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Best of 2023 — From "Barbenheimer" to the return of Godzilla, 2023 was full of cinematic surprises

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Barbie — Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.
Barbie — Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

There were any number of cinematic events in 2023 worth celebrating. It was a year in which Barbie dominated, Oppenheimer went nuclear with ticket-buying audiences, and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 did their respective franchises proud (while every other superhero installment did a massive face-plant into the cement).

It saw M3GAN start things off for Universal and Blumhouse with a dollified bang and Five Nights at Freddy's end them for the collaborating studios with an animatronic cannon shot straight into the stratosphere. As for the concert documentary Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour, the pop superstar showed that the world continues to be her oyster, what with the self-financed and self-distributed film breaking several box office records.

But it wasn't all wine and roses. Animated films outside of The Super Mario Bros. Movie and Elemental had trouble attracting audiences. Tried-and-true favorites (Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, Fast X) faltered even though they made hundreds of millions and played to full houses, primarily due to extreme production costs brought on by COVID delays. Vaunted veteran filmmakers Ridley Scott (Napoleon) and Zack Snyder (Rebel Moon: Part One — A Child of Fire) delivered purposefully unfinished films for Apple TV and Netflix, respectively, with much longer (and already completed) director's cuts for 2024 announced months before either of their shorter counterparts had even been released.

Horror remained the hot ticket, if a producer wanted to turn an almost certain profit. Hits outnumbered the misfires by a wide margin. Outside of the aforementioned Universal/Blumhouse successes, Evil Dead Rise, Scream VI, The Nun II, and Saw X reinvigorated each of their long-running franchises; the Aussie import Talk to Me had audiences buzzing; The Boogeyman led to more than its fair share of nightmares; and Thanksgiving was anything but a turkey. Even a CG-generated, drug-addicted black bear got in on the act, as director Elizabeth Banks showcased her darkly comedic, limb-severing credentials with the gorily rambunctious Cocaine Bear.

Women got to express their sexual agency in a big way. Outside of Greta Gerwig's Barbie, heroines triumphantly stood their ground in pictures as diverse in tone and representation as Sofia Coppola's Priscilla, Yorgos Lanthimos's Poor Things, Andrea Pallaoro's Monica, Emma Seligman's Bottoms, Adele Lim's Joy Ride, Will Gluck's Anyone But You, Kitty Green's The Royal Hotel, William Oldroyd's Eileen, Joe Lynch's Suitable Flesh, and, yes, even Kelly Fremon Craig's tween coming-of-age spellbinder Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret.

Martin Scorsese showed everyone how an old master can still get it done, with pizazz, style, and introspective urgency to burn, with the stellar Killers of the Flower Moon, while up-and-coming maestros like Andrew Haigh (All of Us Strangers), Justine Triet (Anatomy of a Fall), Kelly Reichardt (Showing Up), Goran Stolevski (Of an Age), Ava DuVernay (Origin), Jonathan Glazer (The Zone of Interest), Demián Rugna (When Evil Lurks), and Sean Durkin (The Iron Claw) memorably did the same with their own idiosyncratically devastating dramas.

Newcomers Celine Song (Past Lives), Cord Jefferson (American Fiction), Michelle Garza Cervera (Huesera: The Bone Woman), Stephen Williams (Chevalier), and Savanah Leaf (Earth Mama) also made their marks, their feature-length debuts being some of the finest films 2023 had to offer.

There's plenty more worth talking about, including the exhilaratingly exhausting action acrobatics of Chad Stahelski's John Wick: Chapter 4, the hysterically astute observations of Alexander Payne's The Holdovers, and the visual majesty of Gareth Edwards's criminally undervalued The Creator.

Warner Bros. produced a pair of unlikely hit musicals (Wonka, The Color Purple) that it inexplicably refused to market as actual musicals, while director Francis Lawrence and author Suzanne Collins journeyed back to Panem for The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes and produced one of the year's most surprisingly entertaining hits. Master animator Hayao Miyazaki returned for what may be the final time with The Boy and the Heron and delivered his biggest international smash since 2001's Oscar-winning Spirited Away.

Then there's Toho's Godzilla Minus One. Originally slated to hit domestic theaters in the US for a weeklong special engagement, director Takashi Yamazaki's post-WWII kaiju epic managed the unthinkable: it packed houses from New York to Seattle to all points in between, forcing the studio to rethink its entire release strategy. More than that, it actually made Godzilla scary again, while also offering up an emotionally complex human story that's equal to the iconic title character's colossal status around the globe. If there was any cinematic event I simply did not see coming, this had to be it.

Without further ado, here are my picks for the ten best films of 2023, along with several other titles I hope interested viewers take the time to see:


1. <i>All of Us Strangers</i> (Dir.: Andrew Haigh)
Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures  

1. All of Us Strangers (Dir.: Andrew Haigh)

My goodness, what a movie! This stupendously shattering "what if?" melodrama loosely adapted from Japanese author Taichi Yamada's 1987 novel Strangers broke me in two. Andrew Scott delivers the performance of a lifetime as Adam, a struggling and lonely writer who enters into a torrid affair with a younger man (Paul Mescal) who also resides in his near-empty London high-rise. There's also the small matter of Adam's parents (Jamie Bell, Claire Foy), both of whom died nearly 30 years earlier but are now suddenly residing back in his suburban childhood home. This one leaves a permanent mark.

2. <i>Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse</i> (Dir.: Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, Justin K. Thompson)
Image courtesy of Sony Pictures  

2. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (Dir.: Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, Justin K. Thompson)

No 2023 moment with an audience came close to the finale of Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. With Miles Morales trapped in the wrong corner of the multiverse and under the thumb of his villainous doppelganger, Gwen Stacy assembles a band of fellow spider-heroes to go and save him. It's a rousing, one-of-a-kind, triumphant call to action, and she invites the audience to join them on this latest, undeniably dangerous adventure. Who are any of us to turn her down?

3. <i>Killers of the Flower Moon</i> (Dir.: Martin Scorsese)
Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures  

3. Killers of the Flower Moon (Dir.: Martin Scorsese)

Masterpiece. There's little else to be said about Scorsese's latest examination of banal evil in its most insidious and disturbing form. This horrifying American historical calamity has left scars that have lingered for generations, what was done to the Osage Nation in 1920s Oklahoma is a crushing indictment of incompetence and indifference that should never be forgotten. Leonardo DiCaprio gives one of the best performances of his career, but it is Lily Gladstone who commanded my attention. She is magnificent.

4. <i>Godzilla Minus One</i> (Dir.: Takashi Yamazaki)
Photo courtesy of Toho International  

4. Godzilla Minus One (Dir.: Takashi Yamazaki)

Godzilla is scary again in Yamazaki's towering kaiju epic. As Japan struggles to rebuild after WWII, a disgraced kamikaze pilot and a homeless young woman team up to help parent an orphaned infant. As things start to look up for this ragtag trio, a mutated Godzilla appears out of the oceanic depths to wreak unimaginable havoc. While the expected carnage ensues, it is the human story at the heart of this latest Toho epic that makes this the best film featuring the atomic-breath titan since his 1954 debut.

5. <i>Priscilla</i> (Dir.: Sofia Coppola)
Photo courtesy of A24  

5. Priscilla (Dir.: Sofia Coppola)

Coppola tackles Priscilla Presley's 1985 memoir in her own distinctively observational style, and in doing so crafts a portrait of Elvis unlike anything I've ever seen. Priscilla's story is a fractured fairy-tale romance that showcases the dark side of American fame and fortune. It is also the empowering saga of a woman discovering who she is and can be, and loving the man who's given her this opportunity to find herself — even though being under his controlling thumb is splinting her in two. Cailee Spaeny and Jacob Elordi melt the screen.

6. <i>Bottoms</i> (Dir.: Emma Seligman)
Photo courtesy of MGM  

6. Bottoms (Dir.: Emma Seligman)

In a year of great comedies, Seligman's delightfully Queer Bottoms (written with Rachel Sennott) proudly reigns supreme. A subversively smart monster mash of Heathers, Mean Girls, Bring It On, and Fight Club, this sexually sly deconstruction of genre tropes has so much more to say than initially meets the eye. Overflowing in dazzling moments, a football field melee in which the bodies literally hit the grass is an eye-popping cacophony of ingenuity and chaos that's as hysterical as it is shrewdly perceptive.

7. <i>Huesera: The Bone Woman</i> (Dir.: Michelle Garza Cervera)
Photo courtesy of XYZ Films  

7. Huesera: The Bone Woman (Dir.: Michelle Garza Cervera)

Mexican import Huesera: The Bone Woman leaves a lasting impression. This is impending motherhood stripped to its visceral basics. Garza Cervera's feature-length debut is a hauntingly nasty marvel that goes immediately for the jugular and attacks its subject matter with such pugnacious grace that it all becomes shockingly beautiful. The ending is unforgettable.

8. <i>Monica</i> (Dir.: Andrea Pallaoro)
Photo courtesy of IFC Films  

8. Monica (Dir.: Andrea Pallaoro)

There are scenes in Pallaoro's hard, unapologetic melodrama that left me feeling bruised and battered, and yet enlivened and uplifted at almost the same time. Trace Lysette is superb as the titular Trans daughter who returns home to a dying mother (a sublime Patricia Clarkson) who disowned her years prior. Now, due to her brain tumor, she has no idea this woman is her own flesh and blood, and the constant question is whether or not Monica will reveal who she is before her mom passes. This movie never takes the easy way out and rarely does what is expected. I couldn't shake this one off even if I had wanted to (and I didn't).

9. <i>Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret.</i> (Dir.: Kelly Fremon Craig)
Photo courtesy of Lionsgate  

9. Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. (Dir.: Kelly Fremon Craig)

Judy Blume's supposedly unadaptable timeless novel is lovingly transported to the big screen with tenderness, humor, care, and joyful effervescence. This may be the best story of a tween girl coming into her own ever made. Youngster Abby Ryder Fortson is a ray of constant sunshine that makes the entire world feel a wee bit better just from her being a part of it. Rachel McAdams adds outstanding support as her mother, and Benny Safdie is the coolest of the cool dads in recent memory.

10. <i>Past Lives</i> (Dir.: Celine Song)

10. Past Lives (Dir.: Celine Song)

I firmly believe that how much a person ends up adoring Song's spellbinding Past Lives is entirely based on how they react to the climactic final ten minutes. This superlative drama of friendship, companionship, and love culminates in a series of quick sucker punches that are so realistically authentic that they can't help but feel almost like a personal assault. This is all a good thing, as the entire motion picture is built on a foundation of emotional honesty that makes even its saddest moments a triumphant, celebratory call to action.

THIRTY MORE (because I can)
American Fiction (Dir.: Cord Jefferson)
Anatomy of a Fall (Dir.: Justine Triet)
Asteroid City (Dir.: Wes Anderson)
Barbie (Dir.: Greta Gerwig)
The Boy and the Heron (Dir.: Hayao Miyazaki)
Chevalier (Dir.: Stephen Williams)
The Color Purple (Dir.: Blitz Bazawule)
The Creator (Dir.: Gareth Edwards)
Earth Mama (Dir.: Savanah Leaf)
Evil Dead Rise (Dir.: Lee Cronin)
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (Dir.: James Gunn)
The Holdovers (Dir.: Alexander Payne)
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes (Dir.: Francis Lawrence)
Influencer (Dir.: Kurtis David Harder)
The Iron Claw (Dir.: Dean Durkin)
It's a Wonderful Knife (Dir.: Tyler MacIntyre)
John Wick: Chapter 4 (Dir.: Chad Stahelski)
Joy Ride (Dir.: Adele Lim)
Of an Age (Dir.: Goran Stolevski)
Origin (Dir.: Ava DuVernay)
The Park (Dir.: Shal Ngo)
Polite Society (Dir.: Nida Manzoor)
Poor Things (Dir.: Yorgos Lanthimos)
The Royal Hotel (Dir.: Kitty Green)
Saltburn (Dir.: Emerald Fennell)
Showing Up (Dir.: Kelly Reichardt)
Sisu (Dir.: Jalmari Helander)
When Evil Lurks (Dir.: Demián Rugna)
You Hurt My Feelings (Dir.: Nicole Holofcener)
The Zone of Interest (Jonathan Glazer)