2023 Year Enders, Features, Film

YEAR ENDER: Oscar Goff’s Top Ten (or so) Films of 2023

Roll credits on another year.

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Oscar Goff is the editor in chief and senior film critic for Boston Hassle. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics, the Online Film Critics Society, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and still carries his Blockbuster Video membership card just in case.

In recent years, platforms like Letterboxd have normalized the habitual rating and ranking of films as a natural extension of cinephilia, making the creation of a final top ten a simple matter of crunching the numbers and looking at the result. I won’t knock this method– there’s no wrong way to engage with art– but this has never been how I process films. To me, moviegoing is far too impressionistic an experience to be rendered in data points, one of the main reasons I’ve always recoiled from the notion of assigning ratings to my reviews (there are films I’ve reviewed which I still have yet to log on Rotten Tomatoes; even after spilling over a thousand words describing my feelings, I’m often unsure whether a film is “fresh” or “rotten”). Sometimes I’ll leave a theater extremely enthusiastic about the movie I’ve just seen, only for it to fade almost completely from my memory by year’s end. Conversely, a film which initially leaves me mostly ambivalent might gnaw its way into my subconscious, growing in my estimation until it retroactively ranks among my favorites. To me, ranking movies is an art, not a science, and I’m often as surprised by my own year-end list as anyone.

Case in point: I settled on the first draft of this list about two weeks ago, and I was more or less satisfied with it. But then I saw one late-breaking film that I knew I had to work in; and I had a series of conversations about another film which caused me to reconsider it, bumping it out of my honorable mentions and into the main list; and I revisited a third film which was on my list, but which I suddenly realized needed to be a few ranks higher. The rational answer would have been to knock off my #9 and #10 picks, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do that, either; those films were needed for ballast, and the list simply didn’t hang together without them. Something had to give.

The following list, then, is the result of a week of obsessive tinkering, shifting titles around until the balance was just right. To accommodate the displaced films, I have added a couple of extra commendations; you can consider them my #11 and #12 if you like, but I prefer to think of them as an addendum. The point, as always, is that these are all films that I love, and will likely be the ones I think of when I think of 2023 in film. If you haven’t seen any of them, I hope I inspire you to seek one or two out; if you have, I hope you take this opportunity to reconsider them in a new light. With all that out of the way, let’s get listing!

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Fallen Leaves, The Holdovers, Infinity Pool, M3GAN, Oppenheimer, Perfect Days, Polite Society, Priscilla

Jason Schwartzman and Scarlett Johansson in ASTEROID CITY

MVP: WES ANDERSON (Asteroid City, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, and other short films)

Earlier this year, I went long on my complicated and evolving relationship with the films of Wes Anderson, a director whose work I resisted fully embracing for many years, but who I’ve come to appreciate more and more as the unique artist that he is. Anderson’s newest feature, Asteroid City, didn’t charm me quite as much as his last, The French Dispatch (a film which I adored, and is easily among my favorites of the decade so far), but it is undoubtedly his most ambitious work yet, an intricately constructed nesting doll of a film incorporating at least three layers of metanarrative and dozens of actors playing multiple roles simultaneously. I was even more impressed by the quartet of short films he crafted for Netflix– the 40-minute The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and the bite-sized The Swan, The Rat Catcher, and Poison– which almost felt like a new medium entirely: concise, unexpurgated adaptations of short stories by Roald Dahl in which a rotating cast of players (including Ralph Feinnes, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Dev Patel) simultaneously narrate and act out their parts. Taken together, these films represent a remarkable step forward in artistry and experimentation– which makes it all the more impressive that Anderson’s films remain fundamentally accessible and enjoyable to even casual moviegoers. I get the sense that Anderson is on the verge of something major, and I’m thrilled to see where he goes from here.

Joaquin Phoenix in BEAU IS AFRAID

PINNED FOR FURTHER STUDY: BEAU IS AFRAID (dir. Ari Aster)

Ari Aster burst out of the gate in the late 2010s with Hereditary and Midsommar, twin classics of feel-bad horror cinema which topped my year-end lists in 2018 and 2019, respectively. His latest, Beau Is Afraid, came as such a departure– a three-hour, go-for-broke nightmare comedy starring an equally against-type Joaquin Phoenix– that I initially wasn’t sure how to feel about it. In the months since seeing it I’ve felt my opinion of it rise and fall like the tides, but one thing I haven’t done is stop thinking about it; I’ll occasionally find scenes or lines bubble to the surface of my consciousness, and I am now incapable of hearing “Always Be My Baby” without bursting into uncomfortable laughter. So, rather than giving it an official ranking at this juncture, I’m going to put a pin in it and circle back sometime in the future. We’ll settle this later, Birthday Boy Stab Man.

Jayme Lawson, Jake Weary, Marcus Scribner, and Ariela Barer in HOW TO BLOW UP A PIPELINE

10. HOW TO BLOW UP A PIPELINE (dir. Daniel Goldhaber)

It’s easy to imagine a Hollywood version of How to Blow Up a Pipeline, the incendiary (so to speak) indie thriller by Daniel Goldhaber. Sometime around the end of the second act, one of the characters would discover that the central act of anarchy is set to be more lethal than initially anticipated, and the remainder of the film would be a race against time to defuse the bomb and save the day. Instead, the film ends with chief conspirator Xochitl looking into her webcam and telling her followers– and the audience– that the only way forward is for more ordinary people like them to engage in similarly extreme direct action. Pipeline is as fiery a work of agitprop as any narrative film since The Battle of Algiers (it draws both its title and its ethos from a longform essay by activist Andreas Malm), but, crucially, it works just as well as a cracking action film, with multiple gripping set pieces and a cast of engaging and likable characters. If just a small handful of viewers take the message of How to Blow Up a Pipeline seriously, it may go down as the most important film of the year.

Michelle Williams and Hong Chau in SHOWING UP

9. SHOWING UP (dir. Kelly Reichardt)

Films about creative block tend to be melodramatic affairs: a genius artist perseveres through unimaginable setbacks to create their magnum opus (or not, in the case of Barton Fink). What makes Showing Up, the lovely and gentle new comedy from Kelly Reichardt, feel so revolutionary is its surprisingly down-to-earth nature. As ceramicist Lizzy (a Michelle Williams seemingly a universe removed from the one we saw in The Fabelmans last year) prepares for an exhibition, she experiences setbacks– family hassles, a temperamental kiln, a pigeon for whose wellbeing she feels personally responsible– but none of them snowball into the full-on crises we’ve come to expect from the genre. Likewise, when her work is finally put on display, it receives high praise from her peers, but we’re not made to believe she’s revolutionized the artform. The message is an invaluable one for anyone working in a creative field: frustration and obstacles are a perfectly normal part of the process, and if you just work through them like everyone else it will turn out fine, because you’re a good artist, damn it. Showing Up is a delightful hangout comedy with a terrific ensemble (including Hong Chau, John Magaro, Judd Hirsch, and Andre “3000” Benjamin), but if it comes to you at the right moment, it just might be a lifesaver.

Margaret Qualley and Christopher Abbott in SANCTUARY

8. SANCTUARY (dir. Zachary Wigon)

Sanctuary is one of those films seemingly destined for inclusion on lists with titles like “Buried Treasures” or “Overlooked Gems” or “13 Movies You Totally Slept On.” Get ahead of the curve by watching it now. Sanctuary is one of the cleverest little films of the year, an entirely dialogue-driven erotic thriller which ultimately reveals itself as a surprisingly sweet throwback to the classic screwball comedies of Hollywood’s golden age. Set in a single room with only two characters, Sanctuary is fortunately built around a pair of outstanding performances: Christopher Abbott as the perpetually befuddled hotel scion with an expensive kink, and (especially) Margaret Qualley as the wily dominatrix who holds all the cards. In a just world, Sanctuary will find its audience as a word-of-mouth streaming favorite. In the meantime, I’m doing my part.

Mahito Maki in THE BOY AND THE HERON

7. THE BOY AND THE HERON (dir. Hayao Miyazaki)

A wizard is tasked with stewardship of a magical kingdom; he knows his time is running out, yet he continues to work every day to keep its intricate, handmade pieces in perfect balance. I’m referring to a character in The Boy and the Heron, but I am of course also referring to its director, the great Hayao Miyazaki, who has created some of the most enchanting animated films of the last half century while delaying his retirement for well over a decade (true to form, the 82-year-old animator announced on the day of Heron’s premiere that it would not be his last film after all, and that he is working on another one). The Boy and the Heron is as gorgeous and occasionally heartbreaking as one would expect from the (maybe) final film from one of the form’s true masters, but it’s also one of his liveliest works: the dimwitted, murderous parakeets are perhaps the funniest characters Miyazaki has ever created, and the titular Heron is one of the greatest cinematic freaks of the year. Miyazaki may outlive us all, but if this does turn out to be his swan song, it’s a perfect way to go out.

Julianne Moore and Charles Melton in MAY DECEMBER

6. MAY DECEMBER (dir. Todd Haynes)

In the weeks since May December premiered on Netflix, the central question animating its discourse has been “Is it camp, or is it serious?” The answer to that question, of course, is “Yes.” The interplay between earnest drama and knowing camp has been a central throughline of Todd Haynes’ career since the very start (his breakout, the 1987 underground classic Superstar, is a sober, harrowing biopic of pop singer Karen Carpenter which just happens to be acted out entirely by Barbie dolls), and May December is one of his most complex works to date. Gracie Atherton-Yoo, played with impeccable lisp by Julianne Moore, is a ridiculous character– an infamous tabloid queen clearly modeled after Mary Kay Letourneau– but the damage she both suffers from and inflicts upon those around her is heartbreaking. Likewise, Elizabeth Berry, the actress assigned to play her (played herself by a never-better Natalie Portman) slowly reveals herself to be both chillingly and hilariously awful. Like last year’s Tár, May December is a thorny little film which raises far more questions than it answers. Not least among them: Do we have enough hot dogs?

Margot Robbie in BARBIE

5. BARBIE (dir. Greta Gerwig)

I’ll admit it: I was wrong. When it was first announced that Greta Gerwig would be directing a live action Barbie movie, I chalked it up as yet another depressing case of an exciting young filmmaker ground up by the Hollywood franchise machine. Instead, Gerwig took what could have been a purely mercenary work-for-hire and turned it into one of the year’s most entertaining and effervescent films. With visuals inspired by everyone from Jacques Tati to Alejandro Jodorowsky and a wry, joyously goofy sense of humor, Gerwig’s Barbie was the rare summer blockbuster which truly earned its cultural phenomenon status; one senses it will go down as a sea change in both Hollywood and the culture at large. It also gave us one of the year’s most inspired comic creations in Ryan Gosling’s Ken, at once a pitch-perfect skewering of bro-dude masculinity and a disarmingly lovable character in his own right. Were there better films this year? Perhaps (by my count, at least four). But I would wager no other film of 2023 will be more frequently rewatched or quoted in the years to come, and few will be loved more intensely– and that’s Kenough for me.

Thomasin McKenzie and Anne Hathaway in EILEEN

4. EILEEN (dir. William Oldroyd) 

It likely says more about me than about the film itself that I found myself grinning with delight throughout Eileen, an often horrifying tale of mental illness and repression set in a nameless and fictional (yet nevertheless immediately recognizable) shithole Massachusetts town. To be sure, Eileen is strong medicine, and those not on its wavelength might be understandably repulsed. But like the Ottessa Moshfegh novel on which it is based, there is a streak of gleeful perversity on display, a jet black sense of humor not a world removed from the early works of John Waters. Director William Oldroyd shoots the proceedings with an odd sort of swoony romanticism– think Townie Hitchcock– and the whole thing is anchored on a delightfully vampy performance from Anne Hathaway (along with a brief but unforgettable appearance from Marin Ireland, who is fast becoming one of my favorite working actresses). The Holdovers might be the more crowd-pleasing New England Christmas film of the year, but I suspect Eileen will be the one in regular rotation in my household for years to come.

Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo in POOR THINGS

3. POOR THINGS (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)

It’s still too early to tell whether Poor Things will prove to be a runaway hit or an infamous flop– it’s the sort of film so audacious that I feel like it will have to be one of the two– but I have zero doubt that it will be cherished by oddballs for generations to come. Lanthimos’ latest is one of the most unlikely spectacles in recent years, a bawdy, hilarious, shamelessly grotesque parable about a self-assured monster woman stomping all over the conventions of society. At the center is a fearless comic turn from Emma Stone, whose Bella Baxter has the makings of an enduring new antiheroine for weirdos and malcontents of all stripes. Like the creations of Willem Dafoe’s mad scientist, the existence of Poor Things defies logic, but the cinematic landscape is more colorful for its presence.

Somebody’s legs in SKINAMARINK

2. SKINAMARINK (dir. Kyle Edward Ball)

Barbenheimer, schmarbenheimer: to my eyes, the most shocking box office story of the year is the fact that an avant-garde, nearly non-narrative horror movie made by a first-time filmmaker for $15,000 Canadian played before packed houses of teenagers in suburban multiplexes across the country. Such is the power of Skinamarink, the singularly unnerving creepypasta whatzit which fell victim to an unfortunate cyberleak prior to release, only to spread like viral wildfire and become an instant you-gotta-see-this rite of passage. Few films more viscerally capture the disorienting terror of a childhood nightmare, and Ball expertly weaponizes the nostalgia which has become currency among the ‘90s Kids Remember set. But I’m most excited to see the films it inspires among the TikTok teens who have now received their first taste of true underground filmmaking. The kids just may be all right after all.

Lily Gladstone, Robert De Niro, and Leonardo DiCaprio in KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON

1. KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON (dir. Martin Scorsese)

As a critic, I will admit to taking pride in a certain level of unpredictability, in zigging where presumably expected to zag. Sometimes, however, the correct choice really is the most obvious one: as much as I love the other movies on this list, I’m not going to look you in the eye and tell you that any of them are better– or that I liked them more– than Killers of the Flower Moon. An exceptional film even in a career filled with 50 years of masterpieces, Flower Moon is truly something special, simultaneously shining a needed light on a dark chapter in American history and casting a furious eye toward America’s present. Yet, even at three and a half hours, it rarely feels punishing. On the contrary, Flower Moon is as vital and alive as any film by a director a quarter of Scorsese’s age, with more moments of unforgettable horror, beauty, heartbreak, and humor (albeit of a jet black quality) than I can count– to say nothing of a revelatory performance by Lily Gladstone and some top-of-their-game work by Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio. I don’t believe it controversial to say that Martin Scorsese is earth’s greatest living filmmaker, and Killers of the Flower Moon ranks among his very best.

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