Any year in which an unlikely summer double bill became a global moviegoing event — with one film soaring toward $1.5 billion in worldwide grosses and the other closing in on $1 billion — can’t be considered bad news for Hollywood. But the Barbenheimer phenomenon aside, bad news plagued the film industry for much of 2023.
The strikes of the writers and actors guilds shut down production for five long months, causing major titles like Dune 2 to push back to 2024, leaving fall festival red carpets sparsely populated and disrupting a release pipeline in ways that are sure to have a ripple effect for the next year or two.
Theatrical grosses remained inconsistent, struggling to regain pre-pandemic momentum for most genres except horror (all hail, new scream queen M3GAN; a big hand for Talk to Me), and even the once-reliable cash cow of the superhero blockbuster sputtered more often than not.
The Marvels was a major flop for the MCU, as was The Flash for DC, and although many of us found Blue Beetle an unexpected delight that overcame our weariness with folks in spandex and capes, the movie’s considerable charms failed to translate into healthy ticket sales.
No one knows what’s a safe bet at the box office anymore.
Still, the annual task of whittling down the year’s releases to a Top 10 was more challenging than ever. As is invariably the case, the best of them were festival discoveries. My list is bookended by Sundance premieres, with titles from Cannes, Venice and Telluride occupying every spot in between.
This was a year to celebrate auspicious debuts by women filmmakers whose command of the medium was matched by thematic maturity and an ability to coax transfixing performances from their female leads. In addition to Celine Song’s Past Lives and Savanah Leaf’s Earth Mama, both of which appear on my list, that includes Raven Jackson’s All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt, Georgia Oakley’s Blue Jean, A.V. Rockwell’s A Thousand and One and Tina Satter’s Reality.
Elsewhere, proven women directors fortified their reputations. Alice Rohrwacher’s La Chimera continued her uniquely magical blending of history with the contemporary world; Nicole Holofcener reunited with her Enough Said star Julia Louis-Dreyfus for You Hurt My Feelings, an acerbic ensemble comedy about honesty in relationships; Ava DuVernay’s audaciously ambitious adaptation of a scholarly work, Origin, yielded moments of stunning emotional transcendence; and Kelly Fremon Craig followed Edge of Seventeen with a winning adaptation of Judy Blume’s middle-grade classic Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, as perceptive about adult struggles as it is about early adolescent growing pains.
The documentary field delivered too many highlights to name, but the nonfiction films that stayed with me included Wim Wenders’ visually seductive Anselm; D. Smith’s intimate portrait of Black trans sex workers, Kokomo City; Maite Alberdi’s shattering glimpse into one couple’s lives together, The Eternal Memory; and Jesse Shortbull and Laura Tomaselli’s searing indictment of the theft of sacred land from its Indigenous owners, Lakota Nation vs. United States.
Two music docs were among my most exhilarating viewing experiences this year — Lisa Cortes’ rip-roaring bio of a singular rock pioneer, Little Richard: I Am Everything; and Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s you-are-there account of a sui generis marathon concert by one of our most original performers, Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music.
Finally, seasoned documaker Roger Ross Williams segued into narrative features with the uplifting Cassandro, giving Gael García Bernal his best role in years, as a trailblazing queer lucha libre wrestler.
Read on for my ranked Top 10, plus 10 honorable mentions, followed by those of my brilliant comrades in the THR critics’ trenches, Jon Frosch, Lovia Gyarkye and Sheri Linden. I know I speak for all of us in saying 2023 was such a stellar year for movies that our lists could easily have been twice as long. — DAVID ROONEY
1. Past Lives
Playwright Celine Song’s profound debut draws on her personal experience to follow a writer much like herself, played by Greta Lee with an unerring balance of careful self-possession and emotional transparency, as her childhood crush from Korea (Teo Yoo) resurfaces in her New York life, raising questions about her choices and stirring anxiety for her empathetic husband (John Magaro). This is an exquisite film as even-handed as it is insightful, digging deep on relationships, fate, roads not taken and the phantoms of parallel existences; both the writing and all three performances elegantly skirt every convention of the romantic triangle drama.
2. Poor Things
Yorgos Lanthimos has been irreverently thumbing his nose at genre constraints since his Greek Weird Wave breakout with Dogtooth. But nothing in his unique filmography can compare with the fantastical flights of this inspired riff on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Led by a spectacular high-wire act of physical comedy, intellectual curiosity and gleeful licentiousness from a never-better Emma Stone, this adventurous adaptation of Scottish cult author Alasdair Gray’s novel is part absurdist comedy, part picaresque feminist Candide and 100 percent breathtaking original. There’s not a weak link in a supporting cast that includes Mark Ruffalo, Willem Dafoe, Ramy Youssef, Kathryn Hunter and Christopher Abbott.
3. All of Us Strangers
There was no tighter ensemble this year than Andrew Scott, Paul Mescal, Jamie Bell and Claire Foy in Andrew Haigh’s dreamy metaphysical ghost story. While it’s a companion piece of sorts to the Brit writer-director’s 2011 breakthrough, the instant queer classic Weekend, the new film mirrors its contemplation of romantic love with an equally thoughtful probe into familial love. Imaginatively adapted from a Japanese novel, this emotional depth charge plumbs the complex relationships between gay men and their parents with uncommon compassion, while also reflecting on the scars of a generation that came of age during the AIDS crisis.
4. Killers of the Flower Moon
A late masterwork from a revered filmmaker still boldly expanding his legacy at 81, Martin Scorsese’s enthralling account of the ruthless elimination of wealthy Osage landowners in early-1920s Oklahoma is an American history lesson as sobering horror story. Robert De Niro has arguably never been so monstrous, playing a seeming pillar of the community, respectful of the culture of his Indigenous neighbors but methodically plotting to rub them out and appropriate their oil-rich land, while Leonardo DiCaprio deftly pits his gullible character’s easygoing charm against contemptible spinelessness. But the commanding center of the epic drama is Lily Gladstone, magnificent as a cruelly wronged woman registering every brutality committed against her people, her family and herself with a silent sorrow that lacerates.
5. Fallen Leaves
Six years after Finland’s poet of the proletariat murmured about retirement following his typically idiosyncratic Syrian refugee story, The Other Side of Hope, Aki Kaurismäki returns with an expertly chiseled tale of romantic missteps that lead — with patience, playfulness and humor simultaneously deadpan and steeped in melancholy — to the exultant possibility of love. Laced with winking cinephile references to the director’s auteur heroes, this deceptively modest film is both dour and droll, every frame finding beauty in a dingy milieu that seems frozen in time. As the lonely souls fumbling for connection, Alma Pöysti and Jussi Vatanen are gloriously attuned to Kaurismäki’s wavelength, while his own dog nails a scene-stealing supporting role.
6. The Zone of Interest
Those of us who admire Jonathan Glazer’s bracingly original work might wish he were more prolific, having made only four features in almost 25 years. But what distinctive films they are, from the elevated gangster thriller Sexy Beast through the reincarnation chiller Birth to the hypnotic sci-fi Under the Skin. The Brit director’s return after 10 years does not disappoint, effectively reinventing the Holocaust drama with this bone-chilling snapshot of a Nazi family living in bucolic tranquility in the shadow of Auschwitz. In terms of its nerve-jangling sound design alone, this loose adaptation of the Martin Amis novel demonstrates that what we hear can be even more shocking than what we see, and that horror is seldom far away from our complacent reality.
7. Showing Up
Comedy has not factored much in the films of Kelly Reichardt, but the director’s latest collaboration with frequent muse Michelle Williams and Pacific Northwest author Jon Raymond has a low-key vein of humor that often recalls the eccentric American microcosms of vintage Robert Altman. Set around the now shuttered Oregon College of Art and Craft in Portland, it tracks the frantic preparations of Williams’ flinty sculptor for a solo gallery show as she deals with the headaches of her messy family, her fellow artist landlord (a hilarious Hong Chau) and a wounded pigeon. Rich in seemingly casual but telling observations, the film is equal parts funny and affecting; it might be Reichardt’s most personal work in its depiction of the challenges of making art amid chaos.
8. Anatomy of a Fall
Gifted German actor Sandra Hüller drew international attention with her work in Toni Erdmann and I’m Your Man. But this year thrust her more decisively onto the map with the double-header of her role as a camp commandant’s icy wife in The Zone of Interest and as an unapologetically brittle author accused of murdering her husband in French director Justine Triet’s riveting character study. An intricately layered, surgically controlled drama that operates as both a courtroom thriller and an investigation of the mysterious recesses of domestic life, the film is as chilly as its French Alpine setting yet never distancing. It challenges us to invest in an inscrutable woman whose guilt or innocence remains an open question, and the needling legal process designed to unravel her.
9. Perfect Days
A serene film for chaotic times, Wim Wenders’ best narrative feature in years returns to the Japanese capital, almost four decades after he retraced the footsteps of Ozu in the documentary Tokyo-Ga. The great Kōji Yakusho plays a middle-aged man living a life of monastic austerity, greeting each new day with gratitude in his morning routine and approaching his job of cleaning restrooms in the city’s public parks with almost religious devotion. Little by little, hints are dropped of the more complicated earlier existence he left behind, as the rewarding drama becomes a poetic, unexpectedly moving account of one man’s hard-earned peace and contentment.
Another German actor, like Hüller, who had a major breakout year is Franz Rogowski, playing the narcissistic film director at the center of Ira Sachs’ bruising Paris-set drama. Rogowski’s Tomas is an emotional wrecking ball, blithely beginning a relationship with Adèle Exarchopoulos’ French schoolteacher without anticipating the wedge it will drive into his marriage to Ben Whishaw’s seemingly more mild-mannered English printmaker. Caustically amusing, sexy, sad and unflinchingly intense, this is an intimate study of the formation and collapse of a romantic triangle, played with an invigorating absence of sentiment by three actors at the top of their game.
Jon Frosch’s Top 10
1. Killers of the Flower Moon
2. Anatomy of a Fall
5. May December
6. Fallen Leaves
7. Showing Up
8. The Zone of Interest
9. Kokomo City
10. All of Us Strangers
Honorable mentions (in alphabetical order): Asteroid City; The Holdovers; Maestro; Menus-Plaisirs — Les Troisgros; Oppenheimer; Other People’s Children; Past Lives; Poor Things; Totém; You Hurt My Feelings
Lovia Gyarkye’s Top 10
1. Showing Up
2. All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt
3. Earth Mama
5. Our Body
6. Menus-Plaisirs — Les Troisgros
7. Anatomy of a Fall
8. Fallen Leaves
9. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret
Honorable mentions (in alphabetical order): The Boy and the Heron; Fair Play; Killers of the Flower Moon; May December; Monster; Oppenheimer; Orlando, My Political Biography; Our Father, the Devil; A Still Small Voice; A Thousand and One
Sheri Linden’s Top 10
1. Showing Up
2. May December
3. Anatomy of a Fall
4. Killers of the Flower Moon
5. Past Lives
8. Asteroid City
10. The Disappearance of Shere Hite
Honorable mentions (in alphabetical order): The Boy and the Heron; A Compassionate Spy; The Delinquents; Maestro; Occupied City; The Peasants; Rodeo; The Taste of Things; The Teachers Lounge; The Unknown Country
This story originally appeared on HollywoodReporter