The 10 best movies of 2023: ‘The Holdovers’, ‘Oppenheimer’ and more

I cannot tell a lie: 2022 was kind of a bummer, movie-wise. As the year ended, I was hard-pressed to come up with 10 titles I genuinely loved.

The pickings were so slim, I worried about the future of the movies, not just as art or mass entertainment, but as communal events that are central to our culture.

What a difference this year made. Whether it was hordes of 8-year-olds storming the cinemas to sing along with Taylor Swift, or a little movie about a former US government agent rescuing children from sex traffickers, suddenly people had reasons to go to the movies again.

What they found, as often as not, were women trying to break free of societal constraints, a theme that seems to have reached full expression in the years following the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements.

Adventurous audiences found plenty to value in the independent sphere, whether it was outstanding documentaries like The Mission, Kokomo City, The Eternal Memory, Sly and The Disappearance of Shere Hite, or foreign-language films like Other People’s Children, L’immensitá, Close, No Bears and Fallen Leaves.

And this was a banner year for first-time film-makers, who brought exceptionally strong voices and visions to rivetingly original stories: A.V. Rockwell gave Teyana Taylor a dazzling showcase in the tough and tender mother-son drama A Thousand and One“; Jamie Dack created the year’s most disturbingly effective portrait of sex trafficking with “Palm Trees and Power Lines“; comedian Ray Romano made an assured directing debut with the sweetly nostalgic family drama “Somewhere in Queens”; Charlotte Regan and Raven Jackson made wildly different but equally poetic and powerful films about girls coming of age in “Scrapper” and “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt“, respectively.

Any one of those films could easily have ended up on my top 10 list this year, which was a stunner, not a bummer. Here’s hoping the trend continues apace.

10. ‘Origin’

Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of Isabel Wilkerson’s book “Caste” stars Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor as Wilkerson herself, in a story that weaves her personal story of loss and grief into her search for a theoretic construct for oppression that transcends race.

The result is a film that, like Wilkerson’s mission, invents a new language, combining drama and documentary to get at some of the most profound and politically complex realities of human experience with depth, emotion and raw honesty.

9. ‘Air’

This was the year of product placement, from the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos movie to the delightful comedy-drama “BlackBerry“, about the eponymous, still-lamented handheld device.

WITH Air, director Ben Affleck told the story of the Nike Air Jordan basketball sneaker with verve and alert intelligence, convening Matt Damon, Chris Messina and Jason Bateman in terrific supporting roles and then sending it all into the stratosphere with Viola Davis as Jordan’s mother, Deloris.

This is the kind of movie they don’t make anymore, until they do. Thank goodness.

8. “Reality”

Tina Satter adapted her own play for this movie about National Security Agency leaker Reality Winner, portrayed in an astonishing performance by a de-glammed Sydney Sweeney.

Unfolding in real time, as Winner is apprehended and questioned by FBI agents in her Augusta, Ga., home, the film is taut, tense, borderline tragic and often absurdly funny.

Sweeney, so adept at playing bad girls, is a revelation as a young woman who’s vulnerable and canny in fascinatingly equal measure.

7. “Past Lives”

Like Satter, writer-director Celine Song made a notably promising feature debut this year, with a movie that seemed built from small moments, all of which accrued to a devastating final scene.

Greta Lee stars as a young woman whose family emigrated from South Korea to Canada when she was a child. When she reconnects with her long-lost might-have-been-boyfriend (Teo Yoo), her marriage to an American writer (John Magaro) is upended.

Delicate, deeply felt and beautifully calibrated, Past Lives left an impression all the more indelible for being made so softly.

6. ‘Joan Baez I Am a Noise’

The 1960s folk icon embarks on her final tour in this superbly constructed film by Karen O’Connor, Miri Navasky and Maeve O’Boyle, but what starts out as a goodbye chronicle turns into something far more revealing and surprising than viewers expect.

Still galvanisingly charismatic in her early 80s, Baez holds nothing back in this disarmingly intimate film, in which she explores her lifelong anxieties and buried traumas, as well as her early rise to stardom; her relationships with men, women and family; and the continuing mystery that is that sublime, still-powerful voice.

5. ‘Barbenheimer’

What, you thought I had forgotten? When it came to cultural currency, no proof of concept was more thrilling than 2023’s most ecstatically received twofer.

A movie about Mattel’s most cherished plastic doll had no right to be as smart, aware, hilarious and structurally ungovernable as Greta Gerwig’s Barbie ‒ millions of people not only ate it up, but also went back for more.

What better palate cleanser than Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan’s technically pristine, densely layered portrait of Manhattan Project leader J. Robert Oppenheimer, portrayed with haunting verisimilitude by Cillian Murphy.

Robert Downey Jr. commanded the screen as Oppenheimer critic Lewis Strauss, and Emily Blunt went from blowsy to ballistic as Oppenheimer’s fiercely loyal wife Kitty.

A lean-in movie that rewards the undivided attention it demands.

4. ‘Anatomy of a Fall’

Sandra Hüller is note-perfect as the prickly, prideful, unapologetically space-taking writer at the centre of Justine Triet’s tricksy murder mystery.

The whodunit question is whether Hüller’s character pushed her husband out the window of their snowbound chalet; the real questions have more to do with love, family, sex roles and the norms ‒ and ties ‒ that bind.

Triet’s portrait of a marriage exerts an appeal similar to Hüller’s enigmatic wife and mother: chilly and seductive at the same time.

3. ‘You Hurt My Feelings’

Nicole Holofcener’s latest dramedy stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Tobias Menzies as a writer and therapist whose marriage hits a rough patch when she overhears him candidly critiquing her latest book.

My devotion to Holofcener has been well-documented elsewhere; suffice it to say that she has once again managed to combine pain, humour and wince-inducing recognition in a film of observant wit and wisdom.

2. ‘The Holdovers’

Paul Giamatti and Da’Vine Joy Randolph co-star in this 1970s-set picaresque by Alexander Payne (working from a script by David Hemingson).

Giamatti and Randolph play a teacher and cook at a snooty New England prep school who are trapped there over winter break; hilarity doesn’t ensue as much as simmer under the surface, as a troubled student played in a fabulous breakout performance by newcomer Dominic Sessa tests his elders’ boundaries, culminating in a classic Payne road trip of healing and discovery.

Funny, sad, exhilaratingly humanistic, The Holdovers brims with life.

1. ‘American Fiction’

Of all the feature film-making debuts this year, the most triumphant is Cord Jefferson’s adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel Erasure, about an African American writer’s attempt to game the racist parameters of the White liberal publishing world, while simultaneously dealing with some gnarly family issues.

effrey Wright finally gets the starring role he’s so long deserved in a movie that somehow manages to be a sharply pointed satire while also being incredibly warm and appealing.

This is the kind of movie that succeeds gloriously in checking all the boxes, even as it makes fun of checking all the boxes and that’s a fact. -IOL

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