Ten Notable Narrative Films of 2023 | Sarah Boslaugh

Every year hundreds of feature-length films are released in the United States, and I have yet to be disappointed by the variety and quality on offer. I certainly haven’t seen them all, hence I hesitate to claim that this list is the best of the best. What I will say is that these ten, listed alphabetically, are among the best and will amply repay the time you spend viewing them.

Anatomy of a Fall. On the face of it, Justine Triet’s film is a straightforward courtroom drama in which the question at hand is whether a man (Samuel Theis) simply fell to his death (either accidentally or on purpose) or if he was pushed by his wife (Sandra Hüller). And yet Triet manages to touch on so many issues, from small-town prejudice to gender role expectations to professional jealousies within marriage, that her film becomes a microcosm of the stresses and strains in modern French society. Milo Machado Graner gives a remarkable performance as a blind child who becomes a key witness in the trial, standing out among the many excellent child actors featured in films this year.

Barbie. I was pleasantly surprised at how much I liked Greta Gerwig’s magnum opus, given that I was never a girl to play with Barbies and am definitely not up on the lore. Gerwig packs so much social and cultural commentary into this film’s under-two-hours running time that it left me positively breathless, an effort aided by a starry cast (among them Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, Issa Rae, Kate McKinnon, Simu Liu, America Ferrera, Rhea Perlman, plus a cameo by the legendary costume designer Ann Roth), eye-popping production design by Sarah Greenwood, and remarkable costumes by Jacqueline Durran.

Fallen Leaves. Aki Kaurismäki hits the mark once again with a sympathetic portrait of two apparent losers in Finnish society who manage to find each other and against all odds claim a bit of happiness. This film was shot in Helsinki but really takes place in a highly stylized world of no-time, making the central characters, a grocery store clerk on a no-hours contract (Alma Pöysti) and a metalworker with a drinking  problem (Jussi Vatanen), stand-ins for all the exploited workers and overlooked human beings of all times and places.

How to Blow Up a Pipeline. The theories of Andreas Malm come to life in a fictional story about a random cast of characters united by one big idea: global warming is so urgent a threat to life that it is their duty to resist it by any means necessary. Daniel Goldhaber’s film is a slow burner that grows on you: while you may be annoyed by the apparent amateurishness of the opening scenes, rest assured it all comes together by the end.

The Missing. Carl Joseph Papa mixes rotoscoping and hand-drawn animation in a story that at first seems to be about space aliens but turns out to be about a much more earth-bound horror. Lead character Eric (Carlo Aquino) is portrayed without a mouth, which at first seems to be a simple if somewhat surreal reference to the fact that he is mute, but this visual sign gradually assumes more profound meaning in a film that’s ultimately about trauma and healing.

Oppenheimer. Christopher Nolan’s film is a self-aware epic in which everything larger than life. The plot concerns perhaps the biggest story of the twentieth century (the creation of atomic weapons) as portrayed by a ridiculously star-studded cast (Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Florence Pugh, and Robert Downey Jr. among them) over a running time (180 min.) that puts the two-hour pikers to shame. The wonder is that it’s all so well-done that it actually leaves you wanting more.

Perfect Days. One of the more unlikely offerings among this year’s best, Wim Wenders’ film is an offshoot of a project to redesign public toilets in the Shibuya district of Tokyo. Koji Yakusho stars as a cleaner who is happy with his simple and mostly solitary life, taking pleasure in books from the 100-yen shelf, cassette tapes of classic American pop tunes, and komorebi (the shimmer of light and shadow through tree leaves). He looks like a professor and it’s hinted that he comes from a more bougie background but, for reasons left unstated, turned his back on all that in favor of a job which allows him to experience life as it happens.

Poor Things. I haven’t always been the greatest fan of Yorgos Lanthimos’s work, but this bizarro Bildungsroman, a spin on The Island of Dr. Moreau, really caught me. In this version of mad science gone amuck, the story is told from the point of view of one of the “experiments” (Emma Stone—just give her the Oscar already!), takes place in a visual world as artificial and inventive (although substantially less symmetrical) as any created by Wes Anderson, and deserves a hard-X rating, did such a thing still exist.

Saltburn. Emerald Fennell’s tale of an Oxford scholarship boy (Barry Keoghan) invited to spend the summer among the 0.1% at a country estate is easily the most twisted film of the year, delivering secret pleasures to those who successfully ignore the red herrings scattered about like remains of a fox hunt gone wrong. Rosamund Pike stars in yet another role as a woman who is thick and doesn’t know it, Richard E. Grant is in finest high creeper mode, and Jacob Elordi is so pretty it hurts (not being sexist—his amazing good looks are required for the plot to work).  

The Taste of Things. Delivering the foodiest film of the year, Tràn Anh Hùng celebrates the physical nature of cooking and honors the labor required to create delicious meals in an 1885 French country-house kitchen. With all the celeriac to be dug and chickens to be trussed and sauces to be skimmed you could be forgiven for overlooking the love story between the head chef (Juliette Binoche) and her employer (Benoît Magimel) that in a lesser film would have taken center stage.

Honorable Mention: Asteroid City, Enys Men, Frybread Face and Me, The Killer, May December, Past Lives, The Persian Version, Rustin, Shayda, The Teachers’ Lounge, Tótem. | Sarah Boslaugh

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