Favorite Movies of 2023—A Day Late But Not a Dollar Short

2023 produced a plethora of interesting, Oscar-worthy movies across all genres. Often there is consensus on what the best films of any particular year were, and I’m guessing that “Oppenheimer” would have made every single list; certainly, it would have topped mine. I thought I’d take a different approach this time. Of course, I have a list of films that I think should be considered the “best” of 2023, but instead, I’d like to take a more personal approach and compile a list of what I enjoyed the most. Many so-called bests will not be on my list, and a lot of the films I’m including under this “favorites” category may be unknown or unseen by you. Luckily, in today’s market, almost everything shows up on one streaming platform or another. Explore to your heart’s content. 

Here is a list of my favorite films of 2023 in no particular order:

“Close,” is a devastating look at adolescence and how some of the bad choices we make early in life in order to fit in will have consequences that will play out forever. Rémi and Léo are the best of friends, closer than brothers. Entering middle school, they are subjected to snickers when the others question the “kind” of relationship they have. Léo understands almost immediately what the others are implying and begins to distance himself from the innocent Rémi. As Léo adapts a new persona, Rémi is abandoned. The consequences for both boys will be calamitous. In French with English subtitles. (Streaming on Paramount +)

Photo courtesy of A24

“Anatomy of a Fall” is a story firmly rooted in ambiguity. Sandra, a successful novelist, lives in a chalet with her husband, a less successful writer, and their son Daniel. When Daniel discovers his father dead, splayed on the ground from a fall, the driving questions begin. Was it an accident, suicide or was he pushed? A relentless prosecutor is determined to find Sandra guilty of murder as motives, hidden emotions and marital troubles are played out in court in front of her son, now confused as to the guilt or innocence of his mother. It is not coincidental that one advertising campaign was embedded with the tagline “Did she do it?” This complex psychological study presents no answers, only questions. The film, director Justine Triet, writers, Triet and Arthur Harari and star Sandra Hüller were all nominated for Oscars. Writers Triet and Harari won for Best Original Screenplay. In French with English subtitles. (Streaming on Hulu)

“The Owners” is an on the nose look at homeowner associations. This painfully funny film is an allegory for the crumbling democracy in the Czech Republic represented by a coop building in the throes of deterioration and collapse. Desperately in need of upgrades to the plumbing and electricity, each member of the HOA has a different agenda. Each represents a different part of the existing society: the cheater, the rule follower, the old man wistfully longing for a return to Communism, the modern couple trying to make things better for themselves and everyone around them, the gay man trying to exercise his right to co-exist and, most importantly, the manipulative oligarchs presenting themselves as saviors but who are there to steal the owners blind. There are many laugh-out-loud moments, but the pain felt by the altruistic couple is palpable. In Czech with English subtitles. (VOD)

“The Zone of Interest” is the story of the family of Rudolf Höss, the Commandant of Auschwitz. Never do we see the prisoners or witness their demise, but both are ever-present. Instead, writer/director Jonathan Glazer skirts the obvious and paints the cruelty with the seemingly indifferent brush used by Rudolf and Hedwig Höss as they build their idyll on the other side of the wall. The remarkable Sandra Hüller starred as the  unconsciously and unconscionable Hedwig Höss. In German with English subtitles. (Streaming soon on Max)

“Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part 1,” has virtually no plot, and defies credulity at every turn, but what it has is Tom Cruise, one of the last true movie stars, and stunts that take your breath away. It’s never a question of whether Ethan Hunt (Cruise) will survive his brushes with death, but whether he’ll survive the next life-threatening stunt. Surrounded by new stars and old, you will happily suspend belief to wrap yourself in this story that has so many holes, more like lacunae, that a fleet of trucks could easily traverse. (Streaming on Paramount +)


Tom Cruise in “Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning”
Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Skydannce

Air,” the origin story of Michael Jordan’s association with Nike, is a pleasure from start to finish. Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), Nike marketing executive, is convinced that Michael Jordan will be the next phenom who will bring buyers to the nascent Nike basketball shoe. Both Adidas and Converse, the leading shoe brands, had cornered the market on basketball stars and were the leading contenders to sign Jordan. Craftily, Vaccaro realized early on that the power behind the player was his mother and he sets out to court Mrs. Jordan. With support from Chris Messina who, as Jordan’s agent, creates a symphony of profanity as he expresses his displeasure with Vaccaro, Viola Davis as Jordan’s mother and Jason Bateman as the cool head of reason at Nike, you’ll understand how the Air Jordan became the juggernaut that it still is. (Streaming on Amazon Prime)

“Rustin” features a bravura performance by Coleman Domingo as Bayard Rustin and a story that needed to be told. Rustin was one of the most important leaders of the Civil Rights Movement beginning in the 1940s. He crafted strategy, was instrumental in choosing the cases that ultimately led to school desegregation, devised the voter drive movement in the 1950s and convinced Martin Luther King  Jr. to adopt non-violence as his platform. If you haven’t heard of him, and most haven’t, it’s because he was kicked to the curb by the movement he so ardently supported because he was an openly gay man in an era when it was still illegal. But even so, he had one more battle in him. With little time for planning, he proposed a March on Washington to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the abolition of slavery. Coordinating Civil Rights groups and labor unions, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the largest of its time at 250,000 strong, successfully forced the government into taking long-delayed action on civil rights legislation. It was here that Martin Luther King Jr. made his “I Have a Dream” speech. Be prepared to be inspired. (Streaming on Netflix)

“American Fiction,” for me, was the most enjoyable movie of the year. Starring the incomparable Jeffrey Wright, it’s based on the Percival Everett novel, “Erasure.” It tells the story of Monk, a serious writer, whose career is at a dead-end because he’s not Black enough and his books, serious and academic, are commercial failures. His frustration boils over into anger when he realizes that what the public wants from Black authors are trite, ghettoized plots involving drugs, gangsters and tragic death. That is definitely not him, an upper middle-class college professor from an accomplished family of doctors. Maddened by the latest “ghetto” bestseller, he sits down to write one so outrageous that it will awaken the public, and especially publishers, to how ludicrous and insulting their choices have been. His plan backfires, and soon there is a bidding war for the publishing and film rights to his ridiculous Blaxploitation novel. Winning the Oscar and Scripter Awards for Best Adapted Screenplay, writer/director Cord Jefferson enhanced the underlying material with an ending not found in the book but totally in character. (VOD)


Jeffrey Wright in “American Fiction”
Photo by Claire Folger, courtesy of Orion Pictures

“Oppenheimer” topped almost every list, including mine, as the best picture of the year. The ever-brilliant Christopher Nolan brought an incredibly deep, intellectual and insightful approach to one of the most complex issues of the 20th century (and every century to follow): the building of the atomic bomb. Based on the bestselling “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer” by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, Nolan gave life to the complicated Robert Oppenheimer and the men and women who surrounded him as they tried to beat Hitler to the bomb and harness the energy produced when the atom was split. Telling Oppenheimer’s personal story through the lens of Lewis Strauss, his resentful nemesis whose vengeance was based on a false assumption, we see Oppenheimer from the young, arrogant and ambitious student, then the exciting college professor dabbling in both left-wing politics and theoretical physics, to the man chosen to lead one of the groups tasked with harnessing atomic energy into a bomb to end all wars, to his post-war accolades and self-doubts leading up to the Senate hearings bent on destroying his reputation, surreptitiously spearheaded by the aforementioned Strauss. Cillian Murphy, as Oppenheimer, in almost every frame of the film, and Robert Downey Jr., leaving mannerisms behind and soaring to the top of his career, deservedly won the Academy Awards for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, respectively. (Streaming on Peacock)

I had many other favorites, but these topped the list. I saw most of these more than once and they remained as enjoyable as the first time. Movies are my love. When I see a great one like “Oppenheimer,” all is right with the world. But as a really great writer once told me, even in bad material there’s usually a kernel of hope for a good story. The trick is not to get discouraged by the bad and to revel in the good.

Happy viewing.  

Neely Swanson spent most of her professional career in the television industry, almost all of it working for David E. Kelley. In her last full-time position as Executive Vice President of Development, she reviewed writer submissions and targeted content for adaptation. As she has often said, she did book reports for a living. For several years she was a freelance writer for “Written By,” the magazine of the WGA West, and was adjunct faculty at USC in the writing division of the School of Cinematic Arts. Neely has been writing film and television reviews for the “Easy Reader” for more than 10 years. Her past reviews can be read on Rotten Tomatoes where she is a tomato-approved critic.

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