2023 was a strange year for movies: with a couple of notable exceptions, I felt myself appreciating bits and pieces of films, and valuing movies more in hindsight. For me, this past year felt like a long-awaited return to the full business of life. Couple that with a months-long writers’ strike, pushing release dates of countless movies to the end of the year and beyond, and it’s no wonder there are still some important contenders I’ve yet to watch. So I’m pivoting: I don’t feel like I can say these are the best movies released last year, but I found joy in these ten movies – some in specific moments of brilliance, others in the totality of their stories. I hope you do, too.
Most of my picks this year are lovely subversions of genre or source material. When the TV movie of the Mary Kay Letourneau story has already been made, what can Todd Haynes find in it? When Shaw and Mary Shelley have already created classics about humans as creators and creations, where is there for Yorgos Lanthimos to go? With a million horrible CGI Barbie movies in existence, what can Greta Gerwig make out of a played-out property? I love this trend of filmmakers not just going for the well-made obvious choice, but building on what’s come before and creating something that only they can.
*Note: my criteria for eligibility are films widely released in theaters or available for streaming in 2023.
TEN: BEAU IS AFRAID
Written and directed by Ari Aster
Dream logic is a difficult thing to capture, and Ari Aster has done it. That means expectations of plot and storytelling need to be adjusted to truly enjoy this movie, but if you can get on its dark, funny, twisted wavelength, it will reward you. There’s so much in Beau is Afraid that it’s almost impossible to hold it all in your head at once, but scene by scene, it captures Beau’s fears in the most visceral ways possible. In hindsight, viewing the film as a character study through nightmares allowed me to digest this bonkers movie in a completely satisfying way, something I didn’t think I could come to fresh from the theater.
Written and directed by Emerald Fennell
The story at the center of Saltburn is good but not great. But what I’m here to celebrate is the style of Saltburn and the epic swings that the film takes along the way. Performances are great across the board, with great work being eclipsed only by Rosamund Pike in an iconic turn. The cinematography and editing are top-notch. The production design is giddily breathtaking. The five-or-so set pieces of the film are so committed, so over-the-top, and so primal that, for me, it elevated the movie from a fun flick into a piece of art.
EIGHT: SPIDER-MAN: ACROSS THE SPIDER-VERSE
Screenplay by Dave Callaham, Phil Lord, & Christopher Miller; directed by Joaquim Dos Santos, Justin K. Thompson, & Kemp Powers
As a kid with a comic book card collection in the early ‘90s, I’ve ridden the wave of the superhero cinematic universe and come out on the other side pretty sick of the whole mess, which makes it all the more impressive when a movie like Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse wins me over. Continuing where the first amazing entry leaves off, this sequel has a sense of humor and a heart that goes beyond the played-out recycled Whedon quips that have run rampant in the genre, finding something more unique and truer. The human story is grounded and hard, and the super-plots tie back to real hurt, pain, and conflict, reminding us why superhero stories were good in the first place. And the truly stunning animation makes the movie a real joy to watch.
SEVEN: MAY DECEMBER
Screenplay by Alex Mechanik & Samy Burch, directed by Todd Haynes
Thank you, Pedro Almodóvar, for teaching me how to watch May December - a movie so subtle in its campy melodrama that many have missed its existence entirely. A spiritual successor to To Die For, this movie bathes in unmentionable parts of humanity. No one comes off well, the traditional gender dynamics of victim and perp are flipped on their head, and somehow I was still smiling at these crazy characters by the end of the movie.
Screenplay by Paul King & Simon Farnaby, directed by Paul King
I always appreciated Willy Wonka growing up, but I never felt quite cool enough to get on its wavelength. In hindsight, the indisputably amazing performance by Gene Wilder hijacks the movie a little, taking it to places more interesting than it intended to go, but also places it wasn’t fully dramaturgically prepared to explore. I had my doubts about Wonka, but when I found myself in a movie theater with my mom and my nieces, skeptically not expecting much, I found myself laughing, crying, and feeling a little more connected to the world. This shouldn’t be surprising from the director of Paddington, but the revelation for me is that Wonka takes a beloved but imperfect property and crafts a story that feels like the best of Roald Dahl – one that doesn’t shy away from his signature darkness, but makes sure to balance it with a heaping dose of heart. Also, as a harsh critic of songs in movies, these fit the story perfectly, furthering the plot and deepening characters, and they’re super fun to boot.
Screenplay by Greta Gerwig & Noah Baumbach, directed by Greta Gerwig
Barbie is fun, smart, and original, and has furthered the culture in amazing ways. It’s sticky, in the Tipping Point meaning of the word, and our conversations about gender, feminism, and masculinity have all progressed because of this unexpected movie. There are people in my life who still won’t watch it because “it’s a feature-length Mattel commercial,” and while I think it has a complicated relationship with that truth, I also think it’s a pretty amazing idea to use that as a Trojan horse. That all makes it sound highfalutin’, but in the end (and this is the true coup), it’s a true bop of a movie.
FOUR: ALL OF US STRANGERS
Written and directed by Andrew Haigh
All of Us Strangers could easily have been a genre film in one direction or another, but it commits instead to being what I can only describe as a filmic poem, and I mean that as a high compliment. Andrew Scott is heartbreaking as a single aging gay man, and the movie has true insight into what it meant to grow up gay in a different generation and the scars that we carry. I knew Andrew Haigh could make a very true movie, but in this, he’s tapped into a deeper truth that’s beautiful and tragic, and human.
Screenplay by Angelo Tijssens & Lukas Dhont, directed by Lukas Dhont
Close is inspired by a nonfiction book called Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection. Childhood is often hard to remember, but this movie brought it flooding back to me. Anchored by two fantastic performances, Close explores the love we are capable of before society teaches us to temper ourselves, and the tragedies that occur when that impulse is cut short.
TWO: TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES: MUTANT MAYHEM
Screenplay by Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Jeff Rowe, Dan Hernandez, and Benji Samit; directed by Jeff Rowe
It’s always been right there in the title, but TMNT: MM is the first adaptation to really commit to the mutant turtles being teenagers, and that commitment elevates the movie from another superhero flick to a lovely, touching, funny coming-of-age story that also happens to be a superhero flick. Add to that the coolest visual style I’ve ever seen in an animated movie, and you get a modern masterpiece. I don’t understand why awards season is sleeping on this one, but I for one can’t wait for more of these and won’t stop watching this on repeat ‘til the next one comes out.
ONE: POOR THINGS
Screenplay by Tony McNamara, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
What a joy to be living while Yorgos Lanthimos is making movies, and what an unexpected delight that they are being acknowledged in the mainstream. Poor Things takes its inspiration from Mary Shelley and Bernard Shaw, giving Lanthimos’ whimsy fodder both mythic and grounded in reality, and the result is warmer than ever before without losing any bite along the way. Emma Stone gives a hilarious and touching performance at the center of this creation story, with stalwart support in every direction. The visual style and strong choices (take note, Maestro, of how to successfully burst from black-and-white to color) propel this irreverent and moving tale into masterpiece status.
HOTTIE OF THE YEAR: LaKieth Stanfield, Haunted Mansion
Scotty has always been a storyteller, mostly through musicals, and he’s pleased as punch to have found a tribe with the amazing weirdos at Story Screen. scottyarnold.com