Now that the sun has finally set on 2023, it’s time to look back over last year’s movie landscape to reflect on the films that have stayed with us the most and, for a few hours at a time, reminded us what cinema is capable of at its best.
In a turbulent time for Hollywood where callous studio tactics, prolonged writers’ and actors’ strikes, surging superhero fatigue, and the looming threat of AI threatened to dismantle a reeling studio system, the unlikely double-feature showdown known as Barbenheimer caught on as a pop culture craze and blew every forecast out of the water to become the defining theater-going experience of the year. Meanwhile, old masters like Martin Scorsese, Hayao Miyazaki, Wim Wenders and Ridley Scott proved age is just a number as they shared the spotlight with emerging young talents like Celine Song, Emerald Fennell, Ari Aster, and Kyle Edward Ball.
Narrowing this year’s bounty of cinematic offerings down to 20 titles was no small feat, which explains some glaring omissions, from populist studio fare (“Mission Impossible 7”), critical darlings (“Asteroid City”), low-brow pleasures (“Bottoms”), Oscar hopefuls (“Priscilla”) and peak dad-movie material (“Napoleon”, “Ferrari”) that could just as easily have found their way on here. However, there should still be something for everyone in our rundown of 2023 below.
20. Godzilla Minus One
At a time when crowd-pleasing blockbusters felt in rather short supply, Toho Studios came to the rescue with the kind of must-see big-screen spectacle casual moviegoers deserved. Excelling both as a solid entry point for Godzilla newbies and a heartfelt tribute to the 1954 original film, Takashi Yamazaki’s take on the iconic franchise that was originally conceived as a metaphor for the looming threat of nuclear warfare in postwar Japan doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel but still manages to surprise.
In many ways, “Godzilla Minus One” represents the platonic ideal of a modern kaiju film: Thrilling moments of suspense, like an edge-of-your-seat boat chase sequence straight outta “Jaws”, are nicely balanced out with character-driven beats of downtime that bestows the film with an all-too-rare emotional weight. As usual, ideas about war, trauma, failed leadership, and survivor’s guilt are all seamlessly baked into the story. But not that we care, really — sometimes you just want to watch a 160-feet radioactive lizard roar, shoot laser beams, and blow up entire cities to smithereens on the big screen.
19. Showing Up
Allow us to circumvent the rules here for a bit in order to squeeze in this lo-fi gem by Kelly Reichardt, the director’s fourth collaboration with actress Michelle Williams, which technically had its world premiere as part of the main slate of the 2022 Cannes Film Festival but didn’t journey into any commercial theaters until last spring.
As far as movies about art with a capital A go, this leisurely paced slice-of-life drama about a struggling Portland sculptor who’s forced to navigate a whirlwind of personal setbacks and nervous breakdowns in the lead-up to her first gallery exhibition lands squarely at the near top of this year’s list. Anyone who’s ever picked up a brush, pencil or an instrument, or even had to deal with a tedious landlord will resonate with “Showing Up”, only make sure you don’t go in expecting any sappy resolutions, heavy-handed metaphors, or trite platitudes that’ll warm your cold heart (and if you are looking for those — try “Maestro” instead).
18. The Killer
To dismiss David Fincher’s big return to the thriller genre and second feature film under the Netflix banner as standard-issue streaming fodder would be missing out on perhaps the director’s most slyly subversive and low-key funny offering since “The Social Network”.
In lesser hands, this globe-trotting crime caper about a nameless professional assassin (played with dry wit by Michael Fassbender) who becomes a target himself after a botched job would ultimately be bogged down by its overly derivative narrative. With Fincher at the helm, however, “The Killer” — adapted from a 1998 French graphic novel — ends up being a perfect staging ground for a darkly comic, no-frills genre pastiche that reads like a modern take on Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Le Samouraï”, as well as a sort of thesis statement on a 30-year career spent deconstructing the psychology of serial killers. Seriously, don’t miss it.
17. John Wick: Chapter 4
Back in 2014, few would’ve expected the mid-budget Keanu Reeves vehicle about a retired assassin avenging the death of his puppy to evolve into one of the most consistent and profitable action series to come along in recent memory. But director Chad Stahelski raced ahead of expectations and upped the ante with every new sequel, delivering the longest, flashiest and most ambitious installment yet in 2023.
If the prospect of spending three hours watching Reeves’ one-man army wipe out huge swathes of henchmen in increasingly ludicrous ways is inherently mouthwatering, “John Wick: Chapter 4” mostly sticks the landing because it knows better than to take its gonzo set-up too seriously. The top-level craftsmanship in fight choreography that Stahelski honed in as a stunt coordinator in the Matrix trilogy comes through beautifully in the series’ grand finale, as does Reaves’ grizzled on-screen presence, but special honors go to Donnie Yen for stealing the show in his first outing as the blind killer and all-around badass Caine.
16. Hit Man
It’s a shame that Richard Linklater’s splashy comeback, a genre-bending romantic neo-noir thriller and one of the sweetest surprises of 2023’s festival circuit, has been stuck indefinitely in distribution limbo after being purchased by Netflix on the heels of its buzzy debut at the Toronto Film Festival.
Like a bolt of lightning, Glen Powell came out of nowhere with a revelatory performance that should catapult him straight into the upper echelons of Hollywood stardom. Even if you don’t fancy yourself a rom-com fan, watching the future A-lister ooze charm and charisma in his portrayal of a meek college professor who’s thrusted into extraordinary circumstances after posing undercover as a hitman and falling in love with one of her targets is reason enough to keep tabs on this fall title. Throw in a whip-smart screenplay brimming with erotic tension, sticky moral dilemmas and enough narrative hijinks to make Alfred Hitchcock’s head spin, and you get what could easily become a home run at the box office down the road.
15. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse
In a dire year for IP-driven cash grabs in which superhero fatigue finally seemed to settle in for good, the latest animated Spider-Man flick was the exception that proved the rule.
“Into the Spider-Verse”, the 2018 film that introduced audiences to Afro-Latino Brooklyn teen Miles Morales, Gwen Stacy and a cohort of web-slingers, wasn’t just a great comic-book movie, it was a great movie, period. Almost everything that made it so special — the eye-popping animation, rollicking script, irreverent tone, likable characters, and killer soundtrack — is also present in its much-anticipated sequel, which finds Miles and his ragtag crew of Spider-people going up against a new interdimensional baddie.
As to be expected, the hardcore crowd went ballistic with the onslaught of comic-book easter eggs scattered throughout, but the movie won the rest of us over by grounding its wall-to-wall action and multi-verse shenanigans in a story that always resonated on an emotional level. If only the head-honchos at Marvel Studios could take notes.
In Hirokazu Kore-eda’s first Japanese production since the Palme d’Or-winning “Shoplifters”, what starts as a disquieting domestic drama about a widowed single mom growing concerned about her preteen son’s erratic behavior at school gradually morphs into a gentle yet quietly devastating coming-of-age tale that expertly examines the slippery nature of truth and the emotional fault lines running beneath everyday lives.
The elliptical, perspective-shifting narrative structure that Kore-eda — a world-class filmmaker and festival circuit mainstay — masterfully employs in order to fold the story on its head twice before bringing everything full circle in a soul-crushing third act initially brings to mind Akira Kurosawa’s slippery “Rashomon”. Despite its obvious cinematic lineage, however, it’s no hyperbole to say that “Monster” is wholly its own beast, as well as a deeply compassionate piece of humanist cinema that will hold you spellbound from start to finish if you let it.
13. May December
Imagine a Lifetime movie soap imbued with the same narrative heft of an Almodóvar picture and all the kitsch and heightened aesthetic of a 1950s Sirkian melodrama, and you might come close to “May December”, Todd Haynes’ thorny, dry-witted comedy based on a decades-old tabloid scandal that swept the nation in which a middle-aged teacher called Gracie went to jail after getting caught having an affair with a seventh grader, only to subsequently marry him after serving her prison sentence.
Netflix’ sleeper hit showcases smashing performances all across the board, from Julianne Moore and Charles Melton as a mismatched couple constantly exposed to public scrutiny to Natalie Portman as the B-tier Hollywood ingénue who must spend some time with them as research for playing Gracie in an upcoming indie film. All in all, it’s a tough nut to crack that repays close attention and only improves as you grapple with it.
12. A Thousand and One
January is usually a slower month when it comes to prestige-movie releases, so watching A.V. Rockwell’s scorcher of a debut during the thick of the winter season felt like a gift from the gods. Professional singer Teyana Taylor is a complete revelation in the role of a struggling single mother just scraping by in mid-1990s Harlem who decides to kidnap her own 6-year-old son from a foster home so they can be reunited as a family. Emotional fireworks, obviously, follow.
You’d think that the Grand Prize Jury winner at Sundance would be able to generate enough positive word-of-mouth to continue to make waves during the awards season, but few pundits seem to have kept it in mind lately while rounding up their year-end lists. It’s a shame, really, because we only get such remarkably assured and stirring feature debuts as “A Thousand and One” every now and then. If you’re looking for a gritty character drama that will pull at the heartstrings in the best ways possible, though, consider adding this gem to your watch list.
11. Fallen Leaves
Though we like to think of the latest stunner by Aki Kaurismäki, recipient of Cannes’ Jury Prize, as a spiritual follow-up to his unofficial Proletariat trilogy, newcomers could hardly ask for a better introduction to the Finnish maestro’s personal brand of filmmaking than “Fallen Leaves”. An off-beat, melancholy rom-com about two wayward thirty-somethings reaching out for human connection while shuffling between dead-end jobs in contemporary Helsinki, the film finds Kaurismäki bending the conventions of the Hollywood meet-cute to his own will.
Those who already abide by the director’s church can count upon all the key ingredients that they’ve come to expect in his work: from the stripped-down Bressonian style and customary dry wit to the unsparing look at the sour vagaries of everyday life. Only in a Kaurismäki film would two doomed strivers find true love by going to the movies together to watch a Jim Jarmusch zombie flick of all things. That’s the power of cinema for ya!