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Top 10 Best Films of 2023

December 31, 2023
Hunter Friesen
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If you could use one word to describe this list, it would be “predictable.” That word comes with both positive and negative connotations. On the bright side, it means that several of the films that had high places in my Most Anticipated of 2023 list from the beginning of the year were able to meet, or even exceed, my expectations. That also means there were fewer surprises, movies that were true hidden gems just waiting for me to discover them. I can’t see every movie in the year it is released, so I’m sure something will come out of nowhere down the road.

And please don’t assume that I think 2023 was a bad year for movies, as that couldn’t be further from the truth. Anyone who says that a certain year was a bad year for movies clearly hasn’t seen enough. Some years are better than others, but none are ever bad if you dig deep. I’ll admit as a caveat this was a pretty bad year for the blockbusters that have come to dominate the multiplex this past decade, many of which took up several spots in my Worst of 2023 list. But if you ventured to the back of the multiplex, your local arthouse theater (assuming it’s still standing after the pandemic), or beyond the attention-grabbing titles on streaming, you’d be exposed to some truly great stuff.

2023 turned out to be the best year for movies since I started taking this site seriously, with a record number of 60 positive reviews (>=3.5 stars) being written. But I can’t (and don’t want to) talk about all 60 movies I thought were good, I want to talk about the 10 I thought were the best, plus 5 honorable mentions for good measure. Without further ado, join me as I recount the works of art (not content) that left the biggest impression on me as a cinephile.

Honorable Mentions

10. Monster

Hirokazu Kore-eda makes his third consecutive appearance on this list following The Truth in 2020 and Broker in 2022. The Japanese writer/director has always found the most tender ways to navigate the moral quandaries that often surround us. Deferring his writing credit for the first time in decades, Kore-eda brings Rashomon into the modern age with Monster, a movie that is both more gentle and deadly than its title implies.

The script comes from Yûji Sakamoto, with that separation of duty not turning out to be a bug as the pair craft an endearing story about differing perspectives and the misconceptions we surround ourselves with. Legendary composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, who tragically passed away earlier this year, delivers one of his best works through his fluttery piano.

9. The Taste of Things

There’s little drama or stakes within The Taste of Things, which is one of its best features. There are plenty of movies (Burnt) and television shows (The Bear) that showcase the anxiety-inducing highwire act that cooking can be. There is great skill under pressure here, but writer/director Tran Anh Hung is more interested in the slowly drawn method and how it all comes together when you are comfortable in your element. Time seems to stand still, your body and mind totally connected as one. It’s like a conductor guiding a symphony, every note being hit perfectly with reassuring calmness.

There continues to be a need for stories that reflect the increasing bleakness of this world. But that means there’s more room for projects that remind us of the beauty in the timeless things we all experience and often take for granted. The Taste of Things is one of those films as it illustrates both the simplicity and complexity of sustaining ourselves through food. Just make sure to plan your meals carefully before and after seeing it. You owe your stomach (and other senses) that much. Full Review

8. The Holdovers

Between its retro production titles, popping sound, dissolved editing, and grainy cinematography, Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers is not just a film that is set in 1970, it looks and feels like it was made during that time. The Omaha-born writer/director (only directing in this outing) returns from a six-year hiatus after the disappointing Downsizing, delivering one of his best films through a great story and equally great characters.

This is a Christmas classic for adults. It's a melancholic film, with Payne knowing that the holidays are not full of yuletide cheer for everyone. But there are still seasons greetings to be had, just enough to make you want to be a better person and stay close to those that matter most. What more could you ask for in times like these? Full Review

7. Asteroid City

Asteroid City is Wes Anderson’s weirdest movie to date, always keeping your eyebrow in a raised position. While on their methodically placed tracks, each character veers off in different directions, exploring the fear of death, finding connections in a barren land, cutting through the messiness of life, and paying homage to those kitschy B-movies you grew up watching late at night on the public access channel.

At this point in his filmography, you’ve probably made up your mind about Anderson. I’m somewhat of an apologist, with those instantly recognizable production qualities and whimsical tones being music to my ears (and eyes). Asteroid City is another healthy dose of what I’ve come to love, with the bonus of seeing an auteur continue to find new ways to channel what they do best. Full Review

6. Killers of the Flower Moon

What is surprising about Killers of the Flower Moon is Scorsese’s ability to bring in the qualities of his lesser-known films, which is the capacity to take a step back and observe a culture. There’s a delicate balance between getting in the thick of the action and letting it wash over from a distance. For every street race and moment of shocking violence, there’s a chance to witness a piece of this land and its people. There are key moments where an Osage wedding or ceremonial tradition is recreated, shedding light on what’s ultimately at stake.

Excess is the name of the game within Scorsese’s filmography, and Killers of the Flower Moon has that in spades. But it’s not the flashy kind of excess that we’re used to seeing, it’s an excess that overwhelms your soul just as much as your senses. As the debate over what is and isn’t cinema rages on (and I pray to God it ends soon), let this be a clear illustration of what it can be: something powerful enough to enrapture you in the present and pleasantly linger with you long into the future. Full Review

5. Napoleon

With his vast historical drama background that includes the likes of The Duellists, Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, and The Last Duel, director Ridley Scott knows a thing or two about setting the stage for global conflicts. Even at the age of 85, he’s never taken a moment to slow down, crafting projects that seem to only get bigger the older he gets. It’s no surprise that both he and fellow octogenarian director Martin Scorsese (Killers of the Flower Moon) have found themselves at Apple with their latest historical dramas, the streaming giant plunking down $200 million for each project. While it may not have been the wisest financial decision, it was a fortuitous one for the art of epic filmmaking.

The world still properly bemoans what could have been had Stanley Kubrick been allowed to make his Napoleon biopic. There are surely semblances of it in Scott’s film, which continues his string of blockbusters propelled by smart filmmaking and collaborative artistry. It’s timely and timeless in its craft and examination of history, ready to raise the bar just that much higher for later entries in the genre. Full Review

4. Maestro

“A work of art does not answer questions, it provokes them; and its essential meaning is in the tension between the contradictory answers.”

This quote by Leonard Bernstein flashes before Maestro commences. It’s a mission statement for writer/director/producer/star Bradley Cooper, who’s made it his life’s work to bring this story to the silver screen. It’s a warning to any Bernstein acolytes who come to this seeking untold answers about the famed conductor’s artistry. And it’s also a blessing to anyone bemoaning another musician biopic, the likes of which have haunted our multiplexes the past few years with their cookie-cutter rise-and-fall stories.

For something that has and will continue to be labeled as “Oscar bait,” Maestro is, more than anything, a confidently unique entry in a well-worn genre. It makes A Star Is Born seem like only the appetizer, and this is the main course. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to label Cooper as this generation’s Warren Beatty: a movie star interested in grown-up stories whose oversized ambition is matched by their incredible skill both in front and behind the camera. If there’s anything modern cinema needs more of right now, it’s someone like that. Full Review

3. The Killer

The Killer is a descent into bloody madness told by a director in complete control of their craft. Every frame is perfectly lit, every cut perfectly placed and executed, and every piece of sound is perfectly engineered to rattle your bones. It’s a pulpy uncomplicated story about revenge being a dish best served cold. For anyone who enjoys the Hitman video game series and laments the two laughably bad movie adaptations, this is the answer to all your prayers.

This is Fincher at his most surface level, playfully cutting loose from ambition and delivering his best film to date (yeah, I said it). Don’t expect to learn any life lessons, or have your perspective changed on an issue. Just sit back and be entertained. There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing a straightforward process being executed with pinpoint precision, and both our protagonist and Fincher accomplish their mission to outstanding results. Full Review

2. The Zone of Interest

There isn’t a single moment in The Zone of Interest that takes place within Auschwitz, but its presence is always felt. The family will be sunbathing in the garden when a faint gunshot goes off on the other side of the wall. Both you and the characters know what that sound means, but only you care about the implications of it. For the family, those gunshots are just as much a part of everyday life as the birds chirping in the trees above. They go about their daily lives without a hitch, leaving you stranded in the fear of your imagination.

Sickening in the most calculated way possible, The Zone of Interest is Jonathan Glazer's ode to Stanley Kubrick. He answers the question of how evil can exist unchecked, holding all of your senses in a sterilized vice. Be sure to soak it all in during your first watch, because I doubt you'll ever want to view the world this way again. Full Review

1. Oppenheimer

Christopher Nolan cited Oliver Stone’s 1991 masterpiece JFK as one of his main inspirations when adapting this material. He drops you into the middle of the action from frame one and keeps you there. Separate timelines begin to form, each folding into each other with increasing frequency. There’s the future besmirching of Oppenheimer’s legacy; the prideful past where we see his rise; and the roaring present where he must develop the atomic bomb before the Nazis. Similar to Dunkirk, Nolan, and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema define these periods through the imagery. Whether it’s in bright color or stark black-and-white, what you’re seeing is always a work of beauty. Never has IMAX been used to capture the small moments with as much gravitas as the climatic detonation.

Oppenheimer is as entertaining as it is enlightening, emboldened by Nolan’s unparalleled vision and craftsmanship. It’s possibly his magnum opus, grabbing hold of history with fiery conviction, never letting you go until you’ve experienced all that cinema has to offer. Full Review

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