The top 50 movies of 2023 – Part II, with trailers
Our film critic Mark Walsh completes his countdown of the best 50 films from 2023. You can read Part I – numbers 50-26 – here.
Saim Sadiq’s first feature is an engrossing exploration of the difficulties of LGBTQ life and acceptance in Pakistan. When the younger son of a middle class family can’t get work, he takes a job as a dancer at an erotic dance theatre and becomes infatuated with a transgender dancer.
24. Blue Jean
Another directorial first, this one for British director Georgia Oakley, looks at the impact of Section 28 legislation in the late Eighties. Rosy McEwen is excellent as a PE teacher whose closeted sexuality risks being exposed when a new student visits the gay bar she frequents.
23. How To Have Sex
The first film from British director Molly Manning Walker is a study in peer pressure and the need to socially conform. Mia McKenna-Bruce embodies these difficulties as a young girl on a holiday with her 16-year-old best friends, but feels she has to live up to her perception of their sexual exploits.
French director Albert Serra delivers an offbeat thriller that ebbs and flows around French Polynesia, with Benoît Magimel as the island’s high commissioner attempting to keep order while attempting to explore rumours that the French intend to resume nuclear testing in the area.
21 Return To Seoul
Davy Chou’s adoption drama explores themes of family and identity as a woman born in South Korea but raised in France returns to the country of her birth, where she has to deal with the contrasting receptions from her
Adura Onashile’s first feature is an intimate, involving examination of the relationship between an 11-year-old girl struggling to fit in at school, and her mother, still recovering from a lifetime of traumatic experiences and struggling to integrate into life on a council estate.
19. Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning - Part 1
Tom Cruise continues to push the boundaries of cinema stunt work, throwing himself off a variety of huge objects in the name of entertainment. Chris McQuarrie’s script makes AI the baddie and tries to truly understand the reason the IMF keep accepting these missions. Part 2 arrives in 2025.
Ben Affleck crafts an amiable, rambling take, full of nostalgia, on how one of the most famous pieces of footwear in history came to be. It also reunites him with his Good Will Hunting partner Matt Damon as the talent scout aiming to secure the services of NBA star Michael Jordan.
17. John Wick: Chapter 4
That John Wick is out for revenge , this time against the mysterious High Table, feels very familiar, and although the action does in many respects as well, Keanu Reeves’ fourth outing as the hitman pushes the action to its absolute, often comical, limits.
16. May December
A pair of superb performances in Todd Haynes’ melodrama, with Natalie Portman as the actress attempting to get inside the skin of Julianne Moore before she plays her in a film adaptation. Haynes isn’t afraid to twist a knife into the queasiness of a woman leaving her family for an under-age man.
15. Are You There God, It's Me Margaret?
Kelly Fremon Craig’s previous drama, The Edge Of Seventeen, was an acerbic look at the challenges of adolescence, and while her adaptation of Judy Blume’s classic novel Is a little less sour, its cast – including mother Rachel McAdams and grandmother Kathy Bates – help to keep it equally compelling.
14. The Boy And The Heron
It seemed as if he had retired – and he might well have done now – but Hayao Miyazaki’s return to Studio Ghibli is both a return to what’s made the animation studio great for over three decades, but with a shade more darkness than has been apparent previously, while offering autobiographical elements that may provide further closure for the great director.
After all the hype, Greta Gerwig managed to back it up with a deliriously silly film that also struck at the truth of what it is to be a woman and a person. Margot Robbie handles her existential crisis well, but there are further delights in Ryan Gosling’s Ken and his discovery of the “patriarchy”, the day-glo production design and the fabulous soundtrack.
12. The Eight Mountains
Felix van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch share both writing and direction duties in this adaptation of Paolo Cognetti’s novel of the same name, following Felix and Bruno from the age of 11 and their meeting in the Alps as their lives separate and reconcile once more. An unhurried meditation on life, friendship, generational relationships and the meaning of life.
11. Marcel The Shell With Shoes On
Dean Fleischer Camp and Jenny Slate expand the short film mockumentaries they made over a decade ago to feature length, with Slate providing the voice of the anthropomorphic shell offering its own unique insights into life. Quirky, charming and heartfelt, with an earnestness that keeps you rooting for its unlikely protagonist on the quest to reunite with his family.
I have no issue with films of significant length (see the rest of this top 10 for proof) but I’m equally happy when a film settles into its natural length, and Raine Allen-Miller’s perfectly-pitched relationship comedy is a refreshing 82 minutes, with winning performances from leads David Jonsson and Vivian Oparah, both navigating the fallout of previous relationships.
9. Talk To Me
A surprise hit for distributor A24, with a group of Australian teenagers getting themselves into serious trouble after using an embalmed hand to communicate with the spirits of the dead. Danny and Michael Phillippou deliver one of the most effective horrors of recent years, mixing well-judged scares with a creeping sense of dread.
8. The Fablemans
Steven Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical look back at his development as a filmmaker and the impact of his family relationships on his own career is probably his best film in two decades, capturing the sense of wonder which has trademarked his career. Michelle Williams and Paul Dano are the parents with different perspectives on whether a career in film is sustainable.
7. All The Beauty And The Bloodshed
The opioid crisis has made headlines and provided fodder for a variety of dramas in recent years, but Laura Poitras’ documentary explores the links between it and the art world. Photographer and artist Nan Goldin is determined to hold the Sackler family responsible for their part in the opioid epidemic, and Poitras explores both her efforts and her art, hearing devastating testimony from those most affected.
It’s been seven years since William Oldroyd made the compelling Lady MacBeth with Florence Pugh, but it’s been worth the wait as with Eileen, Oldroyd serves up a dark, disturbing neo-noir that bristles with a seedy energy before dropping jaws with its twisty plot. Thomasin McKenzie is the ingenue mesmerised by psychologist Anne Hathaway who arrives at the prison where she works.
Christopher Nolan is the only director working with such original material with big casts and bigger budgets, and the story of the man credited being the “father of the atomic bomb” remains taut and compelling not only through the story of the bomb’s development and initial detonation, but also through the subsequent security hearings. Cillian Murphy captures Oppenheimer’s resolution and internal conflict over the consequences of their collective actions.
4. Killers Of The Flower Moon
Martin Scorsese is on as strong a run of films as anyone has ever achieved (The Wolf Of Wall Street, Silence, The Irishman) and he adds to the list another masterpiece examination of a shaming chapter of American history, the treatment of the native Osage tribe. While his two most regular stars, Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro, both bring their A game, it’s Lily Gladstone’s quietly devastating performance that gives the film heart and soul.
3. Saint Omer
Alice Diop’s career to this point consisted of slice-of-life documentaries of French life, but her experience at the real-life trial of a Senegalese immigrant who fatally neglected their daughter inspired her to make her first dramatic film. It’s a courtroom drama that avoids histrionics but still strikes a dagger deep into the heart.
2. Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse
The best Marvel movie to date is not one from the MCU but from rival studio Sony, that explores the mythos of the teenager with a life-changing spider bite but also manages to keep focus on the individual story of Miles Morales among the plethora of alternative Spider-people (and creatures) inhabiting the shared Spider-universes. Vibrant, eclectic animation supplements, rather than distracts from, the storytelling.
1. Past Lives
The best film of 2023 is a meditation on life, love and regret that’s pure, simple, beautiful and deeply affecting. Celine Song’s romantic drama follows two childhood friends, separated but encountering each other again at twelve year intervals. When they finally find each other again, the threesome (Greta Lee, Teo Yoo and John Magaro) finding themselves questioning their lives and choices in a way that feels utterly affecting, and it’s a film that’s lingered in my mind ever since I first saw it a few months ago. I suspect it will be there for a while yet.
When you’re done with this lot, look out for Mark’s previous guides to the top movies of 2022 (part I and part II), 2021 (part I and part II), 2020 (part I and part II), 2019 (part I and part II) and 2018 (part I and part II), plus a guide of the best movies of the first 20 years of this century (part I and part II). Phew!