It’s big, it’s bad, and it’s back! Turns out rumors about the death of cinema were highly exaggerated and this year was an absolute banger from indie bantam to badass blockbuster. The trickle of festival films has finally come to a near-close as we step into 2023 and I’ve been able to catch up on almost everything. While we’re only now stepping fully back into the theatres I think this was a banner year and I’m overjoyed to have seen a whopping 102 films released in the calendar year! Brash, beautiful, dumb, and at times depraved, it all came together as a magical set of experiences that I’ll always remember fondly.
…that and the five times I saw Top Gun: Maverick in the theatre. That thing goddamn ripped.
It is tradition around here to drop some of my honorable mentions. There may be ten favorites from the last twelve months but that doesn’t even begin to cover the plethora of wonderful films I saw this year. I urge you to seek out each of these magnificent features and give them a whirl!
- Klondike – Some films punch you right in the gut, double you over, and ask that you think about the breadth of modern human existence. Maryna Gorbach’s film paints a picture of Ukraine that is not wholly unfamiliar. I’m not talking about the stuff you see in the news, but rather the idea that friends and neighbors can become radicalized and people just trying to live their lives get lost in the cracks. The amount of tension that mounts each and every second of its 100-minute runtime brings a new sense of danger and anger as families break apart, marriages wind up in peril, and friends lie to each other over something as petty as a sense of power in a crumbling world. It’s a devastating portrait of humanity and one that is wholly accurate in the present climate. Read my full review here and I’ll be sure to let you know when this becomes available to stream.
- We’re All Going to the World’s Fair – Have you ever thought of your youthful experiences as trauma or horror you experienced? Jane Shoenbrun’s sophomore effort delineates the idea of an online obsession and an inability to separate fantasy from reality. Nothing is more frightening than a loss of reality and when a game of make-believe blurs the lines and your mind can no longer separate it from fiction things start to come off the rails. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair builds to its quietly frightening climax with confident ease, each moment of it led by lead actress Anna Cobb, and it culminates in a moment that’s so disturbingly dismissive that it left me shaken. Check the film out on HBO Max.
- Barbarian – Look, there’s almost nothing that could have prepared me for the events unfolding in Zach Cregger’s feature film debut. This is a risky, weird movie that only works if the correct performances are captured in specific ways. Luckily they had Georgia Campbell, Bill Skarsgård, and one final key player that tied the whole thing together. I had no idea this was coming, had heard nothing about it, and saw it because…well, I have that AMC A-List thing and on nights my partner works I’ll head out and see a flick on a lark. I’m glad I took the time because Barbarian is one of the most bugnuts films of 2022 and the best horror I saw this year. It’s hilarious, unsettling, and perhaps at its best when you recognize behavior that does and should freak you out in the film’s gripping characters. Read my full review here and check the film out on HBO Max.
- Banshees of Inisherin – We love Colin Farrell, don’t we folks? He’s excellent when paired with Brendan Gleeson and this serves as the second outing for the pair in a Martin McDonagh movie. Each moment of sincere snark mixes with anguish, rage, and depression to culminate in such hyperviolence that I couldn’t help but cackle. The war between friends, started only because one decided he didn’t like the other anymore, surely has nothing to do with what’s going on in the mainland clashes (heard through gun and canon fire at all times) and everything to do with the contents of a pony’s shite. It’s a silly film but one laden with deep sadness and need; a much-appreciated turn after the disappointment I felt in Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri. Check the film out on HBO Max.
- Decision to Leave – Who would have thought the sexiest movie moment of the year would be Tang Wei borrowing Park Hae-il’s chapstick, reaching gently into an inner pocket of his long coat to extract and apply while gazing into his eyes? Few movies left me in such utter shock as Park Chan-Wook’s Decision to Leave, though I shouldn’t have been surprised that the director of The Handmaiden had another highly sensual thriller in him but this is much more romantic, much more domestic, and such a wonderful departure. The director has made one of my top ten lists before and is such a delightful treat every time he drops a new feature. Check the film out on Mubi.
I also just wanted to say that I’ve been on a journey with James Cameron throughout my whole life. I think The Terminator is better than T2: Judgement Day and that Aliens is not quite as good as the film that came before. It took me most of my life to come around on Titanic. I’ve never come around to Avatar but his sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water, was absolutely my jam and I loved it to pieces! I cannot in good faith recommend the film to anyone waiting to watch it at home because it exists solely to be viewed in the place we go for magic – the big screen theatre.
And now on with the show!
10. Pinocchio – Look at this beautiful boy right here! Guillermo del Toro’s lovely adaptation of this classic tale takes a new angle, moving the action to WWII-era-Italy so that he can discuss his favorite topic – fascism and our need to constantly combat it. The heart of the film remains the sweet kid that revels in his newfound life, desperate to be loved and accepted as who he is without an asterisk, and the need to be a fully realized individual in his own right. It’s an ode to the idea of disobedience as the ultimate weapon against fearful conformity and one that comes with gorgeous animation to boot. You could not find a better way to spend a quiet evening than with one of the most heartwarming and kind films of the year, one that asks you to for nothing more than kindness. Netflix bungled the crap out of this film’s theatrical release, much like it did the wonderful Glass Onion, but now that it’s dropped on the streaming service you should give it a whirl! Read my full review here and watch the film on Netflix.
09. Bones & All – Everyone is an absolute treasure in Luca Guadagnino’s tale of cannibal romance. Teetering on the edge of a YA flick, the film is instead a viscerally sincere story of two lovestruck kids on the run in Reagan’s America, poor as dirt and barely surviving but happy in the company of one another. Timothée Chalamet may be what gets you in the theatre (or, like me, the name of the director and the promise of a BANGIN’ score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross) but the real reason to stay is breakout badass Taylor Russell. She delivers an excellent performance in a movie crowded with them, from the unsettling need of Mark Rylance’s Sully (“Life’s never dully with Sully!) to the broken terror of Chloë Sevigny Janelle Kerns. This was a great year for the hopeless romantic in all of us and while only a few films truly went for broke like this one. Each moment that Maren and Lee (Russell and Chalamet respectively) grow closer is endearing and wonderful, making the absolute terror of the hunger they feel even more frightening when they let loose. This is going to be a polarizing one for many but I just found it so damn sweet. Read my full review here and rent Bones & All on VOD today!
08. Armageddon Time – It’s fitting that so many films have decided to take a look back at a Reagan-obsessed America that’s not too far in the rearview mirror (and can’t get that way fast enough) and how it’s still relevant today. James Gray’s follow-up to Ad Astra continues to explore the relationship between a man and his father, expanding to include the director’s entire family and an experience he may or may not have had as a child. This sort of look back to youth is becoming quite common these days, from Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast to the most recent Spielberg offering, and I can’t help but feel a great amount of love for it. Stepping back to take stock of what made you is not an easy task and putting it out into the world, frank and nakedly as possible, is a difficult move and if the movie is great it only elevates what you want to do. James Gray has done so with Armageddon Time, a film that is about not only prejudice and persecution but the different levels at which many can experience it. The scene between Hopkins and newcomer Banks Repta in the park might be the scene of the year for me. You can read my full review here and rent/buy the film in all of the usual places.
07. Attack, Decay, Release – I’ve come a long way towards grasping the emotions behind Bitter Melon director H.P. Mendoza’s loving dedication to his husband. Originally conceived as an album, this beautiful piece of humanity is more of an experience than it is a traditional film. The original projection was on three screens with a dance floor in the middle and it only gets wilder once the film begins. Few filmmakers get this nakedly honest onscreen (though many are starting to do so) and Mendoza’s gorgeous ode to the beginning, current, and future of humanity was as moving as I could have ever hoped for. Compiled as an update to the aforementioned album (titled “Tomorrow”) as an idea to interpret the concept of “The Ark” for the Svane Family Foundation, Attack, Decay, Release exists as an object both modern and unbound by time. This may never exist in a way you can watch at home and it sort of has to be that way, dependant on the live experience to cast the full effect of its magic over the audience (that goddamned maniac came out with an electric ukelele and performed one of the songs live as a sing-a-long and it is maybe my favorite moment with a movie in 2023). I urge you to keep an eye on the director’s website so you don’t miss a showing near you! You can read my review here.
06. The Northman – I love Robert Eggers. My justification could stop right there, but the director of The Lighthouse and The VVitch has delivered another unquantifiable banger and we have to acknowledge why. Beyond the insanity of Willem Dafoe’s mad magician, Heimir the fool, and the left-field performance of Björk as a seeress we’re gifted with the shredded animalism of Alexander Skarsgård as our Hamlet stand-in. Perhaps the greatest performance of note is that of Nicole Kidman as the captured queen, wed to Fjölnir the brotherless and the object of salvation for Skarsgård’s Amleth. There’s a gritty brutality to Egger’s camera, boosted by his $90m budget and committed work from the whole crew (cinematographer Jarin Blaschke is the MVP of the film) to create something truly special. Even my excitement for this couldn’t have prepared me for how absolutely badass this one is, drenched in blood and sweat and with abs hard enough to grate cheese on as it stalks through Shakespeare and asks, “What if it were cooler?” I’d be hard-pressed to pick a favorite Eggers movie but The Northman is a strong contender and one of the best films this year. Read my full review here and watch The Northman on Amazon Prime.
05. Top Gun: Maverick – Look…it just rules. I get hesitant about all these legacy sequels to films long gone. There are struggles with making a sequel to films made ten years ago and 1986’s Top Gun is more of a music video with a story than it is a film (it’s also a romance between Val Kilmer and Tom Cruise, make of that what you will), but I can’t argue with the results of this long-awaited follow-up. Hollywood has always struggled with the idea of creating perfect sequels and turns out the answer isn’t serialized storytelling or casting the biggest names in every single role. Turns out the way to do it is just to make a good-as-hell movie and that’s what happened. It helps that this thing is under the creative control of Tom Cruise, a certifiably insane maniac that is a controversial figure amongst American filmgoers (his prominence in Scientology makes him a difficult figure for me) that is dedicated to creating the biggest stunts in the wildest ways. For Top Gun: Maverick they took a bunch of performers and strapped them in F-18s with cameras, a dangerous move that sounds like it was even harder to film and it pays off like a busted slot machine. It’s a great time at the movies (all five times I went) and just a wonderful motion picture. Read my full review here and watch the film (or rewatch it) on Paramount+.
04. Marcel the Shell with Shoes On – We’ve had a hard couple of years and I must admit…it’s gotten to me. The sensation of loneliness, that loss of community, was prevalent during the pandemic and I felt it quite acutely. We all need to connect, to gaze at the wide world in wonder, to stop and let the sound of the wind in our shell soothe us when we’re overwhelmed, and to smile because it’s worth it. Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is a lovely film starring Jenny Slate as the sweetest shell around. It’s a story of finding family, of found family, and the deep complications of friendship through shared grief. It’s gorgeously animated and wildly creative but the basic story is that of any human being – the desire for connection. Few films were as charming in 2023, but Marcel’s real strength is in his ability to seem part of each of our anxious experiences all at once. With a fun set of live-action and animation scored by electronic group Disasterpiece, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is a unique experience that I urge each of you to have. Read my full review here and rent/buy the film in all the usual places.
03. Tár – Bear witness to Cate Blanchett’s greatest performance, a haunted and cancelled master that’s lost her game and crumbles as her world implodes around her. Whether it’s describing herself as a “U-Haul lesbian” or her penchant for granting favors to younger women, this incredibly compelling and flawed figure aspiring to achieve something unique – to finish performing all of Mahler’s symphonies with a single orchestra. Hildur Guðnadóttir’s bafflingly beautiful score collides with the work of the masters to lift this darkly comic film to a new height (“Apartment for Sale” as winner of Best Original Song has a nice ring to it). Todd Field’s return to the silver screen is a bombastic and enthusiastic glance into orchestral life that pulls no punches with its views on masculinity, privilege, power, and cancel culture. It’s hilarious, silly, disturbing, and deeply fascinating in how it allows Blanchett to fully embody a character that requires such a physical presence. I spent months waiting to finally see this one and it was absolutely worth it. Read my full review here and rent/buy the film in all the usual places.
02. The Fabelmans – The king don’t miss. Steven Spielberg waited until his parents had died to unbox his feelings about their divorce onscreen (this divorce has defined American popular culture for decades) and the results were worth it. This could have been a navel-gazing, rose-colored view of his youth but instead the director has laid bare his views on human connection and the need to look at it through a lens he controls. From its opening moments to the final shot, The Fabelmans remains Spielberg to its core and expands our understanding of the director in a way that only he could convey. The final gag, which adheres to his standard of always leaving the audience on a high note, is a god-tier joke that took my breath away a little bit. Achingly sad, hilariously self-aware, and awkwardly introspective, The Fabelmans is perhaps the director at his most honest. It might be the best thing he’s released since 2001’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence and it’s a gorgeous film. Read my review here and rent/buy the film in all the usual places.
01. Three Thousand Years of Longing – Imagine one of the world’s most attractive people gazing into your eyes, into your very soul, and sincerely asking to grant your heart’s truest desire. So begins the most wonderful film of the year, kicking off a story that’s achingly romantic in a way that must be experienced to be understood. Elba and Swinton have some of the best chemistry that could be desired, but the real star of the film is its dedication to telling a story about stories. Who we are and where we’ve been are part of falling in love, the experiences colliding to make something wholly new and beautiful in the wake of both beauty and sorrow. Its present is poignant, its past vibrant and full of creative joy, and its future undetermined but full of love, Three Thousand Years of Longing is one of those momentous films that deserves to be remembered as an important step in the world of telling stories. George Miller keeps surprising audiences all over the world, but here he’s made something that’s as fleeting in the moment as a piece of Turkish delight and as lasting as the memory of pure belonging. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but for me the story of a djinn and a narratologist wound up being the most incredible film of the year and a favorite of mine for years to come. Read my full review here and rent/buy the film in all the usual places.