2023 has been a weird year for films. More and more, audiences have rejected giant blockbusters from franchises like Indiana Jones, Mission Impossible, Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the MCU, the DCU, and on and on. Conversely, they’ve rewarded more unique stories like Barbie, Oppenheimer, and Sound of Freedom. Between this and the mostly successful writers and actors’ strikes, it seems like a change is coming in Hollywood, perhaps a change toward smaller, better, less political films. It hasn’t come quite yet though; 2023 wasn’t a wonderful year for cinematic masterpieces, though there were myriad brilliant documentaries and quite a few instant classics from around the world.
The year is almost over, and we will update this list again with our final ranking of the best films of 2023, but in the meantime, you can check out our 23 picks for the essential films of the year below. We’ve ranked them according to these guidelines:
- Original Narratives
- Aesthetic Brilliance
- Emotional Impact
- Incredible Performances
- Meaningful Messages
- Guiltless Entertainment
- Thought-Provoking Questions
There’s a wide range of movies here, from the goofy to the serious; the big-budget to the micro-budget; the short to the very long. But we think they all represent the very best of 2023 — at least until we update this list near the end of the year, on December 29th, with our full picks. So enjoy whatever free time you may have this winter with one or more of these wonderful films.
- Release Date
- May 12, 2023
- Matt Johnson
Before Apple took the smartphone world by storm with its iPhone, Blackberry reigned supreme. What got them to the top of the technological food chain was their undying clarion call to change the world by inventing a piece of never-seen technology, promoted and used by the cool, smart, and posh gentry. The film which explores this is the best of the multiple ‘product-based’ movies that came along in 2023 (Air, Flamin’ Hot, etc.), and is the most interesting in relation to capitalism in the 21st century.
A Look at Capitalism and Technology with Great Performances
Matthew Johnson’s film aims to capture the ethos of the technological company, charting its rise and dramatic fall and everything in between. Jay Baruchel and Matthew Jonson do a phenomenal job at playing loud, bombastic nerds who have discovered a powerful device with superior computing power, before surrendering to business person Jim Balsillie’s abundant charm and street-smart charisma. Glenn Howerton surprises the hell out of everyone as Balsillie in one of the most intense performances of the year. With a plethora of other kinetic performances, Blackberry isn’t just a film that sensationalizes businesses, but also offers an insight into the minds and culture behind it. Watch on AMC+ and rent or buy on digital platforms like Prime Video and Apple TV+.
22 Showing Up
A24’s Showing Up marks the fourth collaboration between director Kelly Reichardt and star Michelle Williams after Wendy & Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff, and Certain Women. Williams plays Lizzy, an artist who is hoping to have a career-changing exhibition, but a variety of small obstacles get in the way. From nursing pigeons back to health to dealing with her landlord and mentally ill brother, Lizzy is perpetually frustrated, standing out like a sore thumb among the new age hippy-dippy community she is a part of.
Showing Up Is a Quirky and Subdued Look at Liberal Hippies
The film is a character study and one whose dry wit and subdued color palette match the work of the artist on display. Showing Up gently satirizes the new age community, with actors Hong Chau and Andre 3000 personifying Portland hippies in Lizzy’s art commune of sorts. Williams is hilariously petty and mundane in the film, her antagonism highlighting the various issues among the social dropouts and artists she interacts with. The film is a lazy, delightful detour into very different lives that leads to a quietly beautiful ending. Watch on Showtime and rent or buy digital platforms like Apple TV+ and Google Play.
21 The Lesson
A mysterious, witty little thriller, The Lesson is founded on a brilliant script and some phenomenal performances. Daryl McCormack is endlessly alluring as a young tutor and aspiring writer who is hired by a famous author (Richard E. Grant) and his wife (the great Julie Delpy) to prep their son for Oxford. The tutor has some ulterior motives, being a big fan of the author’s work, and quietly manipulates the author into tutoring him. Secrets, lies, and death pervade the luxurious estate in Alice Troughton’s feature film debut.
Richard E. Grant Continues to Be a Devilish Delight
Grant is one of the United Kingdom’s greatest actors, dating back to his hilarious work in Withnail & I and How to Get Ahead in Advertising, through his charming and heartbreaking role in Can You Ever Forgive Me? Everyone is wonderful in The Lesson, but Grant is mesmerizing as a pompous, bitter, and demanding dictator of his own home who is desperate to retain his status as a popular author. The score by Isobel Waller-Bridge is almost as hypnotic, perfectly complementing this mischievous satirical thriller. Watch on Showtime and rent or buy on digital platforms like Google Play and Apple TV. Check out our interview with Richard E. Grant below:
20 John Wick: Chapter 4
John Wick: Chapter 4 is the fourth and possibly final entry in the main John Wick franchise. Running nearly three hours long, the film is very much the Avengers: Endgame of this franchise (and action cinema in general of recent years), as it features the most elaborate fight sequences in the entire series while bringing various storylines to a close.
John Wick 4 Is an Action Tour de Force
John Wick: Chapter 4 features perhaps the most exciting and innovative action sequences in the franchise, and probably the best action sequences of the year, rivaled only by Mayhem!, Kill, and Silent Night. Those films, however, lack the stylistic bombast of John Wick: Chapter 4, which feels like the most immersive, visceral action film in years, a kind of mixtape of the greatest fights, chases, and shootouts of action cinema. Keanu Reeves shines as John Wick, and the film ends on an interestingly downcast note. Watch on Starz and rent or buy on digital platforms like Apple TV and Vudu. You can check out our interview with stars Shamier Anderson & Hiroyuki Sanada below:
19 The Night of the 12th
Lemming director Dominik Moll’s new film, The Night of the 12th, swept France’s Oscars (the César Awards), and deservedly so — it injects new life into the average police procedural. A new police chief is tasked with solving the murder of a beautiful young woman who had attracted a legion of lovers and dangerous friends. The film is not about finding the killer, but rather the disturbing realization that anyone could be the killer, and that sometimes we’ll never know the truth. Evil is not easily explainable.
The Night of the 12th Perfects the Police Procedural
With an ominous and unrelenting tone, The Night of the 12th perfectly plots its story from the start, and lets the audience know that it’s more about the journey than the destination (like the best cop films). With excellent performances led by Bastien Bouillon, Lula Cotton-Frapier, Bouli Lanners, and Pauline Serieys, Moll’s film tediously explores every assumption and presupposition by the police, and provides a glimpse into the darkness behind moviegoers’ favorite subjects — sex and violence. Rent or buy on digital platforms like Apple TV and YouTube.
18 Rye Lane
David Johnson and Vivian Oparah star in Rye Lane, the directorial debut of director Raine Allen Miller. The movie is a romantic comedy that follows two strangers who, after each having both been through recent breakups, decide to spend the day getting to know each other. It’s a small premise that leads to brilliantly imaginative escapades thanks to the wonderful direction and cinematography.
Rye Lane Is a Visually Stunning Spin on Classic Rom-Coms
The film premiered at Sundance and was later released on Hulu, and shows that the romantic comedy genre is still going strong as long as it is driven by voices with unique perspectives. Rye Lane is funny, heartfelt, and very British, and the leads are delightful, but the best part of the film is its endless imagination and willingness to introduce eccentric and elaborate visuals into the mix. Watch on Hulu.
17 Once Within a Time
Godfrey Reggio makes a triumphant return after two decades with a new experimental film, Once Within a Time. Famed for Koyaanisqatsi, this new film feels like an extension of the final title in his Qatsi trilogy, Naqoyqatsi, in that it’s much more about mind-boggling visual effects and allegorical technological experiments. That makes sense, considering it’s co-directed by Jon Kane, who edited Naqoyqatsi and introduced radial new methods to Reggio’s non-narrative filmmaking. This new film is a playful exploration of our obsession with technology and how that will ultimately destroy us and our planet.
What the Hell Is This Weird, Wonderful Film?
Once Within a Time is not for everyone. It doesn’t have a linear, explicit narrative, and the imagery is very strange. But for courageous viewers, the film literally feels like a one-hour trance, an act of mesmerism performed by the filmmakers and composers Philip Glass and Sussan Deyhim. Everything is up for interpretation, and there is certainly a story one can extrapolate (about a group of children surviving a techno-apocalypse and forging a new path for humanity amid a ruined earth). But mainly, this is an experiential film with the kind of visuals that seem transmitted directly from dreams and imaginations, the kind of images that make you wonder how they’re even possible.
- Release Date
- March 17, 2023
- Vasilis Katsoupis
A fascinating hallucinogenic thriller from Vasilis Katsoupis, Inside is an art film by multiple definitions, and yet still manages to be entertaining for mainstream audiences. The film follows a high-end thief (Willem Dafoe) who breaks into a luxurious penthouse apartment but triggers its security system and ends up trapped for weeks inside its walls. Surrounded by the expensive art and fancy, stern architecture of the apartment, the thief tries to stay alive using everything at his disposal.
Inside Is Willem Dafoe’s One-Man Show
It’s difficult to make an effective film with only one actor, and while Inside features a few other performers in sparse dream sequences, it manages to succeed thanks to the strength of Willem Dafoe. The actor is physical, funny, pathetic, and scary as he descends into madness and starvation throughout his attempts to escape the apartment. Inside is a surreal film about the actual value of art, filled with symbolism and ambiguity, but is ultimately grounded by one of the best performances of the year. Watch on Prime Video, rent or buy on digital platforms like Apple TV and YouTube.
LOLA is one of the many films with a blurred release date; it screened at festivals and for some critics last year, but didn’t get a regular theatrical release in America until August 2023. It deserves to be included in lists from both years, honestly, as it’s probably the most innovative found footage film in years. A sci-fi rom-com about World War II, the film follows two brilliant sisters who have created a time machine of sorts. It doesn’t transport people at all, but rather electromagnetic waves intercepted from radio and television signals, so that they can listen to and watch broadcasts transmitted from the future. The women use the device to help the British ahead of the worst days of World War II.
LOLA Is a Delirious Blend of Genres
The sisters document their experiments and their subsequent military involvement with old cameras, which director Andrew Legge replicates by using era-appropriate cameras like the Bolex and the Newman Sinclair, solely with 16mm and 35mm film. This, combined with real archival footage and digitally manipulated footage, creates a hauntingly authentic vibe, and the sisters’ amateur camerawork is delirious and fun, emulating the creative joy of someone first experimenting with cinematography. LOLA isn’t afraid to get dark and realistic, despite the sci-fi premise and whirlwind romance involved, and the result is a surprisingly emotional film with one of the boldest aesthetics of the year. Watch for free on Tubi and rent or buy on digital platforms like YouTube and Prime Video.
14 Asteroid City
Wes Anderson directs Asteroid City, a new European love story.
- Release Date
- June 23, 2023
- Tom Hanks , Margot Robbie , Scarlett Johansson , Adrien Brody , Jeffrey Wright , Bryan Cranston , Bill Murray , Jeff Goldblum , Edward Norton , Liev Schreiber , Hope Davis , Jason Schwartzman , Steve Carell , Willem Dafoe , Hong Chau
Highlighting the peak of Wes Anderson’s creative prowess, Asteroid City further cements his place as one of the best visual directors of our times. Juggling a constellation of stars, the film takes place in a colorful, postwar America blending several layers of fiction with magical realism, and follows the announcement of a global event and the impact it has on a Space Cadet convention.
Wes Anderson Reaches His Creative Apotheosis
Asteroid City furthers Anderson’s core sensibility of marrying beautiful visuals with tragic themes and oddball characters and is no different from his previous works in that regard. The film intricately unravels mature and delicate emotions from a rose-tinted lens, making it one of Anderson’s most complete works visually and emotionally. Watch on Peacock and rent or buy on digital platforms like Prime Video, Apple TV, and YouTube. You can watch one of our many interviews for Asteroid City below:
Exclusive: A Jetpack Joyride for Hope Davis and Stephen Park in Asteroid City
Hope Davis and Stephen Park play the parents of Junior Stargazers in Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City.
13 A Thousand and One
A Thousand and One won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. The feature film debut of A.V. Rockwell and a standout performance by Teyana Taylor, A Thousand and One tells the story of a single mom who kidnaps her six-year-old son out of the foster care system and tries to raise him.
A Generational Look at Black Family
The story explores generational development as it follows her son from six to 17, and is a moving piece about a parent’s devotion to their child and the hope that they can do better for them. A Thousand and One has sadly gone unnoticed at the box office, but it is a movie worth checking out. Watch on Prime Video and rent or buy on Apple TV and YouTube.
Arguably the most underrated film of the year, Biosphere is a hilarious sci-fi comedy about the last two men on earth — the idiotic President of the United States (Mark Duplass) and his childhood best friend and advisor (Sterling K. Brown), who engineered a biodome for them to survive in after the nuclear holocaust. Their relationship and the way it develops is fascinating and results in some of the funniest moments of the year. It’s best to go into this one cold without knowing much more about the plot.
Sterling K. Brown Is Hilarious in This Study of Male Ego and Gender
The friendship between Duplass and Brown’s characters is truly rewarding to see unfold, and Brown’s performance here is one of his best. He’s been having an amazing year or so, from Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul through Biosphere, Prime Video’s Invincible, and American Fiction. His character arc in this film says so much about male friendship, ego, and gender, and he manages to make you feel all sorts of things in this truly magical indie gem. Watch on AMC+ and rent or buy on digital platforms like Vudu, Apple TV, and Google Play. You can watch our interview with Duplass and Brown below:
11 The Unknown Country
Lily Gladstone received a lot of justified praise for her performance in Killers of the Flower Moon, but she arguably had better performances in 2023 (from the finale of Reservation Dogs to the film Fancy Dance), and there were definitely better films about Indigenous life this year (Frybread Face and Me, War Pony, Lakota Nation vs. United States). Both of those apply to The Unknown Country, a mesmerizing hybrid of documentary and drama with Gladstone at the center.
Lily Gladstone Guides Us Through an American Road Trip
The Unknown Country follows a Lakota woman on a mysterious road trip from North Dakota to the southern tip of Texas. Along the way, she meets waitresses, cashiers, family members, elderly retirees, and friendly party animals, most of whom are real people that the filmmaker (Morrisa Maltz) interviews. We hear the stories of their lives interspersed throughout a gorgeous audiovisual journey through America (and Native America). Gladstone developed the film with Maltz and Lainey Bearkiller Shangreaux, and Vanara Taing, and it’s one of the most beautiful films of the year. Rent or buy on YouTube, Apple TV, Prime Video, and other digital platforms.
Exclusive: Todd Haynes & Charles Melton Discuss the Sad, Complex Characters in May December
The great director and his star discuss the complicated, uncomfortable masterpiece, May December.
10 May December
- Release Date
- December 1, 2023
- 1hr 57min
May December is one of the most uncomfortable films of the year, but in such a sophisticated and human way; it’s like a tabloid deconstructed by a master filmmaker. Todd Haynes’ movie finds Natalie Portman playing an actor who is researching her next role, which is based on a real-life woman named Gracie who went to prison for having sex with a 12-year-old. The actor embeds herself in Gracie’s post-prison life, where she has married her now-adult victim and parents three children with him.
May December Is a Master Class in Acting
Julianne Moore is stunning as Gracie, one of the most complicated and haunting characters of the year, and Portman is of course brilliant as the actor Elizabeth, who is trying to find ‘the truth’ behind the woman. Their scenes together are like psychological jousting, and bring to mind Bergman’s film Persona. But Charles Melton almost steals the show here as Joe, Gracie’s former victim and now husband. The interactions between these three are filled with brilliant nuances, to the extent that you can find new subtleties in the performances each time you watch. Watch on Netflix. You can watch our interview with Portman and Moore below:
9 You Hurt My Feelings
One of the most delightful and quietly funny films of the year, You Hurt My Feelings is a sweet but morally and emotionally complicated comedy about insecurity and the human need for gratification. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is wonderful as a struggling author who discovers via eavesdropping that her husband hates her new novel despite telling her the opposite time after time. This small fib opens the floodgates of insecurity and suspicion between them and their friends and family.
A Charming and Honest Look at Marriage with Wonderful Characters
You Hurt My Feelings is one of the most honest films about honesty itself, posing the difficult question — do we prefer the truth all the time, or do we just want better fiction? How important is it for someone to enjoy their partner’s work or art? Can marriage survive total honesty? Tobias Menzies is very funny as Louis-Dreyfus’ therapist husband, who is beginning to doubt his skills in his own profession. Michaela Watkins and Arian Moayed round out the main cast wonderfully, and despite the themes of the film and the realism of the relationships, every character is a delight to be around. Rent or buy on YouTube, Apple TV, Prime Video, and other digital platforms. You can check out our interview with Louis-Dreyfus, Menzies, the director Nicole Holofcener below:
8 Tori and Lokita
Stories about immigrants have lately become a norm due to the modern changes that have occurred throughout the world. However, not every film that addresses the concept manages to hit the mark on this ever-growing subject, but the great Tori and Lokita feels authentic. The story is about two immigrants, Tori and Lokita, who pose as siblings to obtain legal papers in Belgium, but due to the complications of being an immigrant, must resort to desperate measures to survive.
Emotional Performances Will Make You Grateful for Your Life
The tear-jerking performances of Pablo Schils and Joely Mbundu make this an astonishing drama feature. You’d be surprised to see how much insight the film provides into the gloomy realities of the world in just under 90 minutes. A soul-searching film for the viewer, it will cause you to question the lives we have in light of how much suffering there is out there. Rent or buy on Apple TV+, Prime Video, Vudu, and other digital platforms.
R.M.N. gives you a brilliant insight into Romanian xenophobia, which deals with the gray areas of morality, giving you the sensation that no characters are good or bad, but situations fueled by hatred shape them into who they become. The story revolves around Matthias (Marin Grigore), a man who returns to his home community to visit his young son Rudi (Mark Edward), who is being raised by his ex-wife, Ana (Macrina Baraladeanu).
A Christian Mungiu Film Is Always an Event
When he also visits his former lover, Csilla (Judith State), who runs a bakery, he gets embroiled in a conflict caused by the locals due to her hiring a couple of workers from Sri Lanka. R.M.N is certainly one of the year’s best films, thanks to Christian Mungiu’s exceptional direction and two hours of visually dramatic storytelling. Watch on AMC+ or through YouTube or Prime Video, and rent or buy on digital platforms.
Exclusive: Acclaimed Director Cristian Mungiu on His New Politically Charged Film R.M.N.
The award-winning Romanian filmmaker spoke about the real-life inspiration that drove this Transylvania-set drama, R.M.N.
- Release Date
- July 21, 2023
Written by Noah Baumbach and directed by Greta Gerwig, the creative team behind Barbie had a lot of pressure to cater to a larger audience while staying true to Mattel’s philosophy. Playing off some poignant themes, the film sees Margot Robbie as the legendary character as she begins to question her existence. With plenty of nostalgia-inducing moments, the film was a global phenomenon, smashing its way to record numbers at the box office.
Barbie Is the Cultural Litmus Test of 2023
More than a film, Barbie is a cocktail of various themes of political commentary from feminism to meme culture and everything in between, with Gerwig’s rendition having more to do with the plasticity of today’s culture than Mattel’s toy. If there were any doubts regarding Margot Robbie’s craft and Ryan Gosling’s charm, they have been addressed with style. Rent or buy on digital platforms like YouTube, Apple TV, Vudu, and others. Check out our video analysis of the film below:
5 How to Blow Up a Pipeline
How to Blow Up a Pipeline is a tense environmentalist thriller that follows eight individuals from different backgrounds who decide to blow up an oil pipeline. While all motivated by different factors, what unites these people is a desire to see real social and political change.
How to Blow Up a Pipeline Is a Perfect Political Thriller
Directed by Daniel Goldhaber, who also wrote the script with Jordan Sloj and Ariela Barer (Barer is also a producer and star), the movie is thrilling, effectively paced (using a flashback structure that raises the tension on the mission), and cast perfectly by extremely authentic actors. Watch on Hulu and rent or buy on digital platforms.
- Release Date
- July 21, 2023
- Cillian Murphy , Matt Damon , Robert Downey Jr. , Emily Blunt , Florence Pugh , Gary Oldman , Josh Hartnett , Jack Quaid , Kenneth Branagh , Rami Malek , Alex Wolff , Matthew Modine
Christopher Nolan’s visual odyssey puts the spotlight on the creation of the atomic bomb and the man behind it. Led by a brilliantly haunting Cillian Murphy, who plays the titular role of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the film is up there with some of Nolan’s best works like Memento and Inception.
What Makes it Great?
Apart from staying true to his regular thematic sensibilities like expansive visuals and multiple timelines, Oppenheimer sees Nolan push his cinematic ceiling by charting and conquering the fairly unknown landscapes of biopics. He successfully attempts to bring to the fore the magnitude of the bomb and the mystique of the man behind it to viewers. Rent or buy on YouTube, Google Play, Apple TV, and other digital platforms. You can check out our video essay on the film below.