This was an especially good year at the movies.
Going through my list of films I’d wholeheartedly recommend I had many to choose amongst the year’s best, while also acknowledging that I still have well-reviewed titles to see (All Of Us Strangers, for example, a 2023 picture that’s getting a lot of critical love, is still unavailable in these parts). I have also written up a list of alternative 2023 picks, which you can read here.
Please click on the titles below to read my original reviews for these films.
This is a low-budget but very clever hard science fiction film. The filmmaker, Franklin Ritch, also writes and acts — shades of Shane Carruth and Primer — and maybe there’s an argument he shouldn’t have been directing if he was doing those other two things, but damn, the script is terrific and raises the entire project. With grace and insight it explores the questions that come up again and again in the best science fiction: what does it mean to be a human being, and is a machine alive if it shares those same qualities? (For rent on digital platforms)
The new Nicole Holofcener movie is one of the funniest of the year. It’s all about kindness masking deceit, where a New York writer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is shattered when she discovers her therapist husband (Tobias Menzies) doesn’t like her new book, despite having claimed he does. Through a lens of privilege the picture mines the exchanges where we bite our tongues to not discourage or upset the people around us. (For rent on digital platforms)
8. May December
Todd Haynes’ new film is a masterpiece of skin-crawling intensity — about a Hollywood actor (Natalie Portman) researching a part where she’ll be playing a woman (Julianne Moore) who, years before when she was 36, had an affair with a 13-year-old — who she later married (Charles Melton). Still together, they have kids about to graduate high school. A dramedy of discomfort, the film explores tabloid culture, power, and seduction — as someone says, “This is just what grownups do.” Melton and Portman are both sensational in their roles, but Moore, in the hardest part, is astonishing in her fearlessness. (Netflix)
7. The Mission
It’s rare for me to choose a documentary for my Top 10 list, which tends to be just about feature film storytelling. That’s at least partly because in an average year I see too few docs to feel like I’ve had any kind of representative take. This year I saw a passel of great ones — please see the shortlist further down on this post — and this was the most moving. The Mission delivers a thoughtful, complex story about a devout Christian in his 20s who chose to introduce his faith to one of the world’s last entirely isolated Indigenous peoples on an island off the coast of India, and was rewarded with death. The film explores the threads of colonialism in Western thought, and how this individual felt emboldened by his cause. It stayed with me for days after I saw it, and I’m so glad we screened it at Carbon Arc Cinema. (Hopefully coming to National Geographic on Disney+)
6. American Fiction
A first feature from Cord Jefferson, who’s had a stellar career in quality television, this is both a satire of the way Black creators are commodified in American media, while also being a touching family drama. The story of a writer (the excellent Jeffrey Wright) who, frustrated with the success of books by Black authors laced with stereotype, writes his own “Black Book” as a joke and finds he has a success on his hands. At the Toronto International Film Festival, Jefferson said the intent of his film wasn’t to point a finger at fellow Black creators but at the market that demands their work take a certain form. Bitingly funny. (Opening soon in cinemas, then coming to Amazon Prime)
Alexander Payne’s 1970s-set comedy-drama achieves a level of pathos that approaches the quality of the best films from the era it’s set, which is probably the highest compliment I can give it. Taking place at a Boston-area boy’s school, it tells its story over the two weeks of a Christmas holiday where a disliked teacher, a cafeteria manager, and a student unexpectedly bond over their life struggles. The film manages to be genuine about both its characters’ grief and their joy. (Still in cinemas)
We’ve had more than our fair share of movies that serve as the biography of a product — consider, for example, this year’s overrated yarn of the Canadian cellphone, Blackberry, or the underrated tale of the video game, Tetris. With Air, the story of how Nike changed sports by securing Michael Jordan’s endorsement didn’t seem worth making a movie about. And yet, somehow, the Oscar-winning screenwriting buddies Ben Affleck and Matt Damon delivered a movie that can be counted as one of their best. It’s surprisingly entertaining and frequently moving — even with its undeniably low stakes. (Amazon Prime)
3. Rye Lane
The finest and funniest romantic comedy in many a moon, this scrappy British movie largely set in Peckham and Brixton, South London, takes place over a day where two strangers, similarly heart-bruised and -broken, tie up loose ends in each others lives while potentially starting a new romance together. Fresh and unpredictable, this is a gem I’ll be rewatching for years to come. (Disney+)
I saw this at TIFF and it numbed the parts other films cannot reach. A holocaust film that uses the atrocities of 80 years ago to illustrate how people compartmentalize horror in their lives, and that empathy is a choice not innate in our species. Director Jonathan Glazer’s work has been favourably compared to Stanley Kubrick’s (even on this blog). To continue the juxtaposition, this is Glazer’s The Shining — the characters enclosed in their limited world, the horror often unseen or ignored just on the edge of their, and our, perception. (Opening soon in cinemas)
1. Past Lives
I’ll add my voice to the chorus of critics celebrating this debut from Celine Song, a playwright whose first film feels like it’s from someone who’s been directing for decades. Watching it a second time I was really impressed by the care given to shot selection, edits, and soundtrack, all building to an incredible third act channeling complex emotions so infrequently stoked in cinema. Past Lives is a curated collection of liminal moments, joyful and deeply melancholy. Put simply, it’s about the paths not taken in our lives. It’s an unforgettable film, and there wasn’t another this year that affected me like it did. (For rent on digital platforms)
2023 will be remembered for how Barbie changed the business in Hollywood. That it exists at all, and was a massive hit, is worth celebrating. I remember stepping out of the film and sorting through my ambivalent feelings about whether it was too obvious — but I had more conversations about Barbie than any other film this year and I loved all the takes it inspired, both the positive and negative, and the idea that boys and girls around the world connected with it: a plastic, doll-shaped Trojan horse of feminist thinking.
The two epics of white men’s sin that’ll be warring on Oscar Night are Oppenheimer and The Killers of the Flower Moon. Both are ambitious, impressive, and moving — important, must-see films, and both had a shot of making my Top 10 if this hadn’t been such a strong year otherwise. For the record, I enjoyed the Christopher Nolan film more — Oppenheimer upends the whole Second World War historical drama genre with pacing like a thriller, telling a complex story with literary and philosophical overtones. Nolan also chooses to trigger the emotional high point with the bomb at the end of the second act, leaving the third for the fascinating but comparatively less exciting revelation that one of the key players was the villain all along. The Killers of the Flower Moon is a showcase for Scorsese’s filmmaking gifts, his nuance and sensitivity telling the story of the murders in the 1930s on the Osage Nation, and especially directing Lily Gladstone’s amazing performance, but it should’ve been either a miniseries or an hour shorter.
The most impressive popcorn blockbuster of the year came from Japan, Godzilla Minus One, a monster movie set in the past with an affecting human story. The Killer is an ice-cold thriller shot like a procedural, and perhaps David Fincher’s funniest movie to date. I struggled with Brandon Cronenberg’s Infinity Pool, but its nightmarish visuals wouldn’t leave me. This may be recency bias, but I was completely engaged by the family tragedy of The Iron Claw, the automotive obsessions of Ferrari, the glorious excess of Saltburn, and Emma Stone’s startling performance in Poor Things, all quality December releases. Poor Things especially I’m still unpacking.
On the action front, John Wick: Chapter 4 brought that franchise to a satisfying conclusion — until we get the Ballerina spin-off in 2024 — but the most entertaining, off-the-hook film of its kind was Sisu from Finland.
A few films from TIFF 2023 that might’ve made it on this list include The Promised Land, Woman of the Hour, and Shoshana, but they’re really 2024 releases. Look for them in the new year.
Finally, a couple outright stinkers, the absolute Worst of the Year:
John Cena and Alison Brie need to sit down and have a long rethink of their career choices after working on the execrable action comedy, Freelance.
Same for Chris Evans and Ana de Armas. Their picture Ghosted has so little charm all I remember about it is the terrible FX.
That’s it for another year of movie watching! If you read all the way down here I really appreciate it. Thank you so much for visiting FLAW IN THE IRIS, please stop by again in the new year for more reviews!