Kevin’s Year-End-Review of 2023 in Film

by | Jan 26, 2024


2023 was a tumultuous year for cinema at least behind the scenes; just as it seemed that Hollywood was poised to recover from the strains brought onto the film industry by the COVID-19 pandemic, the WGA and SAG strikes took place and justifiably halted the system so the writers and actors involved could earn their fair share from streaming residuals and safe protections from artificial intelligence. Thankfully, both unions got all that and more after months of picketing, persistence and negotiation, and while that was going on in the streets of major cities, moviegoers everywhere had a lot of films to come to for comfort, self-exploration, information, illumination and joyful entertainment. 

In contrast, 2022 saw a plethora of films from abroad telling mesmeric narratives that suggested current social events in other countries were not unlike those in stateside life. While films from Norway and the United Kingdom had similar offers this year, American cinema had its own terrific rebound caused by the big studios and streamers alike putting their faith in the old and new generation of auteur directors, from Martin Scorsese and Christopher Nolan to Greta Gerwig and Yorgos Lanthimos. This resulted in the Barbenheimer phenomenon rocking the cultural zeitgeist, the biggest box office weekend since pre-COVID, and a solid body of films that made audiences ponder concepts they hadn’t before. Without further ado, here’s a look back at 2023 in film:

Worst Films (from 5-1): Hypnotic, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, Meg 2: The Trench, Five Nights At Freddy’s, Silent Night

Biggest Disappointments: Knights of the Zodiac, The Marvels, It Lives Inside, Moon Garden, The Flash

Overlooked Gems: Perfect Days, Sisu, All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt, Polite Society, Beau Is Afraid

Honorable Mentions: Dream Scenario, Godzilla Minus One, Thanksgiving, Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret., The Boy and the Heron

And now, on with the list:

15. The Starling Girl (Laurel Parmet)

The best film to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in 2023 remained resonant throughout the year in the form of The Starling Girl, a brutal yet lovely coming-of-age film about Jem Starling, a teenage girl blossoming into a woman as she pursues an innocent but intimate relationship with her much-older youth pastor, while also balancing the irrational demands of her fundamentalist Christian neighborhood as the leader of her church’s dance troupe. In her first feature film, writer/director Laurel Parmet depicts small town life with raw authenticity via handheld camerawork and naturalist cinematography that captures the beautiful intimacy and forbidden nature of the romance on-screen. This authenticity also extends to the words on Parmet’s script which details all the societal pressures of evangelical communities, and the suffocating effects on those privately suffering. What’s also commendable about The Starling Girl are the original song contributed by folk rock band Lord Huron and the powerful breakthrough performance from Eliza Scanlen. The Starling Girl is a remarkable film that solidifies Scanlen and Parmet as two names to keep on your radar. 


14. All Of Us Strangers (Andrew Haigh)

Andrew Haigh’s metaphysical narrative centered around queer loneliness was sadly ignored by the Academy when the Oscar nominations were announced, which is a shame because All Of Us Strangers is one of the most unique films of the year for its beautiful expression of writing and love’s spiritual powers. It also can be interpreted on a psychological level as an exploration of grief and regret, offering audiences the space to contemplate what they’d ask their loved ones before they’re gone. Special note must be made for the astonishing performance from Andrew Scott. Read the full review HERE.


13. BlackBerry (Matt Johnson)

Out of all the corporate biopics that told the story of a company’s rise and fall through cinema this year, the best of the bunch by a country mile was the Canadian one about Ontario-based tech startup Research In Motion’s meteoric success driven by their release of the world’s first smartphone: the BlackBerry. Co-writer/director Matt Johnson separates his third feature from all the other films in the subgenre with a handheld aesthetic that replicates the look of old VHS tapes for the first third only for its definition to grow higher as the years pass, a soundtrack which reflects youthful nostalgia and frenetic energy given the scene, and a brilliantly written relationship dynamic between the ill-fated corporation’s co-CEOs. Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) is a tech genius with no spine, and his business partner Doug Fregin (Matt Johnson) just wants to have fun making gadgets with his friends, but Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton, in an unrecognizable and commanding dramatic turn among the best performances this year) is a compelled and calculated shark amongst minnows who uses BlackBerry as a stepping stone toward his own impossible dream of owning a hockey team and moving it to Ontario. All three are boys in men’s clothing with their heads in the clouds instead of the product in front of them, and BlackBerry tells this cautionary tale impeccably well.


12. May December (Todd Haynes)

The last thing anyone would expect from a movie about a Hollywood actress studying a sex offender married to the child she groomed twenty years ago is for the story to be rife with humor, but leave it to the creative team of director Todd Haynes, producer Will Ferrell and writer Samy Burch to have the boldness to not only do just that, but also pay it off in spades with one of the year’s funniest films. May December is a pitch black satire of sociopathy anchored by great performances from two of the best actresses working today, while Charles Melton breaks through as the real victim in their selfish and twisted mind games. Read the full review HERE.


11. American Fiction (Cord Jefferson)

The push for diversity and inclusiveness across entertainment has come a long way since the days of the #OscarsSoWhite movement, but an ongoing problem hindering true progress that online discourse has made a good point to note is that the most successful Black films pander to white audiences by telling stories about life in the ghetto to the point of becoming tired. Pervical Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure wasn’t afraid to attack that roadblock in the literature scene and neither is American Fiction as its feature film adaptation; the plot of which remains unchanged from the original source material. Struggling writer Thelonious “Monk” Ellison embarks on writing a book playing into all the Black stereotypes that white America enjoys being fed as a cruel prank, but to his surprise and subsequent disappointment, the book is a hit. The sharp jabs American Fiction makes toward the publishing industry and entertainment by extension may be easy to make today, but the fact they’re timely now is a testament to the prescience of the source material. 

What makes American Fiction so fascinating, however, is how well it juxtaposes its biting satire with a humanist story carried by a well-rounded main character. Monk sees himself as a civilized example of Black excellence, yet whose academia and ambition as an author distance him from the struggles of the common African American, and tragic circumstances beyond his control force him to repair that rift by navigating his family life between reconnecting with his drug addicted brother, caring for his mother in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, and exploring romance with a neighbor. And Jeffrey Wright puts in tremendous work as well, lending emotional moments with realistic restraint and projecting Monk’s authorial frustrations with cutting bite, as if Wright has pent-up resentment himself but kept it cool for his two decades plus as a character actor. Make no mistake, American Fiction is a cool movie for being as hilarious and sharp as it is affecting and cathartic, and also possesses the best F-bomb of 2023.


10. Killers of the Flower Moon (Martin Scorsese)

No one has contributed more to cinema and protecting its history than filmmaker Martin Scorsese, so it would make sense that in the twilight of his life, he would use the narrative form as an epic means of preservation by bringing to light a true crime story rarely taught from school textbooks. Enter Killers of the Flower Moon, a film adaptation of the novel from the same name which details the real life accounts of the Osage tribal murders in 1920s Oklahoma. The film spends a respectful amount of time on establishing the Osage ideals, their spiritual beliefs and how they see the elements of nature, and Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio put in phenomenal work, as expected, with the latter going the extra mile in later scenes to replicate the former’s facial expressions and quirks in frightening fashion. But it’s Lily Gladstone who is sure to break through with her performance as Mollie Burkhart, who keeps remarkable resolve in intimate scenes, while reacting in heartbreaking horror at each atrocity committed against her Native American tribe.

On the directorial front, Scorsese’s career-long commitment to authenticity shines through here in a well curated soundtrack full of 1920s blues, lovely period costumes and a script where the vocabulary and dialect of characters are true to the story’s era and location. The editing also aids in conveying a commitment to preserving this terrible part of American history on celluloid through starting reminiscent as a silent film, and then periodically cutting to photographs of the Native Americans as they’re taken by the wolves in sheep’s clothing that are their white allies. Some audience members may feel the run time in sporadic points, but this epic needs to be long for us to see these characters feel the consequences of their actions, and to be gobsmacked at our nation’s ultimate failure to deliver adequate justice. Overall, Killers of the Flower Moon serves an important purpose as a historical testament against systemic racism perpetuated by white elites, and another masterwork from its legendary craftsman.


9. Sick of Myself (Kristoffer Borgli)

Norwegian filmmaker Kristoffer Borgli burst onto the scene with a humongous one-two punch of psychological dark comedies: Dream Scenario was admittedly the one to break out with American audiences thanks to the star power of Nicolas Cage, but the superior film was made in his homeland and establishes him as a Kaufmanesque director with a sharper bite. The focus of Sick of Myself is on Signe, a woman starving for attention from her artist boyfriend as he breaks into the mainstream. Her pursuits start out as feigning the effects of a nut allergy she doesn’t have at a dinner party but morph into something truly monstrous when she gives herself a severe skin disease that places her in the spotlight of local news media and ascends her to international stardom at the expense of her health and well-being. 

Sick of Myself boasts a darkly funny script that merges thoughtful satire of celebrity with terrifying body horror, an affecting lead performance from Kristine Kujath Thorp, and a directorial approach that conveys the narcissist thought process to a perfect T, forcing audiences to confront the inner egotist within us all. What’s also worth noting is how Borgli makes the city of Oslo a character in and of itself by displaying its massive metropolitan architecture in such a way that it’s no wonder why Signe feels so small.


8. Barbie (Greta Gerwig)

What was conceived as the start of yet another cinematic universe turned into a cultural phenomenon with critics and audiences alike on its way to becoming the highest-grossing film of 2023, and it’s certainly justified in holding that title: Barbie could have been a soulless, lazy commercial for the iconic Mattel toy brand, but director Greta Gerwig balances hysterical self-aware humor and the absurd situations in which Barbie and Ken find themselves upon entering the real world with just enough nostalgia and ideas that assist the film as an introduction to feminism for children of all ages. 

Meanwhile, adults appreciate the film as a celebration of femininity through strength in unity, as well as an examination on the patriarchy’s effects on men; Barbie goes the extra mile to suggest that Ken isn’t the villain in this plot despite his attempts to transform Barbie World into a land of Mojo Dojo Casa Houses. He’s a meatheaded moron who got caught up in the system’s demands and destroyed his relationship with Barbie as a result. Barbie is not only an equal parts surreal and hilarious blockbuster with something for everyone to enjoy, but also a powerful prodding of Barbie’s cultural impact since her debut on shelves, and serves as her evolution from a symbol of girl power in the workforce to one of self-acceptance and feminine camaraderie. 


7. The Iron Claw (Sean Durkin)

The cinematic retelling of the tragic but true story of the von Erich wrestling brothers is devastating but necessary nevertheless for its important messages about men’s mental health and the exceptional dramatic turn from Zac Efron as Kevin von Erich. The Iron Claw celebrates 80s professional wrestling with an authentic reflection of its TV presentation at the time, while also suggesting the irrational standards of the industry and masculinity at the time contributed to the family curse lifted only by vulnerability after unfathomable misfortune. Read the full review HERE. 


6. Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse (Joaquim Dos Santos, Justin K. Thompson and Kemp Powers)

This might be by far the most art-conscious and thoughtful superhero film to come out in quite some time. Across The Spider-Verse improves upon its sublime predecessor in every way, even in the visual department by adding subtle instances of amazing artistry to an already kinetic and creative animation style; all the color changes that take place as tension builds between Gwen and her father, and how the painted-on backgrounds run at their emotional crescendos are just two examples of unbelievably beautiful and powerful storytelling. Credit must be also given to the soundtrack’s producer Metro Boomin and all the contemporary hip-hop and trap artists recruited to create a body of songs that capture Miles’ youthful energy, urban culture, and emotional states in an aurally pleasing way that matches the gorgeous vibrancy of this sequel’s visuals.

Across The Spider-Verse also excels through its wonderful script; not only by building Miles’s dynamic with his parents and well-written dialogue, but also through deconstructing the very nature of the tragedies behind our favorite superheroes. There’s something very meta and subversive going on begging to be fleshed out, but the movie ends leaving audiences begging for more, albeit in a good and bad way. That said, while Miles’s story here feels like the first half of an unfinished story, it’s worth debating that Gwen’s arc is the one at front and center here, but that’s for another viewing to decide. What is certain, though, is that the action sequences remain exciting, the Easter eggs are fun to discover, and Across The Spider-Verse is another standout entry for the superhero genre and the output of Sony Pictures Animation.


5. Poor Things (Yorgos Lanthimos) 

Yorgos Lanthimos has never been weirder or more grand than his bizarre tour de force Poor Things. The film adaptation of the Alasdair Gray novel from the same name apes classic Universal horror films and colorful landscapes that are Daliesque in their vibrancy with a demented sense of humor, an indescribable soundtrack and a physically demanding performance from Emma Stone, who handles Bella Baxter’s growth from rebirth to adulthood with miraculous progression. There really hasn’t been a surrealistic epic like this in quite some time. Read the full review HERE.


4. Oppenheimer (Christopher Nolan)

Christopher Nolan’s adaptation of the novel American Prometheus is a tale of three films: a celebration of the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, a criticism of the man J. Robert Oppenheimer, and a condemnation of the American system that used his genius for vindictiveness. That may sound like a film that bites off more than it can chew within a three-hour runtime, but Nolan guides his directorial hand with a mastery of non-linear storytelling, weaving back and forth between three separate timelines with fluid pacing that helps the story flow down a plethora of avenues in exploring Oppenheimer’s achievements and personal life as well as his genius abilities as a physicist, first on the page by eloquently describing physics as ‘the music of the world’, and emphasizing that visually with beautiful abstract tapestries of the atoms and elements that invisibly surround casual audiences who can’t comprehend them in dazzling practical effects. 

Credit must also be given to the massive ensemble full of talented character actors led by Cillian Murphy who ambles through Los Alamos transfixed by his wonder with the scientific possibilities of Project Trinity paired with repressed regret and guilt bubbling toward the surface during his post-war deposition, but his political foe Lewis Strauss is portrayed with sinister restraint by Robert Downey Jr., who disappears into the role like a chameleon. What’s also ever changing throughout Oppenheimer is the uncanny musical score from Ludwig Goranson and breathtaking cinematography that communicates the suspiciousness of political thrillers from the past with high contrast black and white, and aspect ratio shifting that always frames the titular genius as the titanic god in human flesh he yearned to be, only to be forced to cope with the guilt and consequences of being the destroyer of worlds. Christopher Nolan’s epic masterwork amounts to a phenomenal character study of a man fascinated by science only to forget humanity’s own significance upon getting swept up by the very system that betrayed him, took his literal ball of mass destruction and ran with it. 


3. Past Lives (Celine Song)

For a long time, Celine Song’s debut feature and Sundance smash hit Past Lives topped this particular list, and it’s easy to see why it held onto the spot for so long. The decades-spanning love story between two childhood sweethearts separated after one emigrates from South Korea to America boasts a heartrending performance from Greta Lee, a thoughtful script that beautifully conveys the intimacy of romantic relationships, and expert direction that allows us to ponder what’s going on inside the minds of its characters, and think about who we were at different points in our lives, and who we are becoming now and in the future. Read the full review HERE.



2. The Holdovers (Alexander Payne)

The simple narrative of an intellectual professor of ancient civilizations at prestigious Barton Academy assigned to supervise the select few students unable to leave their boarding school for holiday break had all the elements to be something saccharine: an arc that sees its main character grow from a strict curmudgeon to a forgiving father-esque figure to a troubled student topped off with a Christmas setting, but what makes The Holdovers one of the most extraordinary films of the year is the poignant humanity from David Hemingson’s script based on an original story and put on screen successfully by director Alexander Payne, who is no stranger to stories following characters plagued with regret, having done so with The Descendants and Nebraska. 

For his latest film, Payne succeeded in telling this story in the style of an early 1970s coming-of-age story, complete with imperfect camera zoom-ins and outs, a filmic grade that makes colors warmer and cooler given the time of day, and even by starting the film with retro title cards to transport viewers back to one of the most socially tumultuous times in American history and asks us to think about our own regrets. And the titular holdovers are performed with naturalist work from its small ensemble cast; Paul Giamatti exudes intimidating authority, proud dignity lonely sorrow and dry wit with every word of Paul Hunham’s massive vocabulary, and newcomer Dominic Sessa breaks through as rebellious Angus Tully, but it’s Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s nuances that steal the show as cafeteria manager Mary Lamb’s grief over her son’s death in the Vietnam War ekes out quietly in each of her scenes until a song impels it into an explosion. For Alexander Payne, The Holdovers is not only a considerable return to form after the colossal disappointment of Downsizing, but the results amount to one of the most delightful, touching and poignant dramedies to come out in recent memory.


1. The Zone of Interest (Jonathan Glazer)

Jonathan Glazer horrified and made audiences think about our birth from evil to well-rounded humanity and back again nine years ago with Under The Skin, and this year he returned with a profound meditation on evil and its genesis by our leaders and our loved ones in The Zone of Interest. Adapting the novel of the same name by Martin Amis to film sets viewers into a time where Hell on earth existed, makes them wish they did more against those who tended it, and exposes us to the harrowing physical and mental effects of carrying out and fighting against evil. It’s a tough but important watch, and that’s why The Zone of Interest is the best film of 2023. Read the full review HERE.