Undoubtedly, the year in film was defined by Barbenheimer, the simultaneous release of Barbie and Oppenheimer in the middle of the summer that generated almost a billion dollars at the box office in the US alone. Conversely, the months-long concurrent labor disputes between the writers and actors unions against the studios put Hollywood on standstill and delayed numerous productions. But a resolution was reached in early November and, through it all, the movies marched on. I watched just under 200 new releases in 2023; these are my 10 favorites:
- The Holdovers (streaming on Peacock and available to rent/buy)
Alexander Payne’s acerbic yet tender tale of a trio holed up at a New England boarding school for Christmas break is a new holiday classic. David Hemingson’s first feature script is filled with innumerable quotable lines and Payne’s directorial touches beautifully evoke the film’s early 1970s aesthetic. It wouldn’t surprise me if Paul Giamatti, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, and Dominic Sessa all score Oscar nominations later this month for their performances here.
- Fair Play (streaming on Netflix)
The most striking film debut of the year, this workplace thriller is almost unbearably tense at times but well worth the ride. Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich are magnificent as a newly engaged couple whose relationship implodes after one receives a promotion over the other at a ruthless hedge fund firm. Writer-director Chloe Domont paces her tale of ambition and passion breathlessly and announces herself as one of the best new filmmakers to watch in the coming years.
- Afire (streaming on The Criterion Channel and available to rent/buy)
Part of German director Christian Petzold’s series of movies loosely inspired by the classical elements, the follow-up to 2020’s Undine is a smoldering evocation of the insulated worlds writers create for themselves. What starts as a story of a pair of artists looking for inspiration during holiday at a house by the Baltic Sea turns into a bizarre love triangle. Thomas Schubert is brilliant as an author whose best work may be behind him but who may still have a spark of inspiration left somewhere inside him.
- The Iron Claw (now playing in theaters)
The tragic true story of the Von Erich family of wrestlers is told with strapping compassion and wrenching heartbreak by writer-director Sean Durkin. The fraternal bonds are deeply felt throughout, particularly in the electrifying performances by Zac Efron and Jeremy Allen White. I don’t typically have much of a soft spot for sports biopics but I was barely holding back tears by the time this film reached its cogent conclusion.
- Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse (streaming on Netflix and available to rent/buy)
Despite ending on a cliffhanger that won’t be concluded until next year at the earliest, this sequel to the Best Animated Feature Academy Award winner is somehow an improvement on its already stellar predecessor. Where Into introduced a new style of frenetic animated action, Across developed its palette even more with emotive watercolor sequences that are stunning in their expressivity. Who knows when Beyond will be released but Sony Animation has captured lightning in a bottle again with another web-slinging dynamo.
- All Of Us Strangers (now playing in theaters)
English filmmaker Andrew Haigh delivers another stunner with a powerful cathartic energy all its own. Andrew Scott is outstanding as a wayward screenwriter desperate for connection and finding it in imagined relationships that no less feel real to him. The soundtrack is filled with top-tier needle drops and the variegated cinematography by Jamie D. Ramsay bolsters the story’s warmth and intimacy.
- Dream Scenario (available to rent/buy)
Nicolas Cage finds another indie winner after 2021’s sublime Pig in this dark comedy that feels like a direct descendant of Spike Jonze classics Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. Writer-director Kristoffer Borgli’s clever take on viral fame and its inevitable backlash is both sneakily incisive and and caustically hilarious. Once again, Cage is the key to making this weird world — in which people around the world start inexplicably seeing his milquetoast character in their dreams — work.
- Poor Things (now playing in theaters)
Emma Stone turns in first-rate work in this cattywampus journey of sexual exploration and self-discovery that is bound to push buttons. Director Yorgos Lanthimos continues to let his freak flag fly with a steampunk Victorian rendering that’s both lavish and lascivious. The Favourite and The Great scribe Tony McNamara pens another witty winner with pithy exchanges and indelible insight into human nature.
- The Zone Of Interest (now playing in theaters)
Holocaust movies are never an easy watch but writer-director Jonathan Glazer finds a wholly new way to thoughtfully interrogate the atrocities of the period and those who committed them. Set in an idyllic family home of a Nazi commandant within earshot of Auschwitz, their everyday lives are faintly scored by the implied violence occurring outside of their fortified gardens. The banality of evil has never been so exquisitely examined on film before.
- Oppenheimer (available to rent/buy)
It may have been half of the Barbenheimer phenomenon but Christopher Nolan’s 3-hour biopic about the creator of the first atomic bomb was an unmissable event all its own. The finest ensemble cast of the year sported career-best turns from the likes of Cillian Murphy and Robert Downey Jr., with loads of other welcome faces along the way. Ludwig Göransson’s musical score is his most stirring work yet and the tireless efforts of editor Jennifer Lame tie this masterpiece about duty and betrayal together like no one else could.
Reprinted by permission of Whatzup