Table of Contents
The best movies of 2023 run the gamut from intense dramas to should-have-been studio blockbusters to quietly perfect slice-of-life studies. Some are splashy prestige productions with the backing of a major awards campaign; some are quirky passion projects, as idiosyncratic as the filmmakers who created them. (In a few thrilling cases, they’re both things at the same time.) Existential unease, literate thrills, devastation and the sublime: they’re all here in this year’s best of 2023 list, ranked from wonderful to even better. Happy watching.
A bold conceit is carried out with precise technical direction in Tina Satter’s adaptation of the play Is This a Room, a harrowing chamber thriller that stages the transcript of NSA whistleblower Reality Winner’s initial interrogation and arrest. Sydney Sweeney leaves Euphoria histrionics behind to give a measured, tightly controlled performance, deftly mapping a young woman’s dawning realization that her life is about to change, terribly and forever. Satter adds a few cinematic flourishes, but otherwise keeps the film stern and focused, solemnly observing the consequences of speaking truth to power. Starkly presented and small in scale, Reality nonetheless feels huge and vivid, a light breaking through a dark and tangled web of lies and misinformation.
20. Blue Beetle
If we simply must have superhero movies, may they all be as lively and appealing as Ángel Manuel Soto’s rollicking adventure. Blue Beetle is sharp in its political argument—framing gentrification as a continuation of colonialism’s long and insidious project—but also abundant with silly humor and genuine sentiment. Xolo Maridueña is a bright and engaging lead, while Adriana Barraza steals scenes as a kindly grandmother possessed of hidden mettle. A rare superhero movie that successfully blends action and message, Blue Beetle was of course a poorly marketed box office dud. Clearly, some studios don’t recognize a good thing when they have it.
19. Pretty Red Dress
We have seen aspects of Dionne Edwards’s film before: a marriage straining under the weight of unspoken desire, impossible dreams reached for and unrealized. But Pretty Red Dress synthesizes what might be called cliché into something wholly original. Natey Jones and former X Factor star Alexandra Burke richly render a married couple—one just out of prison, the other pursuing her West End acting ambitions—as they navigate a pivotal moment in their relationship. A thoughtful study of masculinity and sexuality, Pretty Red Dress is above all else a deeply humane film, letting its characters yearn and wish with all the contradiction and nuance of real people in the real world. Edward’s film, her debut feature, is one of the year’s hidden gems, waiting to be discovered in all its intricate facets.
A movie of the sort they don’t make often enough these days, Benjamin Caron’s twisty con game is a literate pleasure. The cast—Justice Smith,Briana Middleton,Sebastian Stan, and a fabulously shifty Julianne Moore—perfectly balance the sexy and the sinister, tearing into a clever script with panache. Caron, mostly known as a TV director in the UK, has a keen sense of rhythm and an eye for composition. Sharper is polished and sophisticated but never forgets that it is, at root, a seamy little B-movie. Which is great! May there be more compact, nifty films like this, ones that tell a good story and don’t skimp on aesthetics (Sharper was shot on film) like so many streamer-original movies do. Hopefully we’ll someday reach a time when films like Sharper are given proper theatrical releases again.
A film about both sexual abuse and early onset dementia, Memory has all the trappings of overegged melodrama. But writer-director Michel Franco chooses subtlety over excess, pulling in close on two characters, played with understated grace by Jessica Chastain and Peter Sarsgaard, as they contend with the limits and regrets of their lives. Set in wintry little corners of Brooklyn, Memory has a keen sense of place—and a sense of true purpose, examining the wear and tear of adulthood with sober compassion.
The great Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda offers up another poignant assessment of life’s bumpier dimensions. This time, there is an air of mystery to the story, a secret uncovered through intriguing shifts in narrative perspective. What is eventually revealed is a close friendship, and maybe something more, between two tweenage boys both coping with loss. At once delicate and brimming with feeling, Monster has a deep affection for all of its characters, even the ones who behave rashly or carelessly. Which is to say, all of them—and all of us.
15. Perfect Days
Decades into a storied career, director Wim Wenders finds new vim on the streets of Tokyo, traversed by a solitary (but not exactly lonely) toilet cleaner (played by Koji Yakusho) as he goes about his work. Told as a series of linked short stories, Perfect Days finds poetry in the banal, though not in the condescending fashion of so many other so-called tributes to the everyday working man. An existential murmur courses under the modest action of Wenders’s film, prodding the audience toward a sincere appreciation of the small moments that comprise any life in the world. The closing minutes of Perfect Days are among the most moving of the year, as a man wordlessly takes stock of all he’s experienced and putters along toward more.
14. Four Daughters
Kaouther Ben Hania’s film is a beguiling blend of documentary and deliberate artifice. To tell the harrowing story of a Tunisian woman, Olfa Hamrouni, who lost two daughters when they joined the Islamic State, Ben Hania has enlisted actors to reenact some of the events leading up to Hamrouni’s estrangement from her children. We also see the hired actors interacting with the real family, all engaged in a lively and at times uncomfortable discourse about parenting and politics. A fascinating survey of post-Arab Spring Tunisia and a probing commentary on memory and storytelling, Four Daughters makes grand use of its meta premise.
13. Poor Things
Emma Stone totters and lurches toward greatness in Yorgos Lanthimos’s strange and strangely moving bildungsroman. Stone plays a Frankensteinian creation (a baby’s brain placed inside the skull of an adult body) who, as she grows, becomes a literate and libidinous woman of the world. Lanthimos takes inspiration from the lookbooks of Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton to create a dark fantasy version of continental Europe, through which Stone merrily makes her way, delivering a perhaps career-best performance as she goes. Grim but never bleak, clever but not smug, Poor Things is a nervy experiment that yields oddly beautiful results.
12. Do Not Expect Too Much From the End of the World
Romanian provocateur Radu Jude takes us on a rambling, funny, creepingly depressing tour of Bucharest in the passenger seat of a well-used car driven by the arresting actor Ilinca Manolache. She plays a production assistant interviewing potential subjects for a workplace-safety-training video—everyone she speaks to has been somehow injured on the job, and is now mired in a hell of legal bureaucracy. Jude takes aim at his country’s frayed social infrastructure, the plundering greed of foreign companies benefiting from cheap labor, and at a media-sick public who have become calloused to the terrible things that flash across our screens every day. Mordant and trenchant, Do Not Expect Too Much From the End of the World does not offer much comfort beyond the grim catharsis of gallows humor.
A family gathers for a birthday party that may actually be a final goodbye to a beloved son, brother, and father in Lila Avilés’s astonishing second feature. Avilés sets her camera darting and wandering around a middle-class Mexico City home as various relatives go about their day, busying themselves with anything other than worrying about the man slowly dying in the next room. Tótem is a riot of noise and motion, but none of it drowns out the sadness at the film’s center. Avilés builds toward a climax that is as dazzling as it is devastating, a moment of familial connection both profound and terribly fleeting.
10. Asteroid City
Wes Anderson’s latest is both a return to form and a thoughtful expansion of the director’s humanist impulses. The story of disparate people (played by a starry array of actors) trapped in a tiny desert town at the height of the Atomic Age, Asteroid City considers matters of grief and loneliness, romance and existential wonder. Contained in its lovely diorama box is a winsome picture of life in almost its entirety, all the strangeness and sweetness and arrhythmia of being. What’s more, Anderson’s structural flourishes—Asteroid City is a play within a television broadcast within a film—do not alienate as they have in recent past efforts. Instead, Asteroid City finds true meaning in its layers, offering something like a consoling pat on the shoulder—or a willowy embrace—in difficult, confusing times.
9. Showing Up
Kelly Reichardt offers up perhaps her liveliest, warmest film yet with this wistful, softly comedic look at the making of things. The director’s frequent collaborator Michelle Williams is all watery sighs and huffs as a sculptor who lives in Portland, Oregon, earning a living at a local arts college and spending her spare time tending to her creative output. Reichardt lovingly teases the pretensions and neuroses of a milieu she knows well, while also saying something rather grand (in a quiet way) about what ends art is supposed to meet. Lilting yet sharp, Showing Up is a must-watch for anyone tinkering away at their own passions.
8. You Hurt My Feelings
At first glance, writer-director Nicole Holofcener’s witty, beautifully acted comedy seems like a mere light romp through monied Manhattan. But as she always does, Holofcener has deeper things on her mind. You Hurt My Feelings is a sharp and often poignant study of the mechanics of love, how its eagerness to support and encourage can sometimes have the exact opposite effect. It’s a clever and thoughtful movie about white lies and well-meaning indulgence, wise in its detailed observation of human behavior. And what a human Holofcener has cast in the lead: Julia Louis-Dreyfus (who is also excellent in Holofcener’s Enough Said) gives a radiant star turn, as naturally dexterous with the film’s peppery comedy and she is with its bleary drama. It’s an immensely charismatic performance, one that would, in a just world, be recognized by awards-giving bodies at year’s end.
7. Anatomy of a Fall
While there is certainly some suspense in Justine Triet’s riveting film, it’s more drama than thriller, an inquest into the unknowable. How well do we really know those closest to us? How well do we really know our own hearts, our own capacities for love and anger? Sandra Hüller anchors Triet’s film with a fierce intelligence, never betraying moral judgment of her character—a woman accused of murdering her husband in what may actually have been a terrible accident. Hüller’s is one of the great performances of the year, as shifty and multifaceted as Triet’s ever-morphing film. Anatomy of a Fall is either a murder mystery or the sad story of a mishap, a look at a marriage brought to the worst breaking point or at one cruelly interrupted mid-sentence. Either way, Anatomy of a Fall is dazzling, provocative entertainment, a worthy winner of the Cannes Palme d’Or and whatever other awards it picks up in the coming months.
6. Earth Mama
An auspicious feature debut from filmmaker Savanah Leaf, Earth Mama is a grounded look at motherhood, poverty, and adoption. Tia Nomore, also making her film debut, sensitively plays Gia, a woman at a major crossroads. She’s in recovery and is working to clean up her life in order to get her children out of foster care and make way for a new baby she’s due to deliver any day. As she struggles to find work and hold onto her housing, Gia must confront the possibility that perhaps her baby would be better off with another family. Leaf has not made some gritty, exploitative movie that makes a novelty of Gia’s circumstances; Earth Mama is instead carefully observed and pitched in a credible timbre. Leaf has made an empathetic film about choice, which Gia still possesses despite being denied so much else.