Like the winds of winter and solstice celebrations, an annual best-of-the-year list from movie critics is inevitable as the calendar flips to January. So here’s a survey of my Top 10 live-action narrative feature films for 2023 — in alphabetical order. I couldn’t possibly see every release over the past 12 months, but of the ones I caught, these were standouts!
An impressive debut feature film from director and screenwriter Cord Jefferson, American Fiction delivers crackling satire in the context of an interpersonal dramedy. Mostly, it’s a spiky, funny and savvy gander at the inescapable impact of racial stereotyping, social status, and public perception in the digital world. Jeffrey Wright is superb as Monk, an intellectually evolved but self-important Black scholar and author from a well-to-do, yet dysfunctional background that plagues him. Monk’s career takes an unexpected turn when he cranks out a faux ghetto memoir as a joke — and it becomes a sensation.
The darkly comic and thoughtful Dream Scenario is the latest showcase for Nicolas Cage’s talents, offering one of his finest performances. Here, he’s a hapless college professor, whose career and marriage are in a rut — until millions of people suddenly begin seeing him in their dreams, turning him into a celebrity. As the phenomenon of his benign nocturnal appearances goes viral, he tries to profit off it, but things change as quickly as they started. Kristoffer Borgli, who wrote the bracing script and directed it with flair, has given Cage what is truly a dream role in a movie with astute and less than flattering things to say about modern culture and society.
Thrown together during Christmas break at a New England prep school in 1970, a mean-spirited teacher, an emotionally damaged student who can’t go home for the holidays, and the facility’s taciturn head cook create an unlikely bond over the course of director Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers. Veteran actor Paul Giamatti as the teacher and newcomer Dominic Sessa as the student are superb, while Da’Vine Joy Randolph as the cook deserves every accolade sure to come her way. Despite its chilly 1970s setting, it’s a timeless slice of humanity — a wise and moving film that is one of the best from Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt).
‘HOW TO BLOW UP A PIPELINE’
An unlikely team of environmental activists take on the fossil fuel industry and more in one of the smartest and best-executed thrillers in ages. How to Blow Up a Pipeline, featuring a cast of relative unknowns, offers detailed portraits of its committed group of rebels and how they came together and a super-tense depiction of their plan and how it might or might not achieve their ends, as the possibility of failure, incarceration, or death looms large. Adapting the eponymous book by Andreas Malm in cinéma vérité style, director-coscreenwriter Daniel Goldhaber has delivered a topical, relevant, and thoroughly volatile mix of action, mystery, character study, and treatise.
‘KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON’
Venerable master of the cinematic arts Martin Scorsese adds another triumph to his decorated filmography with an expansive, stirring investigation into the notorious Reign of Terror that plagued the Osage Nation in Oklahoma during the 1920s. Despite a running time of almost three and a half hours, Killers of the Flower Moon never lags. It’s a historical epic about the persecution of the Native American population, a murder mystery and police procedural, a love story, a multiple-family saga, and a tale of culture clash — expertly orchestrated by Scorsese and enriched by note-perfect performances from Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Jesse Plemons, and Lily Gladstone.
Hirokazu Koreeda is the world-class Japanese director whose profoundly affecting movies include Shoplifters, Broker, and the incredibly heartbreaking Nobody Knows — all of which have to do in one way or another with the provenance of children at risk. He continues his impressive string with Monster, an insightful film that also concerns child welfare, although this time in the context of school bullying, parental neglect, and the implicit failings of educational systems. Koreeda additionally addresses the ways perspective impacts our notions of reality and how different points of view distort or only show a small part of the bigger picture.
A true blockbuster at three hours long, Oppenheimer is filmmaker Christopher Nolan’s lush, epic, and meticulously rendered movie biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb, and it has all the majesty and fearful power of a nuclear explosion. Cillian Murphy (Peaky Blinders) is complex and haunting as Oppenheimer, the brilliant, left-leaning physicist whose visionary approach to building a bomb that would defeat the Axis in World War II launches the Atomic Age. With Robert Downey Jr., Matt Damon, and Kenneth Branagh among the cast members expertly portraying Oppy’s friends, colleagues and nemeses, Florence Pugh as his lover, and Emily Blunt as his wife, Oppenheimer is never less than thrilling, absorbing, and meaningful.
Stunning in every sense of the word, Poor Things is the latest ambitious, idiosyncratic presentation from maverick Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, reimagining the tale of Frankenstein as unhinged social commentary mixing body horror, sexual politics, feminist manifesto, and a Candide-like coming-of-age story. It takes us to Britain in the late 1800s and the lab of a deformed, controlling genius (Willam Dafoe) who resurrects a dead young woman named Bella. Brought to life (so to speak) in magnificent fashion by Emma Stone, the reborn Bella has to learn or relearn what it means to be human from scratch, her autonomy, capabilities, and desires growing after she runs off with a conniving lawyer (Mark Ruffalo).
‘THE TASTE OF THINGS’
Set in the sylvan French countryside, circa 1885, The Taste of Things is a beautiful, passion-infused, and appetite-sharpening mix of Belle Époque period drama, love story, and foodie movie from award-winning French-Vietnamese filmmaker Tran Anh Hung (The Scent of Green Papaya). It features an incandescent Juliette Binoche as Eugenie, whose kitchen skills have enhanced the reputation of her boss Dodin as one of the great chefs of the era. Dodin, played by Benoît Magimel, decides to woo Eugenie and get her to commit to their two-decade romance by preparing exquisite meals for her. And we’re party to the preparation and consumption of these glorious repasts.
‘THE ZONE OF INTEREST’
Chilling and rightfully chilly, The Zone of Interest is British director and coscreenwriter Jonathan Glazer’s adaptation of the eponymous novel by Martin Amis about the mundane, albeit privileged family life of SS officer Rudolf Höss while he serves as the commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II. Höss, his wife, and children live in a nice house next door to the camp, going about their daily endeavors, entertaining guests, and seemingly unfazed by the unspeakable evil happening beyond their garden wall. Even if we never see the nightmarish suffering in the camp, this take on the Holocaust doesn’t lessen the horrific fact of what’s happening off screen.
MICHAEL’S 15 MORE TOP MOVIES OF 2023
Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3
The Iron Claw
Leave the World Behind
No One Will Save You
The Royal Hotel
A Thousand and One
MICHAEL’S 10 MORE TOP FOREIGN-LANGUAGE MOVIES OF 2023
Anatomy of a Fall
The Promised Land
The Quiet Girl
The Teachers’ Lounge
Tori and Lokita
The Worst Ones
MICHAEL’S TOP FIVE ANIMATED MOVIES OF 2023
The Boy and the Heron
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse
Michael Snyder is a print and broadcast journalist who covers pop culture on The Mark Thompson Show, via YouTube, iTunes and I Heart Radio and on Michael Snyder’s Culture Blast, via GABNet.net and Roku. You can follow Michael on Twitter: @cultureblaster.