It has been quite a year. Crowds returned to movie theaters in droves, and even older audiences, many still cocooned since the pandemic, began venturing out again to check out the latest releases. Much of that was, of course, due to the “Barbenheimer” phenomenon, about which too much ink has already been spilled (Besides, I get to both of them later down on my list anyway). It was also the year when moviegoers finally said “Enough!” to Marvel’s requirement that moviegoers follow all of their content on all of their platforms (including Disney+) for their latest movie to make sense after most of its 2023 live-action titles underwhelmed at the box-office, with only the familiar “Guardians of the Galaxy” franchise finding audience favor.
“Sound of Freedom” came out of left field (or, perhaps in this case, right field) to become a hit, as did Taylor Swift’s self-produced concert film, “The Eras Tour,” which bypassed the major studio distribution system entirely. Of the 200 films I’ve screened this year, so many came close to making this list. However, I’d like to single out ten runner-ups that I’m still thinking about months after I first saw them (in alphabetical order): “20 Days in Mariupol,” “About Dry Grasses,” “American Fiction,” “Anatomy of a Fall,” “Beyond Utopia,” “Killers of the Flower Moon,” “Maestro,” “Perfect Days,” “Suzume,” and “The Taste of Things.” On to the Top 10:
10. Menus-Plaisirs Les Troisgros
At age 93, documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman has had a lifelong fascination with process, and in his films, he specializes in probing the inner workings of large institutions such as schools, museums, and mental health facilities. But he has never tackled a fixture as deceptively complicated to run as a restaurant. Not just any restaurant, however. In “Menus-Plaisirs Les Troisgros,” his 47th feature film, Wiseman has trained his focus on Le Bois sans Feuilles (The Woods Without Leaves), a 3-star Michelin restaurant nestled in France’s picturesque Loire region that is known worldwide as a pioneer in nouvelle cuisine – a way of cooking that’s far from the heavy sauces traditionally thought of as French food. In the film’s four-hour runtime, Wiseman takes us through a typical day at Le Bois sans Feuilles, from selecting the fresh ingredients at the local farmers’ market to cleaning up after the last dinner patrons have departed. Capturing it all in spectacular detail, Wiseman highlights the delicacy with which the meals are prepared and served and reveals the research and care with which the staff treats each guest (And don’t even get me started on that cheese board). As crucial as exploring a subject’s process is for Wiseman, one key element that sets apart his documentaries is that he never loses sight of the people within; from the chefs de cuisine to the youngest busboy, Wiseman’s direction rises to every challenge, helping to make “Menus-Plaisirs Les Troisgros” an enthralling addition to the already distinguished filmography of a brilliant filmmaker.
9. All Of Us Strangers
Whether it’s a secret affair in “45 Years” or an unexpected chance at love in “Weekend,” filmmaker Andrew Haigh has created a gallery of indelible screen characters who yearn for emotional fulfillment and teeter just on the edge of getting it. These themes recur in his latest and most personal drama to date, “All of Us Strangers,” but here, Haigh taps into something more profound: the idea that seeking closure with your past may be the only way to open the door to joy in your future. In a stunning performance, Andrew Scott plays Adam, a lonely middle-aged gay screenwriter who, while researching a script, returns to his childhood home to miraculously find that his parents (Claire Foy and Jamie Bell), who died in an auto accident when he was 12, are alive and well and appear no different from the day he saw them last. It’s a conceit that could have easily backfired in its audaciousness, but it is a testament to Haigh’s artistry that he makes us believe that this could actually happen. And for Adam, at least, it is the only way that he can finally let go of his guilt and go on to live his true life. For those of us queer folks who have lost both of our parents and never had the chance to say goodbye (much less “thank you, Mom and Dad”), “All of Us Strangers” is a moving fantasy that manages to be, at the same time, a devastating punch to the gut.
8. John Wick: Chapter 4
Fight choreography is an art form that has never gotten its proper due, at least from most film awards groups. But if there was ever a stunt equivalent of the Nobel Prize, stunt coordinators Scott Rogers and Stephen Dunlevy would retire it with their breathtaking work in the fourth film of the “John Wick” franchise. From dodging assassins’ cars at Paris’ Arc de Triomphe to battling on the 222-step stone staircase at Sacré-Cœur, the film’s landmark stunts have a kind of musicality and balletic precision that inspire jaw-dropping awe. But if the merits of “John Wick: Chapter 4” were merely great stunts, the film would be nowhere near this list. What makes this “John Wick” film so special is director Chad Stahelski, star Keanu Reeves, and the gravity and depth of feeling each man brings to the project. Since the death of his dog in the first film, John Wick has been through a lot, and by “John Wick: Chapter 4,” Reeves, with the help of welcome new additions Donnie Yen and Hiroyuki Sanada, channels that sense of wearied determination to make sure that justice is finally done. The sight of a wounded but triumphant Wick on the cathedral steps serves as a fitting elegy to the final chapter of this remarkable series. Or is it the last chapter?
7. Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse
“Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse,” the second film in the Miles Morales trilogy, is even better than its Oscar-winning predecessor and has proven to be many things to many audiences. For some, it’s stretching the boundaries of animation to new and exciting ways of storytelling. To others, it’s the story of a biracial teen (voiced by Shameik Moore) trying to find his place in the world and the Spider-Verse. But on a rewatch, I found myself drawn to and moved by the film’s relationships between these young superheroes and their families. Indeed, “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” may be the most moving depiction of the parent-child relationship I’ve seen on screen this year. From the film’s very first sequence, in which Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) reveals to her ex-cop father (Shea Whigham) that she is Spider-Woman (who is mistakenly wanted for murder), the conflict between parents’ loyalties to their child and following the law is starkly made clear. Similarly, Miles’ parents (Brian Tyree Henry & Lauren Vélez) only want the best for their son, who desperately tries to change the course of future history to save his police captain dad from an ordained death. In each storyline, parental love is overpowering, moving me in a way I never expected.
Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” is the most subversive success of 2023. The highest-grossing film of the year and the most successful film ever directed by a woman, “Barbie,” was sold as a peppermint-colored bonbon that would dazzle the eye and build the brand. But something happened when Greta Gerwig joined the party. Oh, she more than delivered on the look and all the accessories (each sold separately) of Barbie World, but the genius idea that she and Noah Baumbach had to bring Barbie into the Real World allowed them to stealthily offer a pointed yet thoughtful critique of gender roles and of the patriarchy which bind us all today. What makes their approach so compelling in its messaging is that, with a few exceptions, it’s not done through preachiness but instead through character. When Barbie is told that she’s merely a “tool of sexualized capitalism,” she’s genuinely hurt, and our hearts go out to her. Similarly, when Ken is introduced to the joys of the patriarchy (complete with horse books and fur coats), even as we’re laughing, we want nothing more than for Ken to see the light. Gerwig wisely provided the sugar that helped the smart medicine go down, and the result was a film that tickled both the eye and the brain.
5. The Holdovers
There’s a deep current of melancholy running just below the surface of Alexander Payne’s makeshift family comedy. Set in 1970 at Barton Academy, a posh New England prep school, David Hemingson’s story focuses on three individuals who, in their own way, have been left behind at Christmas and, ultimately, in life. Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa) is a Barton student abandoned by his mother and stepfather’s sudden vacation; the school’s cafeteria chief, Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), is left alone and still grieving over the loss of her son who was killed in Vietnam; Paul Hunnam (Paul Giamatti), a classics teacher left in charge of minding Angus over the holidays, feels that a “bitter and complicated” world has left him behind as well. The richly complex performances of the film’s three leads have been rightly acclaimed, and the ease with which Payne sets up his well-framed shots and the way it works with his actors seems uncanny at times. But on a rewatch, I was struck by just how well-crafted this film is. From the period-perfect production design by Ryan Warren Smith to the particularly meticulous editing by Kevin Tent, which keeps the story flowing, “The Holdovers” shines both above and below the line (And extra points to Payne for digging up that 1970 MPAA R-rating logo! It sets the ’70s vibe perfectly).
4. Past Lives
What is it about playwright Celine Song’s astonishing feature debut that moves audiences so? On its face, “Past Lives,” based on events in Song’s own life, might be seen as a relatively modest story as we follow Nora (Greta Lee), a Korean-American writer who reunites with one-time classmate Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) 24 years after she left Seoul for North America. Ironically, however, what makes her story so gloriously universal is just how specifically personal it is. Who among us has not yearned for someone to love? Or even if we have found that person, do we still wonder whether a road not taken earlier in our lives could have led to an even happier fulfillment? Song dares to take on that question without sitting in judgment of her characters. Nora is hopelessly in love with her understanding American husband Arthur (John Magaro), yet wonders whether a spark for her is still there for Hae Sung. Arthur just wants Nora to be happy, supporting her reunion with her childhood love all the way but secretly hoping that the magic is no longer there between them. And Hae Sung, who has traveled halfway around the world, wonders whether he still might have a future with Nora without breaking up her marriage. Unlike so many other romances we’ve recently seen, each of the characters here strives to put the happiness of others ahead of their own and are just three decent people trying to do the right thing. In that sense, “Past Lives” is just the kind of romance that can give us all hope.
3. Poor Things
Truth be told, there was no 2023 film that I anticipated more than Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest head trip, “Poor Things.” I’ve been cuckoo for Yorgos’ worldview for quite some time – at “Dogtooth,” I was smitten; after “The Lobster,” I was seduced; with “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” I was terrified; and after “The Favourite,” I was head over heels. So when I say that “Poor Things” is his best film yet, it’s meant as the highest of compliments. Writer Tony McNamara’s “Frankenstein”-like story tells of a deceased young woman whose baby’s brain is implanted in her head, reanimating her back to life. Bella Baxter (a remarkable Emma Stone), as she is now called, quickly grows from a loose-limbed toddler to a woman embracing her sexuality to the fullest. Lanthimos builds a jaw-dropping world to tell Bella’s tale, from the minute laboratory details of her “creator,” Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), to the glories of a colorful Lisbon to where Bella’s smarmy swain Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo, whose untapped comic skills may be the film’s biggest surprise) whisks her away. Yet, even as Bella becomes more aware of herself and her endless possibilities, every man she meets wants something from her. Dr. Baxter wants to protect her, Duncan wants to ravage her, lab assistant McCandles (a charming Ramy Youssef) wants to marry her, and a sadistic general (Christopher Abbott) wants to dominate her. But Bella, as now a fully realized woman, will have none of that. What she will have instead is another drink. In short, “Poor Things” is thrilling cinema.
2. The Zone Of Interest
Against a black screen for nearly four minutes, Jonathan Glazer’s “The Zone of Interest” opens with a cacophony of hollow sound and discordant music whose initial effect is to terrify, then to intrigue, and finally to unsettle the viewer, a feeling that never leaves you for the next 100 minutes. Very loosely based on the 2014 novel by the late Martin Amis, Glazer’s film is a Holocaust movie that turns the camera back onto the sociopaths that perpetrated this horror, embedding itself in the home of Auschwitz Commandant Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel). Höss has created a pretty comfy life for himself, his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), and their five children, where Hedwig gives tours of her beautiful garden, paying little mind to the smoke billowing from the ovens right next door. Glazer sharpens his eye to focus on the compartmentalization that these characters must rely upon to get through their day, as Höss treats his job as a business, taking pitches on the new, most efficient model of the crematorium, for example. The effect is bone-chilling, aided no end by the fly-on-the-wall shooting style of cinematographer Łukasz Żal, the finely-detailed production design of Chris Oddy, the crisp editing of Paul Watts, and, crucially, the striking score by Mica Levi and brilliant sound design by Johnnie Burn. But the extraordinary artistic vision of Glazer makes this portrait of human depravity a film you won’t soon forget.
For all the talk of what a phenomenon Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” has been for the past six months, it’s easy to forget the extraordinary film at the center of all this hoopla. A biopic of the father of the atomic bomb might not have been seen as the most likely candidate for a box-office bonanza. Still, Nolan did nothing to dumb down his portrait of the theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy). Instead, he laid out complex scientific theories that were the core of Oppenheimer’s work in a way that moviegoers grasped. In so doing, he further challenged the audience by telling Oppenheimer’s story through three alternating timelines: his early college years, his time at Los Alamos, and the later attempt to destroy him by Adm. Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.). (In fact, Nolan’s cast, headed up by Emily Blunt and Florence Pugh, is virtually a who’s who of great contemporary screen actors who completely subvert their stardom to the material.) Just as the film’s subject broke barriers in science, so did Nolan in filming “Oppenheimer,” which was shot by cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, using IMAX 65mm and 65mm large-format film, and is the first film to shoot portions using IMAX black-and-white photographic film (developed just for use in “Oppenheimer“). I dwell on the techs because they are so crucial to the final impact of “Oppenheimer.” As I sat in an IMAX theater, I was utterly overwhelmed by the 70mm imagery in a way I had never been before, marveling at Nolan’s skill with actors and his directorial mastery of his craft. That IMAX viewing was my third experience with “Oppenheimer,” which only deepened my love for the film. I can’t wait for my fourth.
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, Daniel Howat’s Top 10 here and Josh Parham’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.