It always seems like movies aren’t as good as they used to be. Probably because it’s not a fair fight. We’re comparing the right now with every year that came before it. So when it’s 2023 versus a hundred years of cinema, the single year is always going to lose. But there’s still worthwhile movies being made. Here are my ten favorite from this past calendar year in order of personal preference.
1. The Holdovers
When he’s at his best like Sideways, Nebraska, or About Schmidt, director Alexander Payne sticks to his formula. Find a curmudgeon and over the course of a movie push him kicking and screaming toward decency. The Holdovers stays with that template to a T as a troubled boarding school teacher and student are stuck on campus over the holidays together. It takes place in 1970 and with its retro opening credits The Holdovers is a throwback movie to when character was king. Some might call its predictable beats, cliched or manipulative, I call it comforting. It’s a Christmas movie I can imagine returning to year after year when you want to feel good about humanity and all its flaws.
For some reason a lot of people really hate the director Wes Anderson. If you’re in that school, Asteroid City isn’t for you. But if you’re a fan of a star studded cast, thoughtful production design, and dialogue that is much too clever, you’ll probably enjoy this movie as much as I did. There are laughs to be had and depths to be plundered that makes it require a second viewing to see if there’s hidden meaning you might not have discovered on the first go around.
3. The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar
Not a full movie, but worth mentioning is this treat. Netflix released four Wes Anderson adaptations of Roald Dahl short stories. All of them are worth watching but this one is by far the best. Anderson gets out of the way and let’s Dahl’s narration guide viewers on a fantastic stacked Russian doll story within a story.
4. Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania
This is the part of the list where I’ll probably lose readers and legitimacy. The nerd mafia that runs pop culture discourse hated this movie, but it delivered everything the inner child in me wanted from a comic book. Snappy one-liners, a bizarre setting, a plot that doesn’t always make sense but moves fast enough that you don’t question it, and a cliffhanger that had me desperate to learn what would happen in the next issue.
Sofia Coppola’s biopic on Priscilla Presley plays just as loose and fast with the passage of time as it does with size. Cailee Spaeny, the actress who plays Priscilla is under five feet. Jacob Elordi, the actor who plays Elvis is listed as 6’5″. It gives the effect of Priscilla Presley as a toy doll in a land of giants. The incongruities make Priscilla feel often like a movie you’d see playing in a bar with the sound off with random music playing on the speakers. It’s beautifully photographed and smartly soundtracked. Whether you want to rush out to see this movie in a theater depends on how lenient you are on whether a movie has a functional story or not. I was more than content to watch a two hour mood piece.
6. Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre
This fast paced, fun crime thriller came and went from the theaters in a blink of an eye. I blame the title. Not since Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, has a flick been saddled with such an impossible to remember name. Director Guy Ritchie guides you on an amusement park ride through exotic locales where everyone is a tough guy with a scheme. Like the best roller coasters it’s over before you know it, and you’re ready to get in line for it again.
7. You Hurt My Feelings
Now that Woody Allen has officially been canceled, Nicole Holofcener is probably the best writer/director making Woody Allen movies. You know the flick, the type that features the aging and overprivileged walking around New York discussing their neuroses. Her latest has a touch of Seinfeld as well with Julia Louis-Dreyfus playing a writer who overhears her loving husband talking trash about her new novel.
I’m not too big a fan of when movies make a big deal about their plot twists. The trend probably started with 1995’s The Usual Suspects where a movie stops itself in its tracks to show the audience how everything they just watched was not as it seemed. Then through a series of flashbacks you discover the truth which is generally not as clever as the film presents it to be. So I was doubly surprised that the twist in the new Agatha Christie adaptation A Haunting in Venice not only got me, but also left me pleased to get got. Kenneth Branagh plays Hercule Poirot like a smarter version of Inspector Clouseau. Poirot wears a ridiculous walrus mustache and loves chomping on pastries. But he always figures out the what, who, and why behind a murder. In the finale A Haunting in Venice does something, if not revolutionary, then a trick I’d never personally seen a movie pull off before. There’s a twist that not only shifts the plot, it also shifts what genre this movie belongs to.
Barbie might be the first critic-proof movie. Any criticism leveled at the box office smash will have the critic labeled as a misogynist, a defender of the patriarchy, a slave to the status quo, an unwoke slob who needs more pink in their life. Good thing I thought Barbie was pretty good. It featured a variety of jokes, both smart and dumb that had me laughing out loud. The production design looked great and while some of its ideas fell flat, I found it kind of remarkable that more thought was put into the plastic doll that is Barbie than another recent movie put into the creation of the atomic bomb.
10. Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken
I’ll probably be grieving for a while that overnight my daughter outgrew kids movies. I’m sure Trolls 3 and Wish were stinkers, but it made me sad she said those movies are for babies. I blame Barbie. But we had one last fun matinee with this low stakes cartoon where the computer animation was programmed to look like claymation.