The Best Films of 2023

While 2023 will forever be known as the year that celebrated Barbenheimer, it's also the year that the film community survived two different strikes, one involving screenwriters and the other for actors. Several highly anticipated releases (Dune Part 2!) were delayed as the world waited (im)patiently for these disputes to be resolved. Still, according to Letterboxd, 35,607 movies came out in 2023, a significant uptick from how many came out last year at this time. Film critics were given an abundance of choices to watch this year – something for everyone.

My top films list combines blockbusters, international films, and indie darlings, making for an interesting mix of the epic and the spare. Technique inspires awe, but I place more importance on the experience I had while watching the movie. When you see as many movies as I do, it takes a lot to surprise and delight me, so when a movie manages to offer something new, that counts for a lot. I also want to feel something and get swept away in a grand story.

My ranked list goes from #10-#1, with four honorable mentions at the end. Thanks for reading!

A woman holds a girl by the shoulders in a lingerie department
[L-R] Rachel McAdams as BARBARA, Abby Ryder Fortson as MARGARET in ARE YOU THERE GOD, IT'S ME, MARGARET

10. Are you There God? It's Me, Margaret, directed by Kelly Freon Craig (Lionsgate)

This utterly delightful adaptation of the iconic Judy Blume novel put a giant dumb grin on my face the whole movie. Book adaptations often fail to impress this librarian – especially ones made for youth. They often come out chintzy, but Kelly Freon Craig manages to channel just the right blend to make it all believable. My tastes usually lean towards films with a bleak and moody tone, but somehow this wholesome and feel-good slice of tween angst penetrated my melancholy heart.

Abby Ryder Fortson hits just the right mix of affects in her performance. She's wide-eyed, cunning, confused, terrified, brave, sweet, and beguiling. Benny Safdie and Rachel McAdams are the dream parents of the millennium. Also Margaret's friends are so darn cute. Think of watching this movie as the equivalent of indulging in a Jane Austen movie that both tweens and adults can enjoy. Margaret's concerns remain central, but the adults in her life have their own challenges, too.

Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret is streaming now on STARZ

A man helps a woman out of a vehicle in the 1920s
Leonardo DiCaprio as ERNEST, Lily Gladstone as MOLLIE in KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON

9. Killers of the Flower Moon, directed by Martin Scorsese (Apple TV+/Paramount Pictures)

Martin Scorsese throws all of his weight in adapting David Grann's immensely popular true crime book, Killers of the Flower Moon. This type of story fits nicely into the director's wheelhouse: communities in tumult, rampant crime, morally ambiguous characters, and power struggles. The story chronicles the time period known as The Reign of Terror in the 1920s, when the Osage people, flush with wealth from the reserves of oil on their land, become targets for violence and victims of unsolved murders.

Scorsese knows how to craft a full experience that engulfs the viewer in a web of intrigue and vice. Of course, he manages to pack the picture with compelling and complicated characters. Killers of the Flower Moon walks the line between the frenetic energy of Goodfellas/The Departed and the contemplative meditation of Silence. While not a happy or easy film to watch, the story chronicles a troubling part of American history that needs and deserves to be told. My original review can be read here

Killers of the Flower Moon is still in some theaters and available to rent. It's expected to be streaming on Apple TV Plus in early 2024.

A man kneels in the snow next to a pipeline

8. How to Blow Up a Pipeline, directed by Daniel Goldhaber (NEON)

How to Blow Up a Pipeline is a nail-biting heist film boosted by a powerful message and the performances of the cast. It's all good to muse about the effects of oil on the environment in theory but another to come face-to-face with people impacted by those effects. Each person of the crew has different reasons for taking action, but they unite as a team to inflict damage on the titular pipeline. We learn their back stories throughout, of course leaving the most illuminating for the last act.

If movies are places to engage with new ideas, this delivers in spades and gives you something to consider. A riveting film with questions and no answers, It's a bold statement on the line between terrorism and self-defense, and believing you are the hero of your own story. My original review.  

How to Blow Up a Pipeline is on Hulu.

A girl in pajamas stands next to a dog
Lucrecia Niron Talazac as VICKY in WHEN EVIL LURKS

7. When Evil Lurks, directed by Demián Rugna (Shudder/IFC) [Spanish language]

Every year, (at least) one horror shocks me to my core with its bold vision. When Evil Lurks dares to go where so few filmmakers do. In an alternate Argentina, possessed beings are so prevalent that there is a vocation for people who properly exorcize them, known as a Cleaner.

When a Cleaner sent to exorcize a local farmer is murdered, two brothers set out to do what must be done, resulting in a gruesome and grisly road trip movie. The director and cinematographer show their knowledge of the genre by expertly employing the concept of show/don't show. Most of the violence happens off screen, forcing the main characters and us to crane our necks trying to see what's going on. The violence happens under a table, through a door, off to the side. It's a masterful stroke that makes the payoff hit that much harder.

A new-to-me director, Rugna bravely addresses pesticides, poverty, and bureaucratic apathy in one macabre possession story.

When Evil Lurks can be streamed on Shudder.

A woman looks out a window and sees a kaiju

6. Godzilla Minus One, directed by Takashi Yamazaki (Toho Co.) [Japanese language]

The first Japanese language Godzilla movie in seven years breathes a refreshing dose of kaiju breath onto the franchise, reminding everyone who the true proprietors of Godzilla are.

Takashi Yamazaki breaks protocol slightly to start the movie at the end of the war, rather than in a post-war Japan. All the components of a Godzilla movie are there, with a devastating incident, an angst-ridden hero, complicated relationship dynamics, a failed retaliation, and a nerdy scientist with a plan, delivered in a top secret boardroom. Yet somehow, this Godzilla feels more grand and devastating.

Perhaps because we all just saw Oppenheimer and were reminded what Godzilla truly is, perhaps because Kamiki Ryunosuke gives such a heartbreaking performance as Koichi, the ex-kamikaze pilot riddled with shame, perhaps because the last few Godzilla movies have been made by Europeans who have stripped Godzilla of much of his connection to his home country of Japan. Or perhaps because Godzilla Minus One takes Godzilla back to his origin point as a no nuance force of nature. No one is bonding with Godzilla or thinking "he's not so bad."

With great acting, action, special effects, and tear-worthy moments that the characters earn, Godzilla is a must see for any action movie fan.

A woman dressed in black sits in the center of many women dressed in black
Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor as ISABEL in ORIGIN

5. Origin, directed by Ava DuVernay (NEON)

While not the "best" or "most entertaining" film of the year, this might be one of the most important films as far as potential for impact. Ava DuVernay adapts Isabel Wilkerson's Caste: The Origins of our Discontents into a narrative feature. During a difficult season of loss and change in her life, Isabel Wilkerson researches and writes what will eventually become her second award-winning nonfiction (The Warmth of Other Suns was the first). After the murder of Trayvon Martin, Isabel's agent approaches with audio tapes of the 911 call. Isabel's research leads her to find connections between the Martin murder, slave trade, the Holocaust, and India's social hierarchy.

Wilkerson wrestles with the personal demons in her life as she seeks to find the reason that systems of hate, prejudice, and violence continue to thrive in a "just" society. While many of the scenes are enactments of passages taken from her book, we also experience some of her own story. Gorgeous cinematography and a hard-hitting soundtrack help make the medicine go down easier. This movie takes bold steps to address things that really matter and could change our world right now, and that kind of boldness must be lauded. Look for the highlight moment when Wilkerson has her own run-in with someone she distrusts on looks alone – a repairman wearing a MAGA hat, played by Nick Offerman. As Wilkerson contends that the antidote to the poison of caste is to see each other as fellow humans, she must push herself to lay aside her own grievances to reach out to a white man she has been conditioned to hate. This scene alone almost drove me to tears.

Origin will be on Hulu on January 19, 2024.

Two men hang out in a biodome
[L-R] Sterling B. Brown as RAY, Mark Duplass as BILLY in BIOSPHERE

4. Biosphere, directed by Mel Eslyn (IFC)

By far the biggest surprise of the year, I guarantee you will never be able to predict the plot of this indie science fiction gem. Mark Duplass and Sterling K. Brown defy all tropes in this twofer that has no business being as good as it is. Childhood friends Billy (Duplass) and Ray (Brown) survive in a self-sustaining biodome after a global apocalypse. But when part of their food supply suffers a devastating loss, an unforeseen chain of events opens up new possibilities for these best friends.

This buddy comedy bursts with joy, hope, and fun pop culture references. As far as I'm concerned, Mark Duplass is one of those filmmakers that can do no wrong. And Sterling K. Brown manages to keep up with Duplass' signature zing. Buckle up for a truly unique ride into the future.

Biosphere is currently on AMC+

Two men wear coats outside on a snowy day
[L-R] Dominic Sessa as ANGUS, Paul Giamatti as PAUL in THE HOLDOVERS

3. The Holdovers, directed by Alexander Payne (Focus Features)

A spiritual successor to Dead Poets Society, The Holdovers is a warm-hearted coming-of age story, starring Paul Giamatti, Dominic Sessa, and Da'Vine Joy Randolph.

Grouchy teacher Paul Hunham gets handpicked to chaperone the boarding school kids who can't go home for the holidays, including Angus Tully, a brilliant but troubled young man whose mother has just remarried. While the rest of the students eventually get picked up for a ski vacation, Angus is eventually left with only Mr. Hunham and Mary, the school's cook. The three eventually bond and have a Christmas to remember. With cinematography, lighting, and logos that look ripped from the 1970s, The Holdovers is an instant holiday classic that will warm the heart and remind you of that one adult that changed the trajectory of our life. My original review

Two kids walking home from school take opposite paths
A still from PAST LIVES

2. Past Lives, directed by Celine Song (A24) (Korean and English)

This completely confident directorial debut from Celine Song tells the tale of childhood sweethearts reconnecting as adults. As kids, Hae Sung and Na Young competed for the best grades. But when Na's family moves away, the two soul mates that could have been take different paths in life. Now 24 years later, the two finally see each other face-to-face. When they come together, they talk about their past and the present, being careful to differentiate the two. Celine sets this surely biographically inspired story (she herself immigrated from Korea to Canada) in a dreamlike version of New York. Carefully constructed shots show the longing and distance between the in-Yun of Hae and Na.

Celine Song takes a refreshingly natural approach to telling this deeply moving story. Authentic and emotional without being sentimental or manipulative, Hae and Na's story manages to evoke our deepest wonder for what might have been.

People take photos of Robert Oppenheimer. He blocks their view with his hat.
Cillian Murphy as OPPENHEIMER 

1. Oppenheimer, directed by Christopher Nolan (Universal Pictures)

What else could it be except the film I saw four times in the theater? Filmed in IMAX 65 mm, both in color and black-and-white (developed specifically for Oppenheimer), Nolan's latest is a mammoth achievement. Like Tenet, it's less a narrative and more of a vehicle Nolan uses to ask viewers to wrestle with big ideas – in this case: power, responsibility, legacy, and consequences.

Based on American Prometheus by Kai Bird, incepted into the screenplay of Tenet in a scene between Priya and the protagonist, Oppenheimer reigns as the film of the year. Christopher Nolan knows how to craft larger-than-life worlds that become theatrical events. Los Alamos and the Trinity test will forever be the first thing I think of when the year 2023 gets mentioned. And I can't wait to see what Nolan does next. My original review. My discussion with Evan Cate about Oppenheimer

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order)

A man and woman stand close to one another in the desert
[L-R] Melissa Barrera as CARMEN, Paul Mescal as AIDAN in CARMEN

Carmen, directed by Benjamin Millepied (Sony Pictures Classics)

French dancer and choreographer Benjamin Millepied, who also choreographed Black Swan, directs a reimagined Carmen for contemporary audiences. This sumptuous feast for the eyes and ears features original music by the euphonious Nicolas Britell and choreography by professional flamenco dancer, Marina Tamayo (who also dances in the movie).

Carmen and Aidan begin as reluctant bedfellows but eventually they become companions and lovers. The two embark on a road trip through the dingy corners of desert Americana, where brushfires alight with no warning due to the heat and dry temperatures.

Rooted more in dreams than reality, Carmen is color and passion and youth and fury. Comparisons could be drawn between Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story, Rust and Bone, and Bones and All. Rooted in one of the most frequently performed operas ever made, inspired by gritty American musicals like West Side Story, and enriched by the iconography of both Western cinema and Romani cultures, Carmen is a sensory affair to remember. My original review

A man with a big grin on his face takes a selfie on a cliff
A still from THE MISSION

The Mission, directed by Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss (Picturehouse)

A thought-provoking documentary about the ill-fated mission of John Chau, who visited the Sentinelese Islands hoping to spread the Gospel.

The film uses a combination of animation (often the animation relays things written in Chau and his father's journal entries), found footage, and live interviews with a variety of individuals. Some of these people are personal connections of Chau, while others are people who made similar journeys. The co-directors curate a wide variety of opinions about Chau's actions.

No definitive statements are made, but it's clear that the filmmakers want to help us think deeply about mission work, and they use Chau as an example of how it can go wrong, despite all intentions. My discussion about The Mission with Andrew Sweatman

The Mission can be streamed on Disney Plus and Hulu

A group of kids gather on a stage
A still from THEATER CAMP

Theater Camp, directed by Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman (Searchlight)

Theater Camp is whip-smart and hilarious, with a touch of heart -- a joyful story of misfits who find a home away from home with one another. Almost a perfect match to School of Rock, Theater Camp offers a yuk a minute. My original review

Theater Camp can be streamed on Hulu.