by Jacob Thomas Jones
Well, here we are. We’ve finally made it to the end. It’s been a long journey getting to this point, across oceans of quality film and vast fields of work that almost landed the plane, but as is the case every year, some truly excellent material had to get cut for this list to happen as it’s meant to. In fact, this year was such an excellent year for film and filmmaking – despite the lead film industry stories from this year being WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes that caused more than a few of this list’s potential candidates to get pushed into the 2024 calendar – that in order to whittle the list down to 10, I had to start with a shortlist of 15 and put that list in numerical order first just to find out what went in the #11 spot (#15-#11 are listed below in the Honorable Mentions section along with unranked, alphabetically-ordered selections). This is my favorite list to write every year, and I can’t wait to gush about some of these films for the first time ever alongside the ones I’ll be gushing about even more than I already have. So, without further ado, here are my picks for the Top 10 Best Movies of 2023!
10. May December
Is this movie camp? I don’t think so, but it does run pretty close to a brilliant satire. While I don’t know that I’d consider it a masterpiece like the rest of my colleagues seem to, May December puts Todd Haynes in easily his best mode since Carol, and maybe even a better one than that. A film about how exploitation often drives the film industry to do what it does even when it’s damaging to those whose lives are being put up on screen for our entertainment is a risky move from such an established filmmaker, and if you saw the SAG award nominations, actors in particular were none too happy about it. Easily one of the year’s best scripts (and from a first-timer no less!) shines by way of being combined with three of the absolute best performances in any piece of 2023 media, especially Julianne Moore and Charles Melton. Yes, Natalie Portman is excellent as well, but it’s Melton in particular that really shines here, breaking free of his Riverdale stigma to deliver maybe the year’s best supporting performance. There are line readings and moments in this film so devastating they hit you right in the jugular, and the editing is some of the best I’ve seen in any Netflix film.
I flipped between this and Poor Things so many times when it came to what films would be included on this list, it almost gave me whiplash, but while Poor Things is a film I do love and respect a lot, this spot ultimately came down to “favorite” vs. “best,” and favorite won out; I’ve returned to Barbie far more times since my first viewing, and I’ll likely return many more times since the film is just so fun. Yes, one could argue that the film is Feminism 101, but for a commercial Barbie movie to have even this much nuance is something only director Greta Gerwig could have pulled off in exactly this way. This is, without doubt, the best version of this movie we possibly could have gotten with this wide of an appeal. The production and costume designs are immaculate, most of the jokes land like gangbusters, Ryan Gosling’s supporting performance is an all-timer for the man’s career, Margot Robbie is a superstar both in her lead performance and in the film’s production, and Greta Gerwig’s filmography – while I do think this might be the weakest film in it – is already one of the most iconic in movie history. She’s one of the great singular artists of this century, and her achievement of getting her first 3 films all nominated for Best Picture cannot be more worthy of praise.
8. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.
For a long time, I struggled with whether or not this movie belonged on this list above other excellent work like Poor Things or even May December, but at the end of the day, this is my list, and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. was, to me, the culmination of all coming-of-age stories from the mid-2010s to now, the most befitting of the genre and the most appropriately adapted work in that space to come along in years. I know it’s cliché, but we just don’t get movies like this anymore. Stories that feel like they would have come out in the 90s and made classics by way of repeat viewings all the way up to now. The soft, unobtrusive direction of Kelly Fremon Craig, the unfairly under-awarded supporting performance of Rachel McAdams, the excellent star-making turn of Abby Ryder Forston in the title part, and the warm fallbacks of Kathy Bates and Benny Safdie batting cleanup make this one not only well worth your time, but an excellent one for kids and young adults to grow up on.
7. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse
I loved Into the Spider-Verse when it came out; it changed the medium of animation as a whole and set a new bar for what these things could look like, and while I don’t know if Across the Spider-Verse is narratively as tight and well-structured as its immediate predecessor, I never expected in a million years that this team would be able to pull off the same magic trick twice with even larger leaps. This is one of the most stunningly-crafted movies of the year; the sound design is excellent, the animation yet again reshapes and redefines what can be done in this medium, the narrative – one that directly confronts the idea that canon is more important than innovation, that Miles is supposedly “not the real Spider-Man” – is even more mature and brilliant than the last one, the sheer use of color and that magnificent score elevate this one in craft so far above where any animated movie has ever gone, it’s even more ground-shaking that the last one was. It is an absolute crime that this – the second-best score of the year – was snubbed by the Oscars in favor of Indiana Jones, and if they stick the landing on the third film, a film on which I hope they take all the time they need, we’ll be looking at a new contender for the best animated trilogy of all time, and a new entrant in the “Best Trilogies of All Time” canon (not that canons matter), full stop.
6. Anatomy of a Fall
I’m not sure what France is doing with their International Feature submissions, but swapping out this magnificently-crafted mystery for the more formalistic The Taste of Things (which I have heard is excellent nonetheless) may go down as one of the all-time bad moves in Oscar submission history. It’s difficult to describe just what makes Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall so damn good without simply fawning over things the film has in it – hot lawyer, all-timer movie dog, show-stealing supporting child performance from Milo Machado Graner, Sandra Hüller showing up to dominate the best performances of the year conversation – but what sets it apart is how it uses both the mystery of the fall itself and the French court system to dissect a relationship and put the very idea of marriage on trial for its life. The script is bound to win the Best Original Screenplay Oscar, and when that happens, you’ll hear no protest from me.
I don’t care that this has become film twitter’s villain of the year; I loved this movie, and I shall continue to love it because Maestro blew me away in both its artistry and its ambition. Exquisitely crafted from top to bottom, with some of Matthew Libatique’s most stunning cinematography to date, Maestro is Bradley Cooper not so much dissecting Leonard Bernstein as he is the artist’s struggle, choosing to channel the legendary composer rather than embody him. In his thorough examination of Bernstein’s marriage to Felicia Montealegre – along with all its complications, its tragedies, its highs and lows – Cooper never disappears or transforms, but one can feel the same energy that Bernstein likely experienced flowing through Cooper’s performance at every turn, and Cooper’s direction also supports this notion. Carey Mulligan is as excellent here as she’s ever been, and the Ely Cathedral sequence remains to this day my favorite singular movie scene of 2023.
4. Past Lives
For a very long time, Past Lives was my favorite movie of the year, a soulful examination of the choices we make and how those choices shape the people we become. Greta Lee turns in an Oscar-worthy performance as Nora, a young Korean woman whose departure from Korea means having to ultimately part ways with her childhood sweetheart, only for them to reconnect years later when Nora herself has an entire life of her own with a husband she met after breaking things off. The always undervalued John Magaro shines as Lee’s shockingly understanding husband in the face of some incredibly discomforting circumstances, and Teo Yoo gives my favorite singular performance of the year as Hae Sung, the resurfaced childhood sweetheart in question. It will be a long time before I see another film with this delicate of a script that reaches into the depths of my soul as deeply as Past Lives did (at least, in the positive sense), delivering not just one but two of the all-time heartbreaker sequences in the bar scene and the film’s magnificently emotional ending moments. I can’t believe this is Celine Song’s debut feature.
It shouldn’t be possible for a director as revered, respected, and as much a titan of industry as Christopher Nolan is to make their best film 11 movies deep into their career…and yes, I said best film. While I still hold space at the top for the way The Dark Knight shook the ground and changed superhero films forever, Oppenheimer is a genuine masterwork from a director in full command of his craft and easily the best-directed movie of Nolan’s entire filmography. The performances are second-to-none, with Cillian Murphy finally getting his chance to shine as Nolan’s leading man, Emily Blunt once again showing us all why she’s been an Oscar-worthy performer all along, Robert Downey Jr. pulling a complete 180 on his Iron Man persona to demonstrate that if he has anything, it’s the range, and a supporting ensemble so deep and stacked with talent in all the right places they might as well be the single greatest ensemble cast ever assembled for a single motion picture. Josh Hartnett! Matt Damon! Florence Pugh! David fucking Krumholtz! Even the one-scene cameos are powerhouse players! But what sets Oppenheimer’s immaculate cast and insane-level craft work (including amazing editing by Jennifer Lame and Ludwig Göransson’s best musical score to date) apart from Nolan’s other films is its non-confidence about the existence of the atomic bomb. Almost all of Nolan’s other features, even if they deal with some sort of controversial issue, end up feeling like the side they’ve taken is the right one to be on. With Oppenheimer, Nolan confronts head-on the consequences of adding atomic, potentially world-ending weapons to a world that just can’t seem to quit warring with itself. It’s not about the cost of doing the necessary work; it’s about whether the work was ultimately necessary at all, and what kind of world is created when miraculous acheivements are taken out of an artist’s hands for the control of those who don’t understand their power. A singular and visionary work that will be viewed in the years to come as one of Nolan’s greatest films.
2. The Zone of Interest
The one film I knew I had to see before finishing this Top 10 list was The Zone of Interest, especially as it’s not even remotely the kind of film the Academy usually clings to – an avant-garde examination of evil’s regularity, a direct gaze into the eyes but not the heart of hell. Immediately after finishing the film, I was struck by something I had not felt in years: anguish, of a kind that rendered me entirely and helplessly speechless for the duration of my drive home. It feels wrong to describe this as one of my “favorites” of the year, or as a film I “loved,” so profoundly distressing was the film to my soul; it would almost feel evil to describe it that way. And this film is evil incarnate; at least, that is the entire subject. The unsettling sound design and haunting score leave one simply paralyzed in horror at what was witnessed, and I have not been this upset by a film since seeing Schindler’s List for the first time; in more ways than one, this film is even more disconcerting. From my letterboxd review: “The Zone of Interest takes one to such a place of thorough and irreparable discomfort that one cannot understand it except in the context of the evil it depicts, an evil bolstered by its lack of viscerality. There's a purposeful avoidance of grandiosity, of emotionality; there is no peek over the wall to offer some validation that the banality we are witnessing is monstrous, even as we can audibly hear its depravity all around us.” While it doesn’t take my number one spot, this is in my mind the best film of the year, and I so desperately hope that those who see it will understand what it is telling them.
1. Killers of the Flower Moon
When I first saw Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, I considered it to be a fantastic addition to the director’s late-late period work, but I did not consider it a masterpiece. After a second and finally a third watch in theaters, I can confidently say that not only do I consider Killers an outright masterpiece, I also consider it the best of Scorsese’s late-late period films, those ranging from The Wolf of Wall Street to now. Those who have read my writing know how big a fan I am of the director, so his film landing at my number one spot may seem like no surprise, but for a long time, this sat down at the number three spot and was almost beat out by number two. What I ultimately had to consider was: what makes this my favorite film of the year? Is it the brilliantly-told story which contextualizes the mass murder of an entire people by confronting the fact that it was all too easy to do before the FBI showed up and even after they showed up they didn’t seem to actually care how horrific everything was? Is it the phenomenal work of Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro, or the career-making turn from Lily Gladstone outshining them both working with a director for which they were the two muses for years? Is it the note-perfect cinematography, the god-like editing that prioritizes pacing over runtime, the severely underrated sound design, and the incredibly-adapted script which turned this from an intriguing and shocking true-crime tale into one of tragedy and complicity? In truth, it’s all of these things, and one more: the ending. I already wrote extensively about Killers of the Flower Moon’s ending in my Top 5 Scenes & Movie Moments piece, but without the ending, this would be just another fantastic addition to Scorsese’s filmography. With it, it feels almost like a goodbye, like Scorsese is pouring every last bit of his heart and soul into whatever he makes now because he feels that he needs to leave something valuable and worthwhile behind when he inevitably passes. He is confronting both us and himself for even considering this epic tale of tragedy – of the white man’s indifference to generational sufferings perpetrated by those in power against those without, of greed, of complicity, of year after year of an entire people being erased – as entertainment in the first place. He reckons with this and with his own shortcomings in not being able to fully tell the story from the Osage perspective, for he is not Osage, and will not be able to do it sufficiently. At the end of it all, the whole thing becomes a radio show, and Scorsese himself pleads with us all: do not forget these people, and do NOT forget what happened to them. It can be all too easy for marginalized people groups, or those suffering genocide, to be ignored or forgotten by those whose status and personhood will never be threatened in this way. And all of that is what makes Killers of the Flower Moon my number one movie of 2023.
Well, we did it! We finished all the Top 10 lists for 2023, and only have one more Top 10 to go! Of course, we also have The Friendly Film Fan Awards nominations, which will be announced live on our Instagram page on January 28 at 2:00 p.m. EST (a full list of nominees will be furnished on the website). What were your favorite films of 2023? Any great work you wanna shout out? Let us know in the comments section below, and thanks for reading!
- The Friendly Film Fan