The Best Films of 2023
Photo: Adobe Stock

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.

Director: John Trengove

Many films about powder-keg men tend to be little more than a 90-minute lit fuse. John Trengove’s dark, claustrophobic, and very close-to-home Manodrome has the slow-churning tension we’ve come to expect from stories about loners getting ready to blow. But watching the downfall of Ralphie (Jesse Eisenberg), a scared and drifting bundle of neuroses and sallow discontent, feels like a larger societal indictment.

Manodrome makes pains to point out the crummy sadness of Ralphie’s spot on the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder. But unlike some other examinations of masculine alienation (e.g., Fight Club), there is little here to rationalize the dominating power fantasies brewing in his mind. The introduction of a cult leader (Adrien Brody, a more magnetic and real-feeling version of Chris Pine’s guru from Don’t Worry Darling) with a growing band of Ralphie-like lost men, both focus and widens the story, making it less about what is troubling one guy and more about what is troubling a lot of guys. – Chris Barsanti

Director: Christopher Nolan

With Oppenheimer, possibly the most anticipated film of 2023, Christopher Nolan has hit a home run yet again but has done so by subverting our expectations, reinventing himself – and detonating the scale and scope of what we thought was possible in moviemaking. It is a drama about the creation of the atomic bomb that’s not much concerned with the bomb at all. It’s a character study of a man whose character remains impenetrable to this day. It is a relentless examination of ethical and moral decision-making in a situation where no outcome could possibly be ruled ethically or morally right. More than anything, Oppenheimer is a tale of selling global domination as utilitarian benevolence by (heaps of) men posing as “patriots” but essentially uninterested in anything except their own position in the new world order. 

Oppenheimer is an earth-shattering study of modern politics and governance that redefines what filmmaking can be. – Ana Yorke

See also “Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer Detonates Moviemaking’s Limits“.

Past Lives
Director: Celine Song

One of recent memory’s most impressive writing and directing debuts, Celine Song’s Past Lives creates heart-pounding drama out of the teensiest slivers of story. Decades after burgeoning playwright Nora (Greta Lee) emigrated from South Korea, she gets in touch with Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), the quiet boy she was once close friends with and possibly in love with. They have grown apart—she is now a wry, urbane, and married cynic while he is still single, with a stoic surface barely covering a roiling romanticism.

After an expertly constructed slow build of parallel lives, dreams, and anxieties, Song snaps everything together. Past Lives‘ riveting conclusion triangulates Hae Sung’s unacknowledged love, the things Nora has buried, and the observer to all this: Nora’s husband Arthur (a magnetic John Magaro), who doesn’t know whether she is saying goodbye to an old friend or hello to a new love. – Chris Barsanti

The Pigeon Tunnel
Director: Errol Morris

Errol Morris’ The Pigeon Tunnel follows a wily, cynical, yet chipper John le Carré down a rabbit hole of Cold War moral ambiguity. Like most of the men Morris films for his documentaries on the intersection of power, politics, warfare, and hubris (The Fog of WarThe Unknown KnownAmerican Dharma), the late David Cornwell (le Carré is his pen name) is a controlled and conniving presence working assiduously to present a particular image. Unlike those figures (Robert McNamara, Donald Rumsfeld, and Steve Bannon, respectively), who cast their kind of reality-bending forcefield, Cornwell is fully upfront about his machinations. “This is a performance art,” he says, leaving just enough uncertainty about whether he means just the interview with Morris, his writing, or his entire life.

Indeed, a veteran interrogator who honed his craft questioning English civil servants to assess whether they were Soviet assets, Cornwell answers every question with a specific yet unstated purpose and the ever-present suggestion that all this may be an act. Or it might be the sincerest interview you have ever seen. – Chris Barsanti

See also “John le Carré Gives No Truth, Only Betrayal, in The Pigeon Tunnel“.

The Pod Generation
Director: Sophie Barthes

Are women fated to be locked in an eternal struggle for freedom and control? Will women ever be free, even if technology controls nature? Who is in control of the technology?

While societies are technologically advancing, Sophie Barthes’ sci-fi comedy The POD Generation offers a cautionary tale about how, spiritually, culturally, and economically we’re “standing still – or moving backward”, to paraphrase Aldous Huxley. The POD Generation exposes the cyclical nature of societies and how this near-future is not exclusively futuristic but thematically resonates with contemporary America and the wider world. In the shadow of the climate crisis, this film is a spiritual reflection of human indifference. While reality appears more detrimental, Barthes’ film conveys that we’ve reduced nature to “the other”, whose needs and welfare are less than our own. – Paul Risker

See also “The Ever-Present Future of Women in Sophie Barthes’ Sci-Fi Comedy The Pod Generation“.

Poor Things
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

It’s always been an identity fundament of many self-proclaimed eccentric auteurs not to do “normal”, except Yorgos Lanthimos actually doesn’t do normal. Poor Things, easily the Greek director’s best film to date, transcends his usual contained dialogues and sparse environments for a maximalist carnival of world-building and discovery from a woman just learning what it means to be alive. Based on the 1992 novel by Scottish author Alasdair Gray and a screenplay by Tony Mcnamara, Poor Things details the life of Bella Baxter (a brilliant Emma Stone), a young Victorian woman resurrected by a deformed scientist Godwin Baxter (Willem Defoe just doing his thing), who takes her on as a “guardian”, keeping her enclosed on his estate. 

In her early days, Bella, like a baby, learns to walk, speak, and socialize, but soon enough, she discovers sexuality and starts to yearn for emancipation. After a horny man pig of a lawyer, Duncan Wedderburn (a hilarious Marc Ruffalo), enters Bella’s little world, she runs off with him to “explore the world”. On the way, amid hyper-saturated, surrealist images of Lanthimos’ and Gray’s richly imaginative, bizarre world, Bella will transcend any notion of being Frankenstein’s monster, instead growing into a whip-smart and resourceful woman. 

Sure enough, few things irk men as much as a woman not helplessly depending on them, so count on plenty of trouble along the way. To say anything more would be to spoil this superbly realized, genuinely original experience and one of the best films in recent memory. Cue heaps of award nods and likely wins, especially for Stone. – Ana Yorke

Director: Tina Satter

It’s almost unbelievable that the 82 palpitating, palm-sweating, borderline insane minutes of Reality are based on verbatim conversations between Reality Winner, a former US Intelligence employee, and a couple of FBI agents who’ve arrived to raid her home on suspicion she leaked classified documents – but they are. For better or worse, this incredulity that borders on the uncanny is why a conversation between a 27-year-old NSA translator and two sleuth hounds already made for stellar material for Tina Satter’s 2019 play, Is This a Room? (an actual line spoken by one of the agents). 

This year’s film version, a crime docudrama co-written with James Paul Dallas and directed by Satter in her feature debut, is a visceral upgrade of the stage experience, and we have a phenomenal cast and assuredly claustrophobic direction to thank. Sydney Sweeney is unbearably efficient as Winner, cornered and mauled by agents Garrick and Taylor, who attempt to sweet-talk (!) her into confessing her involvement in the leak. As the smiling Garrick (a bone-chilling Josh Hamilton) “kindy coerces” Winner to move from the porch into an empty room of her own home for interrogation, the ludicrous sadism of evasion as a tactical weapon, hiding beneath the veneers of banality as commonplace benevolence, gets you in a chokehold and doesn’t let up. 

Reality is a painfully effective, tense chamber piece on the nature of authority – and yes, Winner did leak the documents on Russian intelligence involvement in the 2016 US election – but as a real-life story of the futility of resistance in the face of power, it leaves a knot in the stomach and a bitter taste in the mouth. – Ana Yorke

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse
Directors: Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers and Justin K. Thompson

The MCU is wheezing into its What Do We Do Without Robert Downey Jr.? phase. DC keeps trying to armageddon themselves into relevance through sheer volume and excess. Only one corner of the over-crowded comic book cinemaverse is worth paying attention to now. That is the Miles Morales series. It started with 2018’s smashingly fun Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and continues with this hyperactive, winningly sweet, and gorgeously drawn animated adventure.

In Spider-Man: Across the Spiderverse, Morales (Shameik Moore) is, sure, coming to grips with great power meaning great responsibility and all. But as a teenager, he’s more worried about not embarrassing himself in front of Gwen “Spider-Woman” Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld). This is difficult, partially because of the reality-imploding and alternate universe-jumping the two embark on (more inventive and chaotic than Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness). Morales’ crush gets harder to handle because Gwen seems more taken with one of the many different Spider-men who throng this very, very crowded film: Hobie Brown (Daniel Kaluuya), aka Spider-Punk, aka the only superhero who would have fit in at an early Clash gig, aka the coolest Spider-man ever. While plotted like a whorl of spaghetti, Spider-Man: Across the Spiderverse leaves room for the moments that make its heroes humans worth caring about. – Chris Barsanti

Directors: Zar Amir Ebrahimi and Guy Nattiv

Zar Amir Ebrahimi and Guy Nattiv’s Tatami is a quietly impressive film. With time, it might well be considered a masterpiece. Tatami’s monochrome cinematography perhaps unconsciously builds on the political conflicts within the story, between the coercion of the Islamic Republic and Leila’s (Arienne Mandi) resistance to feign an injury at the Judo World Championships. Tatami is a political film, but it’s also a story about the conflict and unimaginable choice between the love of one’s family and one’s values. Its suspense derives from the film’s engagement with the audience. We feel the weight of pressure on Leila and anger towards the agents of the Islamic Republic who lurk, issuing her with threatening ultimatums. We fear for the safety of Leila’s husband and daughter, and we feel anger towards her parents, who also tried to coerce her. Indeed, Tatami stirs the audience’s emotions to fuel the suspense.

At its heart, Tatami is about the willingness to stand up to coercion no matter the cost, to break cyclical patterns of control in which dreams have been and continue to be savagely broken. – Paul Risker

A Thousand and One
Director: A.V. Rockwell

“I’ll go to war for you. Against anyone. Do you understand that?” roars Inez at her six-year-old son Terry into a payphone in Brooklyn. A convicted thief, too young to be a mother, she’s a Black woman who wants her son out of foster care and back with her. When Terry accuses her of abandonment, she promises not to leave him again – the first step being abducting him from a hospital and running off to Harlem. So begins A Thousand and One, a firecracker debut by writer-director Alina Victoria Rockwell and a showcase for star Teyana Taylor’s rich talent. One part family drama but a 101-part gut-wrenching tale of the appalling reality of Black women and men surviving on the streets, this understated, tactful film reaches incredible heights through the thoughtful subtlety of the script and the loud fearlessness of Taylor’s performance. 

Over more than a decade (1994-2005), we watch Inez fight with all she’s got to build a functional home for her kind and gifted son amid incessant gentrification, institutional racism, and problematic personal relationships; despite her crime, we start rooting for her. ”Nobody gives a shit about black women except black women, and even that shit get messy!,” Inez screams at one point, winning over sympathy not by victimizing herself but for persevering despite a dire pole position and endless hurdles. As inspiring as it is to watch Taylor soar as a “me against the world” hustler, the real marvel here is Rockwell, who commands every word and frame with maturity and poise seldom seen in young auteurs. 

Several knife-turning twists will rattle you whole before the end, but there’s no gimmick. The pain is real. A Thousand and One is an astoundingly accomplished debut film that stays with you long after the curtain falls.  – Ana Yorke

The Zone of Interest
Jonathan Glazer

Jonathan Glazer’s adaptation of Martin Amis’ novel, The Zone of Interest, is the year’s most unsettling film. Focusing on the commandant of Auschwitz and his wife’s idyllic life in the house and garden next door to the concentration camp, we only hear the sounds of cries and machinery and see smoke rise from the chimneys. Refusing to look upon the horror conveys the Nazi indifference towards the Jews and emphasises the inhumane cruelty that permitted the genocidal atrocities. Watching the mundane rituals, the family’s comfort and security, while on the other side of a wall, human beings are deprived of life and dignity, is a provocative statement. What’s striking is how The Zone of Interest utilises the power of the spoken word to express the disturbing events that it refuses to gaze upon. The rudimentary and practical conversation about the efficiency of the incinerators, for example, contextualises the passive acceptance of industrialised slaughter as, pardon the choice of phrase, “business as usual”.

The Zone of Interest boldly redirects its gaze to try to access the German or Nazi psyche, which makes for uncomfortable, even disturbing, but essential viewing. Glazer’s film tries to understand how humans can perpetrate such evil but can only stare into mankind’s abyss. – Paul Risker