The 10 Best Films Of 2023

Every cinema year has its surprises, and 2023 was no different.

Twelve months ago would anyone have predicted the delightful craziness of the “Barbenheimer” phenomenon or pop star Taylor Swift turning a self-produced concert film that was turned down by all the distributors into a machine to print money for herself and AMC Theaters or the continued decline of the comic book movie genre. OK, I suppose that last one was not that hard to see coming, unfortunately.

But last January there were a number of things to be looking forward to. There were new projects on the way from established directors, many of whom are represented on the list below. But there were also the surprises that were hiding in the future; the films, performances and stories that were not on anyone’s radar yet, just waiting to be discovered. All of that combined to make 2023 a special and unique year in movies all its own.

So here in no particular order, other than alphabetical, are the top ten films of 2023, as well as a baker’s dozen of honorable mentions. At this level, trying to quantify each film becomes problematic in that one can be often trying to judge unalike things against each other. Is a bubbly comedy with strong feminist themes the same as a dark journey through anxiety and nightmares? Is one biopic better than the other because of the way they each go about examining their subject? All of these movies are on this list for succeeding in how they go about their stories on their own terms, not how they do so compared to another film that goes about it in a different way. All are worth your time and attention. Enjoy.

American Fiction

American Fiction Jeffrey Wright
Image via Orion

Journalist-turned-filmmaker Cord Jefferson’s debut feature American Fiction is at various times a hilarious, insightful and often scathing look at black stereotypes in modern culture and how and why they get perpetuated. A wryly funny critique of the entertainment industry balanced with an emotional story of a man coming to grips with his changing family dynamic, American Fiction is one of the best first features seen in more than just this past year. Jeffrey Wright’s performance here as the frustrated novelist Monk is a career highlight and a bit of a revelation. Outside of his appearances in recent Wes Anderson films, Wright has not had the chance to really demonstrate some comedy chops. Monk is a complex character and Wright navigates the distances between his intellectually acerbic and emotionally fragile sides with ease. And where some comedic actors may be tempted to go big for certain reactions for the laugh, Wright often goes small, giving just barely registered expressions of disbelief and disgust to what he is seeing going on in the publishing world while Jefferson’s crackling sarcasm is a perfect fit for Wright’s cool delivery.

Barbie

Barbie
Image via Warner Brothers

Over the years, Mattel’s Barbie fashion doll has been both lionized as aspirational and vilified as unobtainable as a role model for young girls. Director Greta Gerwig, working in tandem with fellow co-writer Noah Baumbach, manages to address both sides of the doll’s place in pop culture in a film that is equal parts hilarious, thoughtful, fun and feminist manifesto. Margot Robbie stars as the titular doll who finds her way from Barbieland to the real world and discovers that things aren’t as always as easy for women there than they are for her.

Beau Is Afraid

Beau Is Afraid
Image via A24

Every year, there are some films that are met with universal acclaim, and there are some that seem to split critics and audiences right down the middle. Beau Is Afraid is one of those movies, and I fall on this side that sees it as a work of mad genius. Joaquin Phoenix stars at the titular Beau, whose simple attempt to travel to visit his mother but finds himself on an incredible and increasingly surreal journey. Writer/director Ari Aster most ambitious work to date, it starts off with a feeling of anxiety that slowly builds to an absolutely nightmare.Certainly not for everyone’s taste, but even if you find yourself not connecting with the film, it is worth a watch if only to see filmmaking both audacious and assured in equal measure.

The Boy And The Heron

The Boy And The Heron
Image via Toho/GKids

Whenever iconic Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki gifts us with a new feature film, it is a good year, and his latest The Boy And The Heron stands tall among his best work. To be sure, this film does echo some of the themes he has explored in the past – Miyazaki loves a good coming of age story – and this one has certain elements of autobiography mixed in to create one of his most complex protagonists in Mahito, the post-war Japanese boy he accidentally finds himself in a magical realm where he can come to terms with his mother’s death. Will it be, as he has said, his final film? Well, rumors have it that retirement has not yet started for him and that he is back to work on a new project. Time will tell, but a new film from the master will always be welcome.

Ferrari

Ferrari Adam Driver
Image via Neon

Biopics come in two varieties – Those which try to depict a wide swath of its subject life, a la this year’s Priscilla, and those which focus in on a narrow time of that subject’s life. Ferrari is the latter, examining the multi-facted sports car designer at a time in his life when his fortunes hung precariously between success and failure. Adam Driver gives a bravura performance as Enzo Ferrari, a man whose passion for auto racing collides with his passion for women, almost destroying his business and his private life. Mann focuses in on Ferrari and his team as they prepare for a race that will either make or break their company, giving balance to the human drama as well as the visceral action of the car racing scenes. (And one exceedingly gnarly accident.) Penelope Cruz deserves some special attention for her performance as Enzo’s long-suffering wife Laura.

Godzilla Minus One

Godzilla Minus One
Image via Toho

Godzilla movies are often a fun time, visceral thrills of giant monsters duking it out, knocking down people and sending the puny humans underfoot fleeing for the lives. But Godzilla Minus One director Takashi Yamazaki remembers that the franchise was launched by Ishirô Honda in 1954 was more about the characters with the big G standing in for the horror of atomic warfare. Yamazaki’s film focuses on the trauma amongst Japanese civilians following World War Two, not just the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but those who made it through the fire bombing of Tokyo and the Japanese military’s attempt to use them as human cannon fodder. It is a story about dealing with trauma and post-traumatic stress and about serving your fellow countrymen, but not necessarily your country. Oh yeah, and Godzilla is in it as well. Great monster action perfectly balanced with real and raw human stories. The best Godzilla film since the very first.

The Holdovers

Holdovers Paul Giamatti
Image via Focus Features.

Christmas is a time of family and fellowship, friends and loved ones gathering together to celebrate the season. But for some, who may not have family and friends to gather with it is a time of anything but. Director Alexander Payne’s latest film, The Holdovers, takes three characters who have no one to spend the holidays with and puts them together in a bittersweet and often scathingly funny film.Paul Giamatti, reuniting with director Payne for the first time since 2004’s Sideways for which he won Best Actor at the Independent Spirit Awards, is turning in a performance of a lifetime here. To be fair, the actor has made a career out of playing sarcastic, misanthropic characters. But here, Payne, and a screenplay from former sitcom scribe David Hemingson, gives Giamatti some great dialogue, great moments and a great reasoning as to why Hunham is the way he is. And Giamatti makes the most of the opportunities. But for as great as Giamatti is, Da’Vine Joy Randolph and newcomer Dominic Sessa holds their own in every scene they are opposite Giamatti, which for Sessa, is a good portion of the film.

Poor Things

Poor Things
Image via Searchlight Pictures

While it seems as if no two films from director Yorgos Lanthimos look the same, there is no mistaking one of his films for the work of any another director. And the imaginatively styled Poor Things is no exception. It is hard to even briefly synopsize the film without giving away a number of surprises. Suffice it to say that Willem DaFoe and Mark Ruffalo turn in delightfully oddball and wonderful performances, but it is Emma Stone’s performance that stands out here. Her second collaboration with Lanthimos, Stone gives performance contains a fearlessness and depth not seen in nearly any other performance this past year.

Priscilla

Priscilla
Image via A24

It could be glib to say that Priscilla is a movie based on the concept of never meeting one’s heroes. But it is hard to escape that old aphorism in director Sophia Coppola’s biographical essay about the young girl who became wife to the biggest rock star in the world. To be sure, the film is based on Presley’s own memoir, Elvis And Me, and as she serves as an excutive producer on the project, it will be coming at its subject from a certain point of view. But it’s Cailee Spaeny’s performance here that draws one in, showing us the wide-eyed wonderment of a teenage girl who finds herself the subject of attention from one of the most famous men on the planet to a woman on the verge of thirty, knowing that she has to leave her husband. It’s a bravura performance from the relative newcomer, and one of the best in a year that has seen a number of great female performances.

Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse

Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse
Image via Sony

Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse, the sequel to 2018’s animated superhero hit Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, takes what was established in the first film and extrapolates its out to a film that feels bigger than its progenitor while never losing sight of the heart of what made the first film so good. Visually, the film pushes Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse‘s animation innovations even further. We see a logical expansion of the conceit from the first film where the various Spider-heroes who visited lead character Miles Morales’s world had a distinct character design and animation that marked them from separate alternate-Earths. The action setpieces are an equal step up in terms of staging and fluidity. This new film has bags of style, as well as the heart to go along with it. If ever there was an element to any Spider-Man story it is about the character struggling with themselves, and that is something this film does in spades.

Honorable Mentions

Against All Enemies, All Of Us Strangers, Anatomy Of A Fall, The Color Purple, Killers Of The Flower Moon, Maestro, May December, Nimona, Oppenheimer, Past Lives, The Promised Land, Rustin, The Teacher’s Lounge

The animated Robot Dreams, the chilling documentary Against All Enemies and the twisty Coen Brothers-esque dark comedy LaRoy would have all been strong contenders for this year’s Best Of list except for the fact that they both were only available on the festival circuit and not via any kind of regular theatrical release. But as they should be going into a more general release in 2024, maybe consider this a possible preview of what to expect on next year’s Best Of list.

Avatar für Rich Drees
About Rich Drees 7174 Articles
A film fan since he first saw that Rebel Blockade Runner fleeing the massive Imperial Star Destroyer at the tender age of 8 and a veteran freelance journalist with twenty-five years experience writing about film and pop culture. He is a member of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle.
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LeAnne
LeAnne
February 2, 2024 5:22 pm

Enjoyed reading your list! Our only crossover Top 10’s are Poor Things and American Fiction – https://tinseltine.com/best-worst-movies-of-2023-top-10-list/