight.
10. Showing Up
There have been plenty of films that aim to tackle the plight of artists and the tremulous journey taken to manifest one’s creative outlet. It’s a road filled with frustration and disappointment, but there is also a fervent optimism that pride in the work itself will be enough. Kelly Reichardt’s “Showing Up” conveys this complex emotional state with a deft and caring hand, celebrating those who choose to believe in their creativity in the face of a judgmental world. It is a deceptively simple narrative as it conveys a strong thesis of conviction and self-fortitude. It’s a delightful detail that the art showcased here is not from exceptional masters of their craft. These are regular individuals who pour their heart and soul into these modest creations, a sentiment that many modern artists could feel some kinship towards. The story is held by strong performances from the whole ensemble, from a stoic Michelle Williams to an incredible Hong Chau in an immensely captivating turn. It’s a quiet portrait that can be affirming in the most surprising of ways.
9. Killers Of The Flower Moon
After decades of prolific work, it’s quite remarkable how a filmmaker like Martin Scorsese continues to find novel commentaries to approach. Now, it feels as if he has entered a period of great reflection, not only on his own work but on how such stories fit into a greater fabric of societal narratives. The religious deconstruction of “Silence” and the pervasive violence explored in “The Irishman” feels like a perfect kinship to the thematic examinations of “Killers of the Flower Moon.” It’s an epic tale of American cruelty perpetuated against a marred yet resilient community. The carnage is horrific but an inescapable part of the tapestry that was woven into American legend. Scorsese finds both brutality and grace in this environment, choosing Lily Gladstone to shoulder much of this emotion with her subtle glances, so expressive within Rodrigo Prieto’s vibrant cinematography. Every new endeavor by Scorsese feels like an event to be treasured as if this could possibly be the final mark he could leave on the landscape. One hopes for as many new works as possible, but he also displays a resonant poignancy here.
8. Fallen Leaves
Some films have a habit of sneaking up on you. Even if the first viewing was a perfectly adequate experience, there is something that lingers and grows in estimation upon returning to it. That was a sentiment I first had with “Fallen Leaves,” a film that, to be clear, certainly made a charming impression upon that first screening. It was quite a feat, given that previous works from Aki Kaurismäki had not delivered quite the same impact. Returning to it again only cemented the initial perception of being so taken by this world. Like his other works, the film exists in a time that is both modern and dated, textured by a kitsch aesthetic that is amusing and quaint. The deadpan humor ends up sweetening the endearing relationship at the center, wonderfully conveyed in the performances from Alma Pöysti and Jussi Vatanen. At a brisk eighty-one minutes, one feels enchanted by this world without ever overstaying the welcome. It’s a delightful film that speaks to the connections we search to forge in a chaotic world, occasionally settling into a beautiful tempo.
7. Past Lives
It would be a challenge for anyone to watch “Past Lives” and not be moved by some strong emotion that is being played out on the screen. There’s a stirring confidence in Celine Song’s ability to depict this tale of longing so precisely that it is hard to imagine this as a feature debut. Yet, Song beautifully captures that angst, which calls for a more profound longing. What she assembles is a love story that transcends the conventions of rekindled romantic affections. It’s a love of one’s self, a conflicted identity reflected through the spaces we exist in, and the navigation to arrive at that uncertain truth. It’s a complex yet deeply resonant exploration shouldered by a trio of magnificent performances. Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, and John Magaro all do masterful work in showcasing the subtle yet heartbreaking ways they portray these complicated emotions. These characters long to be included in each other’s orbit while dancing around silent spaces between them that give meaning to their plight. It’s a soulful examination that is consistently engrossing.
Despite one’s very best intentions, it can be difficult to altogether avoid a certain amount of expectation when walking into a film. The long history of Sofia Coppola’s filmography was initially a slight cause for concern for me. Even with a beloved reputation, the power of her work had not impacted me quite as much as it had others. There was indeed a fair amount of skepticism that her latest work would move me, but a delightful surprise was bestowed upon me when I finally saw “Priscilla.” All those elements that others had responded to so warmly finally clicked perfectly into place. She once again turns her meditative gaze towards the life of a young woman trapped in a shiny prison that isolates her to the point of suffocation. Cailee Spaeny’s brilliant performance quietly captures this turmoil. The genuine passion she has that is slowly poisoned into a festering resentment is showcased in every subtle emotion shown on her face. It’s a captivating turn, matched well by Jacob Elordi’s alluring yet insidious Elvis, who plays him with a dangerous charisma that is wholly absorbing. In the end, Coppola wrangles all these elements together to create an engaging portrait that is one of the best of her very prolific works.
5. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.
Some stories feel so poignant in their truth that they feel relevant to any moment in time they are seen. Even though the setting of “Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret.” is many decades in the past, its commentary remains quite resonant to this day. There is a beautiful exploration of the complicated yet joyous lives that women experience. The facets of growing into adulthood and reckoning with the changing body are presented with an arresting atmosphere that is both warm and daunting. The trials of motherhood that seek to incorporate the strong familial bonds with a complex journey of self-fulfillment are so earnestly portrayed. An incredible ensemble is highlighted by Abby Ryder Fortson, who brings a wonderful persona to anchor the film, and Rachel McAdams delivers a performance that can charm as easily as it devastates. Kelly Fremon Craig has such a natural gift to tell the stories of women in a manner that celebrates the nuances of their trek through life. The stakes may feel small, but the intimacy makes every decision take on a weight that is sincerely felt. This is, without a doubt, one of the year’s absolute treasures that deserves appreciation.
Ira Sachs is a filmmaker obsessed with the messy relationships that drive interactions. His explorations can range in terms of how inviting the characters can be into such a space, but the fascination with this intermingling drives the drama. “Passages” dives headfirst into the brutal and confrontational dialogue between hedonism and the genuine urge to pursue a passionate love. Franz Rogowski inhabits the role of a man who inspires so much resentment. He is fueled by egotism with little regard for the collateral damage inflicted, yet there is a vulnerable soul underneath that must grapple with the consequences of those actions. It’s a complicated role that he excels at portraying. Fortunately, his scene partners are equally as effective. Ben Whishaw’s turn as the ailing husband is full of heartache and tragedy that is very compelling, and Adèle Exarchopoulos also brings an inviting energy that can be just as soul-crushing. They are all perfect players in this intimate portrait from Sachs, one that showcases how such devotion can be weaponized by manipulative forces and how one is also susceptible to such towering forces. It’s an intriguing commentary.
It’s probably safe to say that very few people could have predicted “Oppenheimer” to be quite the massive success that it turned out to be. It’s very heartening to see the masses flock to a three-hour historical epic mainly propelled by continuous scenes of people talking. Yet, the magic that Christopher Nolan instills within this narrative maintains a palpable tension that is very gripping. His skill at creating spectacle has generally been appreciated in action sequences amid large-scale vistas. Yet, the massive IMAX cameras capture a forceful momentum within individuals racing to complete a monumental task. It’s riveting to watch the pieces come together and even more exciting to witness the fallout from their objectives. The ramifications brought forth by such destruction are captured in every piercing gaze that Cillian Murphy delivers, wholly captivating in his quiet power that commands your attention. Being buoyed by a terrific ensemble goes even further to highlight this enthralling tale. Nolan manages to deliver his most thematically rich work to date. It is a testament to his ability to craft intriguing drama that feels like a traditional blockbuster. It’s a spellbinding effort that holds your attention.
2. The Zone Of Interest
Simply put, there is nothing quite like the experience of watching “The Zone of Interest.” There have been many films that have sought to examine the atrocities of the Holocaust and the larger effect it has wrought on the world, but what Jonathan Glazer aims for here is to turn that perspective on those individuals who willed themselves to compartmentalize such acts of pure evil. To witness a family beaming with patriotic pride, living out their idyllic lifestyle, and experiencing the world just as unseen horrors permeate the atmosphere is incredibly chilling and disturbing. The stark framing of the camera never turns its eye directly to the violence. Instead, it is firmly fixed inside this home, clinical as if it were eavesdropping on the moments humanity bears its ugly disregard in such cold calculation. The sounds of brutality are faintly carried across the air, stretching a layer of poison that rots the earth. The indifference is hard to stomach, and by the time we finally arrive, all one can do is attempt to understand the scale of such tragedy when it is far too late. This is an undeniably powerful cinematic achievement that is haunting in its depiction of apathy that strikes one at the core.
1. All Of Us Strangers
Andrew Haigh is, without a doubt, one of the greatest storytellers working in film today. He has incredible sensibilities when it comes to crafting intimate character studies, narratives that revel in the close quarters that individuals exist in that showcase a grand emotional connection. That is yet again the case for “All of Us Strangers,” a haunting tale that seeks to understand deeply rooted trauma from the past and the urge to overcome such stasis. Haigh never gives out easy explanations or clean rules to this universe. Those objectives are sidestepped to luxuriate in the grand emotions on display. The overwhelming isolation that calcifies through years of self-inflicted torture can only be overcome by reconciling that damage and confronting it in the present. However, that mere act is not enough. One must also wrestle with that pain to realize the tethers it creates to others who suffer, building out the warm embrace needed to sustain. All of this is so powerfully portrayed by Andrew Scott, delivering a towering performance of devastating vulnerability that communicates so much tragedy in glances. The small cast that surrounds him is equally effective. Paul Mescal, Claire Foy, and Jamie Bell contribute to this melancholy world with just enough optimism that yearns for a brighter perspective. Few movies have the power to manifest moments of intense catharsis quite like this. Beautifully photographed with a serene soundtrack, this is yet another masterwork from a brilliant filmmaker and the best film of the year.
Getting to experience all the cinematic achievements this year has been an absolute pleasure. Every year will have its gems to treasure, but this one does feel particularly special. So many filmmakers brought forth a diverse set of stories that engaged on varying levels and backgrounds. It was a time of experiencing new thrills in the cinema and captivating storytelling methods. One can only hope the following year will be just as strong, and one certainly keeps the faith that it will continue to be full of works deserving of celebration.
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 and Daniel Howat’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.