2023 has been one of the stronger years for film in recent memory. From the hundreds of films I watched this year, both in theaters and on streaming services, I could easily list off 20 films that would be contenders for this post. Narrowing the list down to just 10 is an even more difficult task. But here we are at the end of 2023; animation continues to be better than ever, big name directors take even bigger swings, and of course there’s Christopher Nolan.
Before we jump into the best of the best, here are a few honorable mentions that were some of my favorites but just barely missed out on cracking the Top 10: Anatomy of a Fall, American Fiction, Barbie, Killers of the Flower Moon, Polite Society, Poor Things, Talk to Me.
And now…onto the Top 10 Films of 2023:
10. John Wick: Chapter 4
The general plot of the John Wick films hasn’t evolved all that much since 2014 when some idiot made the wise decision to kill Keanu Reeves’ puppy, triggering a chain reaction of destruction and vengeance across the criminal underworld. Many films have attempted to recreate the same stylized action and grounded gun work, but none have come close to what the John Wick franchise has done. Chapter 4 is easily the best since the original. Director Chad Stahelski has fine tuned the franchise to a well sharpened pencil point worth killing someone with. The action is expected to be amazing, but everything else, from the production design to the cinematography, is dialed up to 11 as well. A 3 Michelin star restaurant is great, but sometimes you just want a big greasy bacon cheeseburger. John Wick: Chapter 4 is that cheeseburger.
The latest film from Ava DuVernay feels more like a documentary than a narrative feature. Inspired by author Isabel Wilkerson and her novel Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, the film explores deeply rooted themes of class, racism, and the social constructs that have come to define American society. It’s a research paper brought to live on the silver screen as DuVernay crafts a beautiful story around these complicated themes. While the content may be dense and complicated, she presents it in a manner that is easily digestible. The film gives a simple overview that will connect with and inspire you to further educate yourself. Origin sounds like a educational class, and it partly is. It’s a journey of discovery and enlightenment and one of Ava DuVernay’s best films.
8. Godzilla Minus One
Toho Studios’ kaiju remains the OG; Original Godzilla, and Godzilla Minus One is a film that snuck up from the depths of the ocean and atomic blasted its way into being one of the best films of the year. As the “Minus One” suggests, the film is an origin story for the monster who emerges at the end of World War II to decimate the country of Japan. Not only does the film showcase the most terrifying and awe-inspiring version of Godzilla we’ve seen, but it also serves up an emotional human story of trauma and guilt that connects it all. One does not work without the other. Godzilla is a monstrous force of nature and it’s through the human experience that we are able see that. The survivor’s guilt of a Japanese kamikaze pilot who backs out of his duty is strong enough for its own film. Throw in Godzilla and some of the best visuals of the year, and you’re in for quite the treat.
7. The Holdovers
The Holdovers is what happens with you bring together three of the most talented performances of the year. Paul Giamatti, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, and Dominic Sessa all find themselves spending Christmas together at at Barton Academy when all the other students and teachers are gone for the holidays. What begins as pure spite for one another eventually develops into genuine friendship and love. Giamatti is brilliant as the strict curmudgeon of a teacher who is forced to look after the holdover students during this holiday season. It’s a job that no one wants, but he is best suited for since he never has other plans anyways. On the opposite end you have the absolutely lovely Da’Vine Joy Randolph who brings a warmth and love to her role as the academy’s head cook. Lastly, newcomer Dominic Sessa shines in a breakout performance as an angry teen who struggles in expressing his own feelings and angst. Together, the three weave a funny, dramatic, and overall heartwarming story that wraps its arms around and gives you a big warm hug.
In a year when wild and outrageous films reign supreme, Sanctuary toes the line and keeps the audience guessing even after the credits start rolling. More like a self-contained play, the film sees Margaret Qualley and Christopher Abbott in a battle of wits and power. Qualley is a dominatrix hired by Abbott to satisfy his sexual fantasies, and almost immediately you start to wonder what all is real and what all is just part of the act. How deep does the fantasy go? Both Qualley and Abbott are phenomenal as they play these delicate cat and mouse game in which they each play both roles. The power dynamic is constantly shifting as the film builds and builds, never revealing who truly holds all the cards in their hands. Sanctuary is a psychological minefield and one film I’m still thinking about and analyzing even now.
5. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse
The Spider-Verse franchise remains the pinnacle of animation, and Sony Pictures Animation knocks it out of the park once again with Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. The whole multi-verse concept has quickly grown tiresome in 2023, but Across the Spider-Verse breathes new life into it with stunning animation, killer cameos, and an thrilling story that continues from where Into the Spider-Verse began. Oscar Isaac’s Miguel O’Hara is a rich and complicated ally/adversary for Miles. The level of detail given to each and every frame of the film is astounding, with the animation enhancing the characters and action on screen. The only downside is how long we’re going to have to wait for Beyond the Spider-Verse. If its anything like its two predecessors, though, it’ll be well worth the wait.
Saltburn is the most sexually decadent film of the year, maybe even the decade. Like its subjects, the film lives in the lap of luxury where there is nothing that cannot be bought or purchased and sexual freedom knows no bounds. Barry Keoghan excels and terrifies as an outsider who is welcomed into a lavish world and takes full advantage of his surroundings. By now you’ve likely heard about how outrageous some of the scenes are and yes, the film does push boundaries when it comes to expressing its sexuality. It’s raw, unnerving, and will simply leave you with your mouth agape. Saltburn is not for the faint of heart, but oh is it memorable regardless.
3. The Boy and the Heron
Honestly, all that needs to be said about The Boy and the Heron is, “Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki.” That alone is likely to cement the film in most Top 10 lists. The Studio Ghibli animated film is wild, wonderful, and all kinds of beautiful. It’s the story of a boy dealing with his own traumas and venturing into a magical world filled with floating spirits, parakeet warriors, and mystical wizards. Miyazaki dazzles with a story that touches on his own personal legacy. Retired or not, Hayao Miyazaki still has it. The Boy and the Heron is beautiful storytelling through and through.
2. Past Lives
No other director has a stronger film debut than Celine Song with Past Lives. And no other film captures that nostalgic longing for past relationships and friendships better. There is a familiarity to Song’s characters with Nora, played by Greta Lee, and Hae, played by Teo Yoo, as they navigate their lives in both the past and the present. Past Lives taps into that childhood experiences of young love and what could have been. We’ve all been there. The film sinks its emotions hooks into you and will have you reaching for phone to look up that one that got away.
It should come as no surprise that Christopher Nolan delivers the absolute best movie experience of the year with his masterpiece Oppenheimer. As Nicole Kidman would say, “we come to this place for magic.” Cillian Murphy explodes on screen on J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb. The epic drama questions the morality and repercussions of building a weapon that has the capability of destroying the world. Every frame of the film is crafted with immaculate perfection with the cinematography and score building the tension to excruciating heights. Science has never been so cinematic. There’s no question, Nolan’s Oppenheimer destroys the competition. This is what cinema is all about.