Best of the Year: 2023

While 2023 at the movies had to deal with dual industry strikes, more studio mandated politics and the eye-rolly meme of Barbenheimer that sent people back to the theaters en mass, there was still a rich supply of creative work, a lot of it follow-up films from filmmakers previous recognized in Best of lists of year’s past. So without debating the fall of Hollywood or the death of superhero movies as is oh-so popular, the best movies of the year –

My true favorite performance of this year was not in the movies. It was actually Annaleigh Ashford’s dark, desperate, vaudevillian comic tour-de-force as Mrs. Lovett in the Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Ashford is the Lucille Ball of our generation and it was brilliant.

1) Beau is Afraid (Dir. Ari Aster)

Breaking, once again a virtual tie for my favorite of the year, I have to give it to Ari Aster’s high anxiety odyssey. I’ve simply never seen anything like it and am regularly at a lose for words to describe the perfect genre-blending. With a reputation for horror at his back, Aster crafts a big, bloated, indulgent, rule-breaking, endlessly inventive and exhausting experience that strides a line between comedy and existential horror in a way I have never felt before. Beau doesn’t move back and forth between the genres, it more shifts in the light, with each scene simultaneously viewed as a slapstick farce about a pathetic man (Joaquin Phoenix, unbeatable) and a surreal living nightmare about a cursed individual trapped in the cruel machine of life. Everything is after Beau to a hilariously absurd degree and the film manages to be beautiful, daring and absorbing all at once. Whether it is the funniest horror movie or the most disturbing comedy, it is an experience not easily forgotten.

2) Godzilla Minus One (Dir. Takashi Yamazaki)

A nearly-flawless genre movie that juggles the kaiju disaster movie and the post war psychodrama so effortlessly and with such earnestness it makes you wonder why Hollywood constantly fumbles this up. Consisting of two equally weighted stories, this time jump back to post-WW2 Japan follows a failed kamikaze pilot with survivor’s guilt just as a merciless Godzilla surfaces and invades the country. Apocalyptic doom hangs over it’s cast of colorful characters while the film interrogates the western trope of the disposable male, creates a lived-in history and makes Godzilla a formidable, frightening antagonist again. This is one of those movies that breaks out of it’s genre. It won’t just thrill Godzilla fans who have been dying for a just take on the icon for decades, but this is the kind of movie that makes people Godzilla fans.

3) Poor Things (Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)

A technical and creative masterwork, Yorgos Lanthimos’ adult fairy tale has enough sex to give fits to the generation that grew up on Christopher Nolan. Each new episode in the life of Frankenstein figure Bella’s journey to be a real girl is conceive with a screen-full of intricate details. Great performances inhabiting bizarre characters by all involved, but the incredible set design is the brightest star.

4) Oppenheimer (Dir. Christopher Nolan)

Speaking of, here’s the director who teaches Instagram how to make movies making an ambitious, uncompromising 3 hours R-rated period bio-pic about physics and does so in a way that keeps us white-knuckled the entire time. Part biography, part procedural and part Oliver Stone conspiracy thriller, Oppenheimer thrills with the bomb, but takes the story a step further into the epic, world-ending pandora’s box that it opened. This is the kind of movie that would be an ice-cold bore in the hands of someone else, that Nolan makes work through sheer filmmaking, combing every visual and sonic tool in the toolkit to bring it to cinematic life.

5) Infinity Pool (Dir. Brandon Cronenberg)

Alexander Skarsgard is first seduced and then horrified by horror-queen Mia Goth in Cronenberg’s wild sci-fi psycho-thriller that mixes the horror of finding yourself on the wrong end of the justice system in a foreign country and a Brunuelian class satire where the rich buy – or in this case, clone – their way out of trouble. Stunning, thoughtful and visceral, Brandon has become an increasingly impressive filmmaker and this is a wildly original work where afterward, I felt like I went on a real journey.

6) Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves (Dir. John Frances Daley & Jonathan Goldstein)

This. Right here. Is how you make an action/adventure genre movie in 2023. Dungeons & Dragons is shockingly good – very funny, with stand-out set pieces both comedy (the Python-esque graverobbing scene) and action (the shapeshifting escape scene) and a sincere focus on character. The script is sharp and as self-referential in the way Daley and Goldstein’s previous comedy Game Night was, Chris Pine’s devil-may-care performance fuels the film and it just hits all the right notes flawlessly.

7) Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (Dir. Joaquin Dos Santos, Kemp Powers & Justin K. Thompson)

The sequel to Into the Spider-verse and the animation style that is launching a thousand reboots, Across the Spiderverse is a sober, self-interrogating and thrilling continuation in what might be one of the most expertly handled studio trilogies to come along in the last decade. The film raises the stakes on Miles Morales and Gwen Stacey while delivering twists, turns, great gags and psychadelic visuals in the process.

8) Past Lives (Dir. Celine Strong)

A confident, beautifully crafted debut film that feels like it was made by adults for adults. The story of a childhood first love, broken up by a family move and life, reunited for a weekend in New York at very different points in their life. Great performances for the leads sell the film’s uncertain feeling out of the hazy grey areas of their feelings and situation, but ultimately Past Lives is a sweet platonic love story, an anti-rom-com, that knows where movies like this normally go and aggressively avoids that for turns more honest and real.

9) Talk to Me (Dir. Danny and Michael Philippou)

The year’s best horror movie creates a lived-in world where instead going to a house party, getting high and doing an internet challenge to put on social media, a group of teenagers use an embalmed hand to get possessed and talk to the dead (to put on social media). Slick, unique, clever and well done with one of the year’s best endings.

10) Nimona (Dir. Nick Bruno and Troy Quane)

Media manipulation and social & self acceptance are the evergreen themes of this beautifully animated Netflix film about a shape-shifting girl and a disgraced knight trying to bring down a crooked kingdom, but the fully-realized high-tech medieval future world the film creates is what pushes Nimona to heights of greatness.

11) Sick of Myself (Dir. Kristoffer Borgli)

A gen-Z narcissist goes to increasingly elaborate extremes to lie her way into everyone’s sympathies in this pointed Norwegian satire, lead by a fearless performance from Kristine Thorp.

12) The Royal Hotel (Dir. Kitty Green)

Green and actress Julia Garner reteam for this rich, lived-in tale of two world travelers who find themselves at the mercy of a colorful, and increasingly disturbing, group of bar patrons in the Australian outback. A simple story, very well-made with a theatrical bend that eschews genre trappings for more realistic take on their situation.

Honorable Mentions:

Scream VI, Blood & Gold, Sisu, Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part 1, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, Leave the World Behind, Megan, They Cloned Tyrone, Polite Society and Slotherhouse. 

Best 2022 Catch-Up Film

Babylon (Dir. Damien Chazelle)

Over the course of Chazelle’s 3 hour, exhaustive and excessive epic about 1920s Hollywood he goes from mocking the self-seriousness put on classic Hollywood to paying homage to the history of film itself, sending a hand-full of characters on a debaucherously over-the-top and occasionally scatological rise-and-fall with the film industry. This is Chazelle in Paul Thomas Anderson Boogie Nights mode, intercutting back and forth between the stories without taking a break, arranging large beautiful set-pieces, allowing his actors (particularly Margot Robbie) to chew the scenery and detailing the technical minutia of how sound changed the way movies were made from more free-wheeling experimentation to a regimented set of machine parts. It flies by at over 3 hours. I absolutely loved it.

Other Notes:

Ari Aster previously made the list in 2018 with Hereditary (#1)

Yorgos Lanthimos previously made the list in 2017 with The Killing of a Sacred Deer (#15)

John Frances Dailey and Jonathan Goldstein previously made the list in 2018 with Game Night (#5)

Brandon Cronenberg previously made the list in 2020 with Possessor (#10)

Kitty Green previously made the list in 2020 with The Assistant (#8)

 

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