The Ten Best Films Of 2023

Omar Moore
10 min readJan 12, 2024

Another solid film year with well-acted, character-driven stories and audacious filmmakers unafraid to take risks and go bold. This was 2023 on the big screen

By Omar Moore
January 12, 2024

Fantasia Barrino in Blitz Bazawule’s “The Color Purple”.

Directing debuts sparkled. Adaptations ascended. Musicals marveled. The story of 2023 in film will be remembered for these elements and more. And what a strong year in cinema it was. In parentheses is the country the film was made and/or shot in, the film studio or company that released it, and the film’s director. The duration of every film is in italics.

10. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE — DEAD RECKONING PART ONE (USA; Paramount; Christopher McQuarrie)

Tom Cruise and Hayley Atwell hold on for dear life in “Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One”. (Photo: Paramount)

Easily the most fun I had at the movies in 2023 was “Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning”. A fellow moviegoer sitting next to me at the IMAX theater I saw the film in said he had so much fun watching me react to this gripping, highly entertaining, edge-of-your-seat peril action adventure featuring Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt at his vintage never-say-die best. As the end credits to this penultimate edition of the “Mission” series ran the anonymous moviegoer also told me, “you made me enjoy the movie more.” Enough said. Two hours 39 mins.

9. BARBIE (USA/UK; Warner Brothers; Greta Gerwig)

Margot Robbie as the title character in Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” (Photo: Warner Brothers)

A fresh, bright, energetic glam opera comedy, “Barbie” was the most entertaining comedy of the year. I never tired of the confection, colors, music, dance numbers or writer-director Greta Gerwig’s witty, satirical look at gender, patriarchy, toxic masculinity and the meaning of a doll generations of girls and boys have admired and loved. (Unless you’re Ken.) Sarah Greenwood’s production design alone is the reason to see “Barbie” and its heart and soul, though the performances by Margot Robbie and Kate McKinnon in particular are well worth watching. One hour 54 mins.

8. SPIDER-MAN: ACROSS THE SPIDER-VERSE (USA; Sony/Columbia; Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, Justin K. Thompson)

A scene from “Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse”. (Photo: Sony/Columbia)

The best superhero film ever, “Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse” was a dazzling event spectacle told with animation that accentuated, pulsated but did not assault the senses. The care and precision taken to craft this masterwork of father figures, failure, universality, duplicity and multiple identities was breathtaking. I “marveled” (no pun intended) at the artistry and invigoration of the infinite world this film luxuriated in. An astute, cheeky journey through pop culture aesthetic, this latest “Spider-Verse” tops its predecessor and is full of rich, well-conceived characters. An absolute treasure even if you are neither a Spider-Man nor an animation fan. Two hours 20 minutes.

7. WAYNE SHORTER: ZERO GRAVITY (USA; Amazon; Dorsay Alavi)

Jazz legend, scorer, writer and composer Wayne Shorter in the 2023 documentary “Wayne Shorter: Zero Gravity”. Shorter passed away in March 2023. (Photo: Amazon Studios)

Originally shown as a three-part series on Amazon Prime, I’d seen “Wayne Shorter: Zero Gravity” in a theatrical setting on a big screen in 2023 and this cinematic, cosmic and in-depth look at the life, love, science and philosophies of the late jazz legend, composer, writer and scorer is a must-see. A kaleidscopic, involving look at Mr. Shorter’s life journey (he passed away in March 2023), “Zero Gravity” stretched my imagination, providing broad insight into one of the true geniuses and visionaries of jazz over the last sixty-five years. I adored the joyous, moving, funny moments and absorbed the achingly heartbreaking situations and anecdotes from a life well-lived and traveled. Wayne Shorter always taught but was forever a student, avid learner and listener. Endlessly fascinating and affecting, “Zero Gravity” director Dorsay Alavi superbly chronicles one of the greatest and most underrated figures music has ever seen. You come away smarter, better and grateful for having been in Mr. Shorter’s orbit for a brief period of time — three hours — which travels very quickly. Three hours eight mins.

6. THE COLOR PURPLE (USA; Warner Brothers; Blitz Bazawule)

What a colorful, beautiful and vibrant experience Blitz Bazawule’s “The Color Purple” was! From start to finish this updated edition of the film adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel did not disappoint — it exceeded my expectations. This new cinematic presentation is a 180-degree turn from the dank, cold and brutal 1985 Steven Spielberg film. While this new film does not shy away from difficult moments, it celebrates life, joy, connection, resilience and sisterhood in undeniable, uplifting ways. Larger than life, bursting with Blackness, pride and bright costumes and dance routines, this musical features excellent performances from Fantasia Barrino (see the first photo at the top of this article), Danielle Brooks, Taraji P. Henson, Colman Domingo and Corey Hawkins. Every second of this film is not purple — it is GOLD. Exhilarating, stylish, warm, sumptuous and splendid, “The Color Purple” is a bold, brilliant and wonderful cinematic experience that must be seen on the big screen. Accept no substitutes. Two hours 21 mins.

5. FALLEN LEAVES (KUOLLEET LEHDET) (Finland; Mubi; Aki Kaurismäki)

Alma Pöysti and Jussi Vatanen in Ari Kaurismäki’s “Fallen Leaves” (Kuolleet Lehdet). (Photo: Mubi)

This wry, satirical romantic comedy-drama from Finland is the shortest film on my best list of 2023 but arguably the most articulate and direct in its message. “Fallen Leaves” is a lean, compact gem about two lonely people on the margins of Finnish society trying to connect and find love in a lovelorn world as the Russian invasion of neighboring Ukraine breaks out. Spare and precise but teeming with expression of feeling and deep longing, “Fallen Leaves” (Kuolleet Lehdet) never overreaches, staying firmly rooted to its mast as a modest, cool, austere experience. I loved this film’s simplicity and adult manner. Every aspect of “Fallen Leaves” is an expression of the feeling and pulsing heartbeat of its yearning characters in the uncertain post-industrial Finnish society it depicts. A touching story. One of the surprise treasures for me on the big screen in 2023 was this fine film by Aki Kaurismäki. “Fallen Leaves” features two terrific performances from Alma Pöysti and Jussi Vatanen. (Finnish language with English subtitles.) One hour 21 minutes.

4. PAST LIVES (Korea/USA; A24; Celine Song)

Teo Yoo and Greta Lee in Celine Song’s “Past Lives”. (Photo: A24)

In 2023 no film conveyed the movement, internal emotional entanglement, distance and dilemmas of adults like “Past Lives”, a phenomenally beautiful, tender and quietly heartbreaking romantic drama written and directed by first-time feature film director Celine Song. “Past Lives”, a poetic, sensitive, delicately rendered masterpiece, immerses you in its melancholy, hope, realism, joy, love and feeling. Ms. Song captures an indelible and affecting story about two childhood friends in Seoul, South Korea* who then grow apart in different countries only to meet again years later in New York City. The ways in which this fabulous film unfolds, engulfs and embraces you are profound. I felt the ramifications of every agonizing question posed, puzzled over and left unresolved. What impressed me most about “Past Lives” is its mature, focused look at the decisions adults make or do not make. “Past Lives” is definitely not “a version” of the film “Sliding Doors” — it is far more layered and complex. By implication Ms. Song asks us what choices we would make in the situations the film’s characters wrestle with. Each performance is authentic, adding to the effective drama and resonance of such a strong film and fantastic directing debut. (Korean* and English languages with English subtitles.) One hour and 46 minutes. (*Correction: The initial version of this review article incorrectly stated the film’s location as Hong Kong.)

3. AMERICAN FICTION (USA; Amazon/Orion; Cord Jefferson)

Erika Alexander and Jeffrey Wright in Cord Jefferson’s “American Fiction”. (Photo: Amazon/Orion)

“American Fiction” is satirical fact, adroitly and superbly conceived and directed by Cord Jefferson, in his feature film writing and directing debut. This drama finds an embattled, sheltered writer (Jeffrey Wright) whose tepid success as an author soon takes a steep climb after he writes a book denigrating and racially stereotyping Black people. Though cut from similar cloth as cinematic satire like “The Producers”, “Hollywood Shuffle” and “Bamboozled”, “Fiction” is a new, refreshingly potent look at white racism, white expectation and white perceptions of Black people and the subservience of some Black people who sublimate and demean themselves to ingratiate white comfort and their own success in the process. Mr. Jefferson’s writing is sharp and penetrating and his direction richly expansive yet concise. What the director has done impressively is craft an atmosphere of reactions, language and landscapes of varying levels of mental illness or strife while articulating a literacy and illogic of U.S. societal madness, depravity and poisonous behaviors. “American Fiction”, a hilarious, painful and highly instructive, thought-provoking film with a solid cast that includes the legendary Leslie Uggams, spares no prisoners, comes straight at you, daring you, forcing you not to look away. All of this is balanced with romance, familial affairs and the best performance by a male actor in 2023 — Mr. Wright’s construction of Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, a sad, cynical, self-loathing but always self-aware author — is astounding work. Don’t miss a great performance also from Sterling K. Brown. One hour 56 minutes.

2. ORIGIN (USA/Germany/India; Neon; Ava DuVernay)

Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor in a career-making performance as the author Isabel Wilkerson in Ava DuVernay’s “Origin”. (Photo: Neon)

The crowning achievement of Ava DuVernay’s cinematic directing career, the powerful, profound and magnificent biographical drama “Origin” defies convention, breaks narrative rules and blurs the lines between the present, the past, fiction and non-fiction. Set and shot in three countries, “Origin” is a journey of Isabel Wilkerson (based on her Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Caste: The Origins Of Our Discontents”) as she experiences life changes while researching and investing deeply in the argument that artificial distinctions like caste are chiefly responsible for keeping the people of the world at each other’s throats. Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor is marvelous as Wilkerson, inculcating her with a rigorous drive, thirst for truth and knowledge and an appetite for life as she seeks to prove her thesis. Ms. Ellis-Taylor has never been better on the big screen and she towers with such an earnestness, grace, tenderness, beauty and integrity that she seems to be playing a real-life version of herself even more so than a fictional edition of a real-life person. Crafting a fearless film that combines documentary, docudrama, investigation and surprise gives Ms. DuVernay a chance to take real risks in service of something transcendent and the latitude to direct an experience on film that is wholly original and daring. And it was that combination of affectations and variables among others in this unique narrative that riveted me — the poetry, drama, elegance, brutality, intimacy, sorrow, euphoria and joy — that makes “Origin” work so thoroughly as a feature film and a must-see theatrical dramatic experience. An excellent and important work of art and storytelling, “Origin” looks as seamless as it is jagged and abrupt and feels like a global, historical and cultural instrument that is being shaped, tuned, practiced and perfected. Sometimes its notes are sweet, other times its notes are sour but each note is always sincere, resonant and revelatory. What a special, scintillating and extraordinary film this is. (English, German and Indian language with English subtitles.) Two hours 20 minutes.

1. THE ZONE OF INTEREST (Poland/Germany; A24; Jonathan Glazer)

A scene from the deeply disquieting drama “The Zone Of Interest”, directed by Jonathan Glazer. (Photo: A24)

By far the best (and most unsettling) film of 2023 is Jonathan Glazer’s shattering and disturbing “The Zone Of Interest”, set in Poland during the Nazi invasion in World War Two. This drama, which never lets you get comfortable, centers on a family living in very close proximity to the violence and horror of the concentration camps. (A film critic I know characterized “Zone” as a film about “the banality of evil” and it is hard to argue such sentiment.) The power of Mr. Glazer’s precise, pristine film is in its apparent idyllic beauty and tranquility — for those are the ugliest things about it. We hear sounds, shrieks, gunshots and see things we cannot unsee. All of the sounds and backgrounds function as slow-burn, underlined by an off-kilter, discordant cacophonous music score that penetrates your skin and subconscious. There is an undeniable claustrophobia, even in the film’s vast, open spaces that we see. I felt like escaping from this film such was its constant unease, but Mr. Glazer never makes it so easy and doesn’t alienates you as a viewer — he draws you in and compels you to keep watching — and that’s the point. Given current global events (or even in the absence of them) “The Zone Of Interest” is timely and sadly, timeless, for “The Zone Of Interest” is ultimately about us. What will we do when evil lurks within earshot of us? What will you do? (Do you have an answer to that question?) The film’s rudimentary rhythmic canter and order are so in keeping with a privileged and sheltered German family who knows what is going on over that peculiar (isn’t that a barbed-wire?) fence and yet keeps prodding on. Were these “the Good Germans”? Hard to argue obviously, that anyone here is “good”, including the film’s audience. Why is that? Well, we are so up close to this specific family and the malevolence that swirls deep around them that we are unavoidably complicit. Will walking out of a movie theater do us any good? You can’t get rid of evil that way. There is no accident that thematic similarities exist both here and in “Origin”, and one of the latter film’s lines which “Zone Of Interest” and its director would readily agree with is, “you don’t escape trauma by ignoring it, you escape trauma by confronting it.” Mr. Glazer doesn’t capture behavior as much as he does a mentality — and that’s what is so very scary, among many other things. One hour 46 minutes.

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