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  • Writer's pictureSam Malone

Favorite Films of 2023

I have lots to say about the state of cinema now and in the future. I’m not as optimistic as most seem to be. But for now, I want to acknowledge that 2023 was a great year at the movies (or on your couch) and turn all the focus on the good that is this list I have compiled. There are 32 thanks to a few late additions I saw just this month (I blame certain studios and their odd distribution models). My favorite films of 2023:


32. Godzilla: Minus One (Takashi Yamazaki)

One of those out-of-nowhere great blockbusters of the year. Not much new to it, but fantastic special effects, its sincerity, and knock-out emotional climax elevates it to something special.


31. Flora and Son (John Carney)

Movies and music. My two favorite things. The former led me to the latter and I've been changed ever since. John Carney's films are saccharine but always so wonderful. So funny, so witty. So Irish. And the songs are always heartfelt and delightful. Brilliant casting of Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the passionate and sensitive online guitar instructor - a sort of meta touch as you can find JGL in real life in the least toxic corner of the internet: HitRecord, a site he started where artists of all types all over the world can collaborate on a variety of projects and the main goal is simply to make art, to cultivate the creative mind and make beautiful things. And this film is a beautiful thing. Carney's love and appreciation for music is always evident, and here where two strangers fall in love through a screen and a mother and son reconcile through creativity, he keeps it simple once again; it's uplifting and sincere and honest. A lot to ask for these days.

I sought out music through movies. Back before I expanded my cinephilic palette, I would listen to movie scores or the soundtracks to see if I would want to see the movie. The main theme for Interstellar was on YouTube six months before the film came out, it was playing in my head as I walked in to see it for the first time (on 70mm IMAX). 

If music is the medium that directly connects us to others, listening to a song together or singing and dancing together, then cinema connects us indirectly, sitting in a dark room together and not interacting but watching the same story unfold on a screen while simultaneously being in that story with characters. And most of the time music in movies guide us through that story. Perhaps the only two art forms that impeccably complement each other.

My two favorite things in one place, in one story, sometimes experiencing it with people I love. Life really can be euphoric sometimes. And Carney captures the essence of this and makes you feel it at the same time. A perfect experience and, like movies and music, a perfect combination.


30. The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial (William Friedkin)

One final masterwork from a master of the form - William Friedkin. He didn’t get to see his new film premiere before it became his last. He will never be forgotten for his contribution to film history with gut-punching pictures like The French Connection (1971), The Exorcist (1973), Sorcerer (1977), To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) and many more. Here he ends with a fitting last picture, a punch to the throat. One last “f*** you” from the director who took no bullshit.


29. Fremont (Babak Jalali)

Deadpan and sweet in the vein of Aki Kaurismäki (see below) with beautiful black-and-white photography and a kindly Jeremy Allen White. A wonderfully captivating film from Babak Jalali.


28. The Boy and the Heron (Hayao Mayazaki)

Potentially the great Hayao Miyazaki’s last work and it’s a doozy. Beautifully hand-drawn images reminiscent of an Impressionist painting and stunning animation as always. A near abstract, brilliant story of choosing a life well-lived and well-loved.


27. Earth Mama (Savanah Leaf)

A quiet and gorgeous portrait of Black motherhood. Takes a fairly typical story and transforms it into something more thoughtful and empathetic. Shot in 16mm, this is a major debut from director Savanah Leaf with a mesmerizing lead performance by hip-hop artist Tia Nomore.


26. Past Lives (Celine Song)

Wrote all about it here.


25. Emily (Frances O'Connor)

A beautiful, imaginative biopic of the great British author, Emily Brontë. Infused with much of the raw and deep emotion found in Brontë's writing, it may not work for some. I found it to be moving and invigorating - capturing my favorite stanza in my favorite Emily Brontë poem: Few hearts to mortals given / On earth so wildly pine; / Yet none would ask a heaven / More like this earth than thine.


24. Anatomy of a Fall (Justine Triet)

In our hypermediated lives, where does the truth reside? One of the best written films of the year. It doesn’t matter if she killed her husband or not, what matters is that we’ll never know.


23. You Hurt My Feelings (Nicole Holofcener)

The world needs more Nicole Holofcener, so thank goodness she can still get her movies made. So much warmth in this film about the lies we tell our loved ones so that they can feel better. Is honesty always the best virtue?


22. The Swan (Wes Anderson)

All of Wes Anderson’s Netflix short film adaptations of Road Dahl are fantastic, but this one devastated me in the best way. Playfully experimenting with the form to wonderful results, Wes Anderson is all too easily written off with the usual descriptions that are the complete antithetical to what he actually is: a master able to conjure some of the richest screen images and poignant meditations on life and love and people and loss.


21. Fallen Leaves (Aki Kaurismäki)

Aki Kaurismäki’s film is a lovely and funny story about a gentle, quiet blossoming of love. 


20. The Society of the Snow (J.A. Bayona)

This could teeter into misery or tragedy porn, but under J.A. Bayona’s deft hand, it’s a visceral, tough watch that turns into a wonderful story of human endurance and collaboration as well as a stunning elegy to the lives lost in the crash of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 in the Andes mountains in 1972. 


19. American Fiction (Cord Jefferson)

For some, the social satire is the best part. For others, it’s the family drama in between. I lean more towards the drama, though I think the satire is vital to not only the truth about Black stories in America but to how increasingly commodified art has become; so much so that real artists with great talent are sidelined for the comfort of commercial entertainment, which is increasingly championed over good art and challenging fare, demeaning both artists and audiences. If you’re a creative person who cares, how do you avoid absolute cynicism and not alienate yourself in this world? The best part of American Fiction is that it leaves that unanswered, allowing the viewer to be mature and smart enough to figure that out on our own. Because in this capitalist hellscape where our lives are increasingly commodified, convenient, and empty, we have no choice but to figure it ourselves.


18. Showing Up (Kelly Reichardt)

Another film about being an artist, but this time the demands of the quotidian and people frustratingly stifle the creative process. Michelle Williams is so good as Lizzy, a sculpturist working on works for an exhibition opening soon, just in time for friends, family, and coworkers to interrupt her. I love the tactility of the craft in this film. Per Reichardt in her gritty realism, there’s always an evocation of the tangible in Showing Up. Using your hands, getting dirty, and actually putting in work to create something not only beautiful but nourishing for the soul. Meaningful labor - something tech bros don’t seem understand about art is that the process itself is almost as much the point, if not more so, as the end result - that feels like it’s all but dissipating in our digital age and the advent of glossy, atrocious A.I. “art.” I mean the film is literally utilizing the shutdown campus of Oregon College of Art and Craft. Another place where cultivating creativity through work and community is victimized by our increasingly disconnected and virtual world.


17. Passages (Ira Sachs)

A great film about beautiful people, one who is especially messy. A fascinating study of narcissism with wonderful performances by Franz Rogowski, Ben Whishaw, and Adèle Exarchopoulous. With this and All of Us Strangers, sex in cinema is making a slow come back.


16. Ferrari (Michael Mann)

I understand reservations with this one but ultimately it clicked for me. The pacing is unexpected for a Mann picture but when it starts going, it really starts to roar. The detachment works as well, there’s a sympathy and respect for Enzo Ferrari but the majority of the shots on him are telephoto lenses, like we’re keeping our distance yet we can’t take our eyes off of him. It’s also reflective of his forced stoicism, determination, and indifference. Driver and Cruz are excellent too. Contains what might be the most horrifying scene in any movie this past year which is, coincidentally, enhanced by the uncanny nature of bad CGI.


15. They Cloned Tyrone (Juel Taylor) 

Definitely number one for best title of the year. John Boyega is magnificent and Jamie Foxx steals the show with his comedy. A rare Netflix original that is really good. A spectacular debut film from Juel Taylor.


14. The Holdovers (Alexander Payne)

Alexander Payne has that gentle touch only a midwesterner can have. Not a lot new here but you have to love a filmmaker channeling Hal Ashby with period detail and a heartwarming story, not to mention those classical fade transitions. I read something recently where Payne was baffled to be labeled as a “humanist filmmaker” since like, yeah, what else is the point of storytelling? But I guess today it would mean telling these throwback stories so infused with a rare tenderness we so desperately crave and nostalgia for a time when true connection seemed more attainable. Good movie. Giamatti is excellent.


13. The Starling Girl (Laurel Parmet)

This one sort of disappeared into the ether this year and that’s a shame because it’s another good feature directorial debut. A conventional story of abuse, manipulation, and patriarchal power that extends well beyond the Christian Fundamentalist community. However, the conviction with which it’s told and the delicate balance it holds - refusing to give any easy answers with nuance and empathy - makes this a painful yet enthralling watch. Eliza Scanlen is the best young actress working today. Lewis Pullman is also good as the self-centered and emotionally-stunted abuser who is very much a victim of the same community, though his actions are inexcusable. Jimmi Simpson, every time I see him pop up in these small roles that he just devours with such skill, I wish he could have something grander, something he deserves. 


12. May December (Todd Haynes)

A brilliant film from the master Todd Haynes. A triangle of masterful performances (Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, Charles Melton), though it’s Melton who anchors the film. Both hilarious and heart-wrenching, May December’s genius lies in its insistence on complicating what has already been problematized.


11. The Zone of Interest (Jonathan Glazer)

Turning the essentials of cinema on its head, Glazer has made something quite unique in Zone of Interest. I’m not as high on it as others, I wish Glazer hadn’t spelled out so much. But I fully appreciate its formal brilliance and its final few shots are absolutely wretched (literally and figuratively). A staggering achievement.


10. In Water (Hong Sang-soo)

Impressionist filmmaking at its finest; visually in its out-of-focus compositions (the final shot is one of the most stunning shots I’ve seen) like noticeable brushstrokes, and narratively in its attempt to capture the feelings behind a gaze. So many layers to a Hong film. This has everything I love about him, both epitomizing and appraising the value of spontaneous filmmaking and the intuition behind making art. Not to get too interpretive (since Hong wouldn’t want us too) but I am perplexed by the mise-en-abyme with what is a very slight narrative behind what Hong’s camera is catching and what the character’s camera is capturing. I say “catching” because Hong’s camera seems to be more “in the moment” of what it’s filming. His camera seems to be both more real yet cinematic. Such a strange and bewildering interplay of fiction and reality. The characters’ camera, though we don’t see the footage, seems forced in what it’s shooting, yet it’s mostly spontaneous. It’s artificial yet not in a necessarily cinematic way, but it’s also real. Hong’s angles are better, but the shots are out of focus and that final shot works so well out of focus I don’t even want to see it in focus from the characters’ camera angle. It doesn’t matter though, does it? Decisions were made and out of those decisions came beauty and a wonderful film.


9. Afire (Christian Petzold)

The final act has some of the best scenes of the year. Petzold, one of my favorite filmmakers, is on fire (sorry); from history (Transit) to mythology (Undine) and now the literary, his dissociations from reality (and romanticism) paradoxically contain our most realistic impulses and emotions. With Afire, there’s no clear uncertainty or mythical touch to hint at anything working beyond the characters, (with the exception of a very Petzold shot of snow-like ash floating in the air, see above) it’s just already uncertain in some way and the thing beyond is a very real, grave threat. But Petzold is interested in the damage our inner lives can cause us, whether connected to that external threat or not. A striking, devastating, and ultimately moving watch.


8. A Thousand and One (A.V. Rockwell)

The shots of New York City with voiceover from Rudy Giuliani’s mayoral speeches from the 1990s say so much. It’s not Inez’s fault (Teyana Taylor in a powerhouse performance), it’s all that surrounds her, all that’s failed her and pushed her aside. Another deeply felt feature debut.


7. Asteroid City

Ditto what I said above on The Swan and here.


6. Monster (Hirokazu Kore-eda)

With yet to see his 2022 film Broker, I was more than glad to catch Kore-eda’s Monster. Another gut-punch from the great Japanese director. Not as powerful as Shoplifters (2018) but there’s still so much here amongst his familiar terrain - hard-hitting dialogue and a messy situation involving parent and child - to cling to. I adored this film and a Kore-eda picture always instills so much more life in me.


5. Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret (Kelly Fremon Craig)

I honestly don’t think it’s too much to say that Rachel McAdams gives the best performance of 2023 in this adaptation of Judy Blume’s famous novel. It’s unfathomable how good she is in this. Kelly Fremon Craig masterfully balances the tone between the child and adult perspective, letting the humanity of it all shine through. With Edge of Seventeen and this, where’s the love for her as one of the best directors working today? I felt on the verge of tears, happy and sad, the whole time. A lovely gem of a film.


4. Killers of the Flower Moon (Martin Scorsese)

Wrote about it. Also I was in it. How lucky we are to still have Scorsese.


3. Oppenheimer (Christopher Nolan)

Also wrote about Nolan’s extraordinary and epic film here.


2. The Iron Claw (Sean Durkin)

I don’t know how Durkin makes this film work so well. Zac Efron’s tender performance certainly helps. The Iron Claw is a tragic story, but one that leaves me still feeling hopeful. It’s just raw and honest, critiquing the illness of culturally entrenched masculinity while at the same time revealing the beauty of healthy masculinity and brotherhood. Lots of despair that dudes can feel when believing the machismo of certain expectations and disciplines put on them. Yet at the same time, dudes rock. And they can continue to rock if they refuse to let feelings fester and instead let them flow from that softness so many generations of men have worked to hide deep inside.


1. All of Us Strangers (Andrew Haigh)

A gentle, poignant reminder to seek out all the love you can find. The best thing about All of Us Strangers is how quiet it is. The score is more of a background ambience while the acting (all four performances are stunning - Andrew Scott, Paul Mescal, Claire Foy, and Jamie Bell) and dialogue do all the heavy lifting. At first it’s a quietness reflecting Adam’s self-isolation, which the film also captures perfectly - the increasingly 21st-century desire to hopelessly box ourselves in. Then it’s the quietness of intimacy, its strangeness and power and its ability to keep us going. It’s quietly sweet in a way where a loved one is there to listen or hold your head while you cry because that is all you need in that moment. No grandeur, just gentleness. It’s grief and loss and everything we experience. And then there’s love, the one thing we should experience and need to experience to better make our way through the mournful and melancholy moments. Love - that strange, indispensable feeling - is ultimately a quiet thing and its power is greatest in the silence. I love how Haigh connects the past and present too. We were there and now we’re here. The world changes a lot and quickly, but the only thing about us that changed was the knot inside of us that got tangled and tighter. Love - if ever so briefly and every so often - loosens that knot so that we can take a breath and keep going in this painful cosmic abyss.


Here's to more favorites in 2024. I wrap with this poem about the deity in the light of cinema.


Projector

by H.D.


Light takes new attribute

and yet his old

glory

enchants;

not this,

not this, they say,

lord as he was of the hieratic dance,

of poetry

and majesty

and pomp,

master of shrines and gateways

and of doors,

of markets

and the cross-road

and the street;

not this,

they say;

but we say otherwise

and greet

light

in new attribute,

insidious fire;

light reasserts

his power

reclaims the lost;

in a new blaze of splendour

calls the host

to reassemble

and to readjust

all severings

and differings of thought,all strife and strident bickering

and rest;

O fair and blest,

he strides forth young and pitiful and strong, a king of blazing splendour and of gold,

and all the evil

and the tyrannous wrong

that beauty suffered

finds its champion,

light

who is god

and song.


He left the place they built him

and the halls,

he strode so simply forth,

they knew him not;

no man deceived him,

no,

nor ever will,

with meagre counterfeit

of ancient rite,

he knows all hearts

and all imagining

of plot

and counterplot

and mimicry,

this measuring of beauty with a rod, no formula

could hold him

and no threat

recall him

who is god.


Yet he returns,

O unrecorded grace, 

over

and under

and through us and about;

the stage is set now

for his mighty rays;

light,

light that batters gloom,

the Pythian

lifts up a fair head

in a lowly place,

he shows his splendour

in a little room;

he says to us,

be glad

and laugh,

be gay;

I have returned

though in an evil day

you crouched despairingly

who had no shrine;

we had no temple and no temple fire for all these said

and mouthed

and said again;

beauty is an endighter

and is power

of city

and of soldiery

and might,

beauty is city

and the state

and dour duty,

beauty is this and this and this dull thing, 

forgetting who was king.


Yet still he moves

alert,

invidious,

this serpent creeping

and this shaft of light,

his arrows slay

and still his footsteps

dart

gold

in the market-place;

vision returns

and with new vision

fresh

hope

to the impotent;

tired feet that never knew a hill-slope tread

fabulous mountain sides;

worn

dusty feet

sink in soft drift of pine

needles

and anodyne

of balm and fir and myrtle-trees

and cones

drift across weary brows

and the sea-foam

marks the sea-path

where no sea ever comes;

islands arise where never islands were,

crowned with the sacred palm

or odorous cedar;

waves sparkle and delight

the weary eyes

that never saw the sun fall in the sea

nor the bright Pleaiads rise.

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