The Best Films of 2023
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The Best Films of 2023

Our best films of 2023 include A-listers exploring new ground or new wrinkles in the familiar, lesser-knowns of singularly surprising work, and gut-punch comedies.

The Disappearance of Shere Hite
Director: Nicole Newnham

Shere Hite was an outspoken advocate for open and honest discourse on sexuality. She came to prominence in 1976 with the publication of The Hite Report, a study of women’s sexual experiences. Five years later, The Hite Report: On Men and Male Sexuality explored how heterosexual men felt about their sexuality and their partners’. More works followed, including Women and Love: A Cultural Revolution in Progress (1987) and The Hite Report on the Family: Growing Up Under Patriarchy (1994).

Unsurprising, Hite’s willingness to speak about female and male sexuality met with a critical backlash. Instead of supporting an open and honest conversation about sexuality, the media provided a platform to attack. They shouted down Hite, who gave a voice to women and men. Hite’s eventual forced self-exile to Europe can be seen as a symbol of America’s prudence and, worse, its puritanical repression. In the Post-Roe era, her experiences are a stark reminder that the American experiment in democracy and liberty is built on gender and ethnic prejudice.

See also “Director Nicole Newnham on Women’s Sexuality and The Disappearance of Shere Hite“.

Dream Scenario
Director: Kristoffer Borgli

Scrutinize the man who courted undue fame rather than the system that enabled him to go viral in the first place. That’s the underlying message of Dream Scenario, directed by Kristoffer Borgli. Dream Scenario hinges on a fantastical premise: socially awkward and professionally stunted college professor Paul Matthews (Nicolas Cage) appears in other people’s dreams for no explainable reason. Friends and strangers alike close their eyes and see a likeness of Paul traipsing about their unconscious, doing nothing in particular. This gag turns Paul into an instant celebrity. But when the dreams starring Paul take a turn toward the gruesome, he becomes an object of scorn.

It’s easy to read Dream Scenario as a cheap satire of celebrity and cancel culture in the social media era. But Borgli’s film is more complex. He trains his camera on Cage to reveal the desperation and seething resentment beneath Paul’s dorky dad veneer, and it becomes clear that Paul’s eagerness to cash in on his accidental and unearned celebrity status is the true reason for his undoing. Borgli’s patience as a filmmaker and Cage’s sui generis talents take a wacky idea and turn it into something hilarious and profound. – Kevin Craft

See also “Nicolas Cage Descends into Self-Loathing in ‘Dream Scenario’“.

Director: William Oldroyd

After the impressive Lady Macbeth (2016), director William Oldroyd’s sophomore feature, Eileen, has been a long time coming. His psycho-sexual thriller, Eileen, reminds us that as time passes things stay the same. Oldroyd continues his interest in building prisons here, although not literal but metaphorical ones, constructed not of brick and metal but of patriarchy, family, and loneliness. Eileen’s dreary reality and her violent fantasies are captivating.

Ottessa Moshfegh, who adapted her 2015 novel of the same name, and her husband and screenwriting partner Luke Goebel might tame their character’s imagination, but they don’t pull their punches. Eileen is a deeply cynical film, almost nihilistic in its point-of-view of gender. Maybe Eileen is someone to believe in, maybe not. One senses that her remaining story is a sad and tragic one. The film’s ending encourages its audience to use their imagination, just as Eileen uses her own to cope with the life she has been lumbered with. – Paul Risker

See also: “Fantasy Made Reality in William Oldroyd’s Adaptation of Ottessa Moshfegh’s ‘Eileen’” and “‘Eileen’ Is a Grimly Funny and Dark Story of Breaking with the Past“.

Faceless After Dark
Director: Raymond Wood

It’s easy to read Faceless After Dark as being about the toxicity of social media, but this misses the point. The film is about emotionally being pushed to breaking point and the consequences. Think about the adage that society creates its own monsters, and you’ll have one piece of the puzzle.

Faceless After Dark is crafted out of the Jungian mould – a horror about the dangers of confronting or repressing one’s shadow complex. Director Raymond Wood, co-writers Todd Jacobs and Jenna Kanell, who plays the lead character, Bowie, misdirect their audience, effectively using genre cinema as a trojan horse to enter a broader conversation. It’s an unsettling journey into the darker side of human nature, where Bowie is both victim and culprit and social media serves as the trigger for a violent transformation. Mix in the unhinged artist, and perhaps there’s a subtle or spiritual echo of Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), of which Facess After Dark may be a twisted modern-day reimagining, or maybe not. – Paul Risker

The Holdovers
Director: Alexander Payne

Say what you will about Billions, but now that it’s ending maybe we can start seeing more of Paul Giamatti. Reuniting with director Alexander Payne for the first time since 2004’s Sideways, Giamatti brings fire and nuance to this emotionally knotty 1970s-set comedy of regret and new beginnings as Paul, a miserably closed-off classics professor at a New England boarding school. Miserable over being stuck monitoring bratty student Angus (Dominic Sessa) over the holiday break, Paul starts thawing the more he sees parallels between his and Angus’ isolation. Though Payne speckles The Holdovers with bright spots of humor and connection—largely due to the incomparable presence of Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Mary, the school’s cook, and the closest Paul has to a friend—the story never veers into A Christmas Carol territory by centering too much on the warming of Paul’s unfriendly heart.

David Hemingson’s screenplay explains Paul’s anti-social nature as a kind of class warfare: a true intellectual who feels more comfortable with the school staff; he despises his wealthy students for how little they appreciate the learning that enraptures him. The close observations of privilege and power in The Holdovers are as sharp as anything Payne has delivered since 1999’s Election. – Chris Barsanti

The Killer
Director: David Fincher

Adapted from a graphic novel by Frenchmen Alexis “Matz” Nolent and spearheaded by a superbly dispassionate performance by Michael Fassbender, The Killer is an episodic tale of a nameless assassin who endeavors to hunt down his employer’s staff and clients after they maimed his girlfriend in retribution for a botched job of his. In this straightforward revenge flick, David Fincher is greatly aided by many of his most trusted collaborators: Andrew Kevin Walker’s sardonic script (Se7en), Erik Messerschmidt’s disquieting cinematography (MankGone Girl), and Kirk Baxter’s razor-sharp editing (The Social Network, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl, and more) all tightly weave the Fincherean aesthetic that is as much of a plotting device and affective spiel as it is the mere outlook of The Killer. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross enhance every shot and feeling with an ominous, frenetic score. 

The Killer works well as a macabre thriller, as satire of the corporate (tech) world and one’s precarious position within it. Of all the things I enjoyed about The Killer, perhaps my favorite was seeing that Fincher has (possibly) turned to his namesake, the late David Foster Wallace, for inspiration. – Ana Yorke

See also “David Fincher’s The Killer Is a Deadly Satire of the Corporate World“.

Killers of the Flower Moon
Director: Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon is another storytelling masterclass and examination of 20th-century American histories of greed and destruction. Doubling down on Scorsese’s signature moves and rubbing a protracted exposition in our faces, it offers a sweeping historical account of greed and genocide that made today’s White America. Despite its eye-drying runtime, Killers of the Flower Moon is not a typically flamboyant, infinitely escalating shitshow; on the contrary. Surprisingly delivered through an intimate, pitch-black love story and a shockingly thorough, scathing true-crime procedural, the account of the murders in the Osage Nation in the 1920s honors the victims and indicts the many perpetrators and accomplices – up to the present.

Private ambitions are turned into political atrocities, and nationwide guilt is swept under the rug for perpetuating the never-ending cycle of greed and violence. While painfully on the nose, this is among the many teachings of this grandiose and rightfully pessimistic accomplishment. – Ana Yorke

See also “Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon Shows Genocide Is (also) a Private Affair“.

The King Tide
Director: Christian Sparkes

The sound swells at the beginning of director Christian Sparkes’ 2023 psychological drama, The King Tide, as we witness a ferocious storm battering an isolated Newfoundland island. From this natural majesty, we find ourselves in a dark and unlit room, with the rain tapping impatiently against the windowpane. Cries can be heard from elsewhere in the house where tragedy has struck. There’s water on the floor, blood in the bathtub, and a woman weeps in her husband’s arms. She has lost their baby. 

The King Tide immediately sweeps you into its visual and audio poetry, striking you like waves crashing on the shore with the contrast of violence, beauty, hope, and despair. Sparkes and screenwriters William Woods and Albert Shin meticulously tease the fragility that lies beneath the picturesque and romantic image of island life. Throughout The King Tide, the story explores the playfulness of genre cinema to conceal themes and ideas. Gradually, the film’s allegorical intentions emerge. – Paul Risker

See also “The Pull of Christian Sparkes’ Mystery, The King Tide“.

Little Richard: I Am Everything
Director: Lisa Cortes

For nearly 70 years, Little Richard (born Richard Penniman, 1932-2020) has been a household name and recognized as a crucial pioneer of American rock ‘n’ roll. Director Lisa Cortés’ (whose previous films include Precious and All In: The Fight for Democracy) Little Richard: I Am Everything is a reminder that Richard was a true giant and a primary musical influence on…well, everyone. Little Richard’s life story fills an enormous gap in understanding American rock ‘n’ roll music and the broader culture it came out of. That is, few lives speak more to the highly topical issues of Black and queer history than Richard’s. Cortés’ film is highly entertaining and impeccably timed, and she addresses all of the above without getting overly political or academic.

Little Richard brought a sheer exhilaration that was sexual, spiritual, and joyous and put it to music like no other. Lisa Cortés excellent documentary does the man justice. – James A. Cosby

See also “The Excellent Little Richard: I Am Everything Captures Just About Everything“.