AHFW’s Top 20 Films of 2023

2023 is a banner year for cinema, and, once again, the annual best-movies selection becomes a challenging but rewarding responsibility.

I gladly experienced 220 new films in 2023 and proudly chronicled my 20 favorites. 

Now, “20 Days in Mariupol”, “Air”, “Fancy Dance”, “Hey, Viktor!”, and “The Color Purple” just miss my list but don’t let these five impressive flicks pass you by, and I hope that you also explore the following motion pictures, Art House Film Wire’s Top 20 Films of 2023. 

20. “Upon Open Sky” – Writer Guillermo Arriaga turns the directing honors to his children, Mariana and Santiago, in this unsettling crime film, one immersed in an on-screen family affair.  Teenage brothers Fernando (Maximo Hollander) and Salvador (Theo Goldin) seek to avenge their father’s death through an impulsive plan, but their new stepsister (Federica Garcia) unexpectedly joins the boys on their ill-conceived trek.  The three young leads deliver absorbing performances through adolescent recklessness, especially during a stressful, unpredictable third act. 

19. “American Fiction” – Thelonious ‘Monk’ Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) is an aggravated author and professor.  He sees red when witnessing other novelists’ successes over Black literary works filled with stereotypes, so he writes his own as a parody.  However, the laughs are on him when his new book becomes a wild success, much to his dismay and his agent’s (John Ortiz) outright joy.  Director/writer Cord Jefferson confronts issues of race, the media, and present-day reactions to both in his funny and insightful first feature film.  Jefferson compliments Monk’s wild new career trajectory with an inward look at the on-screen writer’s foundation through his family, new girlfriend, and everyday outlook. 

18. “Priscilla” – Director/co-writer Sofia Coppola records a fascinating and uncomfortable Priscilla Presley biopic that presents the teenager’s/woman’s relationship and marriage to Elvis, a space filled with isolation, disregard, and a lopsided power dynamic.  Elvis (Jacob Elordi) begins seeing Priscilla (Cailee Spaeny) when she is only 14, and Coppola makes an insightful casting choice by paring the 6’5” Elordi and the 5’1” Spaeny that visually reinforces their unsettling age difference.  Armed with outstanding costume designs and stirring yesterdecade cinematography, Coppola, Elordi, and Spaeny convincingly convey Priscilla’s painful perspective.

17. “Dream Scenario” – College professor and family man Paul Matthews (Nicolas Cage) spends his days teaching lectures about evolutionary biology and supporting his wife, Janet (Julianne Nicholson), and their two daughters.  However, nights suddenly become problematic because friends, colleagues, and strangers inexplicably begin dreaming about him.  What?  This mild-mannered, nondescript educator becomes an overnight sensation, and as Kristoffer Borgli’s wildly entertaining movie unfolds over 100 minutes, it becomes abundantly clear that Cage is a dream choice to play Paul. 

16. “Talk to Me” – Brothers Danny and Michael Philippou turn teenage peer pressure on its head by – literally – introducing an ominous hand.  You see, some Australian teens frequently caucus after school, and rather than goad their friends into drinking vast quantities of alcohol, they dare each other to grasp a severed, mummified hand for 90 seconds, as spirits from beyond the grave possess the said volunteers.  Here’s a request: can we return to keg stands, please?  Nope, and for 95 minutes, this frightening and vicious horror film doesn’t pull any punches. 

15. “Toll” – Suellen (Maeve Jinkings) has a problem.  Well, she thinks she does.  Suellen discovers her teenage son, Antonio (Kauan Alvarenga), is gay and wants to set him “straight” at a conversion program, but she is a broke toll booth worker and doesn’t have the money.  As luck would have it, her boyfriend includes her in a lucrative robbery ring, so her difficulties are now behind her, right?  Carolina Markowicz’s (“Charcoal” (2022)) unconventional and frank second feature is constantly engaging, and her crackerjack script and Jinkings’ and Alvarenga’s million-dollar performances are infinitely more valuable than a pocketful of loose change or the price of a movie ticket.

14. “The Delinquents” – Moran (Daniel Elias) is a loyal, long-standing Buenos Aires bank employee, but this middle-aged rule follower has over two decades of shuffling papers left until his retirement.  Well, Moran decides to break the rules and pocket a fortune by robbing his employer.  He needs a partner and recruits his unsuspecting co-worker, Roman (Esteban Bigliardi), in director/writer Rodrigo Moreno’s 180-minute comedy-crime flick, one that – miraculously – is both utterly straightforward and unorthodox.  Elias and Bigliardi are terrific as this unlikely pair, but Margarita Molfino will steal your attention.

13. “The Holdovers” – Alexander Payne (“Election” (1999), “Sideways” (2003)) is back to form in his hilarious – and sometimes heartfelt – story about an unlikable boarding school instructor (Paul Giamatti) who stays over Christmas break – against his will – to look after the kids who aren’t going home.  Set in 1970, Payne leans into the period with a catchy soundtrack, rustic automobiles, and sobering dialogue about the Vietnam War.  Speaking of dialogue, Mr. Hunham (Giamatti) teaches ancient civilizations and doesn’t hesitate to frequently apply his knowledge of the subject inside and outside the classroom.  Giamatti is a legend.

12. “Godzilla Minus One” – After several tenuous recent entries in the Godzilla Universe, director/writer Takashi Yamazaki suddenly and completely changes the narrative with his spectacular, popcorn-munching, hand-clapping, and emotional-stirring movie.  Set in post-WWII Japan – 1945 and the years following – Yamazaki creates a larger presence than the 164-foot monster: a vastly compelling human story, as Koichi (Ryunosuke Kamiki), a frustrated pilot, copes with his past failures and attempts to make amends in his personal life and against Godzilla.  Yamazaki spent less than 15 million dollars on his film, but the impressive and dramatic set pieces look like 100 million bucks, an amount that you’ll also feel when leaving the theatre.

11. “Anatomy of a Fall” – Samuel (Samuel Theis), a husband and father, falls to his death from the top floor of his French countryside home, and an investigation dissects the anatomy of his fall.  However, the inquiry soon reveals the complex layers of the relationship between Samuel and his wife, Sandra (Sandra Huller).  Director Justine Triet’s absorbing and knotty courtroom drama keeps us guessing for 150 minutes, and this 2023 Palme d’Or winner deserves – at a minimum – Best Original Screenplay and Best Actress Oscar nominations.  Huller is flat-out outstanding and gifts her character with deep nuance and striking bravado. 

10. “Perfect Days” – 2023 Cannes Best Actor winner Koji Yakusho fills the screen with simple pleasures and wonder as Hirayama, a janitor who cleans public toilets all over Tokyo.  Director/co-writer Wim Wenders (“The American Friend” (1977), “Wings of Desire” (1987)) offers a leisurely pace over a two-hour runtime, as evidenced by the movie’s first seven minutes that document Hirayama’s morning rituals.  This modest custodian approaches his mundane tasks with gravitas and pride, and Wenders and Yakusho gradually reveal clues that there is more to this 60-something than meets the eye.  

9. “The Teachers’ Lounge” – Leonie Benesch (“The White Ribbon” (2009), “Persian Lessons” (2020)) leads a talented ensemble of child and adult actors in a rapid-fire, restless tale of a teacher (Benesch) stepping over the line to investigate a wave of recent thefts at a German middle school.  Ilker Catak’s movie triples as an ethical narrative, whodunnit, and claustrophobic thriller while examining the modern-day relationships between parents, students, and educators.  The 98-minute runtime zips by, and before you know it, the last bell rings, and the end credits roll.      

8. “Joy Ride” – Ashley Park, Stephanie Hsu, Sabrina Wu, and Sherry Cola star in a buddy road-trip comedy, and this critic hasn’t laughed out loud that much in a movie theatre since “Jackass Forever” (2022).  Director/co-writer Adele Lim spins a sidesplitting story where the ladies fall into oodles of boisterous madness – including a run-in with a cocaine dealer and pretending to be a K-pop band – while traveling overseas to help support Audrey’s (Park) career and hopefully find her birth mother.  The quartet shares lively chemistry and balances plenty of rated-R incidents with genuine emotional payoffs.   

7. “All of Us Strangers” – Adam (Andrew Scott) lives alone.  He’s a successful screenwriter living in a London high-rise but doesn’t visibly engage with anyone except a neighbor, Harry (Paul Mescal).  They begin a love affair, and Adam reminisces about his late parents (Claire Foy and Jamie Bell), and then he reconnects with them, either in his mind or in some mystical way.  Director/co-writer Andrew Haigh’s affecting, beautiful cinematic tale tugs at the heartstrings as the four characters offer delicate words of hope, regret, tenderness, and forgiveness in the tearjerker of the year.   

6. “The Settlers” – In his stunning first feature, Felipe Galvez Haberle galvanizes a raw, brutal journey across the Chilean and Argentinian landscapes, where a pair of vicious mercenaries (Mark Stanley and Benjamin Westfall) and an unassuming hired hand (Camilo Arancibia) run a long-distance errand for a demanding, wealthy landowner.  Set at the turn of the 20th century, the film’s deliberately grainy, muddy look and wide-open spaces stir feelings of Wes Craven’s “The Last House on the Left” (1972), a Werner Herzog production, and 1960s spaghetti westerns.      

5. “Poor Things” – Bella Baxter (Emma Stone) is an unruly maniac.  This 30-something, living in a posh abode in 19th-century London, routinely smashes dishes or spits out her food when instant gratification isn’t met.  Who are you, Bella?  What is going on?  Twenty-three minutes into Yorgos Lanthimos’ most ambitious cinematic creation, the wildly imaginative director reveals the answer to both questions and then follows Bella on her fantastical, turbulent odyssey.  Stone gives an Oscar-worthy performance, the best of her career, and Mark Ruffalo and Willem Dafoe deserve Academy Award nominations in a film filled with bizarre opulence.

4. “Fallen Leaves” – Match.com and other dating apps don’t appear in director/writer Aki Kaurismaki’s eccentric dramedy, so Ansa (Alma Poysti) and Holappa (Jussi Vatanen) must connect the old-fashioned way, by a chance meeting, perseverance, and some luck along the way.  Initial sparks fly (internally, of course) for Ansa, a bashful grocery store clerk, and Holappa, an unpolished construction worker.  However, they struggle to navigate their courtship via Kaurismaki’s droll, deadpan script, inventive framing, and art director Ville Gronroos’ visual delights, including countless hip posters hovering in the background.  Love isn’t perfect, but this Finnish charmer gets pretty close.

3. “Godland” – Hlynur Palmason (“A White, White Day” (2019)) effectively presents a decisive clash between naivete and nature in a scenic drama about a Danish priest’s attempt to establish a church in 19th-century Iceland.  Indeed, Palmason fashions the Icelandic topography as a mystical and intimating character for the audience and the aforementioned clergyman (Elliott Crosset Hove), but Lucas’ (Hove) lofty emotional make-up also collides with the locals’ earthy pragmatism.  Palmason channels his inner Werner Herzog and Terrence Malick in this instant classic.  (Note: “Godland” is my #1 film of 2022, but Palmason’s movie is up for awards in 2023, so I’m including it again on my best-of list.)

2. “The Zone of Interest” – Director/writer Jonathan Glazer (“Sexy Beast” (2000), “Under the Skin” (2013)) recreates Rudolf Hoss’ (Christian Friedel) home that sits on the other side of a wall to the Auschwitz concentration camp.  Hoss, his wife, Hedwig (Sandra Huller), and their children go about their lives like a suburban family while unspeakable atrocities occur just meters away.  During a TIFF Sept. 10 screening, Glazer called his film – and he may have been quoting someone else – “’Big Brother’ in a Nazi house.”  This critic calls “Zone” surreal, chilling, haunting, and a movie that deserves Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Director, Cinematography, and Sound.

1. “Past Lives” – Na Young and Hae Sung are pre-teen classmates and friends with feelings for one another.  They live in South Korea, but when Na Young and her family move to Toronto, the pair loses touch until Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) reaches out to his long-lost childhood crush (Greta Lee) 12 years later through social media.  After another 12 years, they reconnect in New York City in director/writer Celine Song’s soulful romantic drama.  Song circumvents cliches and standard Hollywood formulas and replaces them with earnest, delicate wonder about fate, circumstances, destiny, and past choices while facing potential earth-trembling outcomes of the heart in the present. 

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