I’m not going to get into a similarly long-winded introduction about the year in cinema ala J. Don Birnam (sorry, J!) — but I also didn’t write as many reviews for Above or Below the Line as he did either. So instead, we’ll just get right into it.
These are my top 15 movies of the year.
- Chevalier (Searchlight)
I first heard about this movie when I spoke to Nope composer Michael Abels last year, having a chance to see it at the Toronto Film Festival a few short months later. It tells the story of Joseph Bologne, as played by Kellvin Harrison Jr, a long-forgotten black composer during the reign of Marie Antoinette (played by Lucy Boynton) who makes the mistake of having an affair with Samara Weaving’s wife of a military-minded Marquis. Normally, I’m not a huge fan of costume dramas, but this one is special, with director Stephen Williams returning to feature films for the first time in decades and proving that he really should be directing more films.
- Jawan (Yash Raj Films)
I’m constantly trying to find time to watch more movies from Bollywood and Tollywood (the Southern Telugu-speaking portion of the country) and generally failing. I’m glad I made the time to see this action film that stars legendary Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan in a dual role. It’s almost impossible to get into the full plot in just a few short sentences, but everything from the group of women he puts together for various socially-aware heists– it reminded me of the fake “Fox Force Five” show mentioned in Pulp Fiction – to the full-blown musical dance number in a women’s prison, I enjoyed this as much or more than last year’s RRR. I really need to make more of an effort to see more movies from India, especially with Khan having another movie hitting theaters over the holidays, called Dunki.
- A Good Person (MGM)
Another one of this year’s more underrated early releases is the return of Zach Braff as a filmmaker, directing this drama starring Florence Pugh and Morgan Freeman as two people are deeply affected by the deaths of two acquaintances in a car crash in which the former was driving. Pugh and Freeman deliver performances which reminds you why they’re constantly in the awards conversations, though I’m saddened that it was released so early in the year that few even remember what is one of the year’s best.
- Sharper (Apple)
Another movie that came and went onto streaming with so little support from fellow critics was a huge breakthrough for television director Benjamin Caron, which could be seen as a modern-day The Grifters with a too-kill-for cast of Julianne Moore, Sebastian Stan, Justice Smith, Briana Middleton, and Jonathan Lithgow. Most of them play long-time confidence men and women who play a cat-and-mouse game to try to steal as much money as possible from one another. It’s such an intricate and well-conceived drama that it mystified me why so few people made an effort to watch it.
- Bruiser (Hulu)
I was pretty disappointed that Miles Warren’s terrific feature directorial debut came and went following its debut at the Toronto Film Festival and AFI Fest last year, being unceremoniously dumped to Hulu without much of a theatrical release. It stars the amazing young Jalyn Hall (Till) as Darious, a troubled teenager who befriends an ex-convict he meets named Porter (played by Trevante Rhodes from Moonlight), whose father (Shamier Anderson from John Wick Chapter 4) isn’t too happy about the two connecting. Just a terrific and underrated drama that I hope people discovered on Hulu.
- The Iron Claw (A24)
Sean Durkin’s story about the wrestlin’ Von Erichs family not only features a career-best performance by Zac Efron as the eldest son Kevin Von Erich, but a terrific cast with Holt McCallany delivering an equally-strong performance as Fritz, the Von Erichs patriarch. It’s a tough film to watch due to all the tragedy that befalls the Von Erichs, but it’s all so beautifully executed and acted that you hope that Durkin will continue to shake things up with his filmmaking decisions.
- The Beasts (Greenwich Entertainment)
Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s film set in a rural section of Spain has a French farming couple (Marina Foïs, Denis Ménochet) trying to achieve a fruitful harvest, only to encounter issues with their distrusting new neighbors, who do everything to make their lives miserable. One of the stronger foreign language films of the year that I just haven’t seen on enough year-end lists, even though it’s one of the more compelling looks at social dynamics between locals and immigrants in recent memory with fantastic performances all around.
- Wonka (Warner Bros.)
Believe me, I’m just as surprised to see this musical-comedy prequel to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, directed by Paul King (Paddington), in my Top 10, but you have to realize how much I love the Gene Wilder movie from the ‘70s, and even the Tim Burton–Johnny Depp one from 2005. Timothée Chalamet once again proved he is a mega-superstar in the making with his performance as the title character that borrowed from Wilder but he also made his own thing. He’s surrounded by a hilarious ensemble cast that includes Olivia Colman and Keegan–Michael Key, all singing gloriously catchy songs, that makes you smile from beginning to end and will even make you tear up a little.
- The Holdovers (Focus Features)
I was less surprised that Alexander Payne’s latest film ended up in my top 10, because I’ve been a fan of his for much longer, but I also connected to a lot of this story about a trio of misfits stuck together over the holidays at a private Massachusetts boarding school. This trio includes Paul Giamatti’s misanthrope history teacher, the school cafeteria, played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph, and a student played by newcomer Dominic Sessa. With a fantastic script by David Hemingson, it was so nice to see Payne return to the type of character-based filmmaking for which he’s been rightfully lauded.
- Carmen (Sony Pictures Classics)
Choreographer Benjamin Millepied’s directorial debut is indeed a unique modern take on the classic Bizet opera but instead of arias and other vocal exercises, it instead lent heavily on Millepied’s dance background to tell a love story between a Mexican woman, played by Melissa Barrera, and a former Marine border guard, played by Paul Mescal, who go on the run together after he kills a fellow guard protecting her. A film that’s joyously filled with music and creative dance in a way that’s usually relegated to Broadway musicals, though done in a far more artistic way. Think Alvin Ailey.
- Oppenheimer (Universal)
There’s no denying that watching Christopher Nolan’s magnum opus four times in theaters had a huge impact on where it ended up on this list, but it’s a movie that warrants multiple viewings if only to see that amazing Trinity test sequence repeatedly. Nolan told what could have been a dry and fairly emotionless story in such a way that it’s impossible to forget what you’ve watched. Cillian Murphy delivers the finest performance of his career but with equally terrific support from Emily Blunt and Robert Downey Jr, as well as Matt Damon, Rebeca Pugh, and many others. This is my favorite Nolan film since Inception, and it’s great to have him back at the top of his form after the disappointing Tenet.
- Streetwise (Dekanalog)
One of the year’s biggest surprises is this feature debut by Chinese filmmaker Jiazuo Na that got a release in the States over three years after its Chinese debut. It stars Li Jiuxiao as Dongzi, a young man in the small town of Zhenwu, who is put to work as a debt collector for a local mobster in 2004. His abusive mobster father also requres costly hospital treatment, which keps Dongzi working, even as he falls in love with the boss’s wife (Huang Miyi), who works at the local tattoo parlor. A film that blends noir crime storytelling with wry humor and some absolutely tragic moments, it was impossible not to fall in love with Streetwise when I saw it (just by chance) at my local arthouse, the Metrograph. I have a feeling that this film will be discovered for years to come, as others fall in love with it.
- The Creator (20th Century)
Gareth Edwards’ original science fiction epic really connected with me in unexpected ways. I was generally fascinated with its combination of standard sci-fi tropes involving man vs. machine, and how that was mixed with spiritualism in regards to the concept of “Nirmata,” literally the Nepalese word for the film’s title. John David Washington is a fantastic lead for this – again, more than making up for Tenet – but he is constantly at risk of being overshadowed by young Madeleine Yuna Voyles as the simulant Alphie, who might help the robots finally win their battle against the oppressive Americans. The type of big-screen filmmaking that sadly didn’t find as much an audience in theaters as it deserved.
- Past Lives (A24)
I was convinced that Celine Song’s directorial debut would remain my #1 movie for the entirety of the year, and it really did stay right up until September, but I just loved the subtlety in this story about a childhood romance that goes dormant for decades only for the two to reconnect as adults, once there’s no chance of any fire being rekindled.This really connected with me in a way that’s hard to put into words without getting very personal, but it’s a debut film on par with Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, which sadly, missed out on any Oscar love. Although I didn’t get to do any interviews for this one with Song or the cast, I did get to speak to composers Chris Bear and Daniel Rossen for Below the Line, because this really is one of my favorite scores of the year.
- Maestro (Netflix)
I was quite blown away by Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut, A Star Is Born, which in my opinion would have been second place to Green Book for Best Picture that year, but Maestro takes Cooper as a director to a new level in telling the story of legendary composer, Leonard Bernstein, through his relationship with wife Felicia, played by Carey Mulligan. Watching this film made me realize how little I knew about Bernstein besides seeing him conducting. Cooper co-wrote the screenplay with Oscar-winner Josh Singer (Spotlight) and proceeded to pull the viewer into the world of Lennie and Felicia, his wife who put up with a lot of his dalliances with young men as he lives his life in the closet. The movie is finally on Netflix after a few weeks in theaters, but hopefully, people had a chance to see it on the big screen with the best sound system possible.
Honorable Mentions: Joy Ride, The Burial, Flora and Son, Killers of the Flower Moon
Special Mention: 32 Sounds (Abramorama)
I first saw Sam Green’s documentary as a performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, months after it debuted virtually at Sundance, and as someone with a long history working in sound, I was quite fascinated by all the different ways from which he explored sound, not just in movies, but also just in our daily lives. Working with Oscar-winning Supervising Sound Editor and designer Mark Mangini (Dune) and composer JD Samson (from the band, Le Tigre), Green was able to turn this performance-driven film into a bonafide documentary with different iterations, including a headphone version, that made the film an actual experience even for those who weren’t able to see it live.
Five Other Great Docs:
Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie, directed by Davis Guggenheim
Beyond Utopia, directed by Madeleine Gavin
Stan Lee, directed by David Gelb
Wild Life, directed by Elisabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin
Every Body, directed by Julie Cohen
That’s pretty much it for 2023 with hopes that in 2024, the industry can fully recover from going right from a pandemic into a dual actors/writers strike. We really need to have a normal year, please, but with it being a Presidential Election year, we all know that this will be impossible.