I don’t know whether Dune: Part Two would have ultimately made my year-end list, but its absence has been felt in the homestretch of a movie year defined by work stoppages, release-calendar shuffling, and backroom shenanigans. Also counting Batgirl, Coyote Vs. Acme, Challengers, and The Bikeriders, I can think of almost as many potentially enjoyable commercial movies that didn’t come out in 2023 as ones that did. There were multiplex pleasures to be had, of course (pour one out for John Wick, whose series peaked in Part 4), but in the end, not even a genuinely paradigm-shifting, zeitgeist-surfing blockbuster like Barbie—which, to give credit where it’s due, contained two inspired lead comic performances and a bunch of good one-liners—made the cut. Instead, here’s a list of titles that, by not being for everyone, sought out viewers attuned to their specific wavelengths. As fun as it is to head out (into the world or online) to look for movies, it’s even better when it feels like they’ve somehow found you.
Maybe I’m the problem: While I thought that measured ambivalence was the best response to Christopher Nolan’s billion-dollar biopic, I keep getting told I’m wrong by friends and strangers alike, that Oppenheimer is simply too accomplished—too structurally complex and thematically intricate; too ideologically sober and technically dazzling; too beautifully shot and vividly acted—to leave off any half-decent year-end list. (Some of these suggestions have not been very nice.) As somebody who’s always had mixed feelings about Nolan’s grandiose showmanship, I’ll concede that Oppenheimer represents a considerable achievement, and yet I’m not fully convinced that the film stands for much more than its own ingenious engineering—a monument to a filmmaker whose need to be at the top of the heap provides its own kind of psychodrama.
10. Afire and Knock at the Cabin
Two movies about having a bad time on vacation, and also about the end of the world as we know it. Contemplating climate change from the purview of COVID-fatigued 20-somethings yearning to breathe free, Christian Petzold’s Afire unfolds first as a sly comedy of manners—very bad ones in the case of wannabe novelist Leon (Thomas Schubert), a pretentious sourpuss who uses his MacBook as a shield against the idea of fun in the sun. From there, Petzold layers mumblecore-ish discomfort over larger, more apocalyptic anxieties: The title is a metaphor until it isn’t.
M. Night Shyamalan, meanwhile, isn’t much for subtext. He’s a heavy hitter who likes to swing for the fences. Knock at the Cabin is yet another fire-and-brimstone moral tale in which a houseful of flawed, sympathetic human beings end up bearing the weight of our collective sins; their grand inquisitor is a mountainous intruder played with uncommon sensitivity by Dave Bautista in what may be the best-ever movie performance by a WWE alumnus. Both films are funny, scary, tricky, precisely directed, and best understood within the larger contexts of their creators’ respective works—auteur pieces par excellence.
9. The Boy and the Heron
Hayao Miyazaki doesn’t make movies so much as build worlds, often piling one on top of the other so that reality and fantasy become contested territory. The Boy and the Heron begins by authentically depicting a country reeling at the end of World War II (including an indelible image of a Tokyo hospital in flames) before taking its preteen protagonist—and us—through a wormhole to an overcrowded, inscrutable fairy-tale realm. This second dimension’s palpable lack of stability—and the power vacuum that’s opened up on its top level, with plenty of unscrupulous characters hoping to fill it—is played variably for slapstick comedy, political critique, and existential terror. Miyazaki has perhaps made more elegant movies, but few imbued with such a sense of authorial presence—the late introduction of a Prospero-like wizard contemplating his own waning magic can’t help but read as an aging master’s rueful self-portraiture. The question of whether there’s anybody left in the world of animation to take up Miyazaki’s mantle remains open, but happily, word is that this won’t be his swan song.
8. Fallen Leaves
Leave it to the Finnish recidivist Aki Kaurismaki to make a fourth film in a trilogy: Fallen Leaves is so visually and tonally similar to its series predecessors Shadows in Paradise, Ariel, and The Match Factory Girl that it might have been made in the late 1980s. In fact, with all the drab, muted colors and lo-fi trappings, it could have been made in the 1950s; only a few intermittent radio updates about the Russia-Ukraine conflict place it clearly in our present tense. The setup is old-fashioned bordering on archetypal—boy meets girl—and the details evoke a kind of Kaurismakian checklist: loneliness; alcoholism; karaoke; adorable dog; check, check, check, check. (There’s also a welcome homage to his pal and kindred spirit Jim Jarmusch.) The strange alchemy by which the filmmaker renders the familiar sublime is worth pondering even as it distills down to the folk wisdom of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Faced with a bruised and battered world, Fallen Leaves merely soothes it, and that’s enough; of all the movies released in 2023, it’s the one with the most humane, satisfying ache.
7. The Killer
Ironically, the Smiths lyric that best suits David Fincher’s wry, Morrissey-soundtracked send-up of the millennial gig economy isn’t actually in the film: “It pays my way and it corrodes my soul” moans the narrator of 1986’s “Frankly, Mr. Shankly,” and the point of The Killer is that Michael Fassbender’s nameless, aimless assassin feels the same way. To quote Morrissey again (in the same song), he’s got the 21st century breathing down his neck. Dying is easy, comedy is hard, and Fincher—a perpetually deadpan sadist depicting a wayward world through stable frames—makes both propositions seem oddly effortless. It’s a mastery that could lead to The Killer being dismissed as business as usual instead of an entertainingly trenchant essay on that same Morrissey lyric.
6. All of Us Strangers
The year’s most haunting ghost story isn’t a horror movie, per se—the apparitions that appear to Adam, a London-based writer played by Andrew Scott, aren’t trying to scare him. But they do have unfinished business, and the premise of Andrew Haigh’s latest and most affecting feature—that for whatever reason, the protagonist is able to visit and converse with his late parents in his childhood home—has the shivery feeling of a fable. “Are you lonely?” Adam’s mother (played by Claire Foy) asks him, a question that’s heartbreaking in the film’s gently supernatural context but also resonates as part of its deeper project, which limns themes of intimacy and queerness with palpable empathy. Elsewhere, as Adam’s seductive but melancholy new lover, Paul Mescal gives a performance to equal his portrayal of a damaged dad in Aftersun.
5. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret
Coming-of-age movies are typically stitched together out of clichés. The miracle of Kelly Fremon Craig’s Judy Blume adaptation is that it sidesteps them without losing its footing; it’s a wonderful exercise in equilibrium. The balance begins with a superb script that retains Blume’s warm but unsentimental tone—the frank, funny voice that helped raise an entire generation of anxious, late-blooming readers—and extends through an ensemble cast whose work is too subtle and shaded to appeal to awards voters. In addition to Rachel McAdams’s note-perfect evocation of maternal devotion and doubt as the main character’s mom—a performance completely worthy of an Oscar—there’s terrific work by Benny Safdie (as Margaret’s likably laid-back dad), Kathy Bates (as her emotionally overbearing grandmother), and Abby Ryder Fortson in the title role, a bundle of nerves with crack comic timing.
4. May December
There aren’t many American filmmakers smarter than Todd Haynes, whose greatest gifts are his instinct for tricky, potentially controversial material and his knack for finding just the right way to frame it. The faint Lifetime movie outlines of May December aren’t a concession so much as an autocriticism; before he can satirize the multimedia mechanisms by which everyday transgressors become celebrities and fodder for the entertainment-industrial complex, Haynes has to implicate himself (and us) in the proceedings. Which is why, for all the glorious fun of watching Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman go at each other as an easily Googleable pariah and the actress studying to portray her in a new movie, the film’s heart and soul belong to Charles Melton as Moore’s husband, some 30 years her junior and forever trapped in the shadow of scandal.
3. Killers of the Flower Moon
“I do love that money,” smirks Leonardo DiCaprio’s thuggish Ernest Burkhart, no less an avatar of base greed than Henry Hill and Jordan Belfort. He’s a clod, and if it seems hard to understand why Lily Gladstone’s regal Mollie Kyle would fall for her white suitor (in both senses of the word), that’s the point: the forcible—yet still, strictly speaking, legal—remanding of valuable Osage resources and property to white caretakers in Oklahoma (and elsewhere) in the early 20th century was such a transparent power grab that it didn’t really fool anybody. The “Reign of Terror” dramatized in Martin Scorsese’s nightmarish period piece is an example of evil operating in plain sight. Certainly, Killers of the Flower Moon isn’t perfect, but it’s deeply felt, and there are sequences of surpassing power and artistry throughout. Scorsese’s ability to honestly reconfigure flaws as strengths—like acknowledging and eventually emphasizing his own inadequacies as the teller of this particular tale—make other filmmakers’ successes look small by comparison.
2. The Zone of Interest
Everybody knows by now that Jonathan Glazer can get under your skin; the great leap forward of his new feature The Zone of Interest lies in his newfound restraint, the sense of a showman holding it all in. The title refers to the area around Auschwitz, which circa 1943 doubles as a homestead for the Hösses, a well-heeled German family whose patriarch, Rudolf (Christian Friedel), works as the camp’s commandant. “The Jews are over the wall,” smiles his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) to a guest, neatly encapsulating the themes of complicity and compartmentalization bristling behind Glazer’s stoic, static frames. And because the filmmaker refuses to take his camera across the partition, the film unfolds as a grueling, even nauseous exercise in nervous tension without catharsis. This is skillful, rigorous filmmaking in the service of some conceptually precise ideas about representation and history—a movie whose ethics and aesthetics are worth arguing about, regardless of where you stand.
1. Showing Up
I had Kelly Reichardt’s just-about-flawless art-school comedy in the top spot of in my half-year roundup back in July, and the fact that it hasn’t been overtaken could be taken as a commentary on a fairly uninspiring award-season crop, or maybe as an act of loyalty to a director whom, as I also wrote, has not made a bad movie in 30 years. But rather than repeat why I think Showing Up is so wonderful, I’ll point out that because its theatrical release was delayed from its likely release date of 2022—the year it premiered at Cannes—to this past spring, its chances of making multiple 10-best lists or earning Reichardt the first Oscar nominations of her career have been substantially diminished. It’s a shame: Awards mean exposure, and while Showing Up and its Pacific Northwest milieu are several time zones removed from Hollywood, it ultimately prods relevant topics of hype and promotion—before somebody can call you a genius, they have to see your work. Not only is Showing Up the best movie of the year, it’s arguably the one most in need of rescue. That’s your cue, friends.
Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.