2023 Was a Bad Year for Movies. Here Were the Best.

When it came to movies this year, the junk outstripped the gems. But three films rose above the muck.

Paul Giamatti plays a schoolteacher in The Holdovers, one of 2023's most pleasant surprises. (Focus Features)

It’s been such an awful year for films that entertainment journalists are defensive. After all, their livelihood is tied to the state of our media. I’ve been reading their specious arguments about how 2023 has been not that bad if you think about it because, after all, other years in film history were worse.

Haven’t you ever heard of the Great Depression? How bad do you think 1931 was, with a film industry going bankrupt and a largely destitute population that couldn’t afford to see movies anyway? Huh? Huh?

There’s also the widespread argument that, actually, the film industry is finally recovering better than expected from production delays caused by COVID and WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes, and the proof is that large numbers of people actually went to see a few movies in 2023. That’s the bar we tend to set in America lately for all sorts of things — if it ain’t dead, it must be thriving; if it’s not an utter catastrophe, it’s a triumph:

2023 has been a great year for Hollywood cinema. Moviegoers flocked to the flashy fem-centric magic of Barbie and Taylor Swift. National treasure Martin Scorsese delivered quality work on screen canvases big (Killers of the Flower Moon) and small (TikTok). A cycle of intelligent biopics — Oppenheimer, Priscilla, Ferrari, Napoleon, and Maestro — offered a high-nutrition alternative to a slate of by-the-numbers remakes and sequels. No year in which a three-hour film about Cold War security clearances rakes in a billion dollars in global box office can be written off as a total failure.

But we’re trying to talk about best films here, and that rules out biopics almost automatically as the genre most likely to flail around stupidly and tell you everything except what might be true or interesting about its subjects. The supposedly exceptional list of biopics listed above is, overall, a collection of expensively produced junk that proves the rule.

The Holdovers

Dominic Sessa and Paul Giamatti in The Holdovers. (Focus Pictures)

However, there have been a few bright spots this year of films that set up their aesthetic terms well and fulfill them beautifully. The Holdovers is my favorite example, with its stealthy humor and compassion and its seemingly modest scope slowly opening up to become more consequential as you watch. In previews, this film looked dangerously like forgettable, sentimental bunk about a curmudgeonly boarding school teacher (Paul Giamatti) stuck minding a small group of students who hate him over the holidays.

But it’s so sharply observed and blessedly conscious of class and racial injustice, and done with such genuine humor and poignancy, you’ll be amazed to find yourself watching a new holiday classic being born. Plus, it’s so marvelous to have writer-director Alexander Payne (Nebraska, Sideways, Election) return to something like his former level of skill that it’s like a Christmas miracle in these dark cinematic times.

May December

Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore in May December. (Netflix)

May December demonstrates writer-director Todd Haynes’s remarkable control of extremely offbeat material in this unsettling drama about a TV actor (Natalie Portman) trying to boost her career by researching a challenging indie film role. She’s bent on playing a defiant woman (Julianne Moore) who’d created a scandal many years before when she was caught having sex with a thirteen-year-old, bore his child in prison, and then married him. Based on the Mary Kay Letourneau scandal of the 1990s, this film imagines an actor infiltrating the troubled, ostracized family home that resulted from such a terrible sexual transgression and stirring up the pain, shame, and turmoil the family has tried to bury.

From the film’s first close-up images inside the dense flora of the cage of the monarch butterflies raised by the still-too-young husband and father (played by Charles Melton in a revelatory performance), we’re struggling to understand the circumstances that give rise to so much angst and the people emerging from it. An amazingly disturbing score by Brazilian pianist and composer Marcelo Zarvos completes the experience of wrestling with the results of old sins.

For those baffled by why Haynes chose to make this film now, it’s clearly a challenge to contemporary sensibilities that are increasingly based on easy, absolute moral and ethical judgments and the belief that simple condemnation is enough. But what if the condemnation is twenty years old, and many lives are entangled in the initial transgressions? What’s the “right” attitude to take now toward the hysterical middle-aged wife in denial, the anguished young husband, the grown-up children? Are we taking the side of the condemning community that still mails neatly packaged boxes of shit to the household?

El Conde

Jaime Vadell as Augusto Pinochet in El Conde. (Netflix)

El Conde is a marvelously done black-and-white satirical farce about Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet (Jaime Vadell) reimagined as a literal monster, a vampire who has retired to the countryside to die voluntarily at last, surrounded by his greedy family, who aren’t technically vampires but hope to inherit his ill-gotten gains. Pinochet has even stopped eating his favorite food, human-heart smoothies. Writer-director Pablo Larraín of Chile (Spencer, Jackie, No) demonstrates cinematically how Pinochet functions as part of a long line of vampire conquerors resisting every attempt at human liberation and betterment, going back at least to the aristocrats escaping from the French Revolution.

Soon Pinochet revives his desire to live by taking a dangerous sexual and vampiric interest in the emissary from the Catholic Church, a young nun (Paula Luchsinger) who is also an accountant examining his many corrupt and murderous deeds, as well as a would-be exorcist. However, Pinochet’s bouffant-wearing vampire mother, Margaret Thatcher (Stella Gonet), is flying to his rescue, heavy purse in hand.

The Honorable Mentions

That’s not much, is it? Three films. There are probably more, but I’m judging by the ones that played in my backward berg in 2023, some flashing through like lightning and disappearing before anyone realized they were there.

Of course, there are honorable mentions. Killers of the Flower Moon, which I thought was terribly flawed, is still a serious film by Martin Scorsese, with a tremendous lead performance by Lily Gladstone, on a subject that demands our attention must be paid.

And there are a number of films I enjoyed a lot despite hardly qualifying as “Bests.”

I’d hoped that Poor Things, the latest film by Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, reteaming with screenwriter Tony McNamara and actor Emma Stone, who together gave us the brilliant dark comedy The Favorite (2018), would be on top of the list. But sadly, it’s only an “interesting” film, imaginative and opulently beautiful to look at, flamboyantly shot with keyhole imagery and fish-eye distorting lenses, but ultimately an overlong attempt to have big ideas about a female Frankenstein’s monster (Emma Stone) and her highly sexual journey toward enlightenment and liberation.

There’s a terrifically fearless performance by Stone as Bella Baxter, the pregnant Victorian woman who committed suicide and was crudely reanimated with the brain of her own fetus replacing her damaged adult brain. Willem Dafoe is both scary and sympathetic as the mad scientist Dr Godwin Baxter, who created her and is himself the horribly scarred product of his sadistic father’s scientific inquiries. Mark Ruffalo is equally inspired as a louche lawyer who carries the randy Bella off on her journey of self-discovery, only to find he can’t control her or his feelings for her.

But the film itself, based on the 1992 novel by Alasdair Gray, feels like a rather monstrous patchwork of sometimes lively spirits bursting out of a lot of dead matter. Worth seeing, certainly, but temper your high hopes before you go.

Then there’s Dumb Money, the heartwarming satire based on real-life events, directed by Craig Gillespie (Pam & Tommy, Cruella, I, Tonya), about the GameStop short squeeze. It’s a very enjoyable, pro-worker David vs. Goliath tale of small amateur traders who go up against the big stock company CEOs and hedge fund managers, create a Wall Street panic, and win. Also good fun is the often hilarious indie comedy Bottoms, Emma Seligman’s film starring Rachel Sennott (Shiva Baby) and Ayo Edebiri (The Bear) about a couple of high school misfits who happen to be lesbians and form a fight club, billed primly as a women’s self-defense class, in order to meet the cheerleaders who normally shun them.

John Wick: Chapter 4, the last film of the franchise that gripped working-class audiences who understand what it’s like to want to be left alone with your memories of better times, not disturbing anybody — but they won’t let you. If all you’ve got in the world is your muscle car and your puppy, they take your car and kill your puppy. So what else is left but revenge? The fourth and final installment, starring the beloved Keanu Reeves as the saddest, killingest, dog-lovingest hitman of all time, and directed by Reeves’s former stunt double Chad Stahelski, is a worthy wrap-up to this beloved action film series. 

And the year’s not quite over yet. If The Zone of Interest, directed by Jonathan Glazer (Under the Skin, Sexy Beast) would ever show up in theaters where I live, I’d have hopes of adding that to my own personal list of bests. I also hear good things about Godzilla Minus One from my normally reliable spies, who tell me it’s an excellent film for those lucky enough not to suffer from the film snobbery that prevents so many cinephiles from seeing great works of genre filmmaking.

So, as I head out to see Godzilla Minus One, I wish you a happy New Year and better films to come in 2024!