2023 was another year where I was lucky enough to do one of my favorite things in the world— sit in a dark theater over 100 times to watch a film. Whether it was a big budget release, an arthouse film, an international feature, a documentary, or a genre flick, I gave all of them my complete undivided attention.
There were some singular unforgettable cinematic moments like the sheer anxiety I felt watching Joaquin Phoenix buy bottled water at a convenience store in Beau is Afraid, the uncontainable glee of witnessing Barry Keoghan dance in one long tracking shot in Saltburn, and the shock and awe of just about every frame in When Evil Lurks. One thing is for certain, there was an ocean of extraordinary storytelling voices in 2023. My Best Films of the Year list is defined by movies that either moved, delighted, or in some instances, horrified me. It’s a collection of astonishing films that I hope had or will have a similar impact on you.
I wasn’t at all prepared for a movie about a doll I loved as a child to be a liberating and transformative experience. It was like having a breakthrough therapy session that unlocked something inside me that I didn’t know I needed to release, and the film reduced me to tears through most of its running time. I’ve never seen anything quite like Barbie. Simply put, it’s a flat-out masterpiece and I’m thankful it exists.
2. PAST LIVES
A profound story about the power of human connection infused with tremendous depth and introspection. From the opening shot of unseen characters interpreting the body language of three people sitting across from them at a bar, to the ending, which evokes a modern-day Casablanca, Celine Song’s directorial debut is a staggering accomplishment. Past Lives is a work of art so beautiful, poetic, and heartbreaking that it completely wrecked me.
3. ALL OF US STRANGERS
Andrew Haigh’s last two films, 45 Years and Lean on Pete were devastating, haunting and stunning. His newest achievement, All of Us Strangers is all these things and so much more. It’s a shattering story about grief and loneliness, and a brilliant character study of a man delving into his imagination to make sense of his place in the world. This breathtaking film cements Andrew Haigh’s place as one of the best living filmmakers of the human condition.
4. THE HOLDOVERS
Alexander Payne reteams with Paul Giamatti for this wonderful character-driven movie, which takes place at an all-boys boarding school during Christmas break in 1970. Screenwriter, David Hemingson, developed these perfectly flawed, amusing, remarkable characters lovingly realized with standout performances by Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Giamatti and newcomer, Dominic Sessa. Sharing in the pathos, hilarity, and tribulations of life through Payne’s lens is always a gift. I let this film completely wash over me and I didn’t want it to end. Here’s hoping it’s discovered or revisited as a nontraditional Christmas classic for years to come.
5. ANATOMY OF A FALL
An unexpected death in a small family unit casts suspicion on its cause, which evolves into a riveting courtroom drama, unraveling layers of character motivations. Sandra Hüller’s blistering performance is electrifying as the matriarch and the accused. The viewer questions their assumptions continuously throughout this heart-stopping thriller with competing narratives. The use of three different languages (German, French and English) adds to the intrigue, making it one of the most compelling films of the year.
6. ALBERT BROOKS: DEFENDING MY LIFE
I didn’t have a surprise documentary about my favorite actor, comedian, and writer (not to mention my second favorite director of all time) on my 2023 cinematic bingo card, but there it was in November. I’ve worshipped Albert Brooks since I was 14, and I pride myself on knowing quite a lot about him. But this intimate portrait directed by Brooks’ best friend, Rob Reiner, provided some illuminating insights which made me adore and appreciate his comedic genius more than I thought possible. It’s life affirming to know this document of Alberts Brooks’ work and influence exists for future cinemagoers to see, and that there is hope there may be more stories left for him to tell.
7. ASTEROID CITY
There was just no chance a 1950s sci-fi comedy from Wes Anderson with alien sightings and a retro color palette wouldn’t be magnificent. Asteroid City is brimming with charm, laugh-out-loud moments, and wit for days. It’s everything you hope for in an Anderson film and it has UFOs!! Anderson expands his cast to the nth degree yet gives everyone their moment to shine – like photographing Adrien Brody to be strikingly gorgeous, giving some of the best banter to Scarlett Johansson, and allowing Maya Hawke to exude radiance and kindness. Wes Anderson is back on top of the world, and I couldn’t be happier.
8. THE ZONE OF INTEREST
The Zone of Interest’s jarring red transitions in Jonathan Glazer’s film would make this the ultimate bleak double feature with Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers. This is a powerful and shocking story of a family creating a peaceful home full of laughter, joy, and tranquility just 100 yards outside the gates of Auschwitz. They dismiss the billowing black smoke, and occasional screams and sounds of gunfire as white noise in their day-to-day gardening, playing, and chit-chat with guests. Johnnie Burn’s sound design is spectacular and often feels like it’s wrapping itself around you and shaking you to your core. This savage story is a nihilistic reminder of the darkness of man and that there was once, and perhaps always will be, monsters among us.
I would never forgive myself if I looked back in 25 years at my 2023 Top Ten Best Films of the Year list and saw that I omitted the horror masterwork, Thanksgiving. Eli Roth delivers a straight up classic throwback slasher film. It has nods to the best of them, from the opening Steadicam shot (Halloween, Black Christmas) to Wes Craven’s nightmare within a nightmare scenario. Debra Hill would have been proud of his screenplay, which is filled with authentic teenager dialogue and fully fleshed out characters. It also ratchets up the tension and fun with incredibly unique kills, which get exponentially more gruesome and jaw dropping as the film progresses. It’s unbelievably exciting to see a horror franchise born in the present-day, and I have no doubt the sequels will continue to top themselves, inspiring a whole new generation’s reverence for final girls.
10. POOR THINGS
Poor Things didn’t knock The Killing of a Sacred Deer off the mantle as my favorite Yorgos Lanthimos film, but it came pretty close. Emma Stone gives a fearless, unflinching performance as Bella Baxter, a woman brought back to life by a mad scientist played by Willem Dafoe. Mark Ruffalo is astoundingly funny as one of Bella’s suitors, and Dafoe’s random bile bubbles, which he emits mid-sentence in several scenes, are one of the many bewildering but clever touches in this sci-fi fantasy. Poor Things is insanely maniacal and provocative, but it’s so inventive and surreal that it’s utterly mesmerizing.
Honorable Mentions: FALLEN LEAVES, WHEN EVIL LURKS, OPPENHEIMER, SHOWING UP, KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON, TEACHER’S LOUNGE, SPIDER-MAN: ACROSS THE SPIDER-VERSE, ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT’S ME MARGARET, DOWNWIND, GODZILLA MINUS ONE, BLACKBERRY