It’s that time of year again when critics pick their 10 Best Films of the Year and thus, here I am telling you mine. I’m even more happy to tell you that this year was exceptionally difficult as I saw a plethora of terrific movies and my honorable mention list could easily stand with most of the films in my top ten. So, without any further ado, here are the 10 films that stuck with me the most, in order from 1 to 10:
My pick for 2023’s best is OPPENHEIMER, the latest from filmmaker Christopher Nolan. It was a biopic as thriller, telling the tense and detailed story of how scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer and his team created the atomic bomb to help the United States win WWII. The material is as relevant to today’s raging world as it was then, and Nolan wrote and directed the story with clarity, empathy, and righteousness. The 181-minute movie never faltered, it was performed by one of the most incredible casts ever assembled, and A+ production values distinguished it throughout. The fact that it’s Nolan’s biggest hit film ever, making almost a billion dollars so far, is a testament to its artistry, relevancy, and potency.
This one was another wonderfully clever slice of the human condition, courtesy of director Alexander Payne (working with one of the year’s best scripts by David Hemingson). THE HOLDOVERS should become an annual Christmas classic for its wise and witty tale of three lonely hearts with nowhere to go over Christmas break. A grumpy teacher, a moody teen, and a grieving cafeteria employee of a New England boarding school bond reluctantly and learn to get out of their self-pitying heads to live a little. Ostensibly a road picture as well, it was also a wonderful period piece about the 70s, and superbly acted by its trio of leads – Paul Giamatti, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, and newcomer Dominic Sessa.
The surprise of the year for me was PAST LIVES. It was such a small, tightly focused, and subtle film, but it moved me enormously. It was the story of two childhood friends from South Korea (Greta Lee and Teo Yoo) who renew contact with each other at various intervals in their adulthood and are left wondering if they might’ve been able to make it as a romantic couple if circumstances were different. First-time filmmaker Celine Song raised all kinds of questions about timing, fate, and what constitutes love for audiences to chew on over and over again. And yes, I’m still chewing.
Some say filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos is an acquired taste. Well, if so, let me gorge. His latest is a crazy and bizarre riff on Frankenstein with a suicidal woman being brought back to life by a mad doctor to experience all the things the world has to offer that she had missed in her hasty decision. Played to the hilt by leads Emma Stone, Mark Ruffalo, and Willem Dafoe, with a snappy script, sumptuous production design, and bizarre score, it was an unforgettable mind-f**k. It’s also a film worth plenty of rewatching to catch all the odd and fascinating details Lanthimos throws into the corners and backgrounds of each off-kilter shot.
ANATOMY OF A FALL
Court procedurals always make for a crackling time at the cineplex and this international production from French filmmaker Justine Triet is a complicated examination of love, hate, family, and jealousy, all witnessed through the trial of a famed author accused of murdering her husband. Sandra Huller plays the suspect and she delivers an extraordinary performance here, communicating as much through her silences as she does through her line readings and gestures. Cinema’s best flashback this year is ANATOMY OF A FALL when the author lays into her loathsome mate for his cowardice. Wowza! And while the film does give us answers to its whodunnit, none of it sits easily.
THE TASTE OF THINGS
On the opposite end of the aforementioned film is THE TASTE OF THINGS. This film was chosen by the powers that be in France to represent it at the Oscars over ANATOMY OF A FALL. Their reasoning is likely that this is a feel-good film, all the better to contrast against the UK’s entry THE ZONE OF INTEREST. (More on that one in a moment.) No matter, all are wonderful films, but what makes THE TASTE OF THINGS so extraordinary is how it finds love, pleasure, and gorgeous cinema in the world of food and those who delight in making it. A gourmand (Benoit Magimel) and his lover/cook (Juliette Binoche) examine what’s on the menu for each meal and in their relationship, and the audience I saw it with at the Chicago International Film Festival ate it all up with a spoon. So did I.
THE LOVE STORIES OF LIV S.
Another great film I saw at the CIFF was this feature from writer/director Anna Luif. As its title suggests, THE LOVE STORIES OF LIV S. is all about her romantic ups and downs. And Liv is a delightful creation – a bright and free-spirited single, who loves life, sex, and rock tunes, sometimes all at once. Luif’s film was funny, smart, provocative, and sexy as hell, as was its leading lady – Agnes Delachair. (It should be a real star-making performance for her, once the film gets a national release. A24? Neon?) Additionally, what I loved about the film is that Liv wasn’t punished for being sexual or not knowing exactly what she wanted. Such a statement wasn’t just a win for feminism, it was a win for humanism. A true sleeper, this one, and an exceptional highlight of my year.
This film’s detractors miss that Bradley Cooper directed this exceptional work of art to be as big, bold, and audacious as Leonard Bernstein himself. (Cooper’s channeling the conductor/composer in front of the camera and behind it.) MAESTRO is a movie bio done like various movements of a concerto: some fast, some slower, a few more somber, and many up-tempo. It all makes for a compelling film about art, artists, and their audiences. It’s equally extraordinary in that Cooper directs Carey Mulligan to the film performance of the year as Lenny’s wife, better half, muse, and toughest critic. Don’t be surprised if this film becomes only the 7th in film history to claim the awards for both Best Actress and Best Actor come Oscar time.
THE ZONE OF INTEREST
It won’t open in Chicago until February 2nd, but I was fortunate enough to see THE ZONE OF INTEREST at the CIFF in October as well. Suffice it to say, I was blown away by its unique and searing take on WWII. Based on the true story of the Nazi commandant who lived right next door to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, writer/director Jonathan Glazer’s provocative new film showcases the everyday lives of the man and his family juxtaposed against the sounds and distant sights of horrors occurring just 200 yards away. Shot with a documentary’s subjectivity, the film is wholly arresting in how it portrays this set of Germans walking through their lives, like any nuclear family, amidst the greatest of human crimes in their midst. Talk about the banality of evil, my God. There have been many extraordinary films, TV dramas, and documentaries about the Holocaust… count this one amongst the greatest.
What if an erudite, black professor who writes novels examining Greek literature felt compelled to write a made-up story about a black drug dealer to take a snipe at what the literary world expects from African-American authors? That’s the premise of writer/director Cord Jefferson’s debut feature AMERICAN FICTION. Based upon the novel Erasure by Percival Everett, it’s a scathing takedown of publishing houses, bigotry, and today’s dumbed-down audiences. It’s also a surprisingly warm film about family, the one that this lonely professor is determined to reconnect with. Starring the marvelously droll Jeffrey Wright, this one was equally hilarious and heartfelt.
And here are my second ten that have stuck strongest in my mind, body, and soul this year:
ARE YOU THERE, GOD? IT’S ME, MARGARET
MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: DEAD RECKONING, PART ONE
THE COLOR PURPLE
ALL OF US STRANGERS
SPIDER-MAN: ACROSS THE SPIDER-VERSE
I also saw a great deal of television and streaming, and the best things I got to see were:
THE DIPLOMAT (Season 1)
REACHER (Season 2)
POKER FACE (Season 1)
NO ONE WILL SAVE YOU (streaming film)
FARGO (Season 5)
LUPIN (Season 3)
INVINCIBLE (Season 2)
SLOW HORSES (Season 3)
THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER (streaming miniseries)
PHYSICAL (Season 3)
As always, thanks for following me and I so appreciate this forum allowing me to also write two feature articles a month for the online magazine PipelineArtists.com. It’s also allowed me to be a continuing member of the Chicago Indie Critics. And it’s enabled me to enjoy being a guest on various podcasts this past year including KICKING THE SEAT, YOU’LL PROBABLY AGREE, FILMMAKER MIXER, THE SPOILER ROOM, 80’s MOVIE MONTAGE, REEL TALK WITH CHUCK & PAM and CINEMA JAW.
A special thank you to all of the wonderful folks at Allied Global Marketing who screen so many films for Chicago critics, as well as all the studios and streaming services who make such wonderful productions available to us before their premieres. You are amazing 365 days a year!
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, everyone! And be sure to go out to the cineplex and enjoy a movie…or two…or three.