I think 2023 is the most underrated year for great movies in my more than 20 years reviewing film online. I had a remarkable number of great movies to choose from for this list. According my my Letterboxd account, at SeanRadio, I gave more than 10 movies this year five stars. It could be that I am getting soft in my middle age, but I prefer to believe that the movies of 2023 are simply that incredible. The entirety of my Top 10 Movies of 2023 received a 5 star rating from me on Letterboxd. That's never happened to me before.
Before we get to the Top 10, I have to do a brief, sort of brief, list of the movies that were just outside of my Top 10 of the year. The runners up include:
And the movie that just missed by Top 10, my number 10 and a half
With the honorable mentions out of the way, and with great apologies to my fellow Bottoms stans, here's my Top 10 Movies of 2023.
10. The Zone of Interest - Directed by Jonathan Glazer
The last movie I watched before making this list was the much buzzed about Jonathan Glazer film, The Zone of Interest. It's a movie that displays the horrific, monstrous cruelty of the Nazis during World War 2. The film depicts the holocaust but not from the perspective of those being murdered. Rather, what we see is the horrifying disinterested and mundane way the Nazis went about murdering more than 6 million Jews. The film depicts the commander of Auschwitz, living next door to the concentration camp with his wife, played by the incredible Sandra Huller, in her second incredible performance of 2023, after Anatomy of a Fall, and how they and their children carry on their lives of luxury all while smoke billows in the background and human beings are robbed of their humanity for no good reason. There is something so harrowing and disconcertingly modern in how Glazer depicts the almost mundane inhumanity of these monsters who prove so capable of burying basic human decency so deep inside that they are genuinely indifferent. It's a reflection and an accusation, an indictment against all of us who do our best to go on with our lives as atrocities are committed around us.
Heart filled and heartbreaking, All of Us Strangers follows a gay man struggling and alone in England. On a seemingly random night, he returns to his childhood home and finds a way to go back in time. In this illusory reality, his late parents, portrayed wonderfully by Claire Foy and Jamie Bell, are alive and well and they recognize the adult version of their son, played with beautiful understatement by Andrew Scott. He gets to tell them that he's gay and his parents meet him with a mixture of fear and empathy, viewed through the lens of how this character would expect or hope for them to react. Whether what is happening real or fully in Andrew Scott's memory is left up to the audience and that doesn't feel at all like a cop out on the part of writer-director Andrew Haigh. The film also contains another turn of the tale late that is risky and bold and delivers in devastating fashion.
8. American Fiction - Directed by Cord Jefferson
This year's best comedy is a sharp and funny film that mixes the pretensions of an upper middle class black professor with a world that fails to adhere to his pretentions at every turn. Jeffrey Wright stars as a college professor and author desperately in need of having his pompous worldview punctured like a balloon. That said, the film plays fair with Wright's character, Monk. He may be pretentious, he may be arrogant, but he's also not always wrong and not always the butt of some cosmic joke. Speaking of jokes, though the film has somber moments and serious moments, American Fiction contains three of the funniest scenes in any movie of any year in this young century. This includes Tracee Ellis Ross delivering the funniest and strangest Roe V. Wade joke in history.
I have certainly soured on the notion of biopics in recent years but those biopics that have caused my disdain for the sub-genre weren't directed by Sophia Coppola. In adapting the story of Priscilla Presley, Sophia Coppola has used the story of a celebrity to examine the way society, in the past and even today, pushes women, especially very young women, into functional roles in the lives of men. Priscilla is also about abuse. Even in a relationship where the abused party holds no grudge toward her abuser, the abuse is still there and recognizable to anyone watching. Elvis was emotionally and financially abusive toward Priscilla and that can be difficult to make plain. What makes emotional and financial abuse so insidious is that the scars aren't obvious from the outside. By demonstrating them in the narrative of Priscilla, Sophia Coppola has created a deeply valuable work of art.
Todd Haynes uses the bones of a real life story of abuse and grooming to examine a culture that fosters horrible stories like this and turns them into entertainment. Lost amid the chaos of a tabloid frenzy was a very young boy who was exploited, groomed, and desperately mistreated by a woman who claimed to love him and a culture that was eager to exploit his life and the life of his family to feed the gaping maw of an ugly and destructive culture. It's a devastating indictment of a popular culture that moves so quickly to exploit people that we lose sight of the people being exploited. While the culture moved on, Todd Haynes's movie refuses to look away, savaging us and our appetite for such tawdry, trashy, stories.
The more I sit with director Andrea Pallaoro's Monica, the more the story deepens for me. This is a rich and textured story about identity, family and grief told with a wealth of empathy and care. It has sharp edges, especially in Patricia Clarkson's incredible supporting turn, and you feel every cut. And yet, the heart of Monica is about healing, understanding and drawing audiences sympathies out slowly and with great care. Trace Lysette's remarkable lead performance is by far the most underrated performance in 2023 and if this list can accomplish anything, getting one more person to see Monica would be what I hope to achieve.
You can still make an epic in 2023. Oppenheimer is an astounding epic drawn down to a human level by a performance by Cillian Murphy that doesn't get enough credit. We're talking about a historical story of multiple layers over decades that influenced every world event that followed it. Murphy communicates all of that with his performance as the man who reluctantly defined the 20th Century with his invention and leadership. It's an achingly human performance all the more impressive for being at the center of a modern epic. On top of that, you can add supporting performances from Robert Downey Jr, Emily Blunt, and Florence Pugh of similar human proportions amid high stakes and high drama. This is Christopher Nolan's true masterpiece.
For much of 2023 I was convinced that nothing could top the experience of seeing Beau is Afraid. Ari Aster's mind bending pseudo horror movie turned character study is the kind of movie that burrows under your skin and into your psyche and stays there. It features some of the most outlandish and absurd moments in movie history. Buried beneath the haunting visuals, the chaotic nightmare imagery, and the absurdity of it all, is some of the most detailed and skilled direction of 2023. Ari Aster is a visionary who is fully in control of the tools of filmmaking and he demonstrates that vision and that extraordinary talent in every moment of Beau is Afraid.
How do you top movies like Oppenheimer and Beau is Afraid with their skill and massive, epic size? You make the most humane and lovely tiny movie imaginable. Past Lives has three characters, few settings, spends a sizable time in flashback, and carries an emotional weight from familiarity while stoking our romantic fantasies and nostalgia for our own past as well as those of our main characters. Past Lives is lovely, heartbreaking, thoughtful and sensitive. It's a purely human story free from the weight of history to tell a story about the human heart and mind, our memories and how they mesh with the memories of others to create who we are.
There is no such thing as a Perfect movie, but Perfect Days comes pretty damned close. It's a quiet, peaceful and observant story of a single character in a very specific setting whose heart and mind are enriched with a sense of wonder and imagination in all aspects of life. In telling a story about one man who cleans public toilets, real life art projects that happen to be public bathrooms, Wim Wenders has applied all of the tools of filmmaking available to him, including arguably the best cinematography of 2023, to tell the quietest and most lovely story imaginable. Watching Perfect Days healed my soul. I was hurting when I saw it and when I thought I could not be reached, the movie broke through my emotional barriers with it's beauty and warmth. That's something that great art is capable of, reaching into your soul and improving it. Perfect Days made me appreciate life a little more, it made look for beauty in aspects of life that I had neglected. Again, only the greatest of art is capable of something like that and Perfect Days is an incredible work of art.
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Heartfelt and relatable
The story invoked strong personal emotions