Yes, Barbenheimer. This year’s cinematic portmanteau was more than a marketing gimmick: It showed that Hollywood still has a few arrows left in its quiver, which have nothing to do with caped heroes. All the better that one came from a tentpole director (Oppenheimer’s Christopher Nolan), and the other was a relatively new director who not so long ago was known mostly as the daffy hard-to-place lead in comedies like Francis Ha (Barbie’s Greta Gerwig).
Our first real post-pandemic film year had more to offer than those out-of-left-field blockbusters. A-listers came roaring back with work that either explored new ground (Alexander Payne’s class-conscious comedy The Holdovers, Martin Scorsese’s edgy historical epic Killer of the Flower Moon) or found new wrinkles in familiar material (David Fincher’s ironic ode to calculated murder The Killer, Hayao Miyazaki’s elegiac fantasy The Boy and the Heron).
Lesser-known filmmakers made themselves known with singularly surprising work, from William Oldroyd’s squirmy noir Eileen to Alina Victoria Rockwell’s fierce mother-and-son survival drama A Thousand and One. Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall and Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest take uncomfortably close looks at the enigma of evil. There are comedies in our Best Films of 2023 list, though they tend to carry a punch, like how Kristoffer Borgli’s Dream Scenario uses Nicolas Cage to deliver a dark exploration of neediness and Matt Johnson’s riotous Blackberry delves into the insecurities and manias of the tech boom.
The year hasn’t seen any breakout documentaries, but we found a few that demand seeking out. Madeline Gavin’s Beyond Utopia uncovers the human toll extracted by the North Korean state, and Lisa Cortes’ Little Richard: I Am Everything covers the screen in rock ‘n’ roll stardust without obscuring the theft and pain behind all that shine. – Chris Barsanti
The 28 films that comprise our Best Films of 2023 list below are presented in alphabetical order by title.
All of Us Strangers
Director: Andrew Haigh
Of all the heartbroken, melancholy, mournful, or flat-out tragic films, beware of All of Us Strangers – this one might actually break you. Directed by master psychologist Andrew Haigh and loosely based on the novel Strangers by Taichi Yamada, the film follows a middle-aged recluse screenwriter, Adam (Andrew Scott), who develops a relationship with his mysterious neighbor, Harry (Paul Mescal). Plagued by loneliness after the sudden death of his parents (Claire Foy and Jamie Bell) when he was 11, Adam one day ventures back into his hometown, only to find his mom and dad seemingly alive and well, of the same age as when they died.
We have already published about Scott’s outstanding stage work this year, but words can hardly illustrate the depth of emotion he conveys in All of Us Strangers, a profoundly tender and meditative drama of loss and acceptance. Mescal, Foy, and Bell also deliver impressive turns, but Scott devastates with every reticent look, every tear and sigh he holds back. More than just a ghost story or a coming-out fantasy, this is a poignant tale of the desires (and shortcomings) of all children who always wanted to – but never could – speak openly to their parents. Thanks to Haigh’s brilliant vision and Scott’s aching vulnerability, All of Us Strangers never veers into the sentimental or manipulative, offering an unflinching universal narrative of the costs of hiding from ourselves and the world. – Ana Yorke
Director: Cord Jefferson
Cord Jefferson’s provocative satire on race and literature, American Fiction, skewers modern-day minstrelsy and performative allyship. Adapted by Jefferson (The Good Place, Watchmen) from Percival Everett’s novel Erasure, American Fiction is a brisk, smart, and frequently hilarious film about resolutely unfunny topics. It delivers a nightmarish and light-hearted mood, aiming with equal accuracy at the pretentious and simple-minded. In American Fiction, Jefferson keeps the core of blistering disgust that powered Erasure while amplifying the comedy found in the liminal space between perceptions and reality. – Chris Barsanti
Anatomy of a Fall
Director: Justine Triet
Justine Triet’s crime drama Anatomy of a Fall, co-written by Arthur Harari, is one of the year’s exceptional films. The audience clings to the dialogue with bated breath, especially in the courtroom scenes that become like a ferocious duel. The razor-sharp dialogue replaces the sabers or swords as the prosecutor tries to convince the audience, as much as the jury, of Sandra’s guilt.
Triet playfully manipulates the audience’s unconscious bias, luring us into empathising with the successful crime writer, Sandra Voyter (Sandra Hüller), the prime suspect in her husband’s murder. We grow defensive, even angry towards the prosecutor’s accusations, as if the trial were real.
Anatomy of a Fall thematically addresses the ambiguity between fiction and reality in an author’s work that’s mimicked in the trial. The story’s point isn’t to find out whether Sandra is guilty of the crime, but in the dramatic setting of the courtroom, it’s about how truth is superseded by the battle to control the narrative. – Paul Risker
Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret
Director: Kelly Fremon Craig
Kelly Fremon Craig’s adaptation of Judy Bloom’s bestselling novel, Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret is one of 2023’s most delightful films. Essentially about a young girl’s adolescence, it’s an informative look at the female experience. This is too simple an interpretation, however. Margaret’s experiences of making new friends while seeing another classmate excluded, her attraction to a boy, as well as her mother’s estrangement from her own parents have the presence to evoke the audience’s personal memories.
In lesser hands, Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret would have given way to 1970s nostalgia and saccharine sentimentality. Craig doesn’t reduce the film’s dramatic themes. Instead, she finds a way to honor the dichotomy of everyday life’s many tones that inspire laughter and anxiety. At its heart, Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret is about the value of affording one another compassion, empathy, and understanding. It’s a deeply humanist film that quietly earns your affection. – Paul Risker
Director: Greta Gerwig
At some point in the not-so-distant cinematic future, we might look back on the fireball success of Barbie and shake our fists in frustration at what it wrought. That’s because, like other epochal and surprisingly era-defining films before it (think Jaws, possibly The Matrix), Greta Gerwig’s wackadoodle plasticine heroine’s journey of self-discovery did what it set out to do almost too well. Seeing what Gerwig and her co-screenwriter Noah Baumbach threw together in this boisterous and winky yet still deeply sincere comedy, there is likely no end of brands looking to see how they can replicate the magic.
But how do you solve a problem like Barbie? Gerwig, whose earlier outings (Lady Bird, Little Women) are finely tuned instant classics of a certain intelligently indie type, had given no indication she (or anybody, really) could produce such a hot-pink masterpiece of goofball humor, winsome Jacques Tati alienation, and low-key patriarchy seminar. Call it Derrida meets Dua Lipa in the food court. – Chris Barsanti
Director: Madeleine Gavin
Each year, some films offer a unique experience or point-of-view. Madeleine Gavin’s powerful documentary, Beyond Utopia, is one of those films. It takes us inside the perilous experience of North Korean families trying to escape their homeland. They are helped by individuals whose selfless commitment to freedom places them in harm’s way. Gavin’s documentary is essentially a prison escape movie. Only the escape is not from a building but from authoritarianism and its oppressive and psychologically abusive ideology. Given the subject’s seriousness, describing Beyond Utopia as a celebration of the human will to survive is trite: this film is an acknowledgment.
Words can’t do justice to the experiences the audience witness. The incredible resiliency of people, young and old, who travel through hostile countries and across treacherous terrain can only be understood and appreciated when seen. By the end of Beyond Utopia, the conflicted emotions of those fortunate enough to escape are a powerful condemnation of the North Korean regime’s manipulation that cautions the Western world against being frivolous about truth and democratic principles.
Director: Matt Johnson
Given how awash 2023 has been in tech diva bad behavior, it may not seem like the right time to delve into a story about a socially awkward tech disruptor with a thing for self-immolating after drinking his own Kool-Aid. But Matt Johnson’s ironic underdog story of the rise and fall of the Blackberry tackles the subject with verve and wit.
Blackberry has the right balance of fascination with the mechanics of innovation and irreverence for the bloated egos that follow. Johnson frames the story of Research in Motion, a once raggedly little Canadian tech company whose 1999-launched proto-smartphones created a generation of thumb-texting addicts, as a battle of nerds-versus-suits. The mumbly nerd is Blackberry innovator Mike (Jay Baruchel, playing to type), and the brash, shouting suit is Jim (Glenn Howerton, exponentially amping his It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia fury). Watching the two soar and crash is enjoyable less from schadenfreude than from the humor Johnson wrings out of playing these two archetypes off each while sticking himself (as a clowning engineer) in the middle as the guy who can’t believe how quickly success came and how easily it vanishes. – Chris Barsanti
The Boy and the Heron
Dirctor: Hayao Miyazaki
The undisputed master of fantasy anime and fantastical tales of self-actualization through imagination, the co-founder of globally beloved Studio Ghibli can do no wrong. After a decade-long absence, Hayao Miyazaki swept us off our feet again with The Boy and the Heron. In the vein of Ghibli’s majestic My Neighbor Totoro, Howl’s Moving Castle, and especially the epic Spirited Away, The Boy and the Heron is another world-spanning, head-spinning coming-of-age adventure made with feeling and nostalgia but pulsating with an all-too-real sense of danger. It is 1943 in Japan, the Pacific War rages, and bereaved 12-year-old Mahito is forced to move to a new town when his widowed father marries his dead mother’s younger sister. Unsurprisingly, the troubled, grieving adolescent has a hard time adapting to challenging new circumstances, getting into fights, and dreaming of escape. One day, Mahito encounters a mysterious, pesky heron at his estate, so a wild journey into alternate realities and infinite (perilous) possibilities begins.
Robert Pattinson’s Heron steals the show as the devious beast tempting Mahito into risky world-hopping. In typical Ghibli fashion, this is yet another triumph of perseverance in the face of adversity, painted with the richest symbolisms and the most daring ideas. We are so glad to have Miyazaki back. – Ana Yorke
Director: Rodrigo Moreno
Rodrigo Moreno’s The Delinquents adds a wrinkle to the heist film, showing that there’s still plenty of originality to be squeezed out of the genre. It’s one of the year’s most delightful films, with a political agenda executed with humour and wit – a knock against the unsustainable work-life imbalance. The film is essentially taking the idea that we should be dissatisfied with our lives, whose purpose has been reduced to working instead of living. Around this premise, Moreno introduces a host of amusing characters. But as much as he pokes fun at things, he’s careful to ensure that the comedy and humour offer serious commentary in which institutions and bureaucracy are two of the first casualties.
Undermining expectations, The Delinquents takes surprising twists via its journey and romance story arcs. One could be forgiven for forgetting that at its heart, it is a heist film, and perhaps that’s its charm. – Paul Risker