July 19, 2024

The 15 Best Movies of 2023—and Where to Watch Them

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Put bluntly, picking the best movies of 2023 was tough. The double-whammy of Barbie and Oppenheimer gave the box office a long-overdue, post-Covid-19 jolt, only to be followed by a pair of months-long strikes in Hollywood that shut down production on nearly all the films in the works for 2024 and beyond. Even now, with the strikes over, the industry is scratching its head at what happened and what’s to come.

Still, amidst all the noise, 2023 provided a wealth of quietly beautiful films. Even as Hollywood fretted over the possibility of artificial intelligence upending filmmaking and giving writing and acting gigs to bots, it’s impossible to watch the movies on this list and not feel such a possibility is faintly ridiculous. This year’s best releases were full of so much ambition and emotional intelligence it’s hard to argue that the value of human input in filmmaking is heading toward obsolescence. Packed with highly accomplished debuts from younger directors, and full of brilliant ideas, the best movies of 2023 were compelled by art’s old chestnut: humans struggling to understand their place in the world.

Killers of the Flower Moon

In 2017, David Grann published Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, a true-crime yarn set in 1920s Oklahoma, a period when members of the Osage Nation were being killed for their oil money. Grann’s central character, Mollie Burkhart, was an Osage woman desperate to understand the deaths in her family; a twist reveals that her beloved husband, Ernest, is complicit. Martin Scorsese made a bold decision while adapting Grann’s work: He removed the whodunit aspect, instead letting the audience see exactly how Ernest came to menace his wife, anchoring the movie in the dim-witted villain’s perspective. It shouldn’t work, but in zeroing in on Ernest (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), Scorsese creates an almost unbearably harrowing portrait of all-American evil. A feel-bad masterpiece.

Anatomy of a Fall

Sandra (Sandra Hüller) is a successful writer married to Samuel (Samuel Theis), a failed writer. When Samuel is found dead outside their home one snowy day, Sandra quickly goes from grieving widow to prime suspect and is forced to reveal the most intimate details of her complicated marriage, including the resentment she had toward her husband for an incident that left their son Daniel (Milo Machado-Graner) partially blind. Ultimately, it’s Daniel who serves as the final word in what happened on that tragic day—and what will happen to his mother. This twisty, impeccably acted courtroom drama won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and was a hit when it was released in its native France in August, but it made just a modest art-house splash in the US. But its success in the earliest days of the awards season—including accolades from the European Film Awards, National Board of Review, New York Film Critics Circle, and the Gotham Awards, as well as four Golden Globe nominations—indicates that splash will have a ripple effect.

Oppenheimer

It would be remiss not to include Oppenheimer, which divided the WIRED office and the internet. Some saw it as misogynist and shallow; some saw it as a blockbuster auteur’s return to form. Whatever your opinion, director Christopher Nolan took an esoteric biography about a scientist trying to get security clearance and turned it into more than $950 million at the box office.

Showing Up

Kelly Reichhardt and Michelle Williams—the indie world’s Scorsese and DiCaprio—collaborate here for the fourth time, and the result is a deeply layered and subtly poignant gem. We follow Lizzy (Williams), a doggedly persistent artist, as she preps for an upcoming show. Her artistic endeavor, small clay women molded into evocative poses, is obstructed by family, work, and life in general. Showing Up captures the universally recognizable seesaw between the anxiety that life is slipping through your fingers, happening to you, and the joy—evidenced in moments of Lizzy’s contented sculpting—that things are going just as they should.

Barbie

Perhaps no one expected a film based on Mattel’s iconic doll to become a feminist lightning rod, but here we are. What made director Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, which she wrote with her partner Noah Baumbach, such a cultural flashpoint is that it walks such a fine line. It is both so progressive it had conservatives lighting dolls on fire and also not feminist enough. For those in the middle, though, it was a washed-in-pink sendup of patriarchy full of Indigo Girls sing-alongs and Zack Snyder jabs that really took hold. It also took home nearly $1.5 billion at the box office and started talk of a Mattel Cinematic Universe. Welcome to the Mojo Dojo Casa House, I guess.

All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt

Raven Jackson’s directorial debut is a feast for the senses. Over the span of 92 minutes, the award-winning poet and photographer channels her artistic talents to create this breathtakingly shot recounting of one Mississippi woman’s life, from the seemingly mundane (adolescent adventures) to the moments you never forget (the death of a loved one). Though Jackson is spare with her dialog, the result is a lyrical movie that is reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s earliest work. The film—which was produced by Moonlight’s Barry Jenkins—was a hit at Sundance earlier this year and was named one of 2023’s best indie films by the National Board of Review, but it managed to stay firmly under the radar during its brief theatrical run in November.

Passages

Filmmaker Tomas (Franz Rogowski) and his husband, Martin (Ben Whishaw), are living a comfortable life in Paris, though possibly too comfortable. At the wrap party for his latest film, Tomas meets a young woman named Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos), and the two begin an intense affair, creating a complex love triangle. Though Tomas and Martin split, they continually find themselves coming back together. The film is a painfully human exploration of the complexities of love, with impeccable performances all around—most notably from Rogowski, who has landed on some critics’ lists as a possible Oscar contender.

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

In 2018, when Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse hit theaters, it changed perception about what Spider-Man movies, and animated films, could be. No longer led by Peter Parker, a kid from Queens who gets bit by a radioactive spider, it was led by Miles Morales, a kid from Brooklyn who met a similar fate in another part of the multiverse. Across the Spider-Verse continues Miles’ story and his quest to be his own kind of hero and save the multiverse, and his timeline, from a terrible fate. Fun, heartbreaking, and a thrill to watch, it’s one of the best Spider-Man movies ever and is so beautifully animated it’s breathtaking.

May December

Never before in the history of cinema has the phrase “I don’t think we have enough hot dogs” felt so ominous or so perfect. The latest from director Todd Haynes (Carol) centers on Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), an actress who travels to Savannah, Georgia, to shadow Gracie, the woman she’s about to play in an upcoming film. Loosely based on Mary Kay Letourneau, Gracie is a middle-aged woman married to a younger man whom she first met when he was 13 and she was in her thirties. Their twins are about to graduate high school, and during the week before the ceremony that Elizabeth spends with the family all sorts of complex and unsettling details emerge—some of the most unnerving about Elizabeth herself. Wicked and chilling, right down to its score, May December is full of surprises and two impeccable performances from Portman and Moore.

Asteroid City

With its pastel hues, A-list ensemble cast, and a plot that’s like going for a meandering stroll with someone who tells long, pointless stories, Asteroid City is—depending on your viewpoint—either quintessentially Wes Anderson or unbearably Wes Anderson. On the surface, it’s about an alien spaceship landing in a retro-futurist version of small-town America. But it’s layered and intricate: a movie about a documentary about a play, with Jason Schwartzman as war photographer Augie Steenbeck (and the actor playing him), and Scarlett Johansson as Hollywood star Midge Campbell (and the actor playing her). The overall effect is like some fine work of French patisserie—a macaron, maybe: sweet, pretty, gone.

Earth Mama

Director Savanah Leaf’s latest centers on Gia, a 24-year-old mother and recovering addict caught up in San Francisco’s foster care system. Gia has two kids she can see only sporadically; she is pregnant with a third. She must decide whether agreeing to adoption will help her case of increasing contact with her other two. Leaf’s achievement is to capture the inhumane pressure that leads people to act self-destructively. The viewer feels that pressure throughout and faces no choice but to understand what Gia must do.

Bottoms

Horny teen-sex comedies have been around for at least a half-century—which makes director Emma Seligman’s reinvention of the genre all the more impressive. In Bottoms, queer pals PJ (Rachel Sennott, who cowrote the script with Seligman) and Josie (The Bear’s Ayo Edebiri) decide to start a fight club at their high school as part of an elaborate scheme to hook up with hot cheerleaders. What the teens don’t count on is the plan actually working and that the best course of action is to try to undo the revolution they ignite. Real-life friends Sennott and Edebiri are an onscreen duo to be reckoned with and get a huge assist from retired running back Marshawn Lynch, who gets to spread his wings as a comedic actor (after his hilarious performance in an episode of Netflix’s Murderville).

Zone of Interest

This is Jonathan Glazer’s long-awaited return to film following 2013’s critically-beloved Under the Skin. Here he takes on an Everest: the Holocaust. This story is based on the novel by Martin Amis, who passed away this year, and follows Rudolf Höss and his family as they live an idyllic life on the edge of Auschwitz. In the tradition of films like Shoah, Glazer never quite looks the horror in the eye. There are merely visions of smoke and barbed wire, and a deeply unsettling chorus of muffled screaming. Much of the most starkly vicious moments come from the script: At one point, Höss cannot concentrate at a party; he is too busy sizing up how the high ceilings would make it challenging to gas the guests.

Talk to Me

The first feature of Australian YouTubers Danny and Michael Philippou is an intelligent, brilliantly realized, nasty little shock of a horror film. The central threat is an embalmed severed hand, which, when you hold it and say the film’s title, lets you converse with the dead. The kids treat it like a designer drug, filming their hallucinatory freak-outs on their phones. If that makes it sound like there’s a lot that could go wrong, be sure—it all does.

The Boy and the Heron

After years of brilliant films, Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli landed at the top of the North American box office with The Boy and the Heron. Reportedly the final film from studio cofunder Hayao Miyazaki, it brought in $12.8 million in its opening weekend, a first for an original anime film. It’s deserved. Telling the story of a boy, struggling to cope with his mother’s death, who meets a heron who shows him a magical world, it’s everything fans have come to expect from Ghibli. Lush, gut-wrenching, and full of just the right balance of fantasy and reality, it’s classic Miyazaki.

Kate Knibbs, Amit Katwala, and Angela Watercutter contributed to this guide.



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