2023 Year Enders, Features, Film

Year Ender: Joshua Polanski’s Top Ten Films of 2023

Resisting tedium from Estonia to Pakistan


In a cinema culture marked by decadence and decaying individuality, the best films of the year creatively resist the studio destruction of art and suppression of vision with bold statements of visual-sonic distinction. According to some critics, 2023 was a legendary run; for others, it was filled with asinine “content.” In truth, it’s the same as it always is—viewers just need greater discernment to find what’s worth watching. (Hint: it’s not Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.) That’s the exercise and responsibility of Year Enders. 

The number of new releases I endured, including many through my multi-outlet coverage of several festivals, would sicken most normal filmgoers. 2023’s Barbenheimer glimpsed the turning tides of the box office, further evidenced by the financial success of Godzilla Minus One and The Boy and the Heron; it’s difficult to tell what direction the studios will learn from the capsulated pop-sensation. Any direction they go—for better or worse—should at least signal a new populist hegemony. Neither of those films made this list, though I appreciate their out-of-the-box thinking. (I enjoyed Barbie; it’s doubtful the technical incoherence and pseudo-intellectualism of Christopher Nolan’s films will ever pop up on one of my Best Of lists.) 

The year’s best films come from all over the world, and that’s by no coincidence. With each passing year, American cinema curdles into a less and less interesting form of itself as it becomes more and more predictable and hyper-commercialized. Hopefully, the nails are being put in the coffin of the superhero genre as I write this, and films like Zack Snyder’s Rebel Moon – Part One: A Child of Fire can point us to a better Hollywood. In the meantime, it’s prudent to look elsewhere. 

Baltic cinema shines bright with a few films on this list, as well as the fascinating experimental documentary Burial on the decommissioning of a nuclear plant in Lithuania. Twittering Soul, a film doubtful to ever show in the US and one that will not receive a 2D release, reconsiders the stereoscopic canvas entirely and uses the possibilities of extended depth to realize images designed exclusively for three dimensions. As is often the case, it was also a good year for both France and Japan. In a French movie just outside my top 15, Alban Lenoir extends his status as one of the best-acting stuntmen and onscreen fighters with the Netflix-distributed AKA, one of the very few good action movies this year. Between AKA, May December (which I haven’t seen yet), and Rebel Moon, Netflix also had an impressive year balancing auteurist and public discourse generative films. A more obscure film I want to mention is the Palestinian-Japanese archival documentary Reel No. 21 aka Restoring Solidarity (The Tokyo Reel). The doc powerfully relates celluloid preservation and the memory of ethnic cleansing; with the former, the latter proves more resilient and affectual. For obvious reasons, it’s the most timely film of the year. It’s also available for rent on YouTube.

It was also the year of Adèle Exarchopoulos, one of the great acting talents still in their prime. From partnering with Ira Sachs on Passages in one of the year’s most talked about titles amongst cinephiles, a brief but show-stealing appearance in the French provocateur Quentin Dupieux’s Smoking Causes Coughing, her first movement into the proper action film with Wingwomen (Voleuses), to the time-hoping queer romance The Five Devils, Exarchopoulos put together a showcase of a year. Depending on what counts for what year, one could reasonably credit her with seven unique appearances (and one additional cameo as herself). Beyond her ability to excavate the heart of what makes any character interesting—an ability that can’t be taken for granted—and her unmatched emotional-sexual vulnerability, she excites with her unpredictability and potential. She also just knows how to rock a sweater. The youngest person in the history of the Cannes Film Festival to win the Palme d’Or, we should be counting our lucky stars that Exarchopoulos is still on the rise.

It was also a year of broadening sexual horizons. Polygamy, ethical (and not) non-monogamy, voyeurism, and complicated and liberating expressions of queerness recur across many of the best titles of the year. The Peasants and the honorable mention Consent look at the distorted and maligned underbelly of sex and power. Both Five and a Half Love Stories in an Apartment in Vilnius, Lithuania and Vera and the Pleasure of Others arrive at sexual-romantic expression (cognizantly) mediated by consumerism. Even the more mainstream Rebel Moon has a thread of eros running through it. As Hollywood becomes more prudish in its pursuit of the four-quadrant blockbuster, the artists behind these ten films embrace all corners of the human experience, including (and especially) what happens in the bedroom of an Airbnb or after starting a new job at an erotic dance theater. 

Honorable Mentions: Kerr (dir. Tayfun Pirselimoğlu, Türkiye); R.M.N. (dir. Cristian Mungiu, Romania); Twittering Soul (dir. Deimantas Narkevičius, Lithuania); Past Lives (dir. Celine Song, USA/South Korea); Consent (dir. Vanessa Filho, France)

10. Smoke Sauna Sisterhood (dir. Anna Hints) — Estonia

The Estonian entry in this year’s Academy Awards was snubbed in both the international and documentary categories, but it is a rare experience. The women relax, share yarns, and comfort one another as they vent trauma in the smokehouse saunas of the forests of Southeast Estonia, and they do so with such presence and responsibility for one another that even a slug could be moved by the picture. They share stories of dick pics and post-heterosexual marriage sexuality reckonings, alongside memories of horrific rapes and complicated abortions as the camera without lust or objectification pushes in on their sweaty and naked bodies as if emphasizing their humanity. The up-close, though never claustrophobic, and naked cinematography blends bodies and makes the powerful sisterhood(s) of the title into a uniquely cathartic experience. It’s also the most human film of the year.

9. Vera and the Pleasure of Others (dir. Federico Actis & Romina Tamburello) — Argentina

The steamiest film on my list, Vera and the Pleasure of Others follows the 17-year-old titular character (Luciana Grasso) as she rents out a dinky studio apartment in a building her mom manages to other teenagers to have sex in. (The actors are marvelously cast too; all of them are believable teens despite being 27 at the youngest, according to the directors at the Q&A I attended.) She doesn’t often go very far though, preferring to listen from the door as she discovers her own sexual interests. One cool skater girl (Ofelia Castillo) and her serene boyfriend (Mariano Raimondi) pique Vera’s interest—and they take a polygamous interest in her. Meanwhile, the pleasure she discovers in voyeurism is troubled in the most uncomfortable scene I experienced this year: trapped in the closet of the room she rents to her horny peers, she’s forced to be an unnerving witness to a scarring sexual encounter that challenges the ubiquitous pleasurable naivety of the sexual awakening sub-genre. As a final passage into maturity, she also comes to terms with her mother as a sexual human (in a non-creepy way). Debut directors ​​Federico Actis & Romina Tamburello’s passionately craft a two-sided approach to human sexuality as something both beautiful and potentially destructive. I look forward to what they make next.

8. Passages (dir. Ira Sachs) — France

Franz Rogowski and Adèle Exarchopoulos appear in Passages by Ira Sachs, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Guy Ferrandis / SBS PRODUCTIONS

Passages is the most well-acted film I saw this year. From Exarchopoulos’s rich and irresistible performance as Agathe to Franz Rogowski’s kenosis of self as Tomas, the cast of Ira Sachs’s latest film deserves all of the praise and then some. Tomas, a married German filmmaker based in Paris, meets the ever-beautiful and somewhat allusive Agathe, a teacher, and has sex with her before falling in love. He reports his escapades back to his husband, Martin (Ben Whishaw). Their marital bed is not exclusive, and Sachs never makes a big deal about this, deciding not to show those boundary conversations. Unlike the more youthful self-discovery take of Vera, Passages taps into the possibility of loving multiple people at once without ever really being about polygamy; the multiple love interests, instead, magnify Tomas’s destructive egoism.

When characters ride bikes or sulk in private, their actions are made in a time in between time. Tomas’s solitude is limited to his travels between the two times: that with a past (Martin) and that with no future (Agathe). The time in between—transit, etc.—collapses to nothing as the edits blur the lives of the three further and further. No conversation is necessary to show the melting of relational lines as the three entertain raising a child as an interconnected unit. The edit has erased the going-between. The episodes could be day-to-day or random days over the course of four years. It wouldn’t matter. 

In the film’s final scene, alone time no longer feels bound to the transitory. With Tomas alone on the bike, there is finally a plausible destination the character can be headed to. It feels as if he can finally be headed somewhere instead of being stuck in between two places. Enter: freeze frame.

7. Full River Red (dir. Zhang Yimou) — China

“Zhang Yimou’s newest film– his 25th feature film depending, on what you count– opens with one of the great shots of his career: a one or two-minute bird’s eye view oner tracking a group of Song dynasty soldiers in 1146 CE running through a maze-like corridor on a royal military compound, occasionally shielded by perfectly architecturally placed triangle roofs that vertically bridge across the horizontal corridor the soldiers are marching through. Colored muted blue and grey, the shot lowers and follows the soldiers closer as their panic is now shielded from the camera by a decorative fence. Even by Zhang’s standards, one of the great cinematographic eyes working today, it’s something special.” Read my full review here.

6. Shin Ultraman (dir. Shinji Higuchi) — Japan

Shin Ultraman [is] a movie that really adores humanity and just wants to entertain us humans. It’s not ‘escapist,’ though I’m not sure that word actually means anything. That’s what Shinji Higuchi’s movie is all about. Like, it loves humans and wants to forefront the things that distinguish us from our fellow animal friends: our capacity for love, the ability to make moral decisions, and especially our ability to reckon with death. It’s a cheesy utilitarian tokusatsu with shades of The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951;2008), Jack Kirby, and anime—and if that combination doesn’t describe the degree to which Shin Ultraman is completely satiated with the acute peculiarities of our species, well, then you just need to see the film for yourself. Actually, you just need to see it full-stop.” Read my full review.

5. Five and a Half Love Stories in an Apartment in Vilnius, Lithuania (dir. Tomas Vengris) — Lithuania

The one-location vignette anthology set in an Airbnb in the Lithuanian capital is not a film I honestly expected much of. It’s so simple it’s almost insulting to describe beyond repeating the title. Director Tomas Vengris takes a non-committal approach to a series of very very loosely connected visits to the Airbnb unit. Each story also, as the title prompts, contains some element or another of romantic love and/or sexual interest. The vignettes supply a superb mix of comedy and heartbreak, sexiness and disturbance, intrigue and mundanity—a mix honoring the messiness of love. The guests are about as diverse as their problems: a bachelorette party, an Israeli couple investigating pre-Shoah family history, a gay man who doesn’t rent but sneaks into the unit to impress another man, and more. Only two consistent interludes separate the chapters: a foreshadowing of the building’s impending collapse and the cleaning of the apartment by Jolanta (Velta Žygure), an older married woman being innocently pursued by a man who lives next door to the Airbnb she regularly cleans (the half of the title). The fully domesticated anti-romance romance also has something of an unexpected fantastical flare to it, a vibe communicated only through chapter titles and cinematography that creates a sense of perspective—as well as through the prophesied destruction of the apartment.

4. The Zone of Interest (dir. Jonathan Glazer) — United Kingdom, Poland, & the USA

I’ve never been a major Jonathan Glazer appreciator, but that might change with The Zone of Interest, the most terrifying new film I saw this year. Set on the wall of Auschwitz, Glazer’s new film follows the historical ​​commandant of the camp, Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) and their children, as well as their Jewish house slaves. I’ve already written about The Zone of Interest twice this year (with this being the third go around), so, instead of repeating myself, I’ll point to my article elsewhere: 

“The dispassionate and detached cinematography from Polish director of photography Łukasz Żal (Loving Vincent, Cold War) captures the film from 10 installed and mostly hidden cameras from their replica of the Höss’s house — a football throw from the wall of the world’s most famous mausoleum of annihilation, and a real house, with a current resident, on the real wall of the actual camp. I’m not sure the camera ever moves inside the home, at least not to follow a member of the Höss family…Every second one of the servants is on screen terrifies — not because anything ever happens or is narratively immanent but simply because of the potential genocidal violence that’s held in the contradiction of Jews living in the commandant of fucking Auschwitz’s home. The camp always imposes over the background, and the top of the wall often claims the responsibility of the line of horizon of many of the film’s backyard images. Not unlike M. Night Shyamalan’s Old, Glazer’s film terrifies not because of what’s on screen but because of what happens off screen.”

3. Joyland (dir. Saim Sadiq) — Pakistan

Pakistan isn’t known for its queer cinema, yet the best queer-centric story of the year comes from the country in Saim Sadiq’s Joyland. The first ever Pakistani film to be shortlisted for an Academy Award revolves around Haider (Ali Junejo) and his family of complicated love lives and frustrated sexualities. His wife, Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq), masturbates at home while watching a frisky couple go at it in the alleyway below and the wheel-chair using patriarch of the family (Salmaan Peerzada) finds himself under the watchful eye of the community when an elderly woman spends too much time taking care of him. These relationships have taken something of a backseat in the marketing and controversies to Haider’s extramarital transgender love interest, the erotic dancer Biba (Alina Khan). The 4:3 aspect ratio suffocates the expansive sexualities and perceived sexualities of the Rana family. Accompanying the stunning images, Sadiq and co-writer Maggie Briggs steer away from the lost cache tropes of queer cinema—especially the heterosexual marriage destroyer—and lead their Haider to a new, transcendent understanding of self.

Joyland … transcends mere representational interests. As a piece of cinematic art, even with a few mandatory cuts demanded by the Pakistani government, there’s not a single frame where the camera is in the wrong place, nor is there a single moment where the streets and characters of Lahore don’t feel alive. It might even be impeccable.” Read my full review in the Bay Area Reporter.

2. Rebel Moon – Part One: A Child of Fire (dir. Zack Snyder) — USA

Rebel Moon. Jimmy (Performed by Dustin Ceithamer/Voiced by Anthony Hopkins) in Rebel Moon. Cr. NETFLIX ©2023

“The mythical climax of one of our most indelible and personal stylists, this is the film Snyder has been moving toward for decades. He’s talked about it as a passion project in a way he’s never talked about another film before. And that passion floods the screen for the entire 134 minute runtime. Absent the films of Tarsem Singh, a close friend of Snyder and Michael Bay from film school, there hasn’t been a film that borrows or resembles the dance of light and darkness of Baroque art as much as the first part of Rebel Moon… The outfits and production of the agrarian community resemble a time and place much closer to 17th century Europe than to Tatooine. More excitingly, many comic book movie directors visualize groups according to the thought processes of adolescent bad-assery; think of the famed though ultimately empty group-hero shot of The Avengers. The group shots here take more from the great tradition of tableau vivant than it does from the economically driven reproducibility of Stan Lee (an artist I believe Snyder admires greatly). Carrying the torch of both Kurosawa and Caravaggio into politicized modernity, A Child of Fire must be considered one of the most artistically dexterous blockbusters of the century.” Read my full review.

1. The Peasants (dir. DK Welchman & Hugh Welchman) — Poland

The Peasants is the most pictorially immaculate film I’ve ever seen. An adaptation of the famous Polish novel by Władysław Reymont, the married couple DK and Hugh Welchman have one-upped their own Loving Vincent with their second feature. They employ an impressionistic oil painting technique most similar to the Young Poland movement for the keyframes (125 painters painstakingly labored to bring the work to fruition) and supplement the other frames with computer animation. Every frame of their first film was hand-painted, but the compositions of The Peasants were much more ambitious and complicated than the Van Gogh style(!) they replicated in Loving Vincent that to paint every frame would have been impossible. Each frame of the first go-around took about 2.5 hours; that time was doubled with their second feature. You would be hard-pressed to find a director (or directing pair) in cinema history with a more self-imposed demanding first two films than the Welchman’s painting animations.

The adapted story begins in the rural village of Lipce, Poland sometime at the turn of the 19th century throughout four seasons. Jagna Paczesiówna (Kamila Urzędowska) is the heart of the film, a beautiful young peasant woman who wants to be with the already married Antek Boryna (Robert Gulaczyk) but ends up with his more important and recently widowed father instead (Mirosław Baka). Jagna falls in and out of love, falls victim to a community-wide offense against her, navigates trauma, and suffers what can only be called social death. The painting style combines highly imaginative and symbolic impressionism with extreme realism, an incredibly astute aesthetic that perfectly relays the story. The Peasants is so beautiful and immersive that it trains viewers to trust characters they shouldn’t, and all of this makes for the most devastating picture of the year. 

The Peasants is the best film of the year—and, as far as this viewer is concerned, the best of almost any year.

Joshua Polanski is a freelance film and culture writer who writes regularly for the Boston Hassle and In Review Online, and has contributed to the Bay Area Reporter, and Off Screen amongst other places. His interests include the technical elements of filmmaking & exhibition, slow & digital cinemas, cinematic sexuality, as well as Eastern and Northern European, East Asian, & Middle Eastern film.

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