best film:   Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is the best film of 2023. Nolan opens Oppenheimer with a simple title –  fission (a thread largely shot in color, focused on Cillian Murphy’s J. Robert Oppenheimer) and then shortly after, another title – fusion (largely shot in black and white, more centered on Robert Downey Jr.’s Lewis Strauss).  The entire film can be viewed as montage – particularly the cutaway-heavy commencement – which is a rapid sonic boom of audio/visual design made in the vein of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) – capturing the inner workings of atomic energy as well as placing the viewer in J. Robert Oppenheimer’s head space. With Oppenheimer, Nolan again proves himself to be a parallel editing savant – slicing and dicing the various time chronologies, subjective versus objective, fission versus fusion, and color versus monochrome. On top of Nolan’s muscular filmmaking – the dialogue fires –  lines like “power stays in the shadows” delivered by the heavyweight ensemble.

 

a stunning composition from Nolan’s Oppenheimer – Nolan is more of a grand compiler, organizer, orchestrator (much like Oppenheimer himself at his little town in Los Alamos – a sort of Nolan surrogate – much like Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb character in Inception) than a painter – but the 70mm/Imax large format pays off in spades regardless.

 

most underrated:  The critical consensus did an admirable job in 2023. They acknowledged the worthy films of Martin Scorsese (Killers of the Flower Moon), Aki Kaurismäki (Fallen Leaves) Jonathan Glazer (The Zone of Interest), and Yorgos Lanthimos (Poor Things) – all of their films landing in the consensus top ten (10). But the works of Pablo Larraín (El Conde), Emerald Fennell (Saltburn), and Chad Stahelski (John Wick: Chapter 4) were not duly recognized and appreciated. These three (3) films failed to even register on the TSPDT top fifty (50) – and that is frustrating given their rather obvious cinematic achievements. This is Larraín’s third (3rd) top ten film (Jackie in 2016, Spencer in 2021) and Fennell confirms that 2020’s Promising Young Woman was not the work of a one-hit wonder. Clearly, it is time to pay attention to Stahelski as an artist – not just confine him to his miraculous aptitude for stunt work or even the backhand compliments as one of the contemporary action genre’s finest directors. John Wick: Chapter 4’s cinematographer Dan Laustsen should certainly be given his credit – but even Lausten’s collaborations with Guillermo del Toro (Crimson Peak in 2015, The Shape of Water in 2017, and Nightmare Alley in 2021) may not hit the highs of his latest project with Stahelski.

 

from John Wick: Chapter 4 –  the Osaka Continental at the 45-minute mark. Chad Stahelski nods to Lawrence of a Arabia with the blowing out of the candle on the horizon edit transition in the desert as well. The film is occasionally slowed by just the sheer amount of stunt work (even if it is virtuoso stunt work) on display – but not enough to detract from the greater accomplishment. The Japanese lanterns setting makes for a breathtaking backdrop for the duel between Caine (Donnie Yen) and Shimazu (Hiroyuki Sanada) – but really it is just one tremendous sequence in a film filled with them – one awe-inspiring set piece after another. 

from the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan opening – just one of the many immaculate photographs from John Wick: Chapter 4. And the final duel is as satisfying (and elegantly composed) as anything in 2023 cinema – or the history of the action genre.

Stahelski unquestionably cares about background as much as foreground.  There is a lengthy fight episode in front of the glowing glass displays of historical Japanese weapons. Later, at the 65-minute mark, there is a wide shot of the Marquis (a very game Bill Skarsgård) at the Berlin opera. The Marquis and Winston (Ian McShane) have a scene in front of a wall of paintings, and here a great arrangement in front of the Eiffel Tower. 

doubling and mirroring in Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn – pairing style with content.  Barry Keoghan’s Oliver envies Jacob Elordi’s Felix – his house, family, life.

There is a dazzling tracking shot when the location of Saltburn is introduced – the tour given by the Felix (Jacob Elordi) character (where Oliver’s eyes, and the camera, do not leave Felix) – that is brought back (doubled) for the bold, memorable final tracking shot.

 

 

most overrated:   Todd Haynes’ May December (#3 on the consensus list), Justine Trier’s Anatomy of the Fall (#5) and Celine Song’s Past Lives (#7) are all commendable films. All three (3) are unhesitantly archiveable –  but they lack the cinematic ambition to be ranked that highly among the year’s best.  Past Lives is a well written story about love.  Anatomy of a Fall has a superior domestic argument scene – and May December may be the best of the three – they are just told in a pragmatic fashion.

 

trends and notables:  July 21st, 2023, is certainly the most important day in cinema for the 2020s thus far. The date marked the release of “Barbenheimer” – contending films released on the same day: Greta Gerwig’s Barbie and Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer. Both films had strong reviews from critics (neither debuted at any festival) and obviously touched something in the cultural zeitgeist. These were easily the two (2) most talked about films of the year – and both were triumphs at the box office.  2023 is the best single year in cinema since 2019. Like 2019, 2023 featured a big year at Cannes – titles like Asteroid City, Fallen Leaves, Killers of the Flower Moon, and The Zone of Interest all premiered on the French Rivera. 2023, like 2017 with Dunkirk, is a tough year for Nolan-deniers. Nolan has cemented himself with the all-time great montagists and on par with the leading auteurs of his generation. Speaking of that generation – it is fun to track the influence of say David Fincher on contemporary cinema. Oppenheimer owes a debt of gratitude to Fincher’s 2010 masterpiece with the dueling hearings and rat-a-tat dialogue. BlackBerry or Boston Strangler probably do not exist without the director who delivered The Social Network, Se7en, and Zodiac. 2023 is yet another extraordinary year for animation with Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, and then the great Hayao Miyazaki coming out of retirement for The Boy and the Heron. It is worth noting that that this superior year for animation is achieved really without much help from Disney. The underrated category gives room for budding talents like Fennell and Stahelski. Yorgos Lanthimos is no longer in this class. Lanthimos has bumped up to the next tier with his 2023 entry – Poor Things. His latest both stands alone and compliments 2018’s The Favourite –– putting Lanthimos closer to that master canon. As for Jonathan Glazer, he may not be Stanley Kubrick, Andrei Tarkovsky or Carl Theodor Dreyer, but it feels like a win for cinephiles any year he releases a film – his last film prior to 2023 was 2013’s Under the Skin – so that is a ten year gestation period – here is to hoping Glazer’s next effort lands before 2033. Overall, 2023 is a impressive year for cinema – and usually this page and category is reserved for the what was accomplished and what did come to fruition – but one of the most anticipated titles of 2023 and exciting newer voices has to be mentioned when discussing 2023. Ari Aster’s Beau is Afraid is a film ambitious in content – but not form or style – and that comes as a resounding disappointment after his previous two efforts – 2018’s Hereditary and 2019’s Midsommar.

 

Ben Travis from Empire on Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse “…Nowhere does that come through stronger than in Gwen’s Earth-65, all washed-out watercolours that shift seamlessly with the storytelling, her emotions blossoming into a symphony of swirling hues — pure cinematic synaesthesia. And as the film opens with an extended section in her world (this is Gwen’s film as much as it is Miles’), your mind will be blown ten times over before the opening credits even roll. It’s utterly breathtaking.”  https://www.empireonline.com/movies/reviews/spider-man-across-the-spider-verse

Gwen’s Earth-65 excerpts make for some of the finest moments in animation history

from Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest. Glazer starts and ends the film on a prolonged blank screen – dwelling on the visual emptiness and tuning the audience’s ears with the score from Mica Levi – both foreshadowing and reminding viewers of the crucial audio component of The Zone of Interest. Much of the horror is not shown – but can be heard from the Höss’ villa.  The Zone of Interest is told with an icy severity –  a debt to owed to both Kubrick and perhaps Michael Haneke. Glazer’s compositions are not Roma or Kubrick – but he does let the action play out in long shots without close-ups like say Jacques Tati.  Like Under the Skin’s weaker van pickup handheld camera episodes – Glazer blinks here in The Zone of Interest a few times formally – there is a singular fade to red, a flash forwards to a modern day cleaning company tidying up the concentration camp, and that running infrared thread that subtracts from the greater whole. But still, there is much to praise here – including the gobsmacking frame where Rudolph (Christian Fridel) is at a Nazi gathering (one of few scenes away from that home set piece) surrounding by antlers on the wall – Glazer captures it all in one sublime painting.

 

gem I want to spotlight:   Highlighting two (2) films here –  Cord Jefferson’s debut American Fiction is a sharp satire with juicy roles for lead Jeffrey Wright (who also has a small role in Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City and continues his 2020s hot streak) and Sterling K. Brown in support.  But David Fincher’s The Killer is probably the hardest film to leave off the top ten (10) of the year. Fincher employs a philosophical voice-over, chapter breaks, the violent (from an unexpected source) needle drops lyrics from The Smiths. Fincher’s work is never less than exacting – with his trademark dark lighting with green and yellow hues. The Killer also features a dedication to specific color in the mise-en-scene (the green taxi and recycling uniform/sign are no mistake). The Killer also serves as a bit of a comeback for Michael Fassbender who had a whopping thirteen (13) archiveable films from 2008 to 2016 but then nothing of particular note from 2017 to 2023 until he connected with Fincher.

 

after a one (1) film hiatus dabble in greyscale for 2020’s Mank – David Fincher returns to his trademark lighting and color palette for 2023’s The Killer

 

best performance maleCillian Murphy and Robert Downey Jr. give the two (2) best performances of the year – and then both happen to be in the same film. Murphy plays the titular character and gets the center of Nolan’s spotlight. Murphy gets some fabulous large format 70mm/Imax close-ups – and Nolan even use changes lens focus (with an aggressive audio arrangement) as Murphy’s face acts as the backdrop for a subtle delivery of complex emotions – heavy guilt – chief amongst them. Downey’s work as Lewis Strauss is nearly as spectacular. Downey is formidable throughout – but, in particular, his verbal sparring with Alden Ehrenreich as the noose tightens around him and Strauss loses his cool – is evidence of Downey’s genius.   Strauss is frothing with anger – Downey has never been better . Barry Keoghan lands amongst the best of 2023 with his work as Olivier Quick in Saltburn. Quick is Emerald Fennell’s Tom Ripley – and Keoghan is up to the task of portraying this serpentine character. Mark Ruffalo nabs the final spot for 2023 as Duncan Wedderburn in Poor Things. Ruffalo takes some big swings (Lanthimos sets up every actor in the film so well) and can confidently add comedy to his long list of competencies as an actor.

 

a devastating Jonathan Demme or Barry Jenkins-like close-up from Oppenheimer – these aid Cillian Murphy’s nuance performance. Nolan often opts for a shallow focus to direct the viewer to his subject’s murky psychological state.

 

best performance femaleEmma Stone is back in this category for her work Bella Baxter in Poor Things. This is Stone’s second consecutive Lanthimos film (2018’s The Favourite) mention for this category – giving her a whopping four (4) total for her career already. Stone’s performance is in tune with Lanthimos’ bizarro-brilliant world-building – fisheye lenses of Frankenstein meets The Wild Child. 2023 is a huge year for German actress Sandra Hüller. She is in two big films: Anatomy of a Fall and The Zone of Interest – both debuted to rave reviews at Cannes (Anatomy winning the coveted Palme d’Or) and both would end up nominated for best picture at the Oscars. It is Hüller’s work in The Zone of Interest that will live on as her finest work to date and the higher-ranking of her two (2) 2023 films. in The Zone of Interest Hüller plays Hedwig Höss – a ghastly woman. Hedwig is vain – caring about her home, her garden, her minks – and unlike her visiting mother, Hedwig sleeps soundly despite what is going on just beyond her own backyard. Scarlett Johansson stands out from the rest in the ever-growing traveling band of Wes Anderson actors. Johansson plays Midge Campbell in Wes’ Asteroid City – and it is no surprise that Scarlett nails Wes Anderson’s deadpan delivery ask. Lily Gladstone gets the final mention of the year in Killers of the Flower Moon. Gladstone has excelled before (Kelly Reichardt’s 2016 effort Certain Women is evidence of her gifts) – but to walk away from Martin Scorsese’s opus with the best performance in the film – a notch above both Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro – is enough alone to warrant a spot here.

 

Scarlett Johansson as Midge Campbell in Asteroid City – among the finest frames of 2023

 

top ten

  1. Oppenheimer
  2. John Wick: Chapter 4
  3. Asteroid City
  4. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse
  5. Poor Things
  6. The Zone of Interest
  7. Saltburn
  8. Fallen Leaves
  9. Killers of the Flower Moon
  10. El Conde

 

Wes Anderson is moving closer to the Akira Kurosawa The Bad Sleep Well (1960) or High and Low (1963) territory with the staging of heads and bodies in the frame. Anderson also utilizes the white bungalow (pictured here) and window to create a frame within the frame – always symmetrical and designed with rich detail (look at the blue tiles on the floor in the observatory – these would serve as the background for the overhead shots). Wes Anderson loves exploring the impact of art on life – that whole dissection – but that aspect aside, the film may work better without the black and white making of a play sequences. Though by including them, it does make the color Asteroid City sequences pop – like The Wizard of Oz door opening.

from Killers of the Flower Moon – the slow motion oil blowout in the opening is a standout scene – as is the frame layout here at the 170-minute mark of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Ernest reuniting with Lily Gladstone’s Mollie

this shot is just a few minutes later – reminiscent of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s jaw-dropping “the stare” cinematic paintings in 1974’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. Scorsese’s radio show epilogue is a tough choice. Still, Scorsese succeeds in his goal of telling this story – and it is a powerful one – even if, as a piece of cinema, it sits a tier or two below his best work.

from Pablo Larraín’s El Conde.  The film combines violence with tongue in cheek voice over narration. It features elegant classical music and beautiful black and white photography. Luis Buñuel would have been proud of El Conde sharp attack on Chilean dictator Augusto PinochetEl Conde features great doorway frame at the 58-minute mark (another later at the 83-minute mark), the low-angle show in the pool hall at the at the 67-minute mark. The cinematographer here is Edward Lachman. And it may tell the story of two 2023 films that Lachman worked on El Conde and did not work on Todd Haynes’ May December (Lachman is the cinematographer of both Far from Heaven and Carol from Haynes).

from Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla. This is yet another accomplished entry in the storied career of Coppola. Her protagonist (Cailee Spaeny as Priscilla Presley) is insolated, isolated, affluent and stared at – thrust into an eccentric, often dangerous world she is unprepared for. This is The Virgin Suicides (1999), Lost in Translation (2003) or Marie Antoinette (2006).

 

Archives, Directors, and Grades

A Haunting in Venice – Branagh HR
Afire – Petzold R
Air – Affleck R
American Fiction – Jefferson R
Anatomy of a Fall – Triet R
Asteroid City – W. Anderson MS/MP
Barbie – Gerwig R
Beau is Afraid – Aster R
BlackBerry – M. Johnson R/HR
Boston Strangler- Ruskin R
Dumb Money – Gillespie R
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves – Daley, Goldstein R
El Conde – Larraín HR
Evil Dead Rise – Cronin R/HR
Extraction II – Hargrave R/HR
Fair Play – Domont R
Fallen Leaves – Kaurismäki HR
Full Circle – Soderbergh R
Infinity Pool – B. Cronenberg R/HR
John Wick: Chapter 4 – Stahelski MS/MP
Killers of the Flower Moon – Scorsese HR
Leave the World Behind – Esmail R
Maestro – B. Cooper R
May December – Haynes R
Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One – McQuarrie R
Oppenheimer – Nolan MP
Passages – Sachs R
Past Lives – Song R
Poor Things – Lanthimos MS
Priscilla – S.Coppola R/HR
Rye Lane – Allen-Miller R
Saltburn – Fennell HR/MS
Sharper – Caron R
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse – Dos Santos, Powers,  Thompson MS/MP
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem – Rowe, Spears R/HR
The Boy and the Heron –  Miyazaki R/HR
The Holdovers – Payne R
The Killer – Fincher HR
The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar – W. Anderson R
The Zone of Interest – Glazer MS
They Cloned Tyrone – Juel Taylor R
You Hurt My Feelings – Holofcener R

 

*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film

MS is Must-See- top 5-6 quality of the year film

HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film

R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives

 

*** one final note here. As of publish date here (though the page will be updated in the future of course) there are forty-two (42) archiveable films from 2023. Unfortunately, at the time of putting this page together, I was unable to get to a number of the best reviewed films of 2023 including Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World, Close Your Eyes, The Delinquents, Music, All of Us Strangers, La Chimera, About Dry Glasses.