From May December to Oppenheimer, these are the best movies of 2023.
2023 will be remembered as the year that rejuvenated the summer blockbuster post-Covid with the ‘Barbenheimer’ cultural phenomenon. The unprecedented double feature, Nolan’s Oppenheimer and Greta Gerwig’s Barbie together raked in over $2 billion, breaking away from the superhero-dominated trend. However, the ‘Barbenheimer’ trend was briefly overshadowed by industry strikes, highlighting the growing role of AI in filmmaking. Although the strikes have ended, they signal significant transformations in the entertainment sector.
Despite the challenges, 2023 was a year of diverse, impactful cinema. Ranging from Oppenheimer and Anatomy of A Fall to Killers of the Flower Moon and Past Lives, the films of 2023 were imbued with deep emotions and lofty aspirations, catering to a variety of audience preferences. Showcasing a broad spectrum of global talent, these films reaffirmed cinema’s status as a magnificent art form. New directors made waves while the seasoned pros showed us how it’s done.
Quickly then, here are the 10 most remarkable, intriguing films from 2023.
Best Movies of 2023
20. The Old Oak
The remarkable Ken Loach, known for his socially conscious themes, has been making films for nearly six decades. The Old Oak is believed to be the 87-year-old director’s final film. It’s set in the North of England in 2016, as the inhabitants of a small town are divided over the arrival of Syrian refugees. Central to the story is Tommy Ballantyne, the pub owner of the eponymous ‘Old Oak,’ who sympathizes with the refugees. He forms a bond with Yara, a young Syrian woman. With the help of a few locals, Tommy and Yara try to build solidarity between the communities despite the prejudices.
Loach and scriptwriter Paul Laverty’s characterization of Tommy and Yara is profound and three-dimensional. The Old Oak does have a few extreme dramatic moments. Yet the subtle performances and skillful direction leave the right emotional impact without being overtly sentimental. The film is a cry of despair, although Ken Loach finishes it on a note of hope.
19. Are You There, God? It’s Me Margaret
Kelly Fremon Craig’s sophomore effort is an adaptation of Judy Blume’s 1970 classic novel. Set in the 1970s, the film revolves around 11-year-old Margaret Simon (Abby Ryder Fortson), who grapples with her parents’ decision to move from New York to New Jersey. She is particularly sad to leave behind her paternal grandmother (Kathy Bates). Despite quickly finding new friends in her neighborhood, Margaret faces the complexities of puberty, sparking new worries and uncertainties. Raised in a household with a Jewish father and a Christian mother, she also begins exploring questions about religion and faith.
Kelly offers an earnest, engaging portrait of adolescence without resorting to tasteless humor and heavy-handed messages. Abby Ryder Fortson’s performance stands out brilliantly, likely to be remembered as a highlight in the genre of coming-of-age stories. Rachel McAdams is exceptional as Abby’s beloved mother. Overall, it’s a simple yet charming look at a tween’s physical and emotional growth.
Where to watch: Netflix
Since it came about in 1959, the Barbie doll has captivated children, yet it has also been criticized for setting unrealistic beauty standards worldwide. Greta Gerwig’s intriguing interpretation of this iconic doll challenges such entrenched cultural perceptions. At its core, Barbie is a captivating journey of self-exploration, masterfully told with striking visuals and humor.
Margot Robbie shines as the “archetypal” Barbie, living a perfect life in Barbieland. However, recently she’s been plagued by thoughts of death and ventures out of her pink haven to confront her inner turmoil.
The film’s comedic brilliance is heightened by Robbie and Ryan Gosling’s (Ken) performances; they perfectly embody the narrative’s satirical overtones. The film does fumble a little towards the end. Yet, it remains a visually stunning production, proving that big-budget movies don’t always have to indulge in mindless action.
Where to watch: Max, JioCinema
17. Asteroid City
Wes Anderson’s self-introspective strains are evident in his latest work. Set in a desert town in 1955, Asteroid City revolves around an eclectic group attending the Junior Stargazer Convention. The plot thickens with the arrival of an alien being, disrupting the celebratory gathering of gifted students, their parents, scientists, and soldiers. The artifice of the story is informed to us by a television host. Anderson also briefly looks into the life of Conrad Earp, the playwright who has written the story about a desert town and its alien visitor. Anderson’s complex, interwoven narrative adeptly navigates themes of loneliness, existential crisis, and grief.
Anderson’s hallmark of balanced composition and eccentric characters is used to delve into the complex bond between artists and their creations. The film’s charm is heightened by an impressive ensemble of stars, including Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks, and Tilda Swinton, making this fanciful tale all the more captivating.
Where to watch: Peacock, JioCinema
16. A Thousand and One
AV Rockwell’s powerful and poignant black motherhood drama won the US Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance. The film opens in the mid-1990s as 22-year-old ex-con and hairdresser Inez (Teyana Taylor) kidnaps her six-year-old son, Terry, from foster care. The two are out on the Harlem streets, battling poverty and homelessness. The story tracks the bittersweet mother-son relationship over a decade while New York goes through a tumultuous decade.
The director deftly balances themes of gentrification and motherhood without losing the narrative’s emotional power. Taylor’s performance is riveting, she particularly excels in the final act. As Inez’s disillusioned, long-time boyfriend, William Catlett offers a profound and sensitive performance. Though the unexpected turn of events towards the end feels tad contrived, Rockwell eschews melodrama. Overall, A Thousand and One is a nuanced and dignified portrayal of black lives.
Where to watch: Prime Video, JioCinema
15. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse
Fans and casual viewers alike widely appreciated the unorthodox and lively comic-book aesthetic of Into the Spider-Verse. Besides, the animated medium proved to be the perfect match for the unconstrained and outre ideas of multiversal superheroes. In Across the Spider-Verse – the second in the trilogy – we once again follow our protagonist, Miles Morales, from Earth-1610. He confronts a formidable foe, Spot, whose teleporting powers defy even the laws of physics. In his journey to stop the villain, Miles encounters a group of spider-people obsessing over ‘canon events.’
Across the Spider-Verse presents a more thrilling and intricate plot, further enriched by a robust characterization of Gwen Stacy. Made by a trio of directors, the film brilliantly raises the stakes while maintaining a strong emotional core. At times, the writing is ham-handed. Yet the mesmerizing theater experience makes us eagerly wait for the final part.
Where to watch: Netflix
14. When Evil Lurks
Argentine filmmaker Demian Rugna’s deeply unsettling horror film is not for the faint-hearted. He creatively reimagines classic horror motifs like plague and possession, embedding them in the paranoia-laden, rural Argentine social backdrop. Central to the plot are Pedro and Jimmy, two middle-aged brothers, who delve into a horrifying murder in their small town. Their investigation uncovers a ‘Rotten’ – an individual possessed by a demon, transformed into a grotesque mass of flesh – hidden in a neighboring property. A reckless decision to relocate ‘Rotten’ triggers the unseen evil to terrorize them and their family.
The film’s depiction of the possession epidemic is bone-chilling. Its storytelling is so distinctively disconcerting it spares none, not even children, from the malevolent forces. Additionally, the heightened realism in the movie starkly reflects our anxieties about the pandemic.
13. Earth Mama
The deeply ingrained institutionalized racism in America often unfairly targets and scapegoats the black community. This is starkly evident in the foster care system, which disproportionately disrupts black families. Savanah Leaf’s brilliant directorial debut is an intimate exploration of the struggles of one such marginalized and young black mother. Tia Nomore – a rapper in her acting debut – plays Gia, a pregnant single mother and a recovering addict navigating through a broken, unforgiving system to reclaim the custody of her two children.
The elegant visuals of Earth Mama subtly convey Gia’s emotional journey. The film achieves a powerful sense of realism and phenomenal performances without veering into melodrama. To Leaf’s credit, Gia remains a three-dimensional character who isn’t strictly defined by her suffering and trauma. The film is also a nuanced portrayal of how America’s poverty-stricken minorities are increasingly marginalized.
12. The Teachers’ Lounge
Much like an Asghar Farhadi film, Ilker Catak’s German movie weaves a gripping, intricate story from a seemingly simple incident. Centered around Carla Nowak (Leonie Benesch), a young and idealistic teacher, the film unfolds in a school plagued by a series of thefts. Carla employs a controversial tactic to uncover the identity of the thief, inadvertently intensifying the divide between the faculty and students.
The Teachers’ Lounge delves into deep questions regarding ethics, morality, racial discourse, and justice. The film can also be read as a parable of our flawed democratic system particularly in an era of misinformation. Every morally upright character in the plot ends up making a poor choice or saying something inappropriate, blurring the boundaries between right and wrong. The adage ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions’ finds a striking representation in this film.
Christian Petzold excels in crafting quietly intense character studies. His recent movie, Afire, unfolds in a German coastal town by the Baltic Sea and delves into the life of Leon (Thomas Schubert), a young, self-absorbed writer grappling with insecurities. Alongside his easygoing photographer friend, Felix, Leon retreats to Felix’s family holiday house to focus on his second novel, while Felix aims to develop a photography portfolio for his art school submission. Unknown to them, the house is already hosting Nadja (Paula Beer).
Leon finds himself profoundly drawn to Nadja, yet he conceals his feelings behind a veneer of cynicism. Afire is partly a comedy of manners, particularly as Leon’s awkward attempts at social interaction become more evident. Petzold’s nuanced portrayal of the main characters adds layers of complexity, making this a stirring and thought-provoking drama.
10. The Promised Land
Nikolaj Arcel’s bleak historical drama is set in the inhabitable moors of 18th-century Denmark. Based on Ida Jessen’s 2020 novel, The Promised Land opens in 1755 as the determined and stoic Captain Ludvig Kahlen (Mads Mikkelsen), hailing from a humble background, vows to transform the barren lands. Kahlen decides to use his army pension to fund the arduous project. In return, he wants the King to grant him a noble title and enough workers to build a profitable estate.
Apart from the unforgiving landscape, the sadistic local landowner, De Schinkel, obstructs Kahlen’s quest for wealth and status. Bolstered by a magnificently restrained central performance from Mikkelsen, the film takes us to a cruel society plagued by issues of race, class, bonded labor, and misogyny. The film might come across as quite somber to certain viewers, but its beautifully crafted widescreen visuals and compelling performances keep us engaged throughout.
9. May December
May December is an unconventional, twisted character study. And it’s from a filmmaker who’s already made brilliant, provocative character dramas like Safe, Far from Heaven, and Carol. Written by Samy Burch, the film revolves around Gracie Artherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore) and Elizabeth Barry (Natalie Portman), an actress who plays Gracie in an independent film. It’s been two decades since Gracie, who served a prison sentence for rape when her sexual relationship with a 12-year-old boy – now her husband – became public knowledge.
Elizabeth arrives to meet Gracie’s family to research her role. Her non-judgmental yet uncomfortable presence causes a rift in Gracie’s relationship with her husband, Joe (Charles Melton). Based on the tabloid scandal of Mary Kay Letourneau, May December is a profound meta-commentary on identity, filmmaking, and acting. Moore and Portman’s revelatory performances ably infuse their respective characters’ ambiguous and darker shades.
Where to watch: Netflix
8. Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell
Vietnamese filmmaker Thien An Pham’s gorgeous debut chronicles a young man’s spiritual journey. This languorous slow cinema, which runs for nearly three hours, won the Camera d’Or at Cannes. The story revolves around Thien, (Le Phong Vu), who lives a life of isolation in Saigon. His world is shaken upon learning of his sister-in-law Hanh’s passing. With Thien’s brother having deserted his family, Thien takes it upon himself to return Hanh’s remains to their hometown and to locate his estranged sibling.
The film is reminiscent of the mesmerizing and the worldly cinema of Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Its stunning visuals and sinuous storytelling also bring to mind Bi Gan’s poetic cinema, Kaili Blues. Thien’s internal struggle and search for meaning are beautifully conveyed through a visually rich narrative, aided mostly by keenly observed long takes.
7. Io Capitano
This hard-hitting migrant drama chronicles teenagers Seydou & Moussa’s brutal journey from Dakar, Senegal to Europe. While many films have delved into the somber subject, Io Capitano stands out for director Matteo Garrone’s humanistic, fable-like approach. He made the realistic mafia drama Gomorrah, as well as the surrealistic fantasy horror Tale of Tales. In Io Capitano, he astoundingly blends both styles portraying the harrowing reality without always focusing on the characters’ suffering.
Seydou and Moussa are thoughtfully sketched characters. Seydou’s resilience, love, and faith remain the shining beacon in the hellish landscape. Garrone has collaborated with three Italian writers for the script. Most of the bone-chilling circumstances that befall the migrants are gathered from real experiences of Africans who all undertook a similar journey. The final irony-tinged close-up shot of Seydou will haunt you long after the end credits.
6. Close Your Eyes
This emotionally stirring and visually mesmerizing drama pays a fitting tribute to the magic of cinema. It’s also a profound, contemplative drama on memory, loneliness, aging, and identity. The film marks Spanish filmmaker Victor Erice’s return to feature-length filmmaking after 40 years. He’s only made two feature films before – Spirit of the Beehive (1973) and El Sur (1983) – both revered globally for their unique and striking visual style.
Erice’s stunning new film revolves around aging director Miguel Garray (Manolo Solo), who returns to Madrid to do a TV program about his friend and actor Julio Arenas (Jose Coronado). Julio disappeared nearly two decades before. The reexamination of Julio’s mysterious disappearance evokes a bunch of repressed memories and leads to one big surprise. At 83, Erice creates a lyrical, near-masterpiece that’s sure to elicit tears of joy from cinema enthusiasts.
5. The Holdovers
Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers is an excellent, poignant Christmas movie for an adult audience. Set in the winter of 1970, the story unfolds within the confines of Barton Academy, a secluded and prestigious all-boys prep school in Massachusetts. Central to this narrative is Paul Hunham, a history teacher with a Scrooge-like demeanor, brilliantly portrayed by Paul Giamatti. Hunham is known for his gruff attitude and harsh grading, earning him the intense dislike of his students. With no holiday plans of his own, the school administration assigns him the responsibility of overseeing the ‘holdovers’ – students who, for various reasons, are unable to join their families during the two-week winter break.
Alexander Payne, acclaimed for his offbeat dramas that capture the essence of everyday American life, particularly in films like “About Schmidt,” “Sideways,” and “Nebraska,” once again demonstrates his mastery in “The Holdovers.” In this film, he exquisitely traces the inner transformation of the cynical and hardened teacher.
Where to watch: Peacock, Video on Demand
4. Killers of the Flower Moon
Set in 1920s Oklahoma, Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon is a heartrending retelling of the tragic injustices inflicted upon the Native Osage American tribe. Adapted from David Grann’s book of the same name, the film begins by outlining the Osage people’s journey from poverty to unprecedented wealth following the discovery of oil on their land. However, this newfound prosperity attracts the malevolent attention of white men driven by greed and racism, who devise sinister plans to strip the Osage of their wealth.
At the heart of the story is Mollie, portrayed by Lily Gladstone, an Osage woman whose family endures profound suffering at the hands of these predatory white men. Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro deliver compelling performances as the masterminds of this criminal ring, exuding charm while embodying reprehensible characters. Scorsese’s extended runtime skillfully draws viewers into the depths of the community’s experiences, offering a deeper understanding of the historical pattern of White America’s systematic encroachment on Native American lands.”
Where to watch: Apple TV+, Video on Demand
3. Past Lives
Playwright Celine Song’s directorial debut is a deeply touching tale of two Korean childhood sweethearts, Na Young (Nora) and Hae Sung, as they attempt to rekindle their bond. Nora moved to Canada at 12, leaving behind her unspoken connection with Hae Sung. Twelve years later, they briefly reconnect via Skype, but to no avail. Another 12 years elapse, and their lives have transformed significantly. Despite these changes, Hae Sung makes a journey to New York to meet Nora, who is now a successful playwright and married to a loving, supportive husband.
Past Lives is an atypical romance drama that bewitchingly captures how love can be both enduring and fleeting. The film delves into the reality that individuals evolve significantly over time, making it nearly impossible to revert to who we once were. Yet, it poignantly illustrates how the residual emotions tied to a person or a place can persistently shadow our lives. This film meticulously explores these complex and often contradictory emotions, offering a nuanced perspective on love and change.
Where to watch: Video on Demand
2. Anatomy of a Fall
Justine Triet’s Palme d’Or Award-winning film is an intense courtroom drama. It revolves around Sandra Voyter (Sandra Huller), a successful German author, living with her husband, Samuel, and visually-impaired 11-year-old son, Daniel, in a remote, snow capped cabin in the French Alps. Daniel stumbles upon his father’s body, dead as a result of a fall. Due to the inconclusive coroner’s report, Sandra is indicted, though she firmly maintains her innocence.
Triet’s film is not a typical mystery with last-minute twists. It is not about finding out whether Samuel killed himself or if the wife murdered the husband. The film is a rather nuanced study of a troubled marriage. As a viewer, while we hear both sides of the argument in the trial, we profoundly meditate on themes of envy, resentment, depression, and misogyny. Anatomy of a Fall also showcases the irreparable psychological cost heaped on individuals due to a flawed judicial system.
Nolan’s Oppenheimer delves into the life of the eponymous American physicist, notably his role in the creation of the atomic bomb during World War II. Adapted from Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin’s book, Nolan’s screenplay masterfully navigates the intricate geopolitics and Robert Oppenheimer’s internal conflicts. Though the film marks Nolan’s first foray into the biopic territory, it retains his signature style, like non-linear storytelling. The narrative unfolds in three parallel storylines. The first traces Oppenheimer’s evolution into a prominent scientist, spearheading the Manhattan Project.
The second focuses on a security hearing that probes his alleged communist ties. The third, shot in striking black-and-white, tracks the journey of Oppenheimer’s long-standing rival, Lewis Strauss, during his Senate nomination hearing. Keeping pace with the film’s densely layered and shifting timelines can be both challenging and frustrating. But Nolan’s technical genius, his perceptive look of this somber historical period, and Cillian Murphy‘s phenomenal acting transform “Oppenheimer” into a sublime work of art.
Where to watch: Video on Demand
2023 also gave us Afire, The Teachers’ Lounge, Earth Mama, When Evil Lurks, and Barbie. Notable mentions: Fallen Leaves, Poor Things, The Zone of Interest, About Dry Grasses, Monster, The Taste of Things, Perfect Days, and The Boy and The Heron.
An ardent cinephile, who truly believes in the transformative power and shared-dream experience of cinema. He blogs at ‘Passion for Movies.’