The Best of Film in 2023
The first thing that you'll notice as I begin my annual journey through the best films and performances of 2023 is that my list is largely devoid of awards season darlings like Killers of the Flower Moon and Oppenheimer. It's not that I hated those films. I didn't. It's just that I don't truly believe they represent the best of this past year. They are good films in a year that offered moments of true cinematic greatness.
If you've been following my reviews for any length of time, then you already know that I emphasize films with a more independent spirit. Indeed, I'm much more a fan of the Independent Spirit Awards than the Academy Awards, though it's not beyond me to dig even deeper into what it means to be a true indie than even the fine folks at Film Independent.
As a proud member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association, I often laugh that my list varies greatly from what I submit for that organization. While I'm always fiercely proud of our IFJA list and our relentless boldness, I'm limited to those films either released in Indiana or offered to IFJA for screening. That eliminates, unfortunately, many of the indies that cross my desk throughout the year that will likely never see a theatrical screening in Indiana despite the state's growing number of arthouse screens.
I don't and won't argue over my rankings. You'll agree with some. You'll disagree with others. Other times, you'll simply shrug your shoulders and say "I've never even heard of it." So be it. This is my experience of the year's best in film, film performances, and various other sub-categories that amuse me. I hope you enjoy and I hope sometime in 2024 I'll see you at the movies.
The Independent Critic
The Top 10 Films of 2023
#10: Are You there God? It's Me, Margaret
Kelly Fremon Craig's adaptation of Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret is sublime family cinema. It's seldom done better and I'm actually upset that the film didn't do better box-office and has barely been mentioned during awards season. Craig manages to capture the essence of everything that we've loved about this story throughout the years. Everything is pitch-perfect here. Abby Ryder Fortson is perfectly cast as Margaret and Rachel McAdams gives a career-defining performance in what has been a pretty magnificent career. Kathy Bates reminds us that she's one of Hollywood's true greats. We all cringed when we heard that this Judy Blume classic was being adapted for screen. We could have never guessed just how wonderful it would be. You can keep Killers of the Flower Moon for me - this is the film I have no doubt I'll go back to again and again and again.
#9: John Wick: Chapter 4
I noted that Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret is sublime family cinema. It seldom gets better. The same is true for John Wick: Chapter 4, an action film that is practically perfect in every way. Truthfully, I was ready to be done with John Wick after the third film. When the fourth was announced, I scoffed warily. Chad Stahelski delivered a damn near masterpiece, a symphony of masterfully orchestrated violence that is perfectly choreographed and extraordinary in every way. You may not like action flicks - so be it. I mean, heck, I'm a pacifist and John Wick: Chapter 4 is filled to the brim with violence. However, everything matters here including the characters. We all love Keanu Reeves and in some weird way John Wick: Chapter 4 reminds us why.
#8: Beau is Afraid
Beau is Afraid is an imperfect film. It's a film I've been resisting putting in my top ten for the year, yet Beau is Afraid is also one of the films I've truly been unable to shake over the course of the year. I remember it. I feel it. I think director Ari Aster is correct - most people didn't really understand Beau is Afraid, , though I think he was likely misguided to think it had any chance at all of box-office success. Thankfully, there are brave actors like Joaquin Phoenix who worry more about artistic integrity than box-office success. This is one of 2023's best films and somewhere down the road we're all going to realize it.
#7: Earth Mama
I saw Earth Mama at Indy's Kan-Kan, a non-profit arthouse theatre that has become a Near-Eastside jewel. It's the perfect setting for this low-budget, earthy drama from first-time feature filmmaker Savannah Leaf. It's a compassionate film that depicts a care system stacked against poor American single mothers. Newcomer Tia Nomore is remarkable here. If you've ever wanted to see cinematic poetry, this is it. This wasn't always an easy watch, however, it was for all the right reasons. Truthfully, I couldn't stop watching it.
Almost every year, an indie gem comes out of nowhere to snag a spot in my top ten. It's a film that's not been on anyone's radar. It's usually a film that was submitted for review and I'm nearly always surprised it hasn't gone on to greater fame. This year's entry is my #6 film, Natalia, a feature documentary about a young woman residing within the walls of the rural Ohio Byzantine Catholic monastery where she is discerning the rest of her life.
#5: The Holdovers
Up to now, I have largely avoided Academy Award-nominated films. However, if I were to cite an actual "favorite" movie experience this year it would likely be Alexander Payne's The Holdovers, a Christmas-set film for the rest of us featuring one of Paul Giamatti's best performances to date. That's saying a lot. For most of my adult life, I claimed Philip Seymour Hoffman as my favorite actor with Giamatti following closely behind. A classically trained actor with ordinary joe cred, Giamatti has long been one of this generation's most dependable and gifted performers. He wrestles every nuance from a character and makes every film he does better. The same is true here. I can think of a myriad of performers who would have turned this into a caricature. Not Giamatti. He's simply too gifted for that. The result is absolutely one of 2023's best films and easily one of my favorite films and performances of the year.
#4: Poor Things
While the Indiana Film Journalists Association has eliminated gender-based performance awards, I'm somewhat relieved that the Academy has not given my deep passion for both Paul Giamatti and Emma Stone this year. Few performers take the risks that Emma Stone takes as an actress. Even fewer do so successfully. Don't get me wrong. Poor Things is a wonderful and one cannot minimize the brilliant direction of Yorgos Lanthimos. However, quite simply, Poor Things doesn't work without Emma Stone. Without a brilliant, brave, and intuitive central performance, Poor Things becomes simply another eccentric Lanthimos motion picture. Thanks to Stone and a terrific ensemble, it becomes one of 2023's absolutely best motion pictures.
#3: Past Lives
While most people lament the lack of a Best Director Oscar nod for Greta Gerwig, I lament the same for Celine Song's remarkably disciplined and genuine work with Past Lives. It's not often these days, especially after many years of being a critic, that I leave a theater completely blown away. This is precisely what happened with Past Lives, though it's not blown away in the way that we often think. Instead, this is a film that practically defines artistic integrity, narrative integrity, and character integrity. Love lingers in this film, though perhaps not in the way that we want it to but in the way it usually happens. This is a quiet romantic comedy grounded in truth - actual laughs are few and yet I felt lighter and happier after the film. Every note is perfect. While Poor Things largely succeeds because of Emma Stone, Past Lives is a Celine Song film.
#2: Menus-Plaisirs Les Troisgros
Yes, amidst the Oppenheimers and Killers of the Flower Moons of the world, I am giving my #2 spot this year to a just shy of four-hour feature documentary from critically acclaimed documentarian Frederick Wiseman. I'm not a fine dining kind of guy. To quote a certain country singer, my typical splurge is something along the lines of fancy like Applebee's. Yet, I found myself relentlessly enthralled by Menus-Plaisirs Les Troisgros, an immersive journey into this three-star Michelin restaurant quite literally from farm to table. I seldom say this after a four-hour film, but I would easily sit down and watch this again. And again.
It is perhaps a tad unfair to select a #1 film that a good majority of America, unfortunately, has not seen. Alas, life is unfair and I can't deny that Bas Devos' Here has stayed with me like no other film in 2023. Winner of the Encounters Award and FIPRESCI Prize at Berlinale, Here is accurately described as a work of "contagious humanism." Filmed in Brussels by writer/director Devos, Here is uncommonly compassionate and brilliant in every way. It will not win the Academy Award for best picture or best international feature - it is, without question, the best of both.
Honorable Mention Selections
I truly have great difficulty ranking films. There are inevitably films I leave out for one reason or another. However, I consider them truly astounding films. These are my honorable mention selections for 2023 listed in alphabetical order:
- All of Us Strangers
- Asteroid City
- Do Not Expect Too Much From the End of the World
- Evil Does Not Exist
- Godzilla Minus One
- Hit Man
- Rye Lane
- Showing Up
- The Iron Claw
- The Zone of Interest
Best Performances of the Year - Lead
- Leonie Benesch, The Teachers' Lounge
- Colman Domingo, Rustin
- Paul Giamatti, The Holdovers
- Lily Gladstone, Killers of the Flower Moon
- Greta Lee, Past Lives
- Carey Mulligan, Maestro
- Tia Nomore, Earth Mama
- Joaquin Phoenix, Beau is Afraid
- Andrew Scott, All of Us Strangers
- Emma Stone, Poor Things
- Nicolas Cage, Dream Scenario
- Abby Ryder Fortson, Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret
- Cillian Murphy, Oppenheimer
- Gael Garcia Bernal, Cassandro
- Teyana Taylor, A Thousand and One
Best Performances of the Year - Supporting
- Danielle Brooks, The Color Purple
- Colman Domingo, The Color Purple
- Robert Downey Jr., Oppenheimer
- Noah Galvin, Theater Camp
- Ryan Gosling, Barbie
- Glenn Howerton, Blackberry
- Rachel McAdams, Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret
- Charles Melton, May December
- Da'Vine Joy Randolph, The Holdovers
- Mark Ruffalo, Poor Things
- Josiah Cross, A Thousand and One
- Willem Dafoe, Poor Things
- Alden Ehrenreich, Fair Play
- Dominic Sessa, The Holdovers
- Ben Whishaw, Passages