The Current Debate: The Best Films of 2023

With franchises sputtering, 2023 made room for bolder, riskier projects. A survey of the year’s best films and the debates around them.
Leonardo Goi

The Current Debate is a column that connects the dots between great writing about topics in the wider film conversation.

Crossroads (Bruce Conner, 1976).

It was early last March when, after twenty-three years and over two thousand reviews, A. O. Scott announced he would resign from his post as film critic at the New York Times, leaving his readers to wrestle with some cataclysmic prophecies. “The current apocalypse,” he wrote on his way out,

… is that streaming and Covid anxiety are conspiring to kill off moviegoing as we have known it, leaving a handful of I.P.-driven blockbusters and horror movies to keep theaters in business while we mostly sit at home bingeing docuseries, dystopias and the occasional art-film guilt trip. Am I worried? Of course I’m worried. The cultural space in which the movies I care most about have flourished seems to be shrinking. The audience necessary to sustain original and ambitious work is narcotized by algorithms or distracted by doomscrolling. The state of the movies is very bad.

It’s hard to disagree. As we surveyed the debates around last year’s best films, theatrical projection seemed to be on its way to obsolescence, and cinemas were threatening to turn into the exclusive turf of blockbusters, packed with special effects and patched together from carefully guarded intellectual property. In the spring and summer, writers and actors walked out in a joint WGA and SAG-AFTRA strike, advocating for better pay and protections for jobs threatened by the rise of streaming; the industry froze, productions were halted, projects canceled.

Then, on July 21, two box-office pulverizers were released, coining the year’s reigning portmanteau: “Barbenheimer,” that is, Barbie and Oppenheimer. As I type, Greta Gerwig’s Mattel fantasia has netted over $1.4 billion, while Christopher Nolan’s biopic has almost reached the billion-dollar mark. At the height of a very tense summer, “success at that scale for any two nonsequels—let alone films from prestige auteurs with strong personal visions—meant the world to anyone working in or around the film industry,” Dana Stevens notes in an illuminating year-end correspondence with other critics over at Slate. “It was proof that thoughtfully made ‘real’ films—big-budget projects, to be sure, but not prepped-in-a-lab franchise tentpoles—could get audiences to care about movies as a whole, and to treat the theatrical release of an exciting new one as a major public event.” 

That lesson was lost on big studios, with their moribund IP sagas. In contrast to the success of big-budget non-sequels, franchises kept sputtering. “In 2023, a slew of superhero movies earned hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office each and still reportedly failed to make back the money required to produce and market them,” Alison Willmore and Bilge Ebiri write at Vulture. “Not even Tom Cruise, 2022’s box-office savior, could rescue a Mission: Impossible movie from the installment fatigue that has set in across multiplexes — a kind of invasive exhaustion that’s made even the most reliable (or put another way, formulaic) of animated features falter in theaters.” 

In all fairness, that “superhero fatigue,” per Manohla Dargis at the New York Times, “should have surprised absolutely no one.” 

Old Hollywood embraced genre films but it also banked on variety, churning out musicals, westerns, dramas, comedies, historical epics, detective and gangster tales and genre hybrids. Some were interchangeable; others had fresh stories, distinctive visual styles and authorial flourishes. Now, though, the big studios are largely in the business of action-adventure franchises and serials; they bank on similarity, not variety. As of Nov. 30, half of this year’s top 20 grossing domestic releases fall in the action-adventure category, including a clutch of superhero flicks. 

To be clear, as Mark Harris warns over at Slate, 2023 did not mark the end of superhero movies, “but it absolutely marked the end of the superhero-movie phenomenon.” Warner Bros. releases like Shazam! Fury of the Gods, The Flash, and Blue Beetle barely made back their budgets, and Disney’s (Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, and The Marvels) didn’t fare much better. Whether or not these flops can be chalked up to these franchises’ recent infatuation with the multiverse, Marvel and DC are embracing a more guarded strategy—at least for the time being. In late 2022, Warner Bros. enlisted James Gunn and Peter Safran to relaunch a leaner DC universe, with five movies and five TV series on their initial slate, while Disney’s Bob Iger has hinted the studio will slow down on sequels (“We will only greenlight [one] if we believe the story that the creators want to tell is worth telling,” Variety’s Zack Sharf reports him as saying last November). In other words, we might be heading into a much-needed superhero drought. “A movie year that’s virtually free of superhero movies—like the one we’re about to experience—could create pent-up demand,” Harris speculates at Slate. “But it could also be an interesting cultural reset, as if we’re all collectively waking up from a very long slumber.” 

Perhaps. But if the astonishing success of Barbenheimer has taught us anything, it is that people go to the movies to feel as if they belong to something; with their throngs of fans decked out in fuchsia or wide-brimmed hats (or both), the two blockbusters promised communion as much as escapism. To be fair, several other movies felt “big” in 2023, both figuratively—their releases were suddenly events that mattered again—and literally, as a staggering amount of the most fêted titles were just really long. Supersized running times were recorded in both fiction and in nonfiction camps: Nolan’s three-hour biopic is still twenty-six minutes shorter than Martin Scorsese’s majestic new epic, Killers of the Flower Moon, while three of the year’s most intriguing docs, Wang Bing’s Youth (Spring), Frederick Wiseman’s Menus-Plaisirs—Les Troisgros, and Steve McQueen’s Occupied City, ran well over three hours. As Bilge Ebiri remarks on the “Best Films of 2023” episode of the Film Comment Podcast, “we now seem to have a resurgence of documentaries that treat the genre as its own form, with its own cadence and running time and things that aren’t trying to fit everything into a tight 90-minute feature.” 

Milisuthando

Milisuthando (Milisuthando Bongela, 2023).

That renaissance notwithstanding, David Ehrlich and Kate Erbland contend at IndieWire, 2023 also revealed the David versus Goliath fight that many other docs must wage to survive in “a streaming ecosystem that’s made it all but impossible to market anything besides celebrity profiles and concert films.” It bears noting that festival standouts like Milisuthando are still awaiting distribution, while others like Kokomo City, Our Body, and Four Daughters have struggled to be seen amid other, larger productions. It’s a noticeable trend across the year-end lists themselves: while documentaries do pop up across them, however sporadically, the consensus seems to revolve around the same established auteurs—Wiseman, Wang, et al.—to the exclusion of new or less prominent names. 

The rift between big-studio projects and smaller, independent films is nothing new; what is new, as the Los Angeles Times’s Justin Chang warned in 2022, is that both industry and audiences may “increasingly equate the big screen with outsized spectacle, to the exclusion of all else.” A year later, the suspicion has only grown stronger—but that’s what lists are for. One of 2023’s most insightful and essential reads for me was Manuela Lazic’s defense, over at The Guardian, of the growingly tenuous distinction between critics and influencers, and how an industry hungry for knee-jerk social media reactions (of the positive variety only, naturally) would prefer to reduce critics to promotional automatons in the studios’ marketing machine. Year-end lists are a powerful antidote to this intellectual and creative debasement; at their best, they’re active works of criticism. Sure, no list “is definitive,” per Time’s Stephanie Zacharek, “because no year of moviegoing experience can be reduced to bullet points—nor should it be,” especially now that our movie-watching habits have changed so dramatically. But list-making is still an exercise in curation, and a vital means to expand one’s taste; one should not look at lists for confirmation, but disruption. 

Yet a careful survey of significant publications’ year-end polls paints a relatively homogenous picture. “It didn’t feel like a year of discovery,” Esther Zuckerman says of 2023 over at Slate, “so much as a year of reassurance,” full as it was of “great work from established directors to an almost perversely frustrating extent.” Indeed, the most cited are films by masters performing at the peak of their powers: Scorsese’s gruesome epic about the systematic obliteration of the Osage in 1920s Oklahoma features on virtually every list (and took the number one spot at both the New York Times and the New Yorker), as does Todd Haynes’s May December (the year’s best, according to Film Comment and Little White Lies), together with a handful of other mid- and late-career standouts from the likes of Aki Kaurismäki (Fallen Leaves), Wes Anderson (Asteroid City), Kelly Reichardt (Showing Up), and Hayao Miyazaki (The Boy and the Heron). Then there were festival prizewinners like Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall, Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest, and Yorgos Lanthimos’s Poor Things. Even the larger and more diverse pools of critics—like IndieWire’s, with 158 writers from around the world invited to vote on the year’s best—yielded a fairly consensus-y top ten, to the detriment of the wild cards buried farther down the list. Those looking for titles off the beaten track had better head over to Cahiers du Cinéma, which, having rightly crowned Albert Serra’s Pacifiction as the best film of 2022, named Laura Citarella’s labyrinthine two-part Trenque Lauquen 2023’s finest. 

Trenque Lauquen (Laura Citarella, 2023).

It’s interesting that such widespread consensus should feature on critics’ and filmmakers’ lists alike. Over at IndieWire, Sarah Shachat invited 38 directors to pick their favorites; there’s no denying the final survey offers a more polyphonic and heterogenous snapshot, and it’s always a pleasure to see filmmakers spotlight films they loved but that “aren’t getting enough attention,” per Nicole Holofcener, whose list includes less unanimous picks like Nicole Newnham’s The Disappearance of Shere Hite and Maite Alberdi’s The Eternal Memory. Still, the usual suspects still feature everywhere, as they do at Variety, which asked sixteen cineastes to write on the titles they loved best. Kelly Reichardt picked her longtime friend and collaborator Todd Haynes’s May December, whose origins she locates in his fascination with Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966): “Every Haynes film is structurally in conversation with a film that lives deep inside him, that he knows in and out.” For more appraisals of fellow filmmakers’ work, Pedro Emilio Segura also asked directors to praise their favorites at Films in Frame, and Aki Kaurismäki beat the drum for Alice Rohrwacher’s La chimera in his usual deadpan fashion: “Reason: It was good.”

Still, any list is bound to struggle with issues of over-generousness and conformity, and to complain that “it’s the same ten films over and over again,” Ryan Swen writes at his blog, Taipei Mansions, “is total nonsense.” 

When it comes to the best films of the year, [list-making] always risks the potential of repeating others (especially those with a marked influence on one’s own taste). Does the film culture landscape absolutely need yet another list with, say, the Todd Haynes on it? Absolutely not. But I know that my list would not be true to myself and what I love in film if it was absent, and that’s ultimately what these gratifying endeavors entail.

Maybe that’s how we ought to treat film lists in the end: as a way to snorkel, however imperfectly, into the medium and the industry at large. For all its existential crises, cinema looked a lot healthier in 2023 than it did just the year before. Marked as it was by a long series of stoppages and release-calendar shuffling—“I can think of almost as many potentially enjoyable commercial movies that didn’t come out in 2023 as ones that did,” Adam Nayman muses at The Ringer—major studios and streaming giants still released idiosyncratic projects. What’s missing from most of them, Richard Brody observes at the New Yorker, “is a sense of swing, for exactly this reason: swing is a matter of spontaneity, and movies that are years in the making,” often shot on tight schedules with very little room for risks or failure, “tend to have less of it.”

The flipside of this loss of spontaneity is that filmmakers have time to think about what they’re doing and where they stand in regard to it. (Scorsese’s drastic preproduction transformation of “Killers of the Flower Moon” is a prime example.) As it happens, this reflectiveness is very much in tune with the politics of the time, which often spotlights the position of filmmakers in relation to the world they depict—a tendency abetted by social media, with its expanded range of critical discussion.

Killers of the Flower Moon (Martin Scorsese, 2023).

Seen in this light, Scorsese’s cameo in the coda of Killers isn’t just one of the year’s most indelible sequences. It is also evidence of a major break from the political cinema of earlier generations, and a compelling argument for the kind of swing that’s been missing from mainstream productions. The best films of the year, to draw from Brody again, are concerned with “dramatizing not just an inner world but the standpoint from which it’s conceived”; they find ways, “whether exuberantly comic or tensely dramatic, to connect their protagonists’ conflicts to institutions,” all while questioning their own creators’ role in fueling those very conflicts and injustices.

A little less than twelve months since A. O. Scott’s parting thoughts, there are still many reasons to be worried. The cultural space necessary for smaller films to thrive is still shrinking, but for all the algorithms and doomscrolling, the cinema of the past twelve months shows there’s still an audience eager for original, bold projects pushing the medium toward uncharted paths. If nothing else, Manohla Dargis suggests at the New York Times, that’s what this year reminded us:

Films can be great! They can embrace genre, play with it, transcend it. Their stories and their telling can be diverse, their quality thrilling, their art transporting. There’s more to movies than the industry, its crises and convulsions. In 1951, David O. Selznick, the producer of “Gone With the Wind,” rued that “there might have been good movies if there had been no movie industry.” The thing is, there have always been good movies despite the industry but, then, I’m a shameless optimist — I’m a film critic. 

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