The Best Movies Of 2023: ‘Oppenheimer,’ ‘Joy Ride’ And More

The Best Movies Of 2023: ‘Oppenheimer,’ ‘Joy Ride’ And More

It’s a common belief that the most worthy movies are released toward the end of the year. Maybe that’s due to the idea of “award season,” a time designated for so-called “prestige” movies in contention for major accolades, like the Oscars, or are prioritized on popular media sites. But that’s always been a bit misleading.

Perhaps this year that is especially true. From the charming Black love story of “Rye Lane” and the moving cultural awakening in “Return to Seoul” to Michael B. Jordan’s return to the boxing ring in “Creed III” and Nida Manzoor’s feminist Pakistani manifesto, some of the best movies were released in the first half of the year.

And they were consistent up to the moment we were compiling this list. Spanning horror, drama, superhero, comedy, romance and true-life stories across eras and continents — yes, including some of those aforementioned contenders — the Culture team reflected on what has remained a constant as the world continued to burn this year: good cinema.

Nimra Bucha as Raheela (left) and Priya Kansara as Ria Khan in "Polite Society."
Nimra Bucha as Raheela (left) and Priya Kansara as Ria Khan in “Polite Society.”

Parisa Taghizadeh/Courtesy of Focus Features

‘Polite Society’

“Polite Society” is full of one-liners, zany antics, sheer athleticism and pitch-perfect performances. The martial arts comedy, written and directed by Nida Manzoor, follows British-Pakistani teen Ria Khan (Priya Kansara), who is determined to become a successful stuntwoman and to stop her artist sister, Lena (Ritu Arya), from giving up her dreams and marrying a rich man and moving to Singapore. The heist at the end? Riveting and satisfying. The film, released in January, was consistently at the top of my recommendation list all year for folks who wanted a movie that was as fun as it was heartwarming. It is the kind of film you could watch over and over again. — Erin E. Evans

Rachel Sennot (left) and Ayo Edibiri in "Bottoms."
Rachel Sennot (left) and Ayo Edibiri in “Bottoms.”

Courtesy of MGM/Orion Pictures

‘Bottoms’

Ayo Edebiri and Rachel Sennott in a high school comedy? Sign me up. “Bottoms” was another fun movie to see in theaters, focusing on young people literally fighting to get what they want. Directed by Emma Seligman, the satire could be written off as just a queer take on a comedic high school film, but the movie felt fresh, fun and cynical in all the ways I love. Edebiri and Sennott make a great leading duo, and the rest of the ensemble cast help fill out the film with their own quirks and quick jabs. It’s another film I’m sure I’ll return to. — Evans

Tom Cruise and Rebecca Ferguson in "Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part One."
Tom Cruise and Rebecca Ferguson in “Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part One.”

Courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Skydance

‘Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part One’

Truth be told, it’s kind of funny that amid contentious discussion this summer around the exploitative use of artificial intelligence by Hollywood studios, the same industry released a blockbuster film that intensely vilified AI. Maybe writer-director Christopher McQuarrie’s latest “Mission Impossible” outing was a way to cinematically show how Hollywood is eating itself — imploding, if you will. To also be entertaining and complex on top of that, while actually advancing the storyline of the decades-long film franchise? Sublime. — Candice Frederick

Molly Gordon and Ben Platt in "Theater Camp."
Molly Gordon and Ben Platt in “Theater Camp.”

Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

‘Theater Camp’

“Theater Camp” is just about the goofiest yet most earnest comedy this year. Co-directed, co-written, co-produced and starring Molly Gordon, it is exactly what you think it is: a story about a bunch of musical theater geeks freaking out about an amateur production. There’s the drama teacher who knows nothing about teaching drama (Ayo Edebiri), the two overzealous students-turned-teachers who are often too preoccupied with their own melodramas offstage (Gordon and Ben Platt) and the delusional heir to the camp (Jimmy Tatro). It’s a campy satire in a very it’s-funny-because-it’s-true kind of way. And it totally rules. — Frederick

Sandra Hüller in "Anatomy of a Fall."
Sandra Hüller in “Anatomy of a Fall.”

‘Anatomy of a Fall’

Almost everything about writer-director Justine Triet’s stunning “Anatomy of a Fall” feels like a misdirect. That’s mostly because of what the viewer applies to it. It’s not exactly a whodunit murder mystery. It’s not a true crime story. It isn’t actually in conversation with 50 Cent’s 2003 hit “P.I.M.P.” But it feels like it could be any one of those things because each of them brings a crucial element to the narrative. But what Triet seems most curious about is the relationship between the accused (a wife and mother terrifically portrayed by Sandra Hüller) and the deceased (a husband and dad passionately played by Samuel Theis). Added to it are their separate relationships with their son (Milo Machado Graner). What do their relationships look like under the judgmental weight of a murder trial? Brutal, unflinching and gripping as all get out, “Anatomy of a Fall” is masterful. — Frederick

Greta Lee (left), John Magaro and Teo Yoo in "Past Lives."
Greta Lee (left), John Magaro and Teo Yoo in “Past Lives.”

‘Past Lives’

Few movies this year have stuck with me more than “Past Lives,” writer-director Celine Song’s gorgeous tale of missed connections, unrequited love and wondering what might have been. There are shots of the film that I constantly think about, and how great is it to see Greta Lee getting her well-deserved flowers? It’s the kind of film for which no pithy summary really does it justice, so just trust me: Prepare to feel all of the feelings. — Marina Fang

Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Tobias Menzies in "You Hurt My Feelings."
Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Tobias Menzies in “You Hurt My Feelings.”

‘You Hurt My Feelings’

It would never have occurred to me to build a whole movie around the white lies we tell to keep our relationships intact. But I’m not Nicole Holofcener, who consistently makes witty observational comedies about the foibles of her characters. “You Hurt My Feelings,” her latest collaboration with the great Julia Louis-Dreyfus, follows Beth, an author who discovers that her usually supportive husband, Don (Tobias Menzies), secretly doesn’t think her latest book is any good. Meanwhile, Don is a therapist with a string of dissatisfied clients, and Beth’s sister Sarah (Michaela Watkins) is an interior designer dealing with clients with picky demands — as well as the emotional needs of her husband, Mark (Arian Moayed), an insecure actor struggling to get a gig. All of them humorously muddle through various versions of the same question: Is being honest worth the risk, or is it better to let it lie? — Fang

Lily Gladstone, Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio in "Killers of the Flower Moon."
Lily Gladstone, Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio in “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

‘Killers of the Flower Moon’

There has been a lot of robust and thought-provoking discussion around who gets to tell stories like “Killers of the Flower Moon” and how they should be told — questions I continue to mull over. But it’s telling that the film keeps generating new thoughts, observations and perspectives long after the credits roll and the lights come up. It’s hard not to admire its staggering scale and scope and that film legend Martin Scorsese, in his 80s, is still making movies that push viewers and explore new cinematic ground. And wherever you land on the thematic and structural questions the film raises, I think we can all agree that Lily Gladstone, who has long deserved this kind of major spotlight, is absolutely fantastic. We’ll see if Hollywood learns the right lessons from the film’s success (*cough* give more Native artists the infrastructure to make big projects and get starring roles *cough*). — Fang

Andrew Scott (left) and Paul Mescal in "All of Us Strangers."
Andrew Scott (left) and Paul Mescal in “All of Us Strangers.”

Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

‘All of Us Strangers’

After a career of indelible supporting characters, like Hot Priest on “Fleabag” and Moriarty on “Sherlock,” it’s wonderful to see Andrew Scott get to be a romantic leading man in “All of Us Strangers.” I have not stopped thinking about his heart-wrenching performance as Adam, a lonely screenwriter living in a mostly empty and sterile-looking London high-rise, who strikes up a romance with a mysterious neighbor, Harry (Paul Mescal). Writer-director Andrew Haigh interweaves their encounters with a ghost story: Adam visits his childhood home where, curiously, he sees his late parents, who died in a car accident when he was a child, looking exactly as they were before. The film has a beautiful alchemy that will leave you emotionally floored. — Fang

Spider-Man/Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore) in "Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse."
Spider-Man/Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore) in “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.”

‘Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse’

The reign of Miles Morales as the superior Spider-Man over Peter Parker continues with the sequel to the superhero animation that changed the game. “Across the Spider-Verse” can’t be slept on as one of the best films this year. Period. With characters voiced by Shameik Moore, Issa Rae, Daniel Kaluuya, Brian Tyree Henry, Hailee Steinfield and others, Miles traverses different dimensions and learns his father’s life is at stake. It’s Miles against hundreds of iterations of Spider-Men as he refuses to accept his dad’s fate as a canon event. It’s the kind of animated film that you can’t not find entertaining, comic book fan or not. — Taryn Finley

David Jonsson and Vivian Oparah in "Rye Lane."
David Jonsson and Vivian Oparah in “Rye Lane.”

Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures/Hulu

‘Rye Lane’

I staunchly believe that television is superior to film, but this modern rom-com challenges my stance in the best way possible. “Rye Lane,” directed by Raine Allen-Miller, follows two newly single Black British young adults, Yas (Vivian Oparah) and Dom (David Jonsson), who bond “over the course of an eventful day in South London.” After crossing paths at a mutual friend’s art exhibition, the two embark on a journey through the city, unpacking their heartbreak, insecurities and vulnerabilities with hilarity and honesty. “Rye Lane” puts a beautiful twist on the classic meet-cute; it’s quirky, funny and raw, and truly has something for everyone. Moreover, the film challenges stereotypes associated with South London and centers Black, Gen Z love stories on the big screen. I’ve watched “Rye Lane” at least four times, and I will never get tired of it. — Ruth Etiesit Samuel

Sabrina Wu (left), Ashley Park, Stephanie Hsu and Sherry Cola in "Joy Ride."
Sabrina Wu (left), Ashley Park, Stephanie Hsu and Sherry Cola in “Joy Ride.”

‘Joy Ride’

“Joy Ride” was truly one of the best, most underrated films of 2023. The significance of a raunchy, heartwarming and unapologetic contemporary film led by Asian American femmes making it to theaters is not lost on me. Directed by Adele Lim and starring Ashley Park, Sherry Cola, Sabrina Wu and Stephanie Hsu, “Joy Ride” follows a group of four friends who venture on a reunion trip that becomes a mission for one character to find her biological mom. The movie paid beautiful homage to sisterhood and friendship, and it straddled the line between zany humor and teachable moments with great precision. “Joy Ride” examined what it means to embrace and rediscover one’s heritage, especially as an Asian adoptee, and what finding pride in your personhood and identity looks like beyond the confines of whiteness. I saw the movie in theaters with my girls, cried and cackled a bunch, and I cannot recommend it enough. — Samuel

Park Ji-Min in 'Return to Seoul."
Park Ji-Min in ‘Return to Seoul.”

Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

‘Return to Seoul’

Usually, quiet, pensive films are overlooked for the buzzier fare, especially around the end of the year and into award season. But that too often means that movies like writer-director Davy Chou’s “Return to Seoul” woefully fall under the radar. The filmmaker’s latest is an empathetic exploration of a young woman’s experience with identity once she makes the difficult decision to journey from her native France to South Korea, where she was born before she was adopted. Anchored by Park Ji-Min’s vulnerable performance, Chou delivers a complexly human story that poses questions of self, belonging and forgiveness. — Frederick

Michael B. Jordan (left) and Jonathan Majors in "Creed III."
Michael B. Jordan (left) and Jonathan Majors in “Creed III.”

Eli Ade/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.

‘Creed III’

Michael B. Jordan’s directorial debut, “Creed III,” was as thrilling — if not more so — than the franchise’s predecessors. It is an entertaining and thoughtful film with stellar performances across the board, including that of Jonathan Majors as Adonis’ childhood friend turned opponent, returning co-stars Phylicia Rashad and Tessa Thompson, and newcomer Miles Davis-Kent, who memorably holds her own in scenes with these established actors. Davis-Kent, who is deaf and uses American Sign Language in the film, adds the perfect amount of authenticity and tenderness needed in the boxing film. Jordan proves he’s an impressive first-time director — and with the just announced “Creed IV” on the way, we can’t wait to see how he steers this franchise into a new beginning. — Evans

Cillian Murphy in "Oppenheimer."
Cillian Murphy in “Oppenheimer.”

Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures

‘Oppenheimer’

No one can ever really be prepared for a three-hour movie largely consisting of scenes in stark boardrooms to be such a thrilling watch. But such is the case of “Oppenheimer,” filmmaker Christopher Nolan’s epic drama examining the moral questions of being the “father of the atomic bomb,” both a scientific feat and a weapon that killed an estimated 200,000 Japanese people at the end of World War II. Though there have been compelling critiques about the way Nolan chose to reflect the Japanese plight in the film, just as there have been about how “Killers of the Flower Moon” sidelines the voices of Osage women, Nolan still gives us a challenging, meticulous movie. One that examines multiple truths and, through Cillian Murphy’s remarkably controlled portrayal, probes the cost of complicity, ethical compromise and male idolatry. As a result, the audience is impelled to reckon with this portrait of a deeply flawed and complex figure as well as hypocrisies that have been long protected. — Frederick

Players for Bishop Sycamore in "BS High."
Players for Bishop Sycamore in “BS High.”

‘BS High’

“BS High” is one of the most infuriating documentaries to watch, but perhaps that’s what makes it great. The film follows one of the wildest sagas in high school sports history: A football team, led and created by Roy Johnson, at fake high school Bishop Sycamore, makes it all the way to ESPN to play one of the top-ranked squads in the country. But that’s just part of the story. Describing the events doesn’t properly capture how wild and unethical and (what seemingly should be flat-out illegal) it all turns out to be: There’s fraud, greed and straight-up lying and manipulation at play. But here’s what makes “BS High” fascinating: Johnson, a maddening grifter, takes center stage in the doc to walk viewers through his strategies without an ounce of remorse — and with a smirk that makes you want to smack him through your TV screen. Thankfully, Oscar-winning directors Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe weave the story together to make you understand the devastating effect Johnson had on his players and their livelihoods. It is an upsetting story but a necessary exploration in hopes it’ll never happen again. — Evans

An archival photo from "Donyale Luna: Supermodel."
An archival photo from “Donyale Luna: Supermodel.”

Donyale Luna: Supermodel’

These days it’s becoming more and more rare to come across a documentary, particularly a celebrity documentary, that aims to find answers to questions rather than simply affirming what is largely already understood. Director Nailah Jefferson’s “Donyale Luna: Supermodel” is becoming an anomaly in that way. Peeling back the many layers of its eponymous and unknowable Black model seemingly in real time, the film wrestles with the complexities of Blackness, mental health and identity — particularly in the ’60s and ’70s, eras that are often regarded as a time of explicit Black resistance and pride. What did that mean for a woman who thwarted definition or community? And does that mean she can’t also be understood as an icon? Jefferson’s film doesn’t really offer those answers. Instead, it fuels a complicated, prickly yet necessary conversation. — Frederick

An archival photo in "Little Richard: I Am Everything."
An archival photo in “Little Richard: I Am Everything.”

‘Little Richard: I Am Everything’

Director Lisa Cortés puts her well-trained spotlight on rock ’n’ roll legend Little Richard in “Little Richard: I Am Everything.” “Where the documentary shines is in grounding Richard’s queer legacy, particularly as an artist who largely speaks about his queer experience in the past tense,” Shamira Ibrahim writes for HuffPost. Audiences hear from people who knew him closely, and the film tracks the performers who influenced his style and bravado — and those who were influenced by his music, too. This film really centers critical analysis and rich context that make Little Richard’s story feel fresh and definitely illuminating. — Evans

Lamar Johnson (left) and Aaron Pierre in "Brother."
Lamar Johnson (left) and Aaron Pierre in “Brother.”

‘Brother’

There’s a lot brewing beneath the surface of writer-director Clement Virgo’s simmering family drama that is propelled by the fact that it doesn’t tell you everything at once. Unfolding through two timelines, on one end, “Brother” is the story of two young brothers (Lamar Johnson and Aaron Pierre) in Toronto grappling with ideals of Blackness, adolescence and masculinity in the throes of a bustling community that has yet to consider their humanity. On the other is an increasingly tense narrative rooted in the home with their despondent mother (a magnificent Marsha Stephanie Blake), where one of them is mysteriously absent. As the film progresses, we learn more about the crushing event that binds them. Rich with texture in both the narrative and cinematography and deepened by stirring performances, “Brother” is the little film that should have been part of this year’s awards discussion. It’s that good. — Frederick

Gabrielle Echols (from left), Nell Fisher, Lily Sullivan, Morgan Davies and Alyssa Sutherland in "Evil Dead Rise."
Gabrielle Echols (from left), Nell Fisher, Lily Sullivan, Morgan Davies and Alyssa Sutherland in “Evil Dead Rise.”

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

‘Evil Dead Rise’

There aren’t a whole lot of horror franchises — *cough* “Scream” *cough* — that have been consistently good across the decades. And the “Evil Dead” series is no exception. So when “Evil Dead Rise” came around early this year, the bar was already at sea level. But with legitimate scares, a premise grounded by the story of motherhood in peril and filmmaker Lee Cronin’s mounting use of dread, this became not just one of the best horror movies this year but also one of the most satisfying viewing experiences in 2023. — Frederick

Daniella Carter in "Kokomo City."
Daniella Carter in “Kokomo City.”

‘Kokomo City’

It’s not often that a new documentarian comes along with a film so raw and unburdened that you almost forget that it’s even a movie and not a conversation you are personally having with the person on screen. “Kokomo City,” shot exclusively in black and white, is just that free. Director D. Smith drops the audience inside a conversation already in progress and primed for us to grapple with: the intersection of trans identity and the Black community. Through the testimonies of real-life Black trans sex workers, including the late Koko Da Doll, the audience is forced to confront our own biases and hypocrisies and wrestle with complex truths. But even more important, we get to see the people featured in the film as they really are — hilarious, honest, joyful, sexy and rightfully frustrated all at once. — Frederick

Natalie Portman (left) and Julianne Moore in "May December."
Natalie Portman (left) and Julianne Moore in “May December.”

‘May December’

With “May December,” director Todd Haynes falls way down the rabbit hole of voyeurism, perverse celebrity and inappropriate behavior — and implicates the audience at every turn. And he’s done it so subtly that it’s easy to believe that the film is merely about the three subjects involved: the predator (Julianne Moore), her victim and husband (Charles Melton), and the actor who’s fiendishly determined to use their story for her own fame (Natalie Portman). In fact, it’s also about how we as the viewers consume each one. Questions of decency, appropriateness and uncomfortable truths rise to the forefront of a film that manages to fit inside the boxes of trashy and prestige art all at once. A truly distressing and apt feat about the nature of who we are and the entertainment we watch. — Frederick

Tayssir (left) and Eya Chikhaoui with their mother, Olfa Hamrouni (in the background), in "Four Daughters."
Tayssir (left) and Eya Chikhaoui with their mother, Olfa Hamrouni (in the background), in “Four Daughters.”

‘Four Daughters’

Writer-director Kaouther Ben Hania’s “Four Daughters” is a difficult movie to watch. Part of that is on account of the way that it’s told: through the stories of actual people who simultaneously inform the audience and the actors that portray them in the same film of the tragic events that happened to their Tunisian family. The other is, well, the nature of those events. A matriarch details her relationship with her abusive husband, the father of her four daughters. Two of her children later discuss their relationships with their mother’s boyfriend, who, as they put it, was also their boyfriend. All the while, the remaining two daughters become radicalized and dissent from the family and religion, launching the final crushing blow to their already fragile unit. “Four Daughters” is a devastating story about fraught Tunisian girlhood and womanhood both inside the home as well as their society, candidly told by the real people who make the hard decision to relive those stories for posterity and to embolden themselves in the process. A wrenching meta experience that beautifully balances documentary and dramatic feature elements, “Four Daughters” is a remarkable and intimate exploration of the power of film. — Frederick

Sōya Kurokawa (left) and Hinata Hiiragi in "Monster."
Sōya Kurokawa (left) and Hinata Hiiragi in “Monster.”

‘Monster’

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s blistering drama starts out curiously. A young boy tells his mother that his teacher hit him and caused him to bleed. From there, “Monster” probes who, or an even more troubling what, is the real culprit in a story that methodically unravels far beyond its earliest concern. Morphing between perspectives throughout its superbly edited two-hour run-time, Kore-eda guides us toward a rattling conclusion that confronts the constraints of Japanese boyhood while freeing them at the same time. — Frederick

Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo in "Poor Things."
Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo in “Poor Things.”

Searchlight Pictures/Atsushi Nishijima

‘Poor Things’

At face value, a female-centered “Frankenstein” story sounds uninteresting and uninspired. But a “Frankenstein” story that actually questions its own existence and what it actually means for a woman to be reborn from other human parts and experience the world anew? That’s the unique and spiraling odyssey of director Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest head scratcher. A movie that asks more questions than it answers about the female experience, teetering between genres like fantasy and drama, “Poor Things” is a strange, delirious and triumphant rumination of womanhood fueled by a luminescent central performance from Emma Stone. — Frederick

Bradley Cooper and Carey Mulligan in "Maestro."
Bradley Cooper and Carey Mulligan in “Maestro.”

‘Maestro’

If you were to ask many audiences during his “A-Team” or “The Hangover” days whether Bradley Cooper would be the next great filmmaker-in-the-making, they might have needed some major convincing. But after his 2018 redo of “A Star Is Born” and now “Maestro,” more folks will likely be sold on his talent both in front of and behind the cameras. And with good reason. “Maestro,” which he also co-wrote and co-produced, is an appropriately glitzy, unvarnished and passionate story of conductor-composer Leonard Bernstein, a larger-than-life figure whose personal complexities were matched only by his professional esteem. The visual masterpiece of “Maestro” is matched only by the complicated relationship between Cooper’s Bernstein and his ferocious leading lady, embodied by Carey Mulligan. — Frederick

Nicolas Cage in "Dream Scenario."
Nicolas Cage in “Dream Scenario.”

‘Dream Scenario’

You’ve really got to be into some weird shit to fall head first in “Dream Scenario,” or at least be down to roll with whatever kooky satire writer-director Kristoffer Borgli has imagined this time. As usual, the filmmaker has larger things on his mind — in this case, cancel culture and fame — as he details the plight of an otherwise unremarkable professor (a very game Nicolas Cage) who is cannonballed into celebrity when his image starts materializing in his students’ dreams. Detailing his protagonist’s rapid downward spiral, complete with a marital demise and a slew of genre-bending encounters with random people, “Dream Scenario” becomes an almost hallucinogenic tale of public hysteria, the futility of apology culture and the perversity of fame. It’s a film that makes you laugh, wince and shudder with existential fears all at once. — Frederick

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