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Damian's 10 Favorite Films of 2023

2023 was an interesting film year. The studios’ needless prolonging of the guild strikes very likely put a dent in how this list turned out. Among the notable omissions, the release of Poor Things got pushed back from September, to what turned out to be the day before my son was born, so I haven’t caught it yet. And my presumptive favorite film of this year, Dune: Part 2, got pushed to 2024. 

Despite that, I still had plenty to pick from for my list this year. One thing that I have found, is that I feel a little out of step with a lot of the top ten lists I’ve read here at year’s end. I think that might be because, in a year with a number of huge capital ‘F’ Films, it was the much smaller and more intimate stories that connected for me. I’m not opposed to a good spectacle, but out of my list of 11, I realize that all but three of them would probably work just about as well on stage as they do on film. 

Because of the more personal feel of this year's list, I’ve opted to structure it this time around as a mix tape. I have paired each film with a song that I think draws out something worth highlighting in the film. So, read and listen along as we take a look back at the year that was. 

Just outside the list (20-12):

20. Little Richard: I am Everything 19. Eileen 18. Showing Up 17. The Monkey King 16. Past Lives 15. The Adults 14. The Civil Dead 13. Sisu 12. Reality

Honorable Mention (11): The Starling Girl

Palehound - Independence Day

Laurel Parmet’s film, The Starling Girl, is about a 17-year-old girl who is gradually outgrowing the ultra-conservative Christian community she was raised in. She’s a young girl on a track for the rest of her life, about to start the chaperoned courting of the young man her parents have chosen for her to marry, but she is starting to feel urges that nothing in her upbringing has given her the tools she needs to cope with, while also discovering that she’s not the only person in her life feeling so confined. 

Eliza Scanlen, who I’ve loved since first seeing her in 2019’s Babyteeth, plays Jem. What she captures so perfectly is the sense in which Jem isn’t initially at all unhappy in her little life. She loves her faith, her church, her family, her community, and her faith-based dance troupe. She just runs into a wall when she wants just the littlest bit more than the narrow path laid out for her, and her unwillingness to stay in her assigned box winds up destabilizing her family and community. I would especially recommend this if you liked 2019’s Yes, God, Yes.

10. Flora and Son

The Dropkick Murphys - My Eyes Are Gonna Shine

I’ve had some complicated feelings about Flora and Son since I first saw it. I went into it with certain expectations because I’m such a fan of John Carney’s other films, Sing Street and Once, but it was an adjustment to realize that this film is trying to capture something a little bit different than those films were. Once and Sing Street are both structured more like musicals, with a whole bunch of great polished songs sprinkled throughout, while Flora and Son is more about that first impulse to express yourself through music and the path to writing your first song. Its songs, like its characters, feel pretty unfinished until the film’s finale. This doesn’t make for as much of a fist-pumping experience as Carney's other films, in terms of scratching that musical itch, but this approach works much better for the particular story this film is trying to tell.

The relationship between Flora and her son is also one I’ve never quite seen before. Flora is initially a hard-partying screw-up of a single mom, with a tense relationship with a teenage son she feels she barely knows anymore, and sometimes she resents having had in the first place. Her son, Max, has behavioral issues, repeatedly getting into trouble with the police for petty theft. In theory, they love each other if they could only get outside the unhappiness in their individual lives. Flora makes an effort to try and find Max a hobby that will keep him out of trouble by giving him a guitar she found in the trash and had refurbished. The gesture doesn’t work, but having the guitar in her house unlocks something in herself that will ultimately go a long way to saving them both. 

9. May December

khai dreams - Panic Attack

May December is aware of how salacious and exploitative its story is. The names and places are changed, but it’s aware that any audience for this film very likely knows going in that it’s taking its inspiration from the story of Mary Kay Letourneau - the teacher who "had an affair” with her 12-year-old student and later married him after completing the prison sentence she received for their relationship. The film elegantly manages to tell that story in a way that also interrogates the impulse to want to tell and watch such a story in the first place.   

The format of every poster I’ve seen for this film features the faces of Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman. Moore plays Gracie, the stand-in for Letourneau, and Portman plays Elizabeth, an actress about to portray Gracie in a film about the scandal. Both are truly spectacular in their roles, but what the promotion and film are coy about is the degree to which this becomes the rightful story of Joe (Charles Melton), the child in that scandal, who is now married, in his 40s, and grappling with having three adult children with his abuser, who each got to have the childhood that he never did.  

8. Biosphere

Juliet Ivy - were all eating each other

Biosphere perfectly captures the spirit of what I’m always hoping to experience when I sit down to watch something. Surprising throughout, there is no single tone or genre it’s trying to fit into. It defies categorization or synopsis in the best possible way. The gist of the story is that two men find themselves living in a (hopefully) self-sustaining biosphere after an event that seems a lot like the end of the world. What exactly that disastrous event was is never made explicit, but it wasn’t just man-made, it was specifically caused by one of the two men in this habitat. 

One of those men is the former president of the United States, Billy, played by Mark Duplass, and the other is his much smarter advisor and the builder of the biosphere, Ray, played by Sterling K. Brown. Sometimes playful, and sometimes discomfiting, the film ends up being a delightfully strange look at gender, masculinity, race, and mortality. It would be an understatement to say that I was not at all prepared for where this story goes, and deeply surprised by how gripped I was by where it winds up.  

7. The Artifice Girl

Islands - Headlines

This is a challenging film to talk about in a way that doesn’t spoil it. The story is told as three interconnected one-act plays, spaced out over several years, at an organization that is using the latest technologies to fight child pornography and child sex trafficking. What the film is interested in, mostly, is the toll that kind of work can take on those doing it, and the corners we can talk ourselves into cutting in the pursuit of saving children. Tatum Matthews absolutely shines as Cherry, the young girl at the heart of the story. 

6. Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves

Cheekface - Largest Muscle

This is the representative of big ‘dumb’ fun and spectacle on my list, but with a script as smart and sharp as anything else I saw this year. Written and directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves takes the world of Dungeons and Dragons and manages to deliver a satisfying fantasy action film that fully captures the fun of sitting around a table rolling dice with friends. 

Something of this underlying concept of this story lends it a meta quality for me that helps protect it from feeling too formulaic. Yes, It is a mission-oriented story where a group of ‘heroes’ have to come together to do a thing, ultimately defeating a big bad villain, saving the day, and learning something about themselves along the way. It’s so straightforward in some ways that you could teach story structure from this script. And yet, because I’m spending the whole run time thinking of it like a gaming session, I have an easier time embracing the formula. If they wanted to make one of these movies every other year, I would be the first person in line for it.

5. Nimona

Bleachers - Modern Girl

Gay knight befriends thousand-year-old preteen shapeshifter as they team up to try to clear his name in this retro-futuristic tale. 

There is so much to love about this. Nimona may be my favorite character in anything for ages. She reminds me of Monster Girl from Invincible - a mix of gruff punk maniacal destruction (often) in the package of a young girl who just wants to be accepted. 

There are some bits in the story where the plot machinery gets a little strained, and some of the characters’ motivations get muddy, but overall this is fun and lively from beginning to end.

4. The Killer

Half Moon Run - You Can Let Go

I expect to write something longer on this film in the near future. My academic specialty is the philosophy and moral psychology of empathy, so my ears pricked up more than a little when I heard the titular killer espouse the ethos: “Forbid empathy. Empathy is weakness. Weakness is vulnerability.” The notion is obviously wrongheaded and the film plays with that throughout the story, but I’m most fascinated by the higher-order sense in which the film plays with the audience’s empathy. 

Films are inherently empathy machines, taking advantage of the reflexive human impulse to empathize with anyone reasonably similar to ourselves. So much so that we’re enthralled by this story about an assassin on a revenge mission, rooting for and identifying with him on his investigative murder spree, while he is at no point the hero of this story. He doesn’t even fit a forgiving definition of an antihero. He’s just a bad guy doing bad things, due to circumstances that are entirely his own fault. He has the means to opt out of what he’s doing at any point, and, given his means, the ending of his story would be identical to what it ends up being even if he had skipped all of the vengeful actions he takes. And yet, The Killer works. I shouldn’t love it, but I do. David Fincher pulls off a narrative magic trick here and I’m going to spend a long time trying to puzzle out just how he pulls it off.

3. Sanctuary

Alice Merton - Waste My Life

What I find I love most in a film is being surprised by its story. I often find myself checking out of films when I can feel the story machinery at work, particularly when I clock that something is being overtly introduced just so that it can be paid off in a predictable way later in the story. A desire to surprise an audience can be carried too far, though. If you make a story overly twisty just for its own sake, what you’re making can start to feel like it’s just random, not giving the audience anything to hang onto. Sanctuary may be the best film I’ve ever seen at navigating this. This is a script where, almost sentence to sentence, I didn’t know what was going to happen next. Moreover, upon reflection, and even on rewatch, all the twists and turns feel like they are a part of one coherent story that builds to a killer final moment. 

As much as I love the script, I can also imagine a garbage 90s erotic thriller version of this film if you didn’t have two leads as dynamite as Margaret Qualley and Christopher Abbott. Sharing every scene, Abbott and Qualley perfectly trade the spotlight back and forth as each moment needs, while navigating an ever-shifting power dynamic, and playing the multiple layers of characters who are behaving performatively for one another in the reality of the story.

2. The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial

Young Fathers - Sink or Swim

It’s interesting watching The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial having seen A Few Good Men as many times as I have. The story behind A Few Good Men is that Aaron Sorkin got the idea for that story from his sister, who was a Navy Judge Advocate General. But the similarities between the two movies are so striking that it gets hard to believe that Sorkin wasn’t cribbing deeply, either from the 1953 play or the original 1954 film. That may be unfair, as two military courtroom dramas can only be so different, but The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial feels like a very similar story but with the temperaments of the enlisted men and their commanding officer being flipped.  

This was William Friedkin’s final film before passing and it’s not overtly the work of a master filmmaker. Filmed in only 14 days and set in just two rooms and a hallway, it can feel a bit like you’re watching a made-for-TV movie, but there is a simple elegance that makes the whole film feel perfectly executed. This goes down so easily that I suspect it will be the film from this year that I revisit the most. 

Beyond that though, I also find it a more satisfying film than A Few Good Men. There is a musicality to Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue that I’m a sucker for, but what his stories often lack is any kind of ambiguity. By his own proud admission, what Sorkin generally writes are melodramas with clear and explicit takeaways for the audience. Conversely, I’ve watched The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial four times already and I’m still chewing over the underlying tension at the heart of the case.

1. Linoleum

Let’s Eat Grandma - From the Morning

Bonus Track: Watching the Credits - The Beths

My number one is the perfect example of why this is a list of my favorite films rather than what I think the objectively best films of the year are. I wrote about Linoleum back in May, and it’s spent most of this year as the film that was so perfectly tailored to me that nothing ever came close to moving it from my top spot. In that time, I haven’t figured out a way to say all the things I would like to about this film without spoiling it, but I knew back when I was writing that initial review that there was going to be a way for me to have it both ways. So, I leave it to the reader to choose their own adventure. If you want to avoid spoilers, I direct you to the link above; if you’ve seen the film, or want to know everything about a film before checking it out, read on. 

Linoleum doesn’t let on to this for a while, but the story is actually a collage of one person’s life, that they are experiencing through a prism of dementia in their final days. The main character we’re following in the story is Cameron (Jim Gaffigan), the Bill Nye-esque host of a little-watched kids science show called, Above and Beyond. He used to host the show with his wife, Erin (Rhea Seehorn), but she left the show, and, though they still live together, she is in the process of getting a divorce from him. They live with their two children, Nora (Katelyn Nacon) and Sam (who is played by six different actors, including two of Gaffigan’s actual kids). Nora is a senior in high school who is still working out who she is and wants to be. She’s still figuring things out, but happily so. Also in Cameron’s life is his father, Mac, a former NASA engineer, who is living in a nursing home while contending with the effects of worsening dementia.

Cameron enjoys his show, but the dream he still hangs on to is going to work for NASA to build, and maybe even fly, the things he only gets to talk about on his show. When we meet Cameron, he’s about to have his show taken away from him, with him being replaced by the kind of person he always thought he wanted to be, a retired astronaut, named Kent Armstrong (also played by Gaffigan). Kent moves into a house next door to Cameron with his teenage son, Marc (Gabriel Rush), who winds up being in the same grade as Nora. 

Now, having given all of these character introductions, Cameron, Mac, and Marc are actually all the same person. The older man, Mac, looks back at the fragmented details of his life with Marc as his teenage self, and Cameron as his middle-aged self. Erin and Nora are also the same person, both the young girl he met as a teenager and the woman she grew up into that he married. Their son Sam has no dialogue in the film and is played by multiple actors because he’s actually the stillborn child they lost. In the story we’re watching, Cameron and Erin are getting divorced, but that may just be how Mac is processing his wife’s seeming absence in his life because of his worsening dementia; Erin (Elisabeth Henry) is actually there at the hospital bedside with him, helping him through what appear to be his final days. 

The culmination of the film is Cameron, with help from Marc and Erin, building a rocket in his backyard from the crash-landed debris of a previous NASA mission. While older Erin is helping load Mac into an ambulance, younger Erin is helping Cameron get into the capsule of his rocket to blast into the unknown. 


Damian Masterson

Staff Writer

Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th-Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.




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