As a moviegoer—and I don’t want to speak for all moviegoers, but, hey, that’s what I’m going to do—the ideal scenario is to not just get a lot of movies coming out, and to not just get a lot of good movies coming out, but to get a lot of different kinds of good movies coming out. Surprising studio tentpoles, captivating genre pictures, audacious little indies, you name it. Great films that appeal to different tastes and identities, made in different styles and with different means.
This year hasn’t always done that. The pickings have often been slim (particularly for moviegoers who don't live in Los Angeles or New York City), and the films themselves disappointing. But April saw the best mix of films thus far—ranging from the maximalist surreality of Beau Is Afraid to the understated charm of Showing Up. There were enough strong releases this month that it felt time to finally start picking favorites. Here’s my inaugural ranking of the best movies of 2023, followed by my most anticipated releases for the rest of the year.
Sometimes a great piece of art smacks you in the face, other times its effect creeps up on you. Kelly Reichardt’s films tend to work in the latter mode, and Showing Up—one of her best—is no exception. The film follows Lizzy (Michelle Williams), a dour sculptor who works at a small Portland arts college, in the leadup to a new exhibition. Showing Up captures the realities of a working-class art-making process—the distractions, frustrations, and sporadic victories—better than any movie I can recall. Williams and Hong Chau (who plays her landlord and a fellow artist) are both better here than in their respective Oscar-nominated turns from last year. A pleasurable as the bulk of the movie is, the quietly transcendent ending is what moved me from a place of simmering enjoyment to full-boiled enthrallment.
If How to Blow Up a Pipeline was a pure popcorn thriller, it would still be one hell of a time at the movies. But Daniel Goldhaber’s follow-up to his 2018 camgirl horror flick, Cam, harnesses its edge-of-your-seat adrenaline for admirably audacious ends: To urge viewers to rethink what modern eco-activism should look like. Without becoming didactic about its politics, the film creates a context in which attacking oil infrastructure is a heroic act. It’s a subversive piece of pop entertainment, one that riffs on cinematic classics while having an eye to the future. It’s probably the film most likely to make you say “Hell yeah!” upon exiting the theater.
There is so much happening beneath the surface in Saint Omer, documentarian Alice Diop’s narrative debut. In depicting the trial of Laurence Coly, a woman charged with killing her 15-month-old daughter, as seen through the eyes of Rama (Kayije Kagame), a novelist and literary scholar, Diop constructs a meta-narrative about true crime spectatorship, cultural dislocation, myth, and motherhood. Where the French justice system tries to explain—and ultimately condemn—Coly for her actions, Diop works in the mode of observation. She’d rather raise interesting questions than seek simple answers. Leaning on long, expertly composed takes, she emphasizes the richness and inscrutability of human faces. Maybe we can’t ever truly understand each other, but there are ways to try.
I’m worried that if you haven’t seen Godland—and chances are, you haven’t—because almost anything I mention about the film will make you less likely to want to see it. It’s starless, set in the late 19th century, and takes a nuanced look at colonialism, religion, and mortality. See what I mean? But please, don’t be deterred. Hlynur Pálmason’s third feature is much less forbidding than the Icelandic elements he captures so breathtakingly in his third feature. This story of a young Danish priest’s harrowing journey to a remote region of Iceland is stunningly photographed, occasionally quite funny, and ultimately one of the few movies that actually warrants adjectives like “sublime” and “epic.” Herzog fans rejoice.
It’s abundantly evident from watching A Thousand and One that A.V. Rockwell, who directed the film, grew up in New York—and has both genuine love and deserved derision for her hometown. Rockwell’s feature debut follows Inez (a revelatory Teyana Taylor) from the mid-'90s, when she gets out of Rikers, to the present. As she tries to rebuild her life in Harlem, with a son she smuggled out of state custody, the threat of being discovered and the pressure of providing for him large. Rockwell’s character study highlights the ways people define a place, and how a place rubs off on people. A Thousand and One is clear-eyed about the toll of gentrification without being overly sentimental for a more vibrant, but still imperfect past incarnation of the city. In totality, the movie finds great beauty and pathos in a nuanced, unexpected, and drawn-out sort of tragedy.
With The Civil Dead, Clay Tatum and Whitmer Thomas have made one of my favorite comedies in… *thinks*... a long time! The film, written by the pair and directed by Tatum, finds Thomas playing a ghost only Tatum’s character can see. But this ain’t your average haunting. Rather than explore trauma or evoke fear, this is a ghost story about friendship–and how being a friend can sometimes get a little annoying. If those sound like small stakes, well, maybe they are. But the key to a good buddy movie is a good hang, and The Civil Dead delivers that and then some. Enormously funny and wonderfully idiosyncratic, it’s a very promising debut.
You have to admire Mia Goth and Alexander Skarsgaard for their sheer willingness to go there. In Brandon Cronenberg’s third feature, what happens during a vacation at a luxury resort quickly makes the drama at a White Lotus hotel feel tame. There’s enough graphic—and hallucinatory—sex, drugs, and violence that the film just skirted an NC-17 rating. Exiting the theater, my own brain felt as though it had been chemically altered. After the come down, though, the ideas Cronenberg raises about identity, self-destruction, and tourism stuck with me—though, admittedly, perhaps less so than the wonderful absurdity of Mia Goth sitting on the hood of a moving car, taunting Skarsgaard’s James, and throwing fried chicken at him.
It’s hard to flat-out love a movie as bleak and tragic as the Dardenne brothers’ latest, but it’s even harder not to be deeply affected by it. Tori and Lokita follows a pair of African migrant children trying to survive and stick together, in modern Belgium. It's about how they are failed by bureaucracy, taken advantage of by the underworld, and ignored by everyone else (implicating viewers, including all those who will skip this film because of its heaviness). The 11 year-old Tori and 17-year-old Lokita are forced to operate well beyond their years. In playing them, Pablo Schils (Tori) and Joely Mbundu (Lokita) achieve the same feat. Their performances are subtle and convincing, touching and gripping; crucially, they imbue these characters with the vivid humanity society denies them.
Ari Aster’s latest is an early front-runner for most polarizing movie of the year. You’ll either get down with Aster’s sense of humor and submit to this absurd, punishing epic of mommy issues and paralyzing anxiety, or you’ll be alienated and put off by it. I erred more in the former camp—admiring the film’s abundance of detail, Aster’s visual imagination, and, yes, all the puerile humor. Aster’s use of a certain Mariah Carey track alone pays off the three-hour runtime.
Is attention-getting an art or a disease? In Norwegian director Kristoffer Borgli’s utterly absurd, dryly hilarious debut feature, it’s a little bit of both. When her artist boyfriend gains a dash of notoriety for his stolen furniture sculptures, Signe (Kristine Kujath Thorp) takes an alarming dose of a dangerous Russian drug—in a deliberate attempt to attract sympathy–causing her face to break out in lesions. Borgli, whose short films hit a similar caustic tone and clinical aesthetic, is a master of threading the line between body humor and body horror, between grotesquery and beauty, a cringe and a cackle.
Forget identifying buses or street signs. Your response to M3GAN could function as its own CAPTCHA: if you didn’t have fun, you’re probably a robot. Blumhouse marketed M3GAN as a horror movie, and yes, there are jump scares and bursts of violence to back that up. But there’s something so uncanny, and consistently hilarious, about the way this luxury AI doll—who’s played physically by Amie Donald—moves. Whether M3GAN was prancing through the woods like a demon or dancing in a hallway, she had my theater keeling over in a good sort of pain.
Carla Simón’s sophomore feature is a portrait of a peach-harvesting family in present-day Catalonia that faces the end of an era: their orchard is about to be destroyed to make way for the construction of solar panels. It’s the sort of conflict that’s usually framed in stark good-versus-evil terms in movies. But what’s so refreshing about Alcarras is that Simón doesn’t judge so much as observe, humanizing—but not lionizing—the people caught in the current of progress.
Perhaps it’s because of his approach to collaboration that Lukas Dhont is able to so evocatively capture the amplified feelings of early adolescence. Dhont is a keen observer of the way children are socialized out of their early emotional abandon. When 13-year-old best friends Léo and Rémi enter a new year of school, their intimate bond is broken by the growing awareness of how their outward affection is perceived by their peers. Friction mounts, and without the words or self-awareness to address what they’re each feeling, their relationship meets tragic ends. The stomach-hollowing guilt that mingles with grief isn’t shocking; but rather, its power resides in the ways it feels achingly familiar.
Part of the magic of Kyle Edward Ball’s feature debut is how it manages to feel both fresh and nostalgic. Another part: its slow pace and fuzzy white noise threatens to lure you to sleep, while its dimly glimmering nighttime perspective on a suburban home is the stuff of (millennial) childhood nightmares. Ball has a gift for framing, and is clearly fluent in translating analog horror to the digital age. No wonder his film has been such a viral sensation.
Like Ocean’s 13, Magic Mike’s third and final chapter may not be the franchise’s best, but general tepid response to it probably has less to do with the movie itself than the incredibly high bar set by the first two installments. In Last Dance, Mike Lane (Channing Tatum) is retired from dancing and earning a living bartending at high-end parties–until he meets Maxandra (Salma Hayek Pinault). She's a rich dilettante who, after procuring Mike’s steamy services, hires him to come to London and put on an extravagant show at a historic theater. The film has its moments as a love story. But Last Dance is at its best as a movie about the artistic process and the complications that arise when making art relies on a wealthy, mercurial benefactor.
Jesse Eisenberg’s directorial debut is, more or less, exactly what you’d hope for from the veteran actor: smart, wry, thoughtful, and personal. In adapting his own audiobook (based, to some extent, on his own romantic history), Eisenberg turns to Julianne Moore and Finn Wolfhard to play a high-minded social worker and her vapid teen musician son. Moore, in particular, gives a sterling performance—channeling a vein of lofty, humorless do-gooderism that can be off-putting as it is well-meaning.
The bulk of the press around Pete Ohs’s Jethica revolves around the sheer accomplishment of the movie. Ohs has pioneered a filmmaking method in which he acts as his entire crew, allowing him to make aesthetically dynamic features for less money than most shorts. (The bill for Jethica was $10,000.) But as with Ohs’s previous film working in this style, 2021’s Youngstown, you don’t need to grade Jethica on a curve to enjoy it. The film is a stylish New Mexico-set comic noir about a woman who is haunted by the ghost of her stalker. Ohs brings to the film both the playful spirit of a home movie and the rigor and eye of an auteur. He collaborated on the story with his small cast, and they take the film in several surprising directions, with Will Madden (as Kevin) giving an especially standout performance.
There have been a lot of Rosemary’s Baby-inspired pregnancy thrillers in recent years, some interrogating popular notions of motherhood and others flipping the script and putting the baby bump on a man. And of all these films, Huesera: The Bone Woman, the snap-cracking, bone-chilling debut from Mexican director Michelle Garza Cervera, may be the best. Garza Cervera captures the bodily horror and gendered double standards of pregnancy without veering overly didactic. Her tale is inspired by Mexican mythology, and it brims with evocative imagery, potent surreality, and edge-of-your-seat tension.
Not much happens in Hannah Ha Ha, the microbudget debut from filmmakers Joshua Pikovsky and Jordan Tetewsky. Hannah (Hannah Lee Thompson), 25 and aimless, spends her summer days working on the family farm, biking around, and giving guitar lessons to children. When her ambitious brother (Roger Mancusi) comes to visit, he urges her to strive for more—and she’s left navigating what she wants with her life. But the film, shot through a hazy, impressionistic filter, is sensorially rich, evoking the smoky smell of evening bonfires, the sticky sweat induced by the thick New England air, and the bright chirp emanating from the green trees. It’s the sort of film that lingers after you’ve seen it, like a memory that could be your own.
The senior year experience chronicled by Ethan Eng in Therapy Dogs is far from extraordinary. Eng and his fellow small town Canadian teenagers are reckless, bored, awkward, and full of boundless energy. To entertain themselves, they attack lockers, hang from car roofs as they drift in parking lots, and climb up a tall water tower. But in the process, Eng subtly interrogates his cohort’s budding masculinity. The filmmaker paints a vivid, often exhilarating portrait of what it is to be young now—both how it’s unique to this moment and just like any other time.
Originally published on Esquire US