10. The Holdovers
Feels so great to have Alexander Payne back in top form with this welcomed addition to the holidays canon that is bound to become a regular Christmas staple we collectively re-watch every winter like our lives depended on it. A pitch-perfect Paul Giamatti gives one of the year’s most disarmingly affecting performances as a lonely, grouchy prep-school teacher who strikes up two unlikely bonds after being forced to look after a bunch of his angsty teen students over the holiday break.
The ’70s setting, bittersweet tone, and sundry collection of neurotic misfits begs comparisons to Hal Ashby and Robert Altman, and if a threadbare plot synopsis suggests a glib hallmark festive flick, rest assured: “The Holdovers” navigates long-familiar tropes with enough emotional heft and verbal comedy that it hits every note just right despite sticking to the expected story beats from its tried-and-true formula. The result feels like a warm, fuzzy hug after a tough day.
9. Beau is Afraid
Of all the superlatives one can lay at the feet of Ari Aster, one most would agree with is that he never plays it safe. After cementing himself as one of the current figureheads of the horror genre, the “Hereditary” and “Midsommar” director left his comfort zone and chipped in all his chips to get this 180-minute Oedipal tragicomedy about a paranoid Jewish man grappling with unresolved mommy issues off the ground.
Not that “Beau” ever had much of a chance of becoming a mainstream hit — mind you, this is not a movie you recommend to your friends so much as one you inflict on them — but the very fact that a $35 million big auteur swing like this exists at this time should fill us with hope. To those who couldn’t get much out of watching Joaquin Phoenix get himself in increasingly awkward (and often hilarious) binds, I can provide no comfort. But of all movies released in 2023, this one made me gasp, recoil in disgust, and laugh out loud the most.
8. Anatomy of a Fall
Justine Triet took home top honors at Cannes for this dense and intricately woven courtroom drama about a renowned writer (a beyond-brilliant Sandra Hüller) who finds her life turned upside down after being accused of killing her husband, who is found dead outside their two-story house under suspicious circumstances.
The 2023 Palme d’Or winner earned glowing praise for its careful threading of the central murder case, which keeps wrongfooting the viewer with enough narrative curveballs to keep them locked in for every beat, but it’s Hüller’s all-stops-out lead performance that holds it all together and captures your attention throughout. Strictly as a whodunit, “Anatomy of a Fall” would be enough to restore your faith in a near-extinct genre — as a sociological study that challenges conventional notions of truth, marriage and the criminal justice system, it justifies every accolade coming its way.
Christopher Nolan struck box-office gold and muscled his way into the Best Picture race with this sprawling biopic about the American physicist who oversaw the development of the atomic bomb near the end of World War II — a star-studded, full-fledged Hollywood epic the likes of which few working directors could realistically pull off today.
Bouncing backwards and forwards in chronology, “Oppenheimer” takes a surgical approach to its subject in order to thoroughly examine the knots of contradictions behind one of the most polarizing figures of the 20th century. On the surface, an R-rated historical drama about a bunch of government stooges babbling about quantum physics and security clearings for three straight hours hardly sounds like near billion-dollar material, but Nolan’s sure-handed direction ensures the movie sustains the dramatic tension from start to finish. It doesn’t all hang together, but the cumulative effect is such that by the time the film barrels towards its explosive third act, you simply can’t pry your eyes away from the screen.
Yes, Greta Gerwig’s take on Mattel’s iconic doll is overflowing with ideas about feminism, patriarchy, 21st century consumer culture and whatnot, but it is never overly theoretical — the “Lady Bird” director and co-writer Noah Baumbach know better than to devote their billion-dollar, zeitgeist-smashing hit to phony moralizing.
Instead, what in less daring hands could have amounted to little more than a shallow marketing ploy resulted in this year’s cinematic equivalent of a Trojan horse: A seemingly low-brow, populist summer blockbuster that takes big swings and rides the razor’s edge of celebrating Barbie’s enduring legacy as an empowering feminist icon while interrogating its flawed purpose as a hyper-corporate brand that encourages toxic gender norms and rampant consumerism.
This is the kind of movie you either give in or you don’t, but give it an honest chance and you’ll find much to love beyond the surface-level satire: from dazzling musical numbers and lovingly crafted practical sets that pop off the screen to go-for-broke performances from an all-star ensemble cast, including one of 2023’s finest by Ryan Gosling.
5. The Boy and the Heron
Animation was on a roll in 2023 — this was the year of “Nimona”, “Across the Spider-Verse”, “Suzume”, and “Mutant Mayhem”, among many other standouts. But none took fuller measure of the boundless possibilities of the form than what is most likely to end up as Hayao Miyazaki’s definitive swan song: a vibrant, imaginative, gorgeously crafted and wildly unpredictable romp about an 11-year-old boy grieving the death of his mother who embarks on a journey of self-discovery after being swept into a whimsical fantasy realm brimming with otherworldly creatures.
The sad day will come when the beloved Studio Ghibli co-founder is no longer around to come out of retirement many times over to further cement his name among cinema’s all-time greats. For the time being, though, we’re beyond grateful to have the Japanese maestro still knocking it out of the park and putting every other animator on God’s green earth to shame at the spry young age of 83.
4. Poor Things
I could begin by telling you that this year’s weirdest, horniest and oddly empowering movie won the Golden Lion at Venice, that it is loosely adapted from a 1992 novel by Alasdair Gray and set in a sort of cracked-mirror vision of Victorian-era London, or that Emma Stone gives an Oscar-worthy performance in the role of a young woman who’s re-animated and brought to life by an eccentric scientist. Have I mentioned Willem Dafoe, Mark Ruffalo, and Margaret Qualley yet? Either way, there are only a handful of filmmakers working today you stop everything for, and when it’s Yorgos Lanthimos at the helm, you pull the brakes harder than ever.
Though tempting as it is to join the general consensus that describes “Poor Things” as a sort of radical, bracingly feminist take on Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” novel with 21st century sensibilities, the Greek-born provocateur has always been too singular of a voice for his work to be anything other than his own, purely unfiltered vision. What I do feel positively sure about his latest and possibly greatest accomplishment to date is that it sticks with you for long after the credits roll.
3. Past Lives
The familiar pang of heartache and gnawing regret of letting an opportunity slip by is captured with pin-point accuracy in Celine Song’s breakthrough debut, a semi-autobiographical tale of romantic longing and frustrated desire that charts the on-and-off relationship of two childhood sweethearts who pull together, drift apart and reconnect in adulthood decades after one of them emigrates from South Korea to North America.
Fleeting moments like a quiet stroll around the Brooklyn Bridge Park, a night-time taxi ride across the five boroughs, or hopping on a ferry along the East River are given enough breathing room so that each one carries enormous weight, but it’s the things that are ultimately left unsaid that sneak up on you the most. A film that falls somewhere between Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy and Wong Kar-wai’s “In the Mood for Love”, “Past Lives” shatters your heart into a million pieces and forces you to put all the pieces back together.
2. Killers of the Flower Moon
In a recent interview, Martin Scorsese lamented the fact that he’s running out of time to tell new stories. We hope that concern only proves pertinent one day eons from now, but in detailing the grizzly series of murders of members of the oil-rich Osage Nation in 1920s Oklahoma, the greatest living American filmmaker has (if only momentarily) put a fitting capstone to a 50-plus-year career spent deconstructing the corrupting influence of greed on the human spirit.
This 3-plus hour adaptation of David Grann’s non-fiction bestseller is many things at once: an epic of intimate proportions, a stunning showcase for Lily Gladstone, a revisionist western, a perverse love story, a chilling dismantling of the American dream, and even a mob film of sorts. But most of all, it’s a movie that drags a national tragedy back into public consciousness while lamenting how easily we collectively allowed it to be forgotten in the first place.
1. The Zone of Interest
The inexplicable ways in which evil men throughout history have been seemingly capable of compartmentalizing and conveniently brushing away unfathomable crimes happening right under their nose was something of a running theme this year in film. Of all directors not named Martin Scorsese, nobody managed to convey it as chillingly as Jonathan Glazer, who returned to the festival circuit after a 10-year hiatus with a novel adaptation that unsparingly depicts the everyday life of Rudolf Höss as commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Unlike the vast majority of Holocaust movies, “The Zone of Interest” merely hints at the horror lurking in the periphery without explicitly showing any of it on-screen, being infinitely harder to shake for it. Instead, Glazer forces the viewer to sit through and watch the cozy, bourgeois life led by the family of the infamous Nazi officer, who seem to be shockingly unbothered by the human carnage unfolding a hundred meters and a barber wire away from their own backyard. Quiet complicity has never looked as nauseating.