Daniel Rester’s Top 10 Films of 2023

The year 2023 was another solid one for movies. Despite the delay of many projects due to the SAG and WGA strikes, audiences were still able to get many entertaining movies in 2023. I do think 2022 was slightly stronger as a whole, but 2023 provided some memorable experiences.  

“Barbenheimer” dominated the summer spotlight. Veteran directors like Martin Scorsese and Hayao Miyazaki turned in great films. A number of newer filmmakers like Celine Song and Cord Jefferson delivered standout work. And Nicolas Cage invaded people’s dreams, so there’s that. 

I liked a lot of the films from 2023, but, like almost every year, only a handful were truly great to me. However, this year did finally see me giving a new film an A+ upon just one viewing (see my #1 film below). That is something I have hardly ever done in the past few years for modern releases. Usually it takes a few years and multiple viewings for me to declare a newer film a masterpiece. So, 2023 does stand out in that way for me. 

I didn’t include documentaries in my main list, instead sticking to narrative features released in the U.S. in 2023, but here are five docs I recommend for nonfiction lovers: Kokomo City – B+ (8/10), Bobi Wine: The People’s President – A- (8.3/10), American Symphony – A- (8.3/10), 20 Days in Mariupol – A (9/10), Beyond Utopia – A (9/10)

20 Narrative Runner-Ups:

30. When Evil Lurks – B+ (8/10)

29. Saltburn – B+ (8/10)

28. Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget – B+ (8/10)

27. Talk to Me – B+ (8/10)

26. Wonka – B+ (8/10)

25. Dream Scenario – B+ (8/10)

24. Fair Play – B+ (8/10)

23. The Color Purple – B+ (8/10)

22. Monster – B+ (8/10)

21. Society of the Snow – B+ (8/10)

20. Priscilla – B+ (8/10)

19. Godzilla Minus One – A- (8.3/10)

18. Godland – A- (8.3/10)

17. The Iron Claw – A- (8.3/10)

16. Ferrari – A- (8.3/10)

15. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. – A- (8.3/10)

14. How to Blow Up a Pipeline – A- (8.3/10)

13. Air – A- (8.3/10)

12. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse – A- (8.3/10)

11. John Wick: Chapter 4 – A- (8.3/10)

Top 10 Narrative Films of 2023: 

10. Anatomy of a Fall

Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall is a gripping French courtroom thriller with an intelligent screenplay. Sandra Hüller is electrifying as Sandra Voyter, an author who faces a trial where a jury must decide if Sandra’s husband fell out of a window or if she killed him. Swann Arlaud and Milo Machado Graner turn in terrific supporting turns, but it is Hüller who elevates Anatomy of a Fall to greatness. Between this and The Zone of Interest both releasing in 2023, Hüller has cemented herself as an international star. Grade: A- (8.3/10) 

9. The Eight Mountains

An overlooked gem, The Eight Mountains played at some festivals and was released in some countries in 2022 but it didn’t release in the U.S. until 2023. It’s a lovely film that spans decades in the lives of two male friends who grow up in the Italian Alps. The mountain locations are truly breathtaking, servicing a story that has both warmth and insight. Writer-directors Felix van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch adapt Paolo Cognetti’s novel with confidence while all of the actors portraying the boys throughout the different stages of their lives give tremendous performances. Grade: A- (8.5/10)   

8. The Boy and the Heron

The Boy and the Heron is the latest animated fantasy from Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki. He again gives audiences a world to get lost in, this time with a boy named Mahito (Soma Santoki) meeting a talking grey heron and discovering a strange tower. Miyazaki’s film is gorgeously framed throughout as Mahito learns how to handle grief and acceptance. The director is far into his career, and there were rumors that The Boy and the Heron would be his final film, but he has not lost his imaginative touches. Grade: A- (8.5/10)    

7. Maestro

Bradley Cooper’s sophomore film as a director finds him in biopic territory with Maestro. He details the life of composer Leonard Bernstein (Cooper) and his wife Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan). The film is much more interested in their complex relationship than in Bernstein’s music career, though the few composing scenes that do show up are magnificent. Cooper and Mulligan’s chemistry is palpable while Kazu Hiro and his makeup team transform the two expertly over the film’s different time periods. Grade: A- (8.5/10) 

6. Poor Things

Poor Things is certainly not for the close-minded or prudish as it is very bizarre and very sexual. Fair warning. If you can get on its eccentric wavelength, however, the latest from Yorgos Lanthimos provides plenty of laughs and ideas to chew on. Emma Stone gives one of the best performances of her career as Bella Baxter, a Frankenstein Monster-like creation who goes out into the world to learn and create her own identity. Mark Ruffalo is also excellent as he plays against type as a hedonistic prick. The Terry Gilliam-esque world that Lanthimos presents here is full of dazzling visuals and offbeat delights. Grade: A- (8.5/10) 

5. Past Lives

Celine Song’s debut film Past Lives has the same aching heart and romantic ruminations found in Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy. Greta Lee and Teo Yoo gracefully play two childhood friends who miss opportunities to become lovers over the course of many years as their lives take different paths. Past Lives is a subtle, relatable film where its characters contemplate “what if” scenarios as they grow older. The ending is an emotional knockout that is earned. Grade: A- (8.7/10)   

4. The Holdovers

The Holdovers is a wonderful and bittersweet Christmas film from Alexander Payne. It takes place during a winter break at a school in 1970 and revolves around three memorable characters, with Paul Giamatti hilarious as strict professor Paul Hunham, Dominic Sessa a terrific newcomer as his student Angus, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph heartbreaking as the school’s head cook Mary. David Hemingson’s screenplay is full of smart dialogue, while Payne brings the script to life beautifully. The film actually feels like it came out of the early 1970s in terms of craftsmanship, and yet its themes are timeless. Grade: A- (8.7/10)

3. Killers of the Flower Moon

The legendary Martin Scorsese explores a painful but little-known chapter in American history with Killers of the Flower Moon as Osage people are killed left and right after becoming rich from finding oil in 1920s Oklahoma. Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro are great as the dimwitted Ernest Burkhart and his menacing uncle William Hale, respectively, while Lily Gladstone brings heart to the picture as Ernest’s manipulated wife Mollie Kyle. Scorsese’s heavy crime Western is both epic and intimate as it unfolds over its 206 minutes. It also features an amazing final music score from Robbie Robertson, who passed away in August. Grade: A (9/10) 

2. Oppenheimer

Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is a mammoth biopic with a never-better Cillian Murphy at its center as the title character. It explores the effects of scientific obsession, nuclear war, and character assassination over its gripping three hours as the story details the minds behind the Manhattan Project. Nolan’s films are always beautiful to look at, but with Oppenheimer he pushes his dialogue writing beyond anything he has done before as the script is loaded with thought-provoking exchanges between characters. The supporting cast is stacked as well, with Robert Downey Jr. and Matt Damon as standouts. The last hour of the film drags in spots, but Oppenheimer is a grand achievement overall and among Nolan’s top five films. Grade: A (9/10)   

1. The Zone of Interest 

Jonathan Glazer’s chilling masterpiece The Zone of Interest is a Holocaust film like no other, exploring the banality of evil as a Nazi commandant and his family live in a nice home right next to Auschwitz. We never see the horrors inside the camp, instead only hearing them constantly in the background thanks to Johnnie Burn’s brilliant sound design. Christian Friedel and Sandra Hüller disappear into their lead roles, but Glazer is the real star of the show with his daring direction. The Zone of Interest may prove to be too cold and experimental for some viewers. Its craftsmanship is undeniable though. Grade: A+ (9.7/10)

Written by
Daniel Rester is a writer for the We Live Film portion of We Live Entertainment. He is a Southern Oregon University alumnus and has a Bachelor of Science degree with a double major in Communication (Film, Television, and Convergent Media) and Emerging Media and Digital Arts. He has been involved with writing and directing short films for years. Rester also won 2nd place in the Feature Screenplay Competition in the 2015 Oregon Film Awards for his screenplay "Emma Was Here," which is currently in post-production and will be Rester's feature directorial debut.

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