We’re nearly to the end of the year and 2023 has had its share of great movies. Festivals like Sundance and SXSW kicked things off early with several strong new films like “Bottoms,” while the Cannes festival gave audiences their first glimpses at “The Zone of Interest” and “May December.” The summer movie season has offered its fair share of Best of the Year contenders, including the latest “Mission:Impossible” movie and the one-two punch that was Barbenheimer. And now, with the holidays approaching, the last of the awards slate, like Sofia Coppola’s “Priscilla” and the new musical adaptation of “The Color Purple” are being seen by audiences.
But what makes a movie one of the best? It’s a strange alchemy, from actors to script to story, and of course, taste is subjective. But TheWrap’s film team feels these following films are some of the cream of the crop, with justification for why each should be in any conversation about the “best films of 2023.”
Behold, some of our favorite movies of 2023.
Fair Play (Netflix)
Director Chloe Domont took us all on a journey with “Fair Play” that, if you were in a relationship, made you look at your significant other with a massive side-eye. Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich play a couple who start to have issues when the former gets a promotion. The script moves so nimbly between eroticism and outright thriller as the pair play a game of one-upsmanship that culminates in some heinous things that can’t be taken back. Dynevor is especially potent as Emily. She conveys such strength that even in her moments of vulnerability she never comes off as a weakling. This movie just drew me in and kept me guessing the entire time. – Kristen Lopez
Killers of the Flower Moon (Apple Original Films)
With “Killers of the Flower Moon,” director Martin Scorsese, one of our foremost chroniclers of the immigrant experience, finally makes a movie about Native lives and the results are devastating. Adapted from David Grann’s nonfiction book, the movie centers on the “reign of terror,” when the Osage Nation was almost systematically exterminated for the rights to the oil-rich land that was rightfully theirs.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays a man recruited into the conspiracy, who marries an Osage woman (Lily Gladstone) and instead of wanting to murder her ends up falling in love. (Jesse Plemmons, in the role originally earmarked for DiCaprio, plays the FBI sent to investigate the crimes.) At three-and-a-half-hours, “Killers of the Flower Moon” has an epic sprawl but an emotional intimacy; so much of the violence and betrayal happens within the confines of a single marriage. Robert De Niro, as one of the chief architects of the scheme, is just as convincing with an Oklahoman drawl, as he poses as a friend to the tribe while engineering their extinction. At 81, this is one of Scorsese’s crowning achievements, an uncompromising film about the American institution and all the blood and bone it was built upon. – Drew Taylor
In the heart of Finland’s unforgiving terrain amidst the waning embers of World War II, Aatami, a solitary prospector, unearths a hidden trove of gold. This newfound wealth attracts the attention of a ruthless Nazi SS officer determined to seize the treasure for himself.
Unwilling to yield, Aatami, channels his unwavering Finnish spirit “sisu” to defend his gold and his freedom. Armed with his indomitable will, survival skills and an arsenal of makeshift weapons, Aatami transforms into a one-man force against the Nazi invaders.
Director Jalmari Helander masterfully blends brutal action with stunning visuals, creating a cinematic experience that is both visceral and captivating. The film’s stark beauty is juxtaposed with scenes of intense violence, reflecting the harsh realities of war and the fighting spirit of this one man commando.
“Sisu” is an intense and ingenious action movie that will captivate viewers from the opening scene to the closing credits. At a tight 90 minutes, it stands out as one of the top action movies of the year. Jorma Tommila turns in a stellar performance as Aatami, personifying the grit and tenacity central to the Finnish notion of “sisu.” -Umberto Gonzalez
The Royal Hotel (Neon)
Director Kitty Green was the first to explore the Harvey Weinstein debacle with her blistering 2019 feature film debut “The Assistant.” Her follow-up isn’t as tightly bound to popular culture, but it does look at the culture of being a woman in this day and age, a modern-day horror story for anyone who identifies as female. Julia Garner and Jessica Henwick play two tourists who take a job as barbacks at an Australian pub, only to discover the predominantly male clientele aren’t afraid to say the quiet part loud.
Green and co-writer Oscar Redding are fabulous at crafting a script that everyone can identify with and who you think is in the right says so much about you, whether that’s Hanna (Garner), who is afraid of everyone, or Liv (Henwick), who tries hard to be one of the boys. The movie says so much about how women internalize misogyny and try their hardest to avoid conflict. It’s thought-provoking and terrifying, one of the most underrated horror films of the year. -Kristen Lopez
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes (Lionsgate)
The prequel film based on Suzanne Collins’ novel matches the energy and grandiosity of the first four films. While it is difficult to re-capture the atmosphere of a world in which young adults immersed themselves between 2012 and 2013, director Francis Lawrence, producer Nina Jacobson and Collins, in an executive producer capacity, made a film on par with a franchise that ruled the zeitgeist for teenagers during that period.
Tom Blyth plays an enigmatic Coriolanus Snow while Rachel Zegler takes the District 12 rebelliousness up a notch from Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen when she sings live on-set. Viola Davis delights as villain Volumnia Gaul and Peter Dinklage completes the picture as the tortured creator of “The Hunger Games.” Check out the origin story of Panem, the games and President Snow as the tale details why snow ultimately lands on top. -Dessi Gomez
El Conde (Netflix)
Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín has a reputation for making brilliant, offbeat biographies, with films like “Jackie” and “Spencer.” But his latest portrait of a historical figure is also his biggest swing yet. Telling the story of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet (Jaime Vadell), Larraín imagines him as an immortal vampire. He is literally bloodthirsty. His family members surround him as they wait for him to finally die (after 250 years) and bequeath them some of his fortune, an interloper from the church arrives, too.
She’s a demure nun (Paula Luchsinger) that the church has tasked with killing this monster. There are other historical figures who show up as well but we wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise. Photographed in velvety black-and-white by the legendary Edward Lachman, “El Conde” is both an examination of evil – as so many of this year’s best films are – and also an uproarious, genre-bending horror comedy with elements of domestic drama and political thriller thrown in for good measure. Whatever “El Conde” is, it’s intoxicating. –Drew Taylor
May December (Netflix)
Todd Haynes is a master of blending Americana with a heavy dose of gossip, whether that be his Sirkian melodrama “Far From Heaven” or the tabloid drama of “May December.” The fact that both star Julianne Moore only intensifies how wonderfully suited to each other the two are. The film follows actress Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) who travels to study Gracie, a woman Elizabeth is set to portray in an upcoming movie.
Gracie and her husband, Joe (Charles Melton) are infamous in town for the fact that Gracie groomed Joe as a child. Samy Burch’s script deftly explores the sexualization of children and the ways we, as a society, are desperate to rationalize the actions of others. Moore and Portman are good, but they’re always good. The true standout is “Riverdale” star Melton, who plays Joe as a man confused by how his life turned out. The now grown man struggles to parse his regret, anger and happiness, expertly captured during a graduation sequence. I haven’t stopped analyzing this movie since I saw it. -Kristen Lopez
Kokomo City (Magnolia Pictures)
“Kokomo City” opens with a Black trans worker named Liyah telling the story of how she discovered that one of her clients was carrying a gun while she was going down on him, and the movie speeds up from there.
D. Smith’s Sundance documentary opens the floor for a quartet of Black trans sex workers to speak their minds about their professions, their hopes for a better life, and their thoughts on how their identities put them under the threat of multiple forms of prejudice and violence. Their unfiltered thoughts and those of several Black men who openly talk about their sex lives and masculinity range from the emotional, thought-provoking, and sometimes even funny. They’re all mixed with Smith’s black-and-white cinematography showing her subjects going about their lives interspersed with sexual imagery as unflinching as the stories being told.
Smith gives everyone in her film a chance to shine, but perhaps the one who steals the show is former sex worker turned trans activist Daniella Carter, who speaks frankly about the fact that trans sex workers are secretly valued by some Black men but are neglected as people by society at large. “The best ‘you’ is only seen when you’re a survivalist,” she tells the camera while also noting that they not only face threats from violent men but from cis women who “will love us until they find out their husband wants us.” –Jeremy Fuster
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (Blue Fox Entertainment)
Adapted from Benjamin Sáenz’s young adult novel by director Aitch Alberto, “Aristotle and Danté” is the film the queer Hispanic and Latino community needs. Ari Mendoza (Max Pelayo) embarks on a journey of self-discovery with the help of Dante Quintana (Reese Gonzales) the day they meet. Dante, an artistic and sensitive soul, helps Ari come out of his shell in more way than one. Alberto took the foundations of Sáenz’s award-winning book and made a cinematic masterpiece for Young Adult film canon. -Dessi Gomez
The Killer (Netflix)
Leave it to director David Fincher and star Michael Fassbender to methodically disassemble the “cool guy hitman” trope, replacing it with a devilishly dark comedy about one man’s quest to keep his humanity at bay. Fassbender plays the unnamed assassin who, after a murder goes wrong in Paris, embarks on an international quest for revenge. It’s arguably Fincher’s most straightforward movie; there aren’t any twists or double-backs.
“The Killer” moves in a direct line. For some, the movie is too simple. But the film is deceptively so. There are all sorts of things crawling underneath the surface, from a jet-black comedy about the monotony of modern life to a cutting critique of the gig economy. (The killer is, after all, a freelancer, unprotected by workers’ comp and without health insurance.) All of the hallmarks of Fincher’s filmography are there – his exacting compositions, his relentless pacing and a typically glitchy score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, embroidered by the judicious use of Smiths songs throughout – as sharp as ever and just as cutting. –Drew Taylor
I’m a Sofia Coppola girl so, bare minimum, the mere existence of a new film from her is enough to enter my Best Movies list. But what Coppola does so skillfully with “Priscilla” is show us the private life of one of the most famous, and public, marriages in history. Cailee Spaeny and Jacob Elordi are perfectly cast. The latter, especially, gives Austin Butler’s Elvis a run for his money, capturing not just the vocal cadence and the swagger of the King of Rock ‘n Roll, but his petulance and immaturity. Spaeny, to her credit, doesn’t come off as a lost lamb in a den of wolves, but a young girl trying to figure out who she is. Just watching the two of them act opposite each other leads to some wonderful moments, particularly their final meeting. This is another Sofia Coppola world I want to live in. -Kristen Lopez
Trolls Band Together (Universal)
The third “Trolls” film arrives at the perfect time to boost joy over the holidays. N’SYNC reunited to write “A Better Place” for the film, which contains many other classic and new pop hits mixed together and standing apart. The film teaches valuable lessons about chosen or found family, as well as family into which we are born. The colorful and textured animation was even turned up a notch for the latest film in the franchise of musical creatures who love color, fun and hugs. Boy band references dominate the plot in the best way as characters riff on some of the most influential musical groups up there with the quintet of which Justin Timberlake is a part. Brozone definitely gives them all a run for their money. -Dessi Gomez
Dicks: The Musical (A24)
Who knew a movie that included two of the most vapid main characters, an incest plotline, and two subterranean underground dwellers called “sewer boys” would be one of the most heartwarming movies of the year? Writer Aaron Jackson and Josh Sharp, with the aid of director Larry Charles, tell a story inspired by the likes of “The Parent Trap” involving two men who discover they’re identical twins – despite looking nothing alike – and seek to reunite their divorced parents, played hilariously by Megan Mulally and Nathan Lane.
The interplay between the foursome is what makes “Dicks: The Musical’ work. Jackson’s Trevor and Sharp’s Craig are already heightened versions of a typical misogynist, yet their exasperation at how bizarre the other’s parent is crafts so much comedy. (Trevor responding to his father Harris’ story about being down in the sewer in a canoe is perfect.) Megan Thee Stallion dominates, literally, as Trevor and Craig’s boss, with her song “Outalpha the Alpha” being an earworm for the ages. But strip away the sewer boys and the talking vaginas and “Dicks: The Musical” is really about family. If your family revels in the weird, this is for them. -Kristen Lopez
Margaret Qualley and Christopher Abbott act for the fences in Zachary Wigon’s twisty two-hander, “Sanctuary,” a psychosexual romance that peels away layer after layer of perversion to strike at the truth that hides in the power play between its dynamic leading duo. Abbott’s Hal is heir to an international hotel fortune, flinching at the idea of trying to walk in his late CEO father’s imposing shoes. Qualley’s Rebecca is the dominatrix he hires, one last time, to indulge his fantasies and work out some of those daddy issues in the process. The sometimes literal dance between the two is what fuels “Sanctuary,” a freaky little erotic romance-thriller that rebels against the temptation to turn into a stage play with kinetic camera play and a loving embrace of the intimacy a well-timed close-up can unlock. -Haleigh Foutch
Bottoms (Orion Pictures)
Emma Seligman’s sophomore feature is a slam dunk. “Bottoms” is a heightened teenage comedy where a couple of outcast lesbians (Rachel Sennott and Ayo Edebiri) start a fight club at their school, ostensibly to champion female empowerment but really because they want to get laid. That is an absurd premise, for sure, but Seligman and Sennott (who also co-wrote) take things even further – it was a few scenes in, when a classmate is seen in the back of a classroom in a literal cage, that I realized that “Bottoms” takes place in an entire alternate universe – which makes everything funnier and, somehow, more real.
The cast is full of sparkling performances from Ruby Cruz, Kaia Gerber and Marshawn Lynch (as their mystified but still supportive teacher), kinetic, candy-colored cinematography (by Maria Rusche) and one of the year’s coolest scores, co-composed by pop icon Charli XCX. The movie didn’t make a ton of money when it was released this summer, but it was warmly received by critics and feels like a likely candidate for cult movie immortality. Watch it now so you can claim that you were among that cult’s first members. –Drew Taylor
When I saw “Elemental” it was in a theater filled with elementary school-age kids on a summer camp trip. When Pixar’s two newest protagonists, Wade and Ember, cement their newfound love with their first kiss, those kids screamed and cheered louder than an opening night screening of “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and it wasn’t because of something on a movie screen that they recognized from a film they’ve seen before or a video game they played, but from characters and a plot they were experiencing for the very first time.
For all of the myriad problems plaguing Disney’s once-dominant franchise empire, the direction Pixar has taken under the direction of chief creative officer Pete Docter should not be considered one of them. With the blessing of the three-time Oscar winner, directors like Domee Shi, Dan Scanlon, and “Elemental” director Peter Sohn have made their personal upbringings and relationships with their parents the emotional core of many of Pixar’s recent tales.
Sohn’s memories of his Korean immigrant parents and his marriage to his Italian-American wife Anna shape the story of Ember’s growing love to the sensitive, watery Wade and her inner conflict about wanting to make her beloved father proud while realizing that her desires for her future aren’t the same as what her family wants for her. Combine that with some of the most beautiful romantic moments seen in an animated film in years and “Elemental” rises above any accusations of it being a “Zootopia” ripoff or just being “yet another” generational trauma film. – Jeremy Fuster
Leave the World Behind (Netflix)
Sam Esmail’s “Leave the World Behind” hit me like a ton of bricks. Based on Rumaan Alam’s novel of the same name, the film starts with Julia Roberts’ Amanda Sandford discussing how much she hates people. Because of that, she plans a spontaneous trip with her husband (Ethan Hawke) and kids to “leave the world behind” and spend time in an AirBnB upstate. But when the home’s owner (Mahershala Ali) shows up, talking about a mysterious blackout, that’s when Esmail’s script turns the paranoia to 11. Everyone starts to question their motives while simultaneously wondering if the end of the world is upon them. The script navigates everything from white privilege to religion in a way that’s as funny as it is painfully authentic. The fear doesn’t necessarily come from the concept of the world ending, but whether the people you’re stuck with when it happens are the only ones you can rely on. It’s ending is also wonderfully perfect for our times. -Kristen Lopez
Gran Turismo (Sony)
Inspired by the acclaimed racing video game series of the same name this adrenaline-fueled racing drama directed by Neill Blomkamp follows the extraordinary journey of a young gaming prodigy whose virtual skills propel him onto the real-world racing circuit. After dominating a series of virtual competitions, the teenager catches the eye of a visionary marketing executive (Orlando Bloom) at Nismo, Nissan’s motorsport division. Seizing this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the aspiring racer embarks on an intense training regimen at GT Academy, pushing his limits to the brink in pursuit of his ultimate dream: to become a professional race car driver.
Director Neill Blomkamp masterfully captures the exhilarating essence of the Gran Turismo video game, translating its high-octane racing sequences onto the big screen with stunning visuals and heart-pounding action. Featuring captivating performances by David Harbour and Archie Madekwe, this inspiring underdog story will captivate both fans of the Gran Turismo franchise and racing enthusiasts alike. The film is this year’s “Rocky” on a race track that celebrates the power of dreams and the determination to achieve the impossible. – Umberto Gonzalez
The Zone of Interest (A24)
Jonathan Glazer’s first film in 10 years is a masterpiece on the banality of evil. Based very loosely on the Jonathan Amis novel of the same name, the film centers around Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), the commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp, and his family (including his wife, played by Sandra Hüller). Glazer mostly stages the movie in the family’s home, which just so happens to be next door to the camp. It’s a formally rigorous approach but pays off greatly; you can see the smoke as it creeps across the sky (at one point they have to shut all the windows because the ash from the incinerators threatens to get inside), their children play with the teeth stripped from Jewish prisoners and so on.
Glazer punctuates these long stretches where domesticity is presented alongside unspeakable horror with interludes that are equally shattering (and too good to give away here). Few movies haunt you the way “The Zone of Interest” does; I’ve been thinking about it nonstop for weeks, both eager to watch again and also totally comfortable if that never happens. It also feels vitally important, given the current circumstances in the Middle East. Watch it with someone you’re comfortable having a mental breakdown in front of. –Drew Taylor
The Boy and the Heron (GKids)
Hayao Miyazaki has cried retirement before and he’s always come back. But “The Boy and the Heron” does feel like the final film from one of cinema’s most beloved conjurers of the sublime – deeply personal, weird as hell, visually dazzling and genuinely heartbreaking. “The Boy and the Heron” (its Japanese title is borrowed from a 1937 novel by Genzaburō Yoshino) follows Mahito, whose mother dies in the war. He travels with his father to a remote village, where he’s running a factory that is supplying airplane parts for the war. It’s there that he becomes enchanted by a heron, who transports him to a magical netherworld where a wizard oversees a delicate balance, a giant parakeet is king and you can visit those you have lost thanks to the loopy nature of space and time.
“The Boy and the Heron” is breathtaking and sumptuous, the work of a master who had one thing to say. It will be fun to parse the movie in the years to come for all of its autobiographical details and artistic peculiarities. And while this might end up his last film, Miyazaki is the first person in his family to live past 80 and has already made grumblings about another film. It is hard to imagine that this eventual film would reach the complexity and richness of “The Boy and the Heron.” But maybe it could be. –Drew Taylor
Emerald Fennell’s “Saltburn” had a high bar to cross with me considering her debut, “Promising Young Woman” was my favorite film of 2020. But Fennell exceeded my wildest expectations with a hedonistic, sharply comedic dark comedy about a college student (Barry Keoghan, in a performance that should nab him another Oscar nomination) who spends a holiday with his wealthy friend (Jacob Elordi). The film answers the question: what if the Ealing comedy “Kind Hearts and Coronets” from 1949 blended with “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and then sprinkled a lot of Ken Russell weirdness on top? The film is achingly beautiful to watch, with Linus Sandgren’s cinematography showing the duality of Keoghan’s Oliver Quick, as well as the lush interiors of the titled Saltburn manor. Keoghan, Elordi, Rosamund Pike and Archie Madekwe are pitch perfect, and the ending is the best scene of the year. This is a movie that I just want to keep experiencing and see what new little bits of weirdness I notice. -Kristen Lopez
How to Blow Up a Pipeline (Neon)
A movie inspired by a book advocating for ecoterrorism featuring a group of people blowing up an oil pipeline to galvanize further attacks against fossil fuel companies is, to put it mildly, a movie that is not for everyone.
But Daniel Goldhaber’s “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” is, beneath its provocative political premise, one of the most tightly constructed thrillers to hit theaters in recent years. All eight of the antiheroes who set out on this bomb-laden mission have their motives and backgrounds fully fleshed out and spanning the political spectrum.
Once the mission gets underway, Goldhaber’s screenplay, co-written with Ariela Barer and Jordan Sjol, unfolds exactly as any thriller should, with multiple ticking clocks, unforeseen complications and horrific misfortune that keeps the outcome of the bomb plot hanging in the air right until the very end. And while the filmmakers wear their progressive leanings on their sleeve via a native land acknowledgment at the start of the movie, neither do they explicitly condone or condemn the pipeline bombers’ actions, showing the characters debate the effectiveness and morality of such property attacks and not flinching from the personal repercussions of their actions. For those willing to keep an open mind, “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” rewards you with a gripping and thought-provoking tale. – Jeremy Fuster
Poor Things (Searchlight Pictures)
Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest oddball odyssey follows a woman named Bella Baxter (Emma Stone) who looks to experience everything that life has to offer, her stuffy Victorian trappings be damned. This is a fairly straightforward premise, except that in “Poor Things,” based on the novel by Alasdair Gray and adapted by Lanthimos’ “The Favourite” collaborator Tony McNamara, the Victorian waif is actually a Frankenstein’s monster-like creature – her body is from a suicidal woman and her mind is from that woman’s unborn baby.
Lanthimos renders the world in painterly splashes of color (the skies are constantly shifting ink blot of pinks and purples) and a vaguely steampunk-ish production design full of dirigibles and bizarre contraptions, but the most magical, enchanting thing about the movie is Stone’s fearless performance. As her mind matures, she breaks down barriers in a society far too concerned with niceties and far less concerned (to Bella, at least) in achieving and sustaining pleasure and making the world a better place. Full of pitch-perfect performances (besides Stone, Mark Ruffalo, Willem Dafoe, Ramy Youssef, Jerrod Carmichael and Kathryn Hunter, who all do peerless work) and moments that confound and tickle, “Poor Things” is an unhinged delight and a major work of art. – Drew Taylor
Chevalier (Searchlight Pictures)
“Chevalier” came and went so quickly early in 2023 that it’s only now, revisiting it on Hulu where it’s streaming, that more people are actually taking it in. The amazing story of Black composer Joseph Bologna, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, is one that hasn’t been recounted, and director Stephen Williams and screenwriter Stefani Robinson tell the story with such passion that it’s impossible not to get swept up in it. Kris Bowers’ score is utterly beautiful and Kelvin Harrison, Jr. is wonderful in the title role. A sumptuous, beautiful historical drama that should have gotten more appreciation. – Kristen Lopez
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (Sony)
Topping 2018’s Oscar-winning “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” seemed like an impossible feat. After all, the original film’s potent mixture of visual inventiveness and genuine heartfelt unique and idiosyncratic, especially in the landscape of bombastic superhero movies. (It also introduced the idea of a multiverse years before the actual MCU adopted the concept.) But somehow “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” did just that. New filmmakers Kemp Powers, Justin K. Thompson and Joaquim Dos Santos somehow maintain what made the first film so special while upping it considerably, in terms of the elaborateness of the action sequences and the visual language, but also in terms of the emotionality.
The film’s greatest power is the movie’s uniquely melancholic tone, exemplified by Gwen’s (a returning Hailee Steinfeld) world, a constantly shifting “mood ring” made of dribbling paint. And in a summer filled with movies that simply end (with a second part coming soon), “Across the Spider-Verse” ended on a cliffhanger both triumphant and deeply exciting. It just makes the wait for “Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse” that much more excruciating. – Drew Taylor
Joy Ride (Lionsgate)
Earlier this year, I wondered if sex was completely absent in cinema today. Then Adele Lim’s “Joy Ride” included an extended sequence in which her troupe of leading ladies engages in sexy hijinks that are both hilarious and saucy as hell and I relaxed. “Joy Ride” takes the raunchy R-rated comedy, usually a boys club, and turns it on its head with a heartfelt story of a young Asian woman (Ashley Park) trying to reconnect with her birth mother but along the way, the script takes the time to interrogate everything from the ways women attempt to integrate into the business world to the different levels of racism in an ethnic community. It’s also incredibly funny. – Kristen Lopez
For Christopher Nolan’s latest he has chosen to tell the story of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (played here by Nolan regular Cillian Murphy), who was dubbed the father of the atomic bomb following his efforts at Los Alamos in the waning days of World War II. Instead of a straightforward biography, of course, Nolan structures it around an inquisition into Oppenheimer’s security clearances following the war, which is a natural way for him to recount his activities in a way that the audience (mostly) follows along with. (This thing is dense.) Interspersed with Oppenheimer’s story of building the bomb (and later having to defend his character) are glimpses into the unseen, subatomic world that haunted the physicist – we watch as particles spin around at impossible speeds and stars are sucked into wormholes.
It’s overwhelming in the best possible sense, with Nolan marshaling all of his considerable filmmaking forces (from IMAX camerawork to the staging of dozens of extras) to create his most personal, adult, and unsettling work yet. Stuffed with dozens of movie stars (among them: Emily Blunt, Florence Pugh, Matt Damon, Gary Oldman, Robert Downey, Jr.) and granular detail, “Oppenheimer” also reminds you of a time when movies like “JFK” and “Malcolm X” were big, mainstream events. A towering work of staggering genius, it’s also Nolan’s very best film. – Drew Taylor
Talk to Me (A24)
A24’s Australian horror film initially debuted at Sundance where it scared the crap out of those who watched it. But I don’t know if I’d have had the same reaction watching this viscerally frightening and existentially dark horror film at home because watching this in a theater with others induced a lot of groans and jumps that enhanced the terror. The film follows a group of teens who, with the use of an embalmed hand, start communing with the dead. Of course, you know things go south quickly, but what works in this film’s favor is how it emphasizes these are teens who don’t understand the consequences of their actions. Add to that some brutal sequences — seriously, just thinking of the scene in question gives me full-body chills — and a very dark ending that left me up for an evening and this is the horror movie of the year. – Kristen Lopez
Past Lives (A24)
It may be crass to compare the most thoughtful and tender romantic drama in years to the ongoing multiverse craze that has consumed pop culture and the Oscars, but “Past Lives” shares one common question that defines fellow A24 film “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” and the recent tales woven from Hollywood’s dominant superhero mythos: have you ever wondered what your life would be like if it had taken a different path?
Director Celine Song’s trio of characters, Korean immigrant playwright Nora, her childhood friend Hae Sung, and her husband Arthur, ask this question during a week in New York where Nora and Hae Sung come face to face for the first time since the two parted ways as kids 24 years ago. “Past Lives” follows the history Nora has with these two men, her first separation coming from a choice to emigrate that she had no say in and their second separation after a Skype reunion coming from her own choice to not look back at where she came from.
As Nora and Hae Sung reflect on their fond memories together, and Arthur thinks about how his loving marriage to Nora might not have happened were it not for a series of fateful events, “Past Lives” uses quiet conversations to carve its own path through the same questions “Everything Everywhere” did last year: when so much of the relationships we form is determined by chance encounters and events outside our control, does such chaos make those relationships less meaningful?
And like “Everything Everywhere,” “Past Lives” answers with a firm “No,” allowing for the grace to mourn what could have been but embracing the wonder of what the present has given us. – Jeremy Fuster
Barbie (Warner Bros.)
It would be one thing if “Barbie” were just a hollow meme-generator (and billion-dollar earner) but the movie is just as esoteric and offbeat as anything co-writer/director Greta Gerwig and her co-writer Noah Baumbach have ever done. Using the beloved doll (played perfectly by Margot Robbie) as a jumping-off point, Gerwig investigates the origin of the plaything (with Rhea Perlman playing creator Ruth Handler) and the role that Barbie has played in the lives of countless women. It’s a probing, thoughtful approach that gives what would have otherwise just been a candy-colored fantasia of dance sequences and fish-out-of-water comedy depth and shading.
Everyone who traverses Barbieland (and our own world) brings their all, from Robbie to Ryan Gosling as her forlorn Ken (whose toxic masculinity is activated by a trip to the human world) to America Ferrera as a Mattel employee frustrated by where her dear doll has gone. This is Gerwig’s most ambitious movie, both thematically and visually (Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography is stunning), and her weirdest by a considerable margin. The fact that it became the movie event of the year (with a global gross of more than $1 billion and counting) is even better. – Drew Taylor
Unless you attended Tribeca last year, this Mexican horror film from debut director Michelle Garza Cervera might have passed you by. The film follows a woman named Valeria who is haunted by visions of a vicious demon woman after becoming pregnant. As the visions get worse and Valeria’s husband and family put more constraints on her life over the course of her pregnancy, Valeria begins to question whether she truly wants to be a mother.
Like Julia Ducourneau’s “Raw” and Jennifer Kent’s “The Babadook,” Garza shows from the get-go that she knows how to disturb the hell out of an audience, tossing the usual jump scares in lieu of sickening sounds of breaking bones and supernatural sequences with fever dream imagery to amp up the supernatural frights. But in between those sequences, it becomes clear that Valeria is facing a more personal horror as she realizes that the motherhood that she thought would fulfill her is instead reducing her to a baby-making machine in the eyes of all that know her. While the nightmare sequences alone are enough to make “Huesera” an instant indie horror hit, it is Garza’s provocative questions about how social pressure on women to become mothers can dehumanize them and in Valeria’s case lead her down a destructive path. –Jeremy Fuster
Cocaine Bear (Universal)
“Cocaine Bear” hearkens back to those “when animals attack” movies of the 1980s, albeit with far more gore and cursing. If anything, it feels like a movie you might have seen in 1980, and that all works to its benefit. The script is hilarious, the plot never takes itself too seriously and the film doesn’t overstay its welcome at a lean 95 minutes.
I’ve watched this movie several times since then and love how it gives you just enough backstory to care about everyone while simultaneously reminding the audience that everyone is expendable. Margo Martindale and Jesse Tyler Ferguson’s wannabe love story? Doomed (and in grand fashion). Alden Ehrenreich’s love for his dead wife? There, but you don’t need to think too deeply about it. And what about Keri Russell’s Sari and her attempt to make her teenage daughter like her new boyfriend? You don’t need to remember the guy’s name, but it says just enough to make you understand their dynamic. It’s a film both full of details and just thin enough to keep things moving. –Kristen Lopez
Air (Amazon Studios)
“Air” stands apart from the slew of how-this-product-got-made origin stories by focusing on the humanity of its participants and noting the cultural contradictions at play. Yes, the film – penned by first-time screenwriter Alex Convery – tells of how white shoe company executives banked on a promising Black basketball player to make themselves obscenely rich. However, “Air” uses that contradiction as a challenge, which it solves by eventually centering Oscar-worthy Viola Davis, as Michael Jordan’s mother, as the captain of her son’s commercial destiny.
“Air” also boasts a slew of terrific actors (including Chris Tucker reminding us of his singular talent) relishing the simple pleasures of crisp dialogue and thoughtful character arcs. Matt Damon once again headlines a major studio film that gives many of the best moments to his supporting cast. Jason Bateman reminds us that he’s among the best at playing men who seem amoral but just don’t advertise their virtue. “Air” isn’t just a metaphor for itself, a film about profit sharing produced by a studio that promotes profit sharing among below-the-line talent. It’s also a reminder that sometimes the best special effect is great actors delivering great dialogue. – Scott Mendelson
Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One (Paramount)
Twenty-five years after the release of the first “Mission: Impossible,” Tom Cruise is still at it and back as super spy Ethan Hunt in the seventh installment of the hit action franchise. The stakes are higher than ever as Hunt faces the ultimate (and timely) villain in a race against the clock, and the rest of the world, to obtain a key that controls the villain. We’ve all seen Cruise jump off the mountain in the film’s most amazing set piece, but the incredible train sequence in the film’s third act is the stand-out in one of the summer’s most entertaining blockbusters.
Henry Czerny returns as Eugene Kittridge from the first “Mission Impossible” and chews up the scenery in the scenes he has with Cruise. Hayley Atwell also shines as a pickpocket with a heart of gold, and Christopher McQuarrie’s tight script and directing are as solid as ever. – Umberto Gonzalez
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (Disney/Marvel Studios)
It was easy to assume that “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3” was going to be great – writer/director James Gunn hasn’t let us down yet. And it is arguably the best movie in the series, full of warmth, heart and humor (including the first F-bomb in the Marvel Cinematic Universe), along with Gunn’s typical visual playfulness. Also, the soundtrack is unimpeachable, with Star Lord’s (Chris Pratt) Zune containing some tunes from different eras. But what makes “Guardians 3” so singularly powerful (and one of the greatest movies of the year) is how empathetic it is.
It is one of the most moving animal rights movies of all time, a movie that understands that creatures are just as feeling as the rest of us. Gunn makes extensive use of flashbacks to Rocket’s (Bradley Cooper) history and in the process deepens the core mythology of the series and the movies themselves. These moments are not for everybody but they add so much to the movie. What other four-quadrant summer blockbuster has gotten a loving endorsement from PETA? – Drew Taylor
It’s not easy to make scenes where a Japanese girl helps out at a bar as riveting as scenes where she uses an incantation to prevent unspeakable abominations, but that is just what “Your Name” director Makoto Shinkai does with his touching, thoughtful and sometimes sublimely ridiculous anime adventure “Suzume.”
If you’re able to accept the ludicrous premise in which a girl named Suzume must travel through Japan to prevent earthquakes by sealing magical doors after the handsome boy who usually does that job gets turned into a three-legged chair by a talking cat, you will be rewarded with a moving and gorgeously animated coming-of-age tale that reflects on what it is like to live in a country that is still feeling the effects of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake
“Suzume”, beyond being a total blast of a blockbuster, is a thoughtful look at how we heal from these disasters where everything we have can be lost in an instant, and society as a whole is permanently changed. People are forced to relocate. Neighborhoods, even entire towns are abandoned and never recover. Families can be forever scarred.
Yet “Suzume” shows a way to move forward. When Suzume closes the doors, she says a prayer thanking the ancestors for the time humans had in the land that is now abandoned, and invokes the memories and joy experienced by the people who lived and worked there. And then, as they say in the prayer, they return that land to nature. Shinkai is sharing his philosophy on the impermanence of our lives and our society, and how we can come to accept it, and that he does it while putting forth two hours of badass entertainment is remarkable. – Jeremy Fuster
Fast X (Universal)
How do I love thee, “Fast X?” Let me count the ways. I think I fell in love with it the minute Jason Momoa’s Dante introduced himself to a growling Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) with “Dante, enchante.” Or maybe it came earlier, when a pink-robed Momoa, rocking dual buns in his hair, had a full-blown conversation with two obviously dead henchmen? Nope, it came in the first 5 minutes when he licked a bloody knife for no good reason other than it looked badass. Suffice it to say, in a franchise that’s defied the laws of physics and logic, Momoa’s big bad Dante really is the moment you say, “This franchise knows it’s nuts and just does not care.”
And that’s honestly what makes this installment so damn fun and one of the best movies. Diesel and crew are making a “Fast & Furious” movie, and an impressive one at that, but Momoa is elevates that to a gonzo level. It’s pure bonkers glee and it actively crafts stakes for the franchise. He is the Thanos of a franchise that hasn’t really had intimidating villains and it’s enough to make you excited to see the thrilling conclusion. – Kristen Lopez
John Wick: Chapter 4 (Lionsgate)
In a time when franchises seem to be more about corporate brand maintenance than individualistic cinematic splendor, the “John Wick” series relishes the specific pleasures of seeing Keanu Reeves, in yet another definitive marquee character, squaring off against a slew of action movie legends amid a series of jaw-dropping set pieces. And when “Why do movies look so bad now?” has become mainstream online discourse, Dan Laustsen’s blindingly beautiful cinematography makes every moment a painting that melts the eyes and stirs the soul. “John Wick: Chapter 4” is also a rallying cry or a challenge asking, “Why can’t most big-budget movies look this good and deliver this level of polished cinematic splendor?”
“John Wick: Chapter 4” is, in technical terms, one of the very best Hollywood action movies ever made. It may also be the “most” Hollywood action movie ever made, with Reeves and company leaving it all on the floor and not worrying about a fifth installment later. In director Chad Stahelski’s hands, the line about action scenes playing like musical numbers has never seemed more accurate. The series evolved from a top-notch grindhouse action franchise to something approaching a prestigious, high-toned ballet of bullets and blood. It is a celebration of moviemaking, stunt work, choreography, production design, character work and, yes, visual effects to enhance the illusion, all coming together for a towering “How did they do that?” artistic achievement. – Scott Mendelson
Theater Camp (Searchlight Pictures)
As a theater kid in spirit but who never got the opportunity to go on the stage, “Theater Camp” saw me. The story of a ragtag group of teachers running the AdirondACTS theater camp, this mockumentary is just pure joy. Directors Molly Gordon and Noah Lieberman tell a story with all the humor of Christopher Guest’s best film filled with characters who take themselves too seriously (Gordon’s character, Rebecca-Diane, tells a small child to “get off the [tear] stick” with all the sadness of a drug addict, for example) and a narrative that makes you care for this stone-cold pack of weirdos. And like any good tale of Broadway hopefuls, the original songs are as funny as they are catchy, especially the finale song “Camp Isn’t Home.” Come for the fun pokes at musical theater lovers, stay for a compelling original musical starring Noah Galvan playing Amy Sedaris! – Kristen Lopez
Extraction 2 (Netflix)
Chris Hemsworth returns as deadly merc Tyler Rake in “Extraction 2” and desperately fills an action cinema void that used to be dominated by men like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone in their heyday. Netflix ramps up the action in the sequel, which goes from car chase to hand-to-hand combat with all-out explosive destruction. Former stuntman and second unit director turned big-time action filmmaker Sam Hargrave returns for the sequel and outdoes his “oner” from the first “Extraction” with an exceptionally well-constructed and exhilarating 21-minute and seven-second one-take shot. – Umberto Gonzalez
The Flash (Warner Bros.)
With the current iteration of the DCEU getting rebooted into the DCU, “The Flash” is a super fun and enjoyable sendoff for what’s come before. Ezra Miller gives a very strong performance in the dual role of Barry Allen 2013 and Barry Allen 2023. The opening set piece is a “Justice League Unlimited” episode come to life (the Justice League we got in the opening of “The Flash” is the one we should have had all along), and Ben Affleck is correct in his assessment that he finally figured out how to play Bruce Wayne with this film, as he shines in his role.
Michael Keaton’s return as Tim Burton’s Batman after 30 years is the film’s highlight and Keaton doesn’t disappoint. “The Flash” stands out as one of DC’s best that feels destined to gain cult status in the years to come. – Umberto Gonzalez
The Five Devils (Mubi)
“The Five Devils” might have premiered during the Director’s Fortnight section of last year’s Cannes Film Festival, but it didn’t hit American shores until earlier this year. It was worth the wait. Nearly indescribable, the latest film from French filmmaker Léa Mysius is mysterious and alluring, a movie that folds back on itself, combing through the trauma of the past to somehow make way for a brighter tomorrow. (Talk about a movie both sad and uplifting.)
At the core of the movie is a thorny bramble of deeply damaged people, led by Adèle Exarchopoulos (in a performance as dazzling as hers in “Blue is the Warmest Color”) as a mother who runs a swimming pool in a small French town trying to untangle the complexity of her marriage. Her daughter (Sally Dramé) is gifted with a unique peculiarity too ingenious to give away here, and much of the movie is told through her eyes as she tries desperately to make sense of the mess around her. Only available on Mubi currently, let us pray for a more widely available physical release. Criterion, are you listening? – Drew Taylor
Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” (Apple TV+)
Michael J. Fox is an icon, whether you know him from his work on television (“Family Ties” or, later, “Spin City”) or in movies (particularly from the “Back to the Future” trilogy). But he’s also an icon for his activism following his diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease in 1991. This new documentary unflinchingly details his life both before and after his diagnosis, borrowing heavily from a pair of memoirs Fox authored, with Fox providing the narration that accompanies some tasteful reenactments. (There is also plenty of archival footage, which is utilized expertly.)
But some of the most affecting footage is of Fox today, as he tries to make his way down a New York City sidewalk or simply sit still enough to conduct an interview. You can feel the pain that Fox must be going through but also the perseverance. (He’s also wickedly self-deprecating, which scrubs the documentary of any unintended schmaltz.) Fox recently said in an interview that he probably wouldn’t live to see 80. But at 62 he’s given so much to the world. Including, now, one of the most impactful documentaries you’re ever likely to see. – Drew Taylor
Shin Kamen Rider (Toei Co. Ltd.)
As it turns out, the best superhero movie of the year wasn’t some bloated Hollywood behemoth, but a Japanese film made on a comparatively shoestring budget (with some sequences shot on an iPhone) that reintroduced a classic (but campy) first popularized in a Japanese television series from the early 1970’s. But what it lacked in budget it made up in imagination. The movie follows a motorcyclist who is kidnapped by an evil organization (Sustainable Happiness Organization with Computational Knowledge Embedded Remodeling or SHOCKER) and turned into a weird bug man.
He vows revenge against the organization and sets off on his quest of becoming an unlikely superhero, which involves, among other things, defeating some of the other mutant-men and also crushing peoples’ heads with his fists. The final film in “Neon Genesis Evangelion” creator Hideaki Anno’s ambitious Shin Japan Heroes Universe and the first without his creative partner Shinji Higuchi, it might also be the best film in the four-film series, a movie that is as deeply felt as it is thrilling. As in all of Anno’s work, there’s a beautiful reconciliation with what it means to be a hero and the self-being in service of the collective, and the movie ends on a typically hopeful note. (If there’s a sequel, it likely won’t be made by Anno.) Marvel could take some notes. You can watch it now on Prime Video. – Drew Taylor