Is it fair to say the cinematic output of 2023 produced an embarrassment of riches? Is it possible to be—gasp—optimistic as to where film will be next year, and the year after that? Having written posts like this one for over a decade now, I’ve often taken the opportunity to treat my top 10 films of the year list as also something of a “state of the union,” as it were. Admittedly, I’m just one more voice in the wilderness extolling the virtues of this or that film. But it’s remarkable to consider just how many versions of that voice there are now, how many top 10 variations there could be.
In any case, if you’re reading this, you’re somewhat interested in my opinion, or maybe just looking for something to watch and need a quick recommendation, any will do. On that note, I try not to take this all too seriously—this is just one man’s opinion, after all. Still, why not read on and get some ideas for what to watch next? There really is so much out there.
10. Perfect Days
To start us off, I’m calmly tucking this film here, despite its wider opening coming in 2024 (and other movies, like, say Hit Man also deserving of a little pre-release shine). Director Wim Wenders’ control of this material, his use of setting and music, and the lighter touches he brings to the film all work together to create a sense of magic. That’s before we get to Kôji Yakusho’s performance, which is perfectly modulated to match the movie. This is just filmmaking at a high level, full stop.
I’d almost forgotten about director Ninna Pálmadóttir’s little gem of a film, though it’s designed to appeal specifically to me. This is a deeply humanist story about an old eccentric (a superb Þröstur Leó Gunnarsson) left adrift in a new world he actually would like to connect with—even if he’s been alone too long and is now surrounded by people suspicious of his motives. Those shades of darkness do not destroy the film’s hopeful framing, however; in fact, they enhance them to a remarkable, almost impossible, degree.
8. Killers of the Flower Moon / The Zone of Interest
It’s a hedge to list both of these films together, two monuments of horror that also happen to be magnificent cinematic achievements. Martin Scorsese’s opus delivers what one would expect by marshalling every resource he still has at hand (including a superlative Robert De Niro and all-consuming music from the late Robbie Robertson); and Jonathan Glazer, in his way, matches him in intent, albeit in a strikingly different form. Both of these films are exactly what they set out to be—there’s no mystery here—and yet they retain a fearsome power and urgency, even and especially today.
I don’t need films to line up with my politics to be considered “good.” But I do appreciate when they describe a current state of affairs that actually reflects reality and steers away from typical cliches. (Bonus points if the films do so with a sense of force that mirrors said current state of affairs.) That’s director Daniel Goldhaber’s movie in miniature: a small “c” character study that doubles as a call to action. This is how the future could look—if we want it.
6. The Killer
Is director David Fincher making fun of hitman movies? Is he doing an honest-to-God critique of the gig economy? Is he thinking about what it means to sell your soul for money (assuming he, or you, or the film’s main character had one to begin with)? Is he just laughing at our (or even his) expense? The Killer is somehow both essential and inessential, deep and shallow, thrilling and boring, a puzzle to ponder over (even if its maker has already moved on).
5. The Holdovers
Maybe this movie was too easy for Alexander Payne to make, too obvious in its structure and effect and so on. Alternatively, maybe a movie like The Holdovers works because while everything about it feels inevitable, the pieces come together with a sense of harmony that overrides our cynicism. Yes, we’ve seen this before (from Payne even, and star Paul Giamatti too) and we know where this film is going. But so what? Enjoy.
I enjoy how vicious this film is in its little (Canadian) way, then how silly, and ultimately how sad. Unlike the other “brand” movies of the past year, director Matt Johnson’s film was the only one to capture all of those sentiments—while not making us feel stupid for rooting for a CEO (even one as sublime as Glenn Howerton’s Jim Balsillie). Was I specifically swayed by the use of Slint on the soundtrack? Maybe, but that’s just the power of cinema, man.
For better or worse, no one else alive right now is making films the way Christopher Nolan decided to make this one. What else is there to say?
2. Swan Song
There’s a specific story in director Chelsea McMullan’s documentary, that of Canadian legend Karen Kain, an artist of tremendous importance to this country and her chosen practice. This film could have been just that, a laudatory recounting of Kain’s achievements over the decades. That it enlivens that notion with something else—the creation of an epic final ballet production before Kain’s retirement—quite literally took my breath away. Even if you care not for ballet, this is a unique and stirring film.
1. May December
Pick any direction you want and then think about director Todd Haynes’ latest film along those lines. Every which way you may head in that personal or artistic or critical journey gets you somewhere interesting; every idea leads us to appreciate something else, to consider this or that element differently, working together and apart to achieve something special—however affecting, funny, or unsettling that may be. To me, May December is why we go to the movies.