Best Films of 2023
By Chuck Koplinski
Last year, I complained that “very few films stood out as being exceptional.” I didn’t realize how good I had it. For me, 2023 was the year of “almost, not quite” movies, works that approached greatness but couldn’t stick the landing with big name directors, for the most part, coasting on their reputations. Is this truly the case or has yours truly become so jaded that little seems fresh or innovative? Probably a bit of both.
As far as the film industry is concerned, 2023 will be remembered as the year when the industry was brought to a standstill by a pair of labor strikes that lasted far too long, resulting in an inevitable outcome from both. Members of the Writers Guild of America walked the picket line for 148 days, while those in the Screen Actors Guild held a 118-day walkout, each group wanting a new agreement regarding residuals from streaming services and regulations on the use of artificial intelligence. These issues were gestating for quite some time and while terms were agreed to, the real challenge will come three years from now. What with the capabilities of artificial intelligence developing at a breakneck, alarming rate, there’s no telling what this technology will be capable of when these agreements come to end. The prediction here is that this recent strike will look like a brief respite compared to the potential work stoppage in three years.
The ramifications of these strikes weren’t readily apparent, through the television season has been delayed. The roster of films for 2024 seems unaffected, however, in order to make up for the money studios will have to fork over to keep their workforce happy, fewer productions will likely be greenlit. Thus, jobs and opportunities that were once depended upon, will be gone.
As for trends in 2023 movies, there was a great deal of nostalgia at play, as a myriad of films with pop culture roots in the past came to the fore. Air, Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret, The Beanie Bubble, Blackberry, Dungeons and Dragons, Flamin’ Hot, The Little Mermaid, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, Tetris, and Weird: The Weird Al Yankovic Story all had one foot planted firmly in the past, as their makers examined the zeitgeist each brought to their respective eras. Oh, and then there was Barbie…
Greta Gerwig’s blockbuster and Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer made for an improbable one-two summer movie punch, a case of counterprogramming that captured the movie-going public’s imagination. The portmanteau Barbenheimer swept the nation, raising awareness and generating the sort of publicity that Warner Brothers or Universal Pictures’ money couldn’t buy. That both films were solid entertainments was fortuitous. That each will eventually bring in over $1 billion defies all reason and once more validates screenwriter William Goldman’s maxim, “In Hollywood, no one knows anything.”
There were films I liked that you didn’t (Blackberry, The Flash, How to Blow Up a Pipeline, Infinity Pool, Napoleon, Operation Fortune), movies you liked that I didn’t (65, Cocaine Bear, Evil Dead Rise, Fast X, Five Nights at Freddy’s, Knock at the Cabin, Meg 2), and those no one liked (Exorcist: Believer, Heart of Stone, The Last Voyage of the Demeter, Mafia Mama, The Marsh King’s Daughter, Shazam: Fury of the Gods).
Of course, I did not see every movie released this year. What with theatrical releases and premieres on a variety of streaming services, no one could. As such, lists such as these are far from comprehensive, but simply a retrospective of my 365 days of viewing and those features that happened to rattle around in. my mind long after the end credits rolled.
Fallen Leaves – In its own quiet way, Aki Kaurismaki’s Finnish export is the most vital film of the year. In the face of overwhelming despair, two lonely people take a chance on one another, despite fate’s many signs not to. Unemployed and lonely, Ansa (Alma Poysti) decides to start seeing the heavy drinking but kind Holappa (Jussi Vatanen). Their relationship is rife with difficulties and warning signs, yet there’s a sense of trust that grows between the two that becomes their salvation in a world that is falling apart. Wryly executed, the film’s acerbic humor is so extreme you can’t help but laugh at the woes Ansa, Holappa and their friends endure, their stoic reactions to the troubles that befall them hilarious. More importantly, this approach is not simply a defense, but a subtle act of defiance that allows them to maintain their sanity in a nonsensical, oppressive world. Running a brisk 80 minutes, this is the not only one of the funniest movies of the year but in many ways, the most hopeful.
American Fiction – Cord Jefferson’s adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel Erasure is the most timely and perhaps vital film of the year. Jeffery Wright gives a powerful subtle performance as Professor “Monk” Ellison, an author who writes an urban, Black experience novel as a joke, only to see it become a sensation. The secret to the movie’s success lies not simply in the strong performances from its cast and uncommonly smart approach to race but the humor employed in examining this thorny issue. This tact encourages conversation rather than impeding it, the film proving to be an important tool to foster understanding. Entertaining from beginning to end, this thought-provoking work will hopefully be seen as a benchmark in years to come.
The Zone of Interest – Jonathan Glazer’s adaptation of Martin Amis’ novel is a gripping, horrifying study of callousness and insensitivity that strikes close to home in the way it reflects today’s political climate. Rudolf Hoss and his family live in a posh home replete with a lush garden, modern amenities and a staff of servants to meet their every need. This showplace abuts the Auschwitz death camp, as Hoss is its commandant, overseeing the deaths of thousands of Jews a day. Never seeing what happens in the camp, the viewer witnesses the day-to-day existence of the family, as they ignore the screams of horror and other obvious atrocities taking place withing a stone’s throw. The horrors of the Holocaust aren’t the focus of the film but rather the indifference that allowed it to happen is. The result is a sobering, powerful look at what occurs when a doctrine of hate is embraced.
Dream Scenario – Kristoffer Borgli’s dark comedy gave Nicolas Cage one of best roles in this broadside against social media and cancel culture. The veteran actor is Paul Matthews, a professor living a life of quiet desperation who inexplicably begins appearing in people’s dreams. While he initially basks in his Warhol moment, the tide turns on him, his life becoming a far too public nightmare. Borgli keeps us guessing from one scene to the next, the audacious nature of his narrative a revelation of imagination. No other film this year took to task the Victimhood Mentality as this one did, a refreshing dose of much needed common sense in a hurricane in inanity.
Past Lives – Celine Song’s thoughtful, heartfelt look at modern romance was perhaps the most quietly moving film of the year. Nora (Greta Lee) and Jung (Teo Yoo) are star-crossed lovers reunited via the wonders of the internet. And while they’ve established lives of their own, they can’t help but wonder if their love can’t be rekindled. Smart and poignant, the movie eschews the typical tropes of the romantic genre, creating a sincere portrait of emotional turmoil that cuts to the core, yet provides a much-needed sense of hope in the end.
Poor Things – Yorgos Lanthimos puts a feminist bent on The Bride of Frankenstein with this darkly comic look at one woman’s journey to fulfillment. Emma Stone gives the year’s most audacious performance as Bella Baxter, a woman with the mind of an infant trying to find her way in a steampunk version of turn-of-the-century England. The Id made flesh, her behavior is shocking and her quest for liberation is hard-fought as she must deal with many men who would take advantage of her. While this is not for all tastes, great work from Willem Dafoe and Mark Ruffalo, exceptional production design and a story that surprises throughout makes this a standout.
Flora and Son – John Carney continues to impress with his latest paean to the power music, this effort focusing on a mother and son at odds who are brought together through songwriting. Eve Hewson commands the screen from the first scene to the last as a woman with no direction who finds her voice when she learns how to play the guitar. Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives a career best performance as the on-line instructor who falls for her, but its Carney’s songs that prove invaluable, his catchy, pop song concoctions a sincere reflection of the turmoil his characters feel as well as the liberation they heartily earn.
BlackBerry – One of the biggest surprises of the year, Matt Johnson’s examination of the birth and death of a pop culture phenomenon was a fascinating look at what happens when inspiration and commerce collide. It’s hardly a new story but this cautionary tale keeps us hooked with one intriguing revelation after another, propelled by compelling performances from Jay Baruchel as Mike, the inventor of the titular device and Glenn Howerton as Jim, the ruthless businessman that would make the phone a must-have for a generation and then lead it to ruin. Entertaining and thought-provoking in a way only a compelling drama can be.
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret – Kelly Fremon Craig’s adaptation of Judy Blume’s seminal coming-of-age novel is a delightful, heartfelt slice of life that follows the titular preteen as she navigates issues of faith, belonging, and independence after her family moves and she enrolls in a new middle school. Craig balances the inherent humor and drama of Margaret’s story to create a sincere portrait of a loving, understanding family. Abby Ryder Fortson is wonderful in the lead role while Rachel McAdams and Kathy Bates supply the sort of solid performances, we’ve come to expect from them as Margaret’s mother and grandmother, respectively. A family film with an appeal that extends beyond the obvious demographic.
Godzilla Minus Zero – Takashi Yamazaki simultaneously pays tribute to Godzilla’s roots as he ushers the franchise into a new era with groundbreaking special effects in this feature that serves as an origin story. Reeling from the defeat during WW II, the Japanese population is forced to come to terms with their trauma in the form of a prehistoric, radioactive beast that comes to ruin what’s left of their tattered cities. Focusing more on the damaged populace, particularly disgraced kamikaze pilot Koichi (Ryunosuke Kamiki) and his makeshift family, the film is ultimately a moving examination of grief and recovery, as well as an effective reminder of the perils of the atomic age we live in.
Tied of 11th Place – Ben Affleck’s surprisingly heartfelt examination of the Michael Jordan phenomenon, Air…Justine Triet’s examination of the dark secrets and long-held animosities each marriage contains, Anatomy of a Fall…John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein’s more-fun-than-it-had-any-right-to-be adventure, Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves…Brandon Cronenberg’s arresting, horrific Faustian morality tale Infinity Pool…Sony Pictures’ eye-popping, groundbreaking animated, web-slinging extravaganza, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse…Ilker Catak’s blistering look at the effect of innuendos and suspicion, The Teacher’s Lounge…The low budget Australian shocker that takes a horrific look at modern addiction, Talk to Me…Jon S. Baird’s fascinating delve into the backstory of Tetris…Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman’s tribute to the over-earnest seekers of identity, Theater Camp.