It was an amazing year for moviegoing. Repetitive comic book movies are finally lagging, making way for a variety of more exciting films. This year included powerful works that questioned the moral (and occasionally amoral) mainstream of audience interaction and consumption of new media. The Barbenheimer phenomenon was a special experience that will likely never be repeated (even though Oppenheimer will win Best Picture.) With the impossible task of seeing everything and missing most, here are my top films of the year.
*This includes films that may have had festival releases in 2022 but did not reach wider audiences/Nashville until 2023.
- Fallen Leaves
Aki Kaurismäki’s latest is a dryly comedic romance of chance encounter. I’m cheating by putting this film here as I’ve only seen it a few days ago at the Belcourt, so if that’s upsetting just pretend it’s Oppenheimer or something else you like. It premiered in 2023 and has had a gradual release since, opening at the Belcourt on January 5th. The Finnish auteur’s small-scale production provides an intimacy reflected in its leads. There’s alcoholism, karaoke, and people at the mercy of a society determined to destroy itself through rampant nationalism. What fun!
- Saint Omer
Alice Diop’s debut feature film, streaming now on Hulu, is an intense court drama of a woman on trial for killing her baby. It examines the painful experiences of motherhood and heritage, challenging a world structured to pass strict moral judgment without further consideration. Diop deserves your attention.
You’ve probably already seen it but should definitely see it again. This self-discovered fantasy is Greta Gerwig at the top of her game. While garnering some criticism for its basic feminism, one cannot overlook its more covert political moments. More complex moments than the “America Ferrera speech” are merely muttered, purposefully indicating the film is aware of the dilemma of how subversive a Barbie film can even be. It exceeds the meta self-awareness of other toy films like The Lego Movie by fully understanding how it implements its reflexivity to obtain corporate approval. Gerwig also features a more complex example of motherhood through its mutuality, which films like Everything Everywhere All at Once could learn from. Barbie is a lovely and personal film of imagination in action, and not enough can be said about it. “I’m Just Ken” is a jam.
Albert Serra’s slow burn is a masterclass of atmosphere. With a colonial presence in Tahiti, Serra constructs a dreamlike (or nightmarish) world of anxiety and futility. Streaming on Mubi, Pacifiction is something to be felt.
Ira Sachs’ latest is a manifesto of the chaos of lived artistic desire. A marriage begins to fall apart when a man cheats on his husband with a young woman. As the three try to navigate through the brutal affair, they separately discover a new form of resilience. Franz Rogowski as a reckless filmmaker and Ben Whishaw are outstanding, streaming on Mubi.
- May December
It seems like everyone has something to say about this one. While people may try to think piece the movie to death, Todd Haynes’ melodrama is wildly entertaining and disturbing. Charles Melton, Natalie Portman, and Julianne Moore are all stellar. Cory Michael Smith, who I was not previously familiar with, even manages to sneak in and steal scenes with a deceitful comedic presence. There’s nothing quite like watching a good melodrama for the first time, positively exceeding itself with its unsettling irony. Haynes’ breaking down of the characters also reaches its audience, questioning our own viewing desires. Streaming on Netflix.
- Return to Seoul
This special film is about an adopted South Korean woman, played by Ji-min Park in her acting debut, trying to reach her biological parents. Her travels span years, but her emotional journey feels even longer as she tries to make sense of herself. With one of my favorite dance scenes of the year, you can watch this beautiful movie on Prime Video.
- Killers of the Flower Moon
This epic has been difficult to forget since first watching. I already wrote a little about it here, but not enough can be said to fully describe it. On subsequent viewings, I appreciate it most for how it excels in adapting Grann’s journalism. The film’s deeper focus on perspectives and its understanding of the limits of identity make the book, which I love, seem almost exploitative in comparison. It’ll be streaming on Apple TV+ in just a few days and is currently available for VOD.
- Asteroid City
This is a beautiful film of youth and grief that has sadly been overlooked with misguided criticism of a recognizable style. Some may want to banish Wes Anderson because he’s “your barista’s favorite director,” but one would simply have a lesser life without his films. Asteroid City is most striking for it being the first film to truly emerge out of a Covid-induced cinema. Other films have more directly incorporated the real pandemic into their story, so this may seem surprising because the film (sort of) takes place in the 1950s. Yet Anderson’s meta-story period piece cleverly embodies the act of an artist within the struggling system of quarantine loneliness like no other. This doesn’t mean it’s an anti-mask film or anything, but there is an internal fight with an uncontrollable longing that wishes to know where it can rest. It needn’t be subtle, as Anderson’s hyper-controlled style is used at odds with emotions unconfined. This all bursts out with significant emotional flashes that pierce the soul. Watch it now on Prime Video.
- All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt
Raven Jackson is a director to watch. Her stunning specificity and layered poeticism are already astounding; one can barely fathom that this is a debut feature. I already wrote a little about it here, and I can only emphasize the lasting impression it has had on me. It’s a work of extreme beauty without being anywhere near excessive. It’s currently only available on VOD, so it’ll hopefully arrive on more streaming services eventually and receive a physical release. Years of life are encapsulated in under a hundred minutes, creating a profound experience that is also my favorite film of 2023.