The 10 best movies of 2023

Peter Travers shares his take on the best 10 films of 2023.

December 26, 2023, 4:44 AM

It was a phenomenal year for movies.

With the long shadow of the pandemic in retreat, cinema came back in all its infinite variety, filling theaters to such an extent that the term "Barbenheimer" was coined to describe two summer movies that opened on the same day and shattered box-office records.

Few had much hope for "Barbie," a film about a doll, or "Oppenheimer," an epic about nuclear doomsday. But look at them now, heading into the Oscar race with dollar signs attached to their rave reviews.

Both rank high among the year's best, joining another classic about America's violent past from beloved master Martin Scorsese and an achingly tender romance from South Korean newcomer Celine Song, whose young talent is just beginning to blossom.

So here, starting with No. 10 and working our way up to the top spot, are my picks for the 10 best movies of 2023.

10. "Barbie"

A Hollywood hack could have turned the backstory of a Mattel doll into a quick-buck opportunity. Instead, trailblazing director Greta Gerwig gifts us with a hot-pink fantasia of feminist art that refuses to play it safe as Margot Robbie's doubt-plagued Barbie teams up with Ryan Gosling's clueless Ken to keep you thinking long after the laughs die down.

PHOTO: Ryan Gosling as Ken and Margot Robbie as Barbie as shown in a scene from Warner Bros. Pictures' "Barbie."
Ryan Gosling as Ken and Margot Robbie as Barbie as shown in a scene from Warner Bros. Pictures' "Barbie."
Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

And the dudes who think Gerwig's takedown of the patriarchy means she's a hater of men aren't paying attention. Gerwig is a woman of heart and mind. Listen up and you might just learn something.

9. "May December"

Todd Haynes' slippery tease of a movie has been classified as a comedy. So how does that explain the tears falling from your eyes? Focus on the heart-crushing performance from Charles Melton as a stunted manchild still reeling from his marriage to a woman (a thorny, complex Julianne Moore) jailed for seducing him when he was just a seventh grader.

PHOTO:  Charles Melton as Joe in "May December," 2023.
Charles Melton as Joe in "May December," 2023.
Netflix

With Natalie Portman hitting a new career peak as the manipulative actress prepping to bring that skewed love story to the screen, you'll be thrown thrillingly off balance.

PHOTO: Natalie Portman as Elizabeth Berry and Julianne Moore as Gracie Atherton-Yoo in "May December," 2023.
Natalie Portman as Elizabeth Berry and Julianne Moore as Gracie Atherton-Yoo in "May December," 2023.
Netflix

8. "The Holdovers"

Already hailed as a new holiday classic, this fresh triumph from "Sideways" director Alexander Payne delivers warmth that shouldn't be mistaken for weakness. Paul Giamatti shines as a Grinchy teacher who is forced to remain on campus during Christmas break to babysit Dominic Sessa's Angus, a student with nowhere to go. And Oscar frontrunner Da'Vine Joy Randolph is the school cook who can't laugh off her pain as the film turns cliches into hard truths.

PHOTO: Paul Giamatti in a scene of "The Holdovers" movie trailer.
Paul Giamatti in a scene of "The Holdovers" movie trailer.
Focus Features

7. "The Zone of Interest"

Jonathan Glazer is the kind of risk-taker who creates a film about the Holocaust and then makes his point by not showing us anything about the horrors taking place as Nazis exterminate Jews at Auschwitz. Instead Glazer focuses on commandant Rudolf Hoss (Christian Friedel) as he and his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) and their children go about the mundane business of living as if they couldn't see the smoke and hear the screams coming from just next door. Echoing the scary rise of antisemitism today, this urgent warning is hard to watch and impossible to forget.

PHOTO: Sandra Huller in "The Zone of Interest," 2023.
Sandra Huller in "The Zone of Interest," 2023.
A24

6. "Maestro"

As star, director and co-writer, Bradley Cooper tops his career in this raw and romantic crescendo of a movie about conductor-composer Leonard Bernstein. The Oscar belongs to Cooper for his heart-full-to-bursting tour de force as the maestro whose passions can't be confined to one kind of music or one sex.

PHOTO: Bradley Cooper appears as Leonard Bernstein and Carey Mulligan as Felicia Montealegre in "Maestro."
Bradley Cooper appears as Leonard Bernstein and Carey Mulligan as Felicia Montealegre in "Maestro."
Jason McDonald/Netflix

Carey Mulligan is his emotional equal as the wife who lives with Bernstein's angels and demons. Alive with glorious music, Cooper's labor of love catches us up in the experience of watching a genius in the exhilarating act of inventing himself.

5. "American Fiction"

There's a rush of fresh comic thinking in writer-director Cord Jefferson's dazzling debut feature. In his best and most bracing film role to date, Jeffrey Wright stars as Monk, a Black novelist who feels angry and frustrated that his well-reviewed books never sell. It seems the public only ponies up for stories that juggle tropes about Black poverty and violence. So Monk joins the enemy club under a pseudonym and hits paydirt with hilarious and pointedly satiric results. This tale of an artist selling out his principles will make you laugh till it hurts.

PHOTO: Erika Alexander, as Coraline, and Jeffrey Wright, as Thelonious "Monk" Ellison, in a scene from "American Fiction."
Erika Alexander, as Coraline, and Jeffrey Wright, as Thelonious "Monk" Ellison, in a scene from "American Fiction."
Claire Folger/Orion Pictures

4. "Anatomy of a Fall"

No list of the greatest film actors of 2023 would be complete without Hüller (also starring in the aforementioned "Zone of Interest"), who burns up the screen in Justine Triet's forensic anatomy of a marriage. Told through the compulsively watchable tale of a wife on trial for killing her husband by pushing him out a window, the film pins you to your seat. As a successful author forced to deal with the failure of her far-from-better half (Samuel Theis), Hüller gives a performance you can't shake. The same goes for the devilishly clever script by Triet and her husband Arthur Harari, who merge a brilliant battle of the sexes with a courtroom thriller for the ages.

PHOTO: Scene from "Anatomy of a Fall."
Scene from "Anatomy of a Fall."
Les Films Pelleas - Les Films de Pierre

3. "Poor Things"

Prepare to be wowed by Emma Stone's nakedly unafraid performance in this rowdy and rapturously beautiful blast of feminist whup-ass from director Yorgos Lanthimos. Stone plays a pregnant and suicidally unhappy wife who plunges to her watery death only to be reanimated by a nutjob scientist (Willem Dafoe) who swaps her dead brain for that of her unborn child and waits until she can take baby steps into a sexual and psychological awakening.

PHOTO: Emma Stone in "Poor Things," 2023.
Emma Stone in "Poor Things," 2023.
Searchlight Pictures

Lanthimos is a master provocateur who doesn't make movies like anyone else. You won't know what hit you.

2. "Past Lives"

Writer-director Celine Song gets it gloriously right her first time out, crafting a lyrical work of art out of her own life as a 12-year-old girl who leaves her family home and her boy crush Hae Sung in South Korea to grow up in Canada. The luminous Greta Lee stars as the adult Nora, who's now a playwright in New York City and married to Arthur (John Magaro), an American, when Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) decides to visit Nora in Manhattan.

PHOTO: "Past Lives," 2023.
"Past Lives," 2023.
A24

The movie spins on that pivotal reunion, uniting Nora and Hae Sung through bonds of language and culture that basically cut Arthur out of the equation. Delicate business is being transacted in this transfixing beauty of a film.

1. A tie between "Killers of the Flower Moon" and "Oppenheimer"

They are the twin peaks of this banner film year. I couldn't rate one over the other. Greatness is written all over "Killers of the Flower of the Moon," Martin Scorsese's sorrowful epic about the long history of U.S. mistreatment of Native Americans. Underlined by stupendous acting from Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro and Oscar favorite Lily Gladstone as an Osage oil heiress caught in a murderous trap by greedy white men, "Killers" is classic Scorsese.

PHOTO: Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio in a scene from  “Killers of the Flower Moon.”
Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio in a scene from “Killers of the Flower Moon.”
Melinda Sue Gordon/Apple via EPK

"Oppenheimer" is classic Christopher Nolan, a generation younger than Scorsese but also possessed of the mind of a visionary and the soul of a poet. You can see it in Nolan's brilliant, bruising take on J. Robert Oppenheimer (a flawless Cillian Murphy), the conflicted architect of the atomic age.

PHOTO: Cillian Murphy is seen in the Universal Pictures move trailer, "Oppenheimer".
Cillian Murphy is seen in the Universal Pictures move trailer, "Oppenheimer".
Universal Pictures

Just as Scorsese unearths the tangled roots of American racism, Nolan triggers the nightmare of nuclear annihilation that we still can't wake up from.

PHOTO: Cillian Murphy stars as Robert Oppenheimer stars in the film "Oppenheimer".
Cillian Murphy stars as Robert Oppenheimer stars in the film "Oppenheimer".
Universal

Through the past, these all-time, filmmaking giants speak profoundly to right this very minute.

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