The Top Ten Films of 2023
As 2023 comes to a close, it's once again time to reveal my list of the ten best films I saw this year, so let's dive right in...
10. Poor Things - Yorgos Lanthimos' latest is a bizarre, hypnotic trip that I had been a little mixed on story-wise when it came to a first impression, but the more I reflected on it and the dazzling visual feast it presented, the more it came together as a fascinating, sumptuous experience. It may have a weak narrative turn or two, but with its marvelous ensemble (which includes excellent performances from Emma Stone, Willem Dafoe, Mark Ruffalo, and Ramy Youssef), skilled direction, remarkable production design, and gorgeous cinematography, it more than makes up for them, making this an eye-popping adventure that you're not likely to forget anytime soon.
9. The Color Purple - Like many, I had been a bit skeptical about a new version of this classic story, let alone a musical rendition, but what a delight to find that this adaptation of Alice Walker's novel & the hit Broadway show is an absolute delight. This new telling features an excellent ensemble (Fantasia Barrino, Taraji P. Henson, Danielle Brooks, Colman Domingo, and many more), along with some pretty good music. It may come off a bit stagey at times, but it's a musical, and it's so handsomely mounted that chances are you won't notice, or simply won't care. This was simply a really nice year-end-surprise.
8. The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial - The final film of Oscar-winning director William Friedkin, which he adapted from the play by Herman Wouk, is a fantastic, captivating courtroom drama, centered almost entirely in one location (the courtroom, naturally), featuring a marvelous cast that includes Jason Clarke, Kiefer Sutherland, and the late Lance Reddick. This is the kind of film that just goes to show that, if you have a great script and a talented cast, you can make an outstanding & compelling film without any flashiness. Sadly it never received a much-deserved theatrical release (it streamed on Paramount+/Showtime instead), but it still easily makes the list of the year's best films.
7. Napoleon - Sir Ridley Scott's latest opus is a grand epic whose scope matches its subject. It may not delve particularly deep into the famed French emperor's life, but it hits most of the major points along the way without dwelling too long in one spot, effectively weaving together his military campaigns and his relationship with Josephine, and looking stunning while doing so. It's particularly impressive in that these two and a half hours never really seemed to drag, again likely due to it not lingering too long anywhere throughout. It's the kind of grand epic that we just don't see much of anymore, so when one this well made comes around, it's always a delight to see.
6. Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie - This is an extraordinary documentary that explores the incredible life & career of the beloved actor, diving into his amazing success in his major roles (Family Ties, Back to the Future, etc.), as well as his Parkinson's diagnosis and the effect it's had on it all. It's a beautifully done, intimate portrait that takes a very stark look at its subject, which ultimately makes for a riveting experience and the best documentary I had the pleasure of seeing this year.
5. The Holdovers - This is another one that took a bit of reflection. After I had finished watching it, I thought it had been a fine film, though perhaps lacking a bit in originality. However, the more I thought about it, the more I liked it, and the more I realized that I had really enjoyed spending time with this trio of fascinating characters as marvelously played by Paul Giamatti, Dominic Sessa, and Da'Vine Joy Randolph. Sure, the story of a young man getting left behind at school over the winter break, forcing him to spend the time with a teacher and one of the cooks, is a little simplistic, but screenwriter David Hemingson still manages to make it a sweet, emotionally-involving story that draws you into the lives of these three people. Some are already hailing it as a new Christmas classic, and they just might be right.
4. American Fiction - Another film that was a very intriguing surprise was this marvelous satire from first-time filmmaker Jefferson Cord. Starring the magnificent Jeffrey Wright, it tackles racial stereotypes in a very amusing way, while also managing to balance it tactfully with relationship & family drama. With a great cast that also includes Sterling K. Brown, Tracee Ellis Ross, and Erika Alexander, this is a delightful, sharply-written blending of genres that is often laugh-out-loud funny. It was this year's surprise winner of the People's Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, but once you see it, it's easy to see why it won, and why it will continue to rack up nominations as award season progresses.
3. Anatomy of a Fall - This year's Palme d'Or winner at the Cannes Film Festival is an intricately-constructed, riveting courtroom drama that keeps you guessing every step of the way. Featuring an excellent lead performance from Sandra Hüller, it tells the story of a wife who is put on trial for her husband's murder, with their young, visually-impaired son being the only other person in the vicinity at the time. As the trial unfolds, we try to determine if she did kill him, or if he committed suicide as she claims. With its outstanding writing, direction, and performances, this is another two and a half hours that flies by surprisingly fast, keeping you glued to the screen to see exactly how it all comes together in the end.
2. All of Us Strangers - There are few things more satisfying as a film critic than to go into a film not expecting very much, only to be completely blown away. Andrew Haigh's "All of Us Strangers" seemed like it was going to be just another relationship drama, but it ends up being far more than that. However, it also ends up being one of those films that works best knowing as little as possible going in, so to be purposely vague, I'll just say that it deals with trying to cope with past trauma while trying to forge ahead in the present. Featuring a phenomenal ensemble (Andrew Scott, Paul Mescal, Claire Foy, and Jamie Bell), it's a heartbreaking film about loss and acceptance that packs quite an unexpected emotional punch, leaving the film dwelling in your mind long after.
1. Oppenheimer - Who would've thought that any filmmaker on the planet could make a three-hour biopic about a nuclear scientist, one that most probably couldn't identify by name beforehand, and turn it into an intense, riveting epic that acts as a thriller, romance, mystery, history lesson, and courtroom drama? That's exactly what renowned writer/director Christopher Nolan has done with "Oppenheimer," a stunning exploration of the man dubbed "The Father of the Atomic Bomb." Utilizing the most remarkable ensemble of the year (Cillian Murphy, Robert Downey Jr, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Kenneth Branagh, Josh Hartnett, and many more), Nolan primarily takes us through three periods of J. Robert Oppenheimer's life: His early studies, his leading of The Manhattan Project, and the aftermath. With his brilliant screenplay, Nolan weaves these periods together (along with a fourth involving Downey Jr's character) to tell the story of a complicated individual, driven by patriotism, but also racked with guilt at what he unleashed upon the world. It is a staggering achievement of filmmaking, one that deserves just as much praise for its marvelous technical & design components (the direction, editing, cinematography, production design, costumes, sound) as it does for its writing & cast. In the end, this is the kind of extraordinary biopic that only Nolan could've put together, and it easily stands tall as the best film of 2023.
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