The Best Films of the Year
The movies returned this year and we returned to them, especially the good ones. Filmgoers avoided tired superhero flicks, like “Ant-Man and the Wasp” and “Shazam: Fury of the Gods,” and brought original ones, like “Oppenheimer” and “Barbie,” to new blockbuster heights.
I found myself drawn to smaller independent films that portrayed and probed the simple pleasures of life: food, love, desire, and friendship. These were my favorite films of 2023.
10. “Showing Up”
As a frustrated sculptor in an artistic community in Portland, Ore., Michelle Williams turns sharply away from her bombastic work in “The Fabelmans,” crafting a rich, gentle, and ultimately magnetic performance that anchors Kelly Reichardt’s latest drama. It’s the rare movie that honors the spirit of creativity while still living in the real world.
Okay, “Napoleon” is full of factual errors, but it’s still an absolute blast. The Austerlitz sequence already ranks among cinema’s greatest battle scenes, and the chemistry between Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby, as Empress Josephine, creates sparks. There’s something delightful in portraying one of the most important men in history as a twisted little deviant.
German director Christian Petzold has never made a bad film, and “Afire” ranks among his best. Unlike “Phoenix” and “Transit,” which were masterpieces from their opening scenes, “Afire” sneaks up on you. It starts as a character study of a needy, insecure writer on holiday with his best friend, and ends up as a profound meditation on love and loneliness in a frightening world.
7. “Poor Things”
You can have “Barbie.” I’ll take Yorgos Lanthimos’s feminist fantasia about a mad scientist (Willem Dafoe) who installs the brain of an infant into the body of a young woman (Emma Stone) and sets her loose upon the world. A perfect marriage of actor and director, Lanthimos creates a wild world from scratch, while Stone finds a fairy-tale pitch in her portrayal of a child who grows up —emotionally, sexually, and politically — over the course of a few eventful months.
6. “The Holdovers”
Director Alexander Payne gets incredible performances from three very different actors in this satisfying prep school dramedy. Paul Giamatti is a snobby classics teacher with a penchant for literary insults, Da’Vine Joy Randolph pulls heartstrings as a grieving cafeteria manager, and newcomer Dominic Cessa creates a bracingly original portrait of the troubled teen.
5. “The Teachers’ Lounge”
More people need to know about this one. “The Teachers’ Lounge” is a German drama about a public school suffering an epidemic of theft and the chaos that erupts when a new teacher (Leonie Benesch) takes a secret video revealing the culprit. With its politics mercifully lurking underneath the plot, the film is an exercise in grinding tension with a subtle and stellar performance at its center.
4. “All of Us Strangers”
Andrew Scott, known to many as Hot Priest from “Fleabag,” finds a worthy new showcase for his formidable talents in director Andrew Haigh’s latest tearjerker. As Adam (Scott) embarks on a romance with his dreamboat neighbor (Paul Mescal), he is also drawn back to his hometown, where his parents, who died in a car crash when he was a boy, are miraculously still alive. A haunting film in every sense, “All of Us Strangers” will break your heart and heal it at once.
3. “Are You There, God, It’s Me, Margaret?”
I’ve never been a 13-year-old girl in 1970s New Jersey, but I had my own puberty horrors, and this film, based on the beloved novel by Judy Blume, finds the universality in the specific. Produced by legend James L. Brooks and featuring a standout performance by Rachel McAdams as a mom with her own problems, “Margaret” is the kind of small-scale, deeply satisfying film Hollywood rarely makes anymore, but should.
2. “The Killer”
Some people say David Fincher’s “The Killer” is a cold, calculating exercise in genre. I think it’s one of the warmest movies of the year. The story of a contract killer cleaning up a job gone wrong, “The Killer” is anchored by a subtly hilarious performance by Michael Fassbender and sports a devastating cameo by Tilda Swinton. It’s a hilarious comment by Fincher on his own famous fastidiousness, and a hopeful glimpse at how people — even the worst people — can change.
1. “The Taste of Things”
The food movie reaches its apotheosis with this warm French romance about a late 19th-century French landowner (Benoit Magimel) and his longtime chef and lover (Juliette Binoche). I’m not sure a film has ever been this tactile before. You can smell the bread baking, hear the broth boiling, and feel the touch of skin on skin. Is it hedonistic? Surely, but it so richly recreates life’s pleasures that it finds religion in its craft. It’s not for people who think of food as a prism through which to view the world. It’s for those who view food as life itself.