Here we look back at my choices for the greatest films of 2023. As a reminder, I’m always careful to make a distinction between “greatest film” and “favorite film”. For instance, I’d argue that Women Talking is a legitimately great movie, but nobody is putting that on to show their friends a good time. So here we have my choices that did the most to advance the medium of cinema as a whole, that most deserve to be taught in film classes and discussed by professional film critics.
Greatest Animated Film
This was the year when The Super Mario Bros. Movie finally gave us the halfway-decent Super Mario film we’d all been clamoring for, even though it suffered for sidelining one of the Mario Brothers through pretty much the entire movie and Illumination keeps refusing to respect their audience or their own potential.
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is rightly gaining a lot of year-end attention, but I have issues giving too many accolades to what’s still only half a movie. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem deserves way, WAY more love than it’s been getting, a legitimately funny and poignant take on the source material that’s inventive and superbly animated, even if the action isn’t quite up to snuff. And of course we have to give a shout-out to The Boy and the Heron, beautifully animated yet horribly paced, a mind-blowing adventure that whiplashes between two wildly different tones.
And then there’s Nimona, a film that got a lot of social media buzz right up until the “After Barbieheimer” phase apparently wiped it from everyone’s memories. Even so, the film is beautifully animated and written, with complex and sympathetic characters populating a mind-blowing sci-fi/fantasy world. It’s clever, funny, and heartfelt in equal measure. I realize I’m placing this movie above so many other heavy hitters this year, that’s how legitimately great this movie is.
Knock at the Cabin did the typical Shyamalan thing of fantastic setups with shitty payoffs, but at least this shitty payoff wasn’t quite so bad as we’ve come to expect. Moon Garden more than deserves praise for delivering a trippy family drama/coming-of-age tale with quality animation on a shoestring budget, even if the film gets a little too opaque for its own good.
Speaking of which, Infinity Pool sadly gets lost up its own ass a few too many times, though Mia Goth and Cronenberg Jr. are a winning combination. This was also the year of Saltburn, a film that sadly couldn’t get out of second gear up until that dynamite third act.
But then we have Inside, easily the year’s best psychological drama about eating the rich. It certainly helps that nobody can do crazy like Willem Dafoe, and a one-man movie from him is every bit as amazing as it sounds. Best of all, the plot and the theme are both brilliantly served by the inspired visual metaphor of wrecking a wealthy asshole’s home.
Greatest Coming-of-Age Movie
Again, Moon Garden deserves a mention here. I’d also be remiss not to mention Priscilla, a detailed examination about the pitfalls and consequences of growing up in a highly toxic environment. Even so, I expect any other critic would give this one to The Holdovers, admittedly a fantastic showcase for a marvelous cast anchored by Paul Giamatti at his strongest.
But seriously. People. Did y’all even see Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret?
Then as now, this movie hasn’t gotten anywhere near the attention it deserves. It’s sweet, it’s funny, it’s heartbreakingly honest, it’s got layers for days, and it examines so many relevant themes in timeless ways with wit and sincerity and intelligence that will speak to all generations. This is seriously everything you could ask a coming-of-age movie to be. I hope to the holiest deity that future kids and parents will discover this on home video, because this movie seriously has the potential to change lives for the better.
May December was certainly a fascinating showcase for Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore, though it took a while to really get going. Eileen may not have been quite as much an acting showcase and the themes weren’t nearly as provocative, but at least it had more of a pulse and a stronger underlying dread.
I could go back and forth on The Killer, since it had a really strong front half fading into a dull back half. I’d much rather go back and watch Master Gardener, which worked as a thoughtful and methodical slow burn without losing the suspense.
But I have to give props to Missing, because just like its standalone prequel, everybody raved about how awesome it was at release and then promptly forgot about it. Gentle readers, I can’t possibly remind you enough times that the Searching/Missing duology is AMAZING. The performances are incredible, the use of modern technology is savvy and thematically potent, the byzantine mystery plots are diabolically clever yet easy to follow… what more do you fucking want from these movies?! Searching was a bona fide masterpiece and Missing is a worthy follow-up, a gobsmacking potboiler in its own right.
Again, Priscilla gets a mention here, but it simply isn’t strong enough to stand out against all this extraordinary competition. We’ve got the subversive populism of Dumb Money, admirably picking up where Adam McKay veered into nihilism. We’ve got the epic scale and spectacle of Oppenheimer. We’ve got the testosterone-fueled tragedy of The Iron Claw.
I so badly wish I could give this one to Chevalier, a woefully overlooked romantic historical tragedy with breathtaking music and compelling racial themes. But this is the Masterpieces list. This is about the films that are so impeccably crafted that they could be the next step forward for cinema as a whole. And by those criteria, I simply have to give it to Killers of the Flower Moon.
Yes, Scorsese’s latest opus is butt-numbingly long, but it had to be that long to effectively portray the gradual erasure of the Osage people and the moral degradation of the white people involved, to say nothing of the decline and revival of Lily Gladstone’s character in a starmaking turn. The movie is simply a masterpiece, more deserving of that title than any other historical movie released in 2023.
Greatest Light Drama
I’m slotting You Hurt My Feelings into this category, because it worked well enough as a cute little date movie, but that’s as much as this one deserves. Again, this is a recognition most other critics would probably give to The Holdovers, but I’d be more inclined to give it to the heart-rending and bittersweet Past Lives. Hell, I’d rather give it to the mind-blowing and gut-busting satire of American Fiction.
But seeing as this is my list, and since nobody else out there is aware enough of the film to give due praise, I’m giving this one to Mother of Color. Yes, it’s a scrappy little shoestring indie, and yes, it’s hardly perfect. But on the other hand, this movie was specifically built to win over hearts and minds. For those lucky enough to find it on Amazon Prime, this movie could potentially change lives and shape families in ways that the aforementioned movies never could. That alone makes it worthy of the top honor.
Greatest Heavy Drama
The Creator and Saltburn are two films that I respect more than I like. In particular, The Creator could’ve used another polish or two on the screenplay, and I maintain that the exposed “hollow head” design on the androids makes no functional sense. This is also where I give another honorable mention apiece to the gut-punching tragedies of Chevalier and The Iron Claw.
But then there’s Poor Things. A bizarre little oddity that was superbly performed, deeply layered, and spectacularly crafted. Granted, the artifice is obstructive at times, and the “heavy drama” label is questionable as it ended relatively well for the protagonist. But then I remember all the shit she went through and that unspeakable act of mad science at the end. Yeah, I’d say this fits.
This may seem like an odd choice for the greatest film of 2023, but it’s the only choice I could’ve made. No, it wasn’t made to be an Oscar contender, nor is anyone seriously considering it for Best Picture. It sounds ridiculous to say that this of all movies should be the high-water mark for the year, the exemplar to which all future filmmakers should aspire.
You’d forgive anyone who’d cut this movie out of the running based solely on the title and the franchise. But those people haven’t seen Godzilla Minus One.
This movie more than deserves the year’s top honors just for blending together blood-pumping spectacle and thought-provoking pathos like precious few movies in recent memory. Though Godzilla himself thoroughly dominates as an apocalyptic force of nature, it’s the human drama that elevates this movie to S-tier status with its ruminations on patriotism, the human cost of war, and the challenges of people coming together in the face of an existential threat when their governments are powerless. You know I’m a sucker for any movie that blends together disparate ideas and genres into something greater than the sum of its parts, and Godzilla Minus One is a phenomenal case in point. This movie is so much better than it has any right to be, and it does so many things so mind-blowingly well, it could only be recognized as the year’s greatest.
Stay tuned for the Disappointments list, coming up!