Has Hollywood fully recovered from the effects of the COVID shutdowns? If not, then 2023 was proof that it was definitely on the mend, thanks to the commercial success of films like Barbie, Oppenheimer, and *checks notes* The Super Mario Bros. Movie. Audiences were clearly ready to return to theaters, braving high-priced popcorn, sticky floors, and smartphone-using neighbors. Movies, and the varied stories they tell, are just too indelibly ingrained into our popular consciousness. And 2023 offered a treasure trove of stories.
Below are our favorite films of 2023, including a brilliantly designed existential rumination, the return of cinema’s most iconic monster, a farewell to the world’s favorite Nazi-punching archaeologist, an assassin’s final blaze of glory, and many more.
Anatomy of a Fall by Justine Triet
After a man falls from his cabin in the French Alps, we are faced with an immediate question: Was it accident, suicide, or murder? Justine Triet’s Palme d’Or winning Anatomy of a Fall traces the court case that follows, with the man’s wife, Sandra, as the defendant. As it unfolds, Anatomy of a Fall will survey our subjectivity, the shifting nature of relationships, and the audience’s craving for certainty. It’s an infinitely trickier story than it first appears, and Triet adds layers of language barriers, fiction, and news media to put us on trial. Sandra Hüller’s performance is riveting and unknowable as the accused woman. Together, Hüller and Triet force us to confront our expectations for entertainment and a tidy ending, alike. In the end, it comes down to a leap of faith, one that is fully embodied by the son, Daniel, the only other witness. Anatomy of a Fall is a knotted courtroom drama, and one of my strongest recommendations from a great year for movies.
Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Kelly Fremon Craig
We are currently living in a golden era for coming-of-age films that would put John Hughes to shame. The crop of films about teens and tweens that have come out in the last decade—Lady Bird, Eighth Grade, Boyhood, Sing Street, The Fits—are a treasure trove of comedy, drama, and insight into the ways that young people experience and learn about their world. Kelly Fremon Craig made an excellent film in this vein with 2016’s The Edge of Seventeen; she arguably made an even better one in 2023 with her adaptation of the Judy Blume classic Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret.
Aided by an ensemble that includes Rachel McAdams, Kathy Bates, and impressive newcomer Abby Ryder Fortson, Craig crafts a period piece that feels timeless. As with so much good fiction, her film locates the universal in the specific. You don’t need to have experienced life as an eleven-year-old girl to see parts of yourself in Margaret’s insecurity, curiosity, and spiritual hunger.
That last quality is the most gratifying aspect of Craig’s adaptation, by the way. The script and the camera treat Margaret’s religious questing with the seriousness and sensitivity it deserves, framing her prayers not as an angsty adolescent’s soliloquies but as an ongoing conversation with two participants. Eat your heart out, Breakfast Club.
Asteroid City by Wes Anderson
Scene: A distressed actor confronts his director backstage during the performance of a play. The play is difficult, complex—the actor is unsure whether he even understands it. The director reassures him: “It doesn’t matter. Just keep telling the story.”
To whom is Wes Anderson speaking with that line? Maybe he’s throwing the audience a bone, encouraging them to bear with his film just a little longer. (Asteroid City is easily Anderson’s most complex film to date, presenting the audience with a nesting-doll structure of a play within a TV documentary within a movie.) Or maybe he’s talking to himself: a storyteller anxious that he’s losing the thread of his own story. Wasn’t this supposed to be an Andersonian riff on Close Encounters of the Third Kind? Why bother with all these little stylistic curlicues?
The neat trick that Anderson pulls with Asteroid City is that the director’s advice in that scene is a cop-out even as he is, ultimately, correct. It doesn’t matter. Stop trying to wring a thesis statement out of this movie. Luxuriate in the immaculate visuals; feel your feelings when Margot Robbie offers some sphinx-like consolation to Jason Schwartzman while standing on a fire escape in the snow. Puzzle through the multitude of interpretations that are possible when one of Anderson’s astronomers discovers that a secret message encoded in the stars is just a giant ellipsis. Does anything I’ve written here make sense? I dunno. Just keep telling the story, and consider that life often imitates art.
Enys Men by Mark Jenkin
Pronounced “Enys Mane,” this is the second feature length film from Cornish director, Mark Jenkin. Jenkin’s debut, Bait, is a haunting meditation on a clash of cultures, exploring the conflict that erupts between local fishermen and the wealthy city people buying up property in their coastal village. Shot in black and white on grainy 35mm, you can practically smell the salty air as you watch this gorgeous film.
Enys Men, however, concerns a botanist studying a rare type of flower on an isolated island off Cornwall’s coast. Scattered throughout the island are the ruins of an abandoned mining operation. The botanist’s lonely existence is filled with routine: firing up the generator to power her cottage, drinking her tea, collecting her samples, and dropping a stone down the abandoned mineshaft. Is this just a playful gesture, or is she making sure there’s nothing or no one down there? Jenkin uses 35mm again, but this time we’re treated to vivid colors. Jenkin is deeply influenced by Nicolas Roeg and this comes through in everything from the bright red jacket worn by his protagonist (a red coat makes a prominent appearance in Don’t Look Now) to the ways in which the narrative weaves in and out of time.
This fractured approach allows Jenkin to collapse the line between dreams and reality, and what unfolds is a hypnotic film filled to the brim with eerie images: the strange flowers being studied, phantom mine workers, a stone shaped like a hooded figure that somehow keeps moving closer to the house. No doubt, some viewers will be frustrated by the film’s unconventional pacing, but Enys Men is more of an experience than passive entertainment. Those willing to take the plunge will experience one of 2023’s best films.
Godzilla Minus One by Takashi Yamazaki
In some ways, Godzilla Minus One feels like a reboot of the legendary monster movie franchise. Set immediately after World War 2, Takashi Yamazaki’s film finds Japan struggling to rebuild, only to be confronted by a horrific new threat from the ocean. But it also feels like a culmination of the franchise, condensing everything that we love about the Godzilla movies and delivering a film that’s filled with the sort of epic, special effects-laden devastation that’s a mark of the franchise. And if that weren’t already enough, Godzilla Minus One also tells a deeply human story filled with drama and heroism, one focused on a disgraced kamikaze pilot riddled with survivor’s guilt who must help his countrymen defend their beleaguered nation from the titular monster. The film’s final moments totally set up a sequel, further reinforcing Godzilla’s status as cinema’s most iconic monster.
A Haunting in Venice by Kenneth Branagh
Back for his third turn as Hercule Poirot in A Haunting in Venice, Kenneth Branagh takes his most personal dive yet into the wounded psyche of Agatha Christie’s famed Belgian detective. The standard murderous shenanigans, this time set in a decaying, supposedly haunted Venetian palazzo, are mere trappings to explore the realm of the supernatural, Poirot’s psychological ghosts, and most importantly, his abandoned faith in God. Over the course of the film, Poirot experiences a variety of supernatural occurrences beyond the explanatory powers of his little gray cells, all of which coax his lost faith back to life. Despite the film’s ambiguous ending, Poirot’s decision to come out of retirement and resume his pursuit of justice—justice that, as he says, cannot exist without a transcendent lawgiver—gives the viewer hope that in the next installment, he will pursue the healing found only in faith.
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny by James Mangold
I didn’t have high expectations going into the fifth and pleeeeease be final Indiana Jones movie. However, once I got halfway through the movie and only saw one fridge, I figured it was safe to let my guard down and enjoy it for what it was: a send-off to a beloved Nazi-punching archeologist. While the movie can lean a bit hard into “Ha, Indy’s really old,” the spirit of the original trilogy lives on without pushing too hard into nostalgia. There are precious few callbacks, but they stick like Velcro. Indeed, the plot balances more on Indy’s ruminations on his own legacy and sacrifices than it does on the inevitable Nazi pursuit into supernatural spectacle.
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny doesn’t expect much from the viewer, and it shows. You’re given a fedora-topped silhouette, then told to enjoy the victory lap. So do it, smile, and appreciate how much Harrison Ford still acts as he resists the urge to tell everyone to get off his lawn.
John Wick: Chapter 4 by Chad Stahelski
Last summer, in honor of the blockbuster season, I wrote a piece for Fanfare where I declared that action is Hollywood’s first love, and these days, nobody does it better than stunt veterans-turned-directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch.
After making a splash as co-directors of the instant classic John Wick (2014), Leitch moved on to successfully imprint the duo’s singular style on various projects from Atomic Blonde (2017) to Bullet Train (2022), while Stahelski shepherded the Wick saga through three increasingly baroque sequels, each more entertaining than the last. The series culminated in Chapter 4, the best action movie of 2023 and arguably one of the best action films in the industry’s history.
Working with a top team of craftspeople, Stahelski channels the unique charisma and star power of Keanu Reeves into sequences of ingeniously choreographed mayhem artfully rendered with elegant cinematography and meticulous set design. The result is some of the most arresting action set pieces captured on screen. You will never look upon the iconic Sacré-Cœur steps in Paris the same way again.
The Killer by David Fincher
“When was my last nice, quiet drowning?” is one of many internal quandaries posed by the titular assassin of David Fincher’s The Killer. After an assignment goes wrong and the assassin himself becomes hunted, he launches on a quest for revenge. But that quest lacks the thrills we may expect, even verging on bureaucratic. With Fincher’s characteristically refined direction and Michael Fassbinder’s twisted interiority, The Killer presents as a familiar hitman tale. However, a trenchant comedy slinks beneath the surface.
Fincher is out to unmask the isolating comforts of modern capitalism, showing how our habitual desire for ease and immediacy (via same day delivery, Postmates, etc.) may be our undoing. It’s a cold and uncaring film that obliquely turns its target on consumer culture. If you can get on its wavelength, it’s an oddly fun time.
Killers of the Flower Moon by Martin Scorsese
Martin Scorsese uses film as a method of pondering. He muses on religion in Silence, on Jesus Christ in The Last Temptation of Christ, and, most recently, on the depths of human depravity in American history in Killers of the Flower Moon. After reading the book by David Grann, I was wary of Scorsese’s adaptation. His films often include violence and showcase the depth of darkness in the human heart, which is starkly evident in Killers; his treatment and portrayal of the Osage tribe and their battered history, however, is somber and honorable—a wonderful balance of Scorsese cinema and heartfelt storytelling.
Killers is a superb entry in Scorsese’s long-running career, offering perhaps the most emotional rumination on history in his filmography. With career-defining performances from Lily Gladstone and Leonardo DiCaprio, supported by an impeccable performance from Robert De Niro, the film is a cinematic masterclass. It reminds viewers that history is vital, and it’s never a waste of time to tell stories again—no matter how dark and damning—for the next generation to learn from.
Oppenheimer by Christopher Nolan
Assembling another stellar cast and crew, Christopher Nolan documents the birth of the atomic age in a grand spectacle worth all the IMAX hype while at the same time finding a perfect vehicle to explore his preoccupation with obsessed men in the haunted visage of Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy).
While Murphy holds the center with his chilling performance of a man in purgatory, other cast standouts include Emily Blunt, Josh Harnett, Matt Damon, and Robert Downey Jr., who brings slippery political appointee Lewis Strauss to life in a perfectly calibrated performance. On the technical side, Richard King’s sound design takes center stage, using everything from the popping noises of Geiger counters to the cracking of arcing electricity to convey the sound of a world about to come apart.
Oppenheimer is a biopic that plays like a cautionary sci-fi tale, except that it’s real and all the more terrifying because of it. It’s also a tragic story about the burden of guilt and the inability to find lasting relief within the confines of the immanent frame.
Past Lives by Celine Song
There are two ways to think about Past Lives. The first is as a romance in the same mold as Richard Linklater’s Before… trilogy, where the bond between two people persists despite geographical separation, the passage of years, and conflicting obligations. The second is as a rumination on time, regret, and contentment, with romance as a potent vessel for that rumination. It’s a rewarding film either way, but the richness of the second reading is what makes Past Lives my favorite film of 2023. The protagonists, Nora and Hae-sung, fall in and out of touch over the years, and they each move on with life in their own ways, but the question of what if? lingers in their minds even decades later. Everybody has experienced some form of this abstracted regret to some degree, where you can’t help but wonder how your life would be different if you had just made a different choice, tried a little harder, been a little more daring…
All these hypotheticals are pointless to pursue too far, of course. Our choices are simply our choices; we live the life that God gives us, nothing more nor less. But it’s only human to wonder what might have been. In Past Lives, writer/director Celine Song tugs at that thread of wondering, which will lead to an emotional unraveling for the unprepared. The question, as Song puts it to her characters and her audience, isn’t whether do-overs are possible but whether you would even want to give up the treasures of your present when the possibility of a do-over falls in your lap.
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse by Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, and Justin K. Thompson
The tremendously entertaining continuation of Miles Morales’ silver screen adventure made for a real crowd-pleaser, becoming a $690 million boon for theaters as Marvel’s schtick and other supposedly guaranteed summer blockbusters seemed to be running on fumes. The Santos/Powers/Thompson directorial team-up demonstrates that films with large sets of characters—not to mention a multiverse—don’t have to be chores to watch or too complicated for the viewer looking for an escape. Across the Spider-Verse also proved that the two-hour-plus film doesn’t have to be exhausting—it just has to be worth it.
This film proves its worth (partly) by centering on Gwen Stacy’s emotional journey. In a genre bloated by stories cast in a traditional male die, it’s compelling to see a real arc for a character who would typically be relegated to “love interest” or “pretty sidekick.” And it’s all done without stirring the unnecessary but predictable debate over whether powerful female characters are justified or just an effort to please seemingly progressive mores. Gwen’s been hailed across the comics cyber-verse as “the perfect Spider Person” and “the true main character.” I’m looking forward to the continuation of her story just as much as I’m looking forward to the continuation of Miles’.
My friends and I collectively groaned when “to be continued” flashed on the screen after the Earth-42 Prowler reveal. Time meant nothing and we were feeling the story about to kick into even higher gears. I would’ve happily sat through two more hours. Instead, we had another tab to keep open in the already-too-much brain space we give to superhero entertainment. But chances are the wait will be worth it once again. (The SAG-AFTRA strike erased a March 2024 release date, but November brought news that voice recording has resumed.)
—Daniel Whyte IV