Last year, I complained that "very few films stood out as being exceptional." I didn't realize how good I had it. For me, 2023 was year of the almost-but-not-quite movies, works that approached greatness but couldn't stick the landing with big-name directors coasting on their reputations for the most part. Is this truly the case, or has yours truly become so jaded that little seems fresh or innovative? Probably a bit of both.

As far as the film industry is concerned, 2023 will be remembered as the year when the industry was brought to a standstill by a pair of labor strikes that lasted far too long, resulting in an inevitable outcome from both. Members of the Writers Guild of America walked the picket line for 148 days, while those in the Screen Actors Guild held a 118-day walkout, each group wanting a new agreement regarding residuals from streaming services and regulations on the use of artificial intelligence. These issues were gestating for quite some time, and while terms were agreed to, the real challenge will come three years from now. What with the capabilities of artificial intelligence developing at a breakneck, alarming rate, there's no telling what this technology will be capable of when these agreements come to end. The prediction here is that this recent strike will look like a brief respite compared to the potential work stoppage in three years.

The ramifications of these strikes weren't readily apparent, though the television season has been delayed. The roster of films for 2024 seems unaffected; however, in order to make up for the money studios will have to fork over to keep their workforce happy, fewer productions will likely be greenlighted. Thus, jobs and opportunities that were once depended upon, will be gone.

As for trends in 2023 movies, there was a great deal of nostalgia at play, as a myriad of films with pop culture roots in the past came to the fore. Air, Are You There God? It's Me Margaret, The Beanie Bubble, Blackberry, Dungeons and Dragons, Flamin' Hot, The Little Mermaid, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, Tetris, and Weird: The Weird Al Yankovic Story all had one foot planted firmly in the past, as their makers examined the zeitgeist each brought to their respective eras. Oh, and then there was Barbie...

Greta Gerwig's blockbuster and Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer made for an improbable one-two summer movie punch, a case of counterprogramming that captured the movie-going public's imagination. The portmanteau "Barbenheimer" swept the nation, raising awareness and generating the sort of publicity that Warner Brothers or Universal Pictures' money couldn't buy. That both films were solid entertainments was fortuitous. That each will eventually bring in over $1 billion defies all reason and once more validates screenwriter William Goldman's maxim, "In Hollywood, no one knows anything."

There were films I liked that you didn't (Blackberry, The Flash, How to Blow Up a Pipeline, Infinity Pool, Napoleon, Operation Fortune), movies you liked that I didn't (65, Cocaine Bear, Evil Dead Rise, Fast X, Five Nights at Freddy's, Knock at the Cabin, Meg 2), and those no one liked (Exorcist: Believer, Heart of Stone, The Last Voyage of the Demeter, Mafia Mama, The Marsh King's Daughter, Shazam: Fury of the Gods).

Of course, I did not see every movie released this year. What with theatrical releases and premieres on a variety of streaming services, no one could. As such, lists such as these are far from comprehensive, but simply a retrospective of my 365 days of viewing and those features that happened to rattle around in my mind long after the end credits rolled.

Fallen Leaves
In its own quiet way, Aki Kaurismaki's Finnish export is the most vital film of the year. In the face of overwhelming despair, two lonely people take a chance on one another, despite fate's many signs not to. Unemployed and lonely, Ansa (Alma Poysti) decides to start seeing the heavy drinking but kind Holappa (Jussi Vatanen). Their relationship is rife with difficulties and warning signs, yet there's a sense of trust that grows between the two that becomes their salvation in a world that is falling apart. Wryly executed, the film's acerbic humor is so extreme you can't help but laugh at the woes Ansa, Holappa and their friends endure, their stoic reactions to the troubles that befall them hilarious. More importantly, this approach is not simply a defense, but a subtle act of defiance that allows them to maintain their sanity in a nonsensical, oppressive world. Running a brisk 80 minutes, this is the not only one of the funniest movies of the year but in many ways, the most hopeful.

American Fiction – Cord Jefferson's adaptation of Percival Everett's novel Erasure is the most timely and perhaps vital film of the year. Jeffery Wright gives a powerful, subtle performance as Professor "Monk" Ellison, an author who writes an urban, Black experience novel as a joke, only to see it become a sensation. The secret to the movie's success lies not simply in the strong performances from its cast and uncommonly smart approach to race but the humor employed in examining this thorny issue. This tact encourages conversation rather than impeding it, the film proving to be an important tool to foster understanding. Entertaining from beginning to end, this thought-provoking work will hopefully be seen as a benchmark in years to come.

The Zone of Interest – Jonathan Glazer's adaptation of Martin Amis' novel is a gripping, horrifying study of callousness and insensitivity that strikes close to home in the way it reflects today's political climate. Rudolf Hoss and his family live in a posh home replete with a lush garden, modern amenities and a staff of servants to meet their every need. This showplace abuts the Auschwitz death camp, as Hoss is its commandant, overseeing the deaths of thousands of Jews a day. Never seeing what happens in the camp, the viewer witnesses the day-to-day existence of the family, as they ignore the screams of horror and other obvious atrocities taking place withing a stone's throw. The horrors of the Holocaust aren't the focus of the film, but the indifference that allowed it to happen is. The result is a sobering, powerful look at what occurs when a doctrine of hate is embraced.

Dream Scenario – Kristoffer Borgli's dark comedy gave Nicolas Cage one of his best roles in this broadside against social media and cancel culture. The veteran actor is Paul Matthews, a professor living a life of quiet desperation who inexplicably begins appearing in people's dreams. While he initially basks in his Warhol moment, the tide turns on him, his life becoming a far too public nightmare. Borgli keeps us guessing from one scene to the next, the audacious nature of his narrative a revelation of imagination. No other film this year took to task the victimhood mentality as this one did, a refreshing dose of much-needed common sense in a hurricane of inanity.

Past Lives – Celine Song's thoughtful, heartfelt look at modern romance was perhaps the most quietly moving film of the year. Nora (Greta Lee) and Jung (Teo Yoo) are star-crossed lovers reunited via the wonders of the internet. And while they've established lives of their own, they can't help but wonder if their love can't be rekindled. Smart and poignant, the movie eschews the typical tropes of the romantic genre, creating a sincere portrait of emotional turmoil that cuts to the core, yet provides a much-needed sense of hope in the end.

Poor Things – Yorgos Lanthimos puts a feminist bent on The Bride of Frankenstein with this darkly comic look at one woman's journey to fulfillment. Emma Stone gives the year's most audacious performance as Bella Baxter, a woman with the mind of an infant trying to find her way in a steampunk version of turn-of-the-century England. The Id made flesh, her behavior is shocking and her quest for liberation is hard-fought as she must deal with many men who would take advantage of her. While this is not for all tastes, great work from Willem Dafoe and Mark Ruffalo, exceptional production design and a story that surprises throughout makes this a standout.

Flora and Son – John Carney continues to impress with his latest paean to the power of music, this effort focusing on a mother and son at odds who are brought together through songwriting. Eve Hewson commands the screen from the first scene to the last as a woman with no direction who finds her voice when she learns how to play the guitar. Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives a career-best performance as the online instructor who falls for her, but it's Carney's songs that prove invaluable, his catchy, pop-song concoctions a sincere reflection of the turmoil his characters feel as well as the liberation they heartily earn.

BlackBerry – One of the biggest surprises of the year, Matt Johnson's examination of the birth and death of a pop-culture phenomenon was a fascinating look at what happens when inspiration and commerce collide. It's hardly a new story, but this cautionary tale keeps us hooked with one intriguing revelation after another, propelled by compelling performances from Jay Baruchel as Mike, the inventor of the titular device, and Glenn Howerton as Jim, the ruthless businessman that would make the phone a must-have for a generation and then lead it to ruin. It's entertaining and thought-provoking in a way only a compelling drama can be.

Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret Kelly Fremon Craig's adaptation of Judy Blume's seminal coming-of-age novel is a delightful, heartfelt slice of life that follows the titular preteen as she navigates issues of faith, belonging and independence after her family moves and she enrolls in a new middle school. Craig balances the inherent humor and drama of Margaret's story to create a sincere portrait of a loving, understanding family. Abby Ryder Fortson is wonderful in the lead role, while Rachel McAdams and Kathy Bates supply the sort of solid performances we've come to expect from them as Margaret's mother and grandmother, respectively. This is a family film with an appeal that extends beyond the obvious demographic.

Godzilla Minus Zero Takashi Yamazaki simultaneously pays tribute to Godzilla's roots as he ushers the franchise into a new era with groundbreaking special effects in this feature that serves as an origin story. Reeling from defeat in World War II, the Japanese population is forced to come to terms with their trauma in the form of a prehistoric, radioactive beast that comes to ruin what's left of their tattered cities. Focusing more on the damaged populace, particularly disgraced kamikaze pilot Koichi (Ryunosuke Kamiki) and his makeshift family, the film is ultimately a moving examination of grief and recovery, as well as an effective reminder of the perils of the atomic age we live in.

Tied for 11th place Ben Affleck's surprisingly heartfelt examination of the Michael Jordan phenomenon, Air...Justine Triet's examination of the dark secrets and long-held animosities each marriage contains, Anatomy of a Fall...John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein's more-fun-than-it-had-any-right-to-be adventure, Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves...Brandon Cronenberg's arresting, horrific Faustian morality tale Infinity Pool...Sony Pictures' eye-popping, groundbreaking, animated, web-slinging extravaganza, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse...Ilker Catak's blistering look at the effect of innuendos and suspicion, The Teacher's Lounge...The low-budget Australian shocker that takes a horrific look at modern addiction, Talk to Me...Jon S. Baird's fascinating delve into the backstory of Tetris...Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman's tribute to the over-earnest seekers of identity, Theater Camp.

Chuck Koplinski has been writing for Illinois Times since 1998 and is a member of the Critic's Choice Association, the Chicago Film Critics Association and a contributor to Rotten Tomatoes. He saw 168 new movies in 2023 and rewatched 86 for a total of 254 films over the course of the year.

Movies are about moments – big moments that erase our cynicism about cinema and remind us of its capacity to dazzle as well as touch us. This happens in a way only possible with a medium that seamlessly combines so many other art forms. These are instances that prompt us to consider things in a different light, empathize with others in a way we could never expect or simply entertain.

While sometimes memories of the overall plot of a film or its minute details may escape us, certain scenes stand out like a beacon in a bland cinematic landscape. What follows is a list of the 10 best scenes from the movies in 2023. While some of the films they’re from might not have been completely successful, perfection was achieved during these moments, and they’ve proven powerful enough to stay with this viewer long after the credits have rolled and the lights have come up.

John Wick: Chapter 4 – On the run from a group of assassins, one-man-wrecking-crew John Wick (Keanu Reeves) commandeers a car and heads to the Arc de Triomphe where he creates havoc while traversing the monument’s circular roadway. Massive vehicular carnage ensues, made worse when our hero goes it on foot, engaging in a high-stakes version of Frogger, bobbing and weaving through traffic, leaving many dead and thousands of dollars in damage in his wake. Buster Keaton would have been impressed with the way in which this sequence escalates, the ridiculous nature of the premise exaggerated throughout, Reeves relatively calm and implacable amidst the turmoil.

Air – Having put his reputation on the line and his co-workers’ jobs at risk, Nike sales executive Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) gives an impassioned pitch to a young Michael Jordan, laying out his future triumphs and tragedies that he hopes his company will be a part of. Damon’s sincerity couldn’t be more genuine, his monologue running beneath archival footage of the Jordan we know, cut together for maximum effect to underscore the unique nature of this once-in-a-lifetime athlete. Chills aplenty were produced in this passionate, poignant look at greatness.

Maestro – Conducting Gustav Mahler’s “Resurrection Symphony” at England’s Ely Cathedral, conductor Leonard Bernstein (Bradley Cooper) gives an emotional performance, his body in tune with and contorting to the music to express his passionate connection to the music. An unbroken six-minute scene, Cooper’s camera stealthily travels around the orchestra, back and forth from Bernstein before resting on his wife (Carey Mulligan) waiting patiently in the wings, the movement perfectly timed to the crescendo in the piece as well as the actor’s performance.

Story Ave.
– Desperately seeking a purpose for his life, Kadir (Asante Blackk) has found an outlet in painting, using the walls of New York City tenements as his canvas. The film’s final moments reveal his masterpiece, a dual portrait of his young brother and his mentor, both gone too soon from this life. Rendered with little fanfare, this bolt-from-the-blue moment brilliantly and subtly displays this young man’s passion
and serves as an indication of the great things he will achieve.

Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part 1
– Desperate and on the run, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his reluctant ally, Grace (Hayley Atwell), commandeer a slow-moving compact car to elude their better-equipped pursuers. Bad enough their car can’t outrun them, but the fact that they’re handcuffed together certainly doesn’t help. As funny as it is exciting, this extended sequence through the streets of Rome is the sort of crowd-pleasing, imaginative set piece that keeps this franchise fresh and thrilling, even after seven entries.

Talk to Me – Having taken drastic measures to save her severely injured friend, Riley (Joe Bird), Mia (Sophie Wilde) has a reckoning regarding her selfish actions, in which she realizes she’s trapped in a never-ending loop from which there is no escape. No film did a better job of examining the vagaries of addiction than this horror entry from Australia, this climatic scene forcefully driving home the inescapable and tragic nature of this behavior.

May December
– Having studied and ingratiated herself into the life of Gracie (Julianne Moore), a damaged, manipulative woman she’s set to portray on screen, Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) gazes into a mirror as Gracie, giving an impassioned monologue. Portman is brilliant in this moment, the affectations she employs to portray Gracie melding with the manipulative nature of Elizabeth to create a mask of deception in which parts of her own base nature come to the fore in her “performance” of an equally conniving player.

Godzilla Minus One
– After destroying the Ginza district in Tokyo, Godzilla lets loose with a burst of his atomic breath to create a massive explosion in the distance. As a massive mushroom cloud rises, he bellows in recognition not only of the destruction he’s caused but at his very nature, knowing full well he has become a creature of the atom, an unstoppable force he never wished to be, but revels in just the same. Seeing this metaphor for the atomic age standing before a mushroom cloud of his own creation is perhaps the most chilling, meta-moment of the film year.

Extraction 2 – Director Sam Hargrave delivers a seemingly unbroken 21-minute take that, even if cobbled together from multiple scenes, is still an astonishing piece of filmmaking. It begins inside the walls of a prison and ends on a moving train, some 20 miles away. Along the way, mercenary Tyler Rake (Chris Hemsworth) engages in multiple instances of hand-to-hand combat, firefights, a car chase, a foot pursuit and multiple explosions, as well as shooting down a helicopter from a moving, runaway train that derails and crashes. This may seem like overkill, but it’s an impressive, immersive experience, Hargrave putting the viewer as close to being in the characters’ shoes as the medium allows.

The Flash – Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) has quite a problem on his hands when a hospital collapses and he has to save numerous babies and their mothers who are in the process of falling to their deaths some seven stories below. Fortunately, being the fastest man alive, he has a unique perspective on handling this situation. No other scene this year poked more fun at superhero tropes while executing them with aplomb. The sight of this awkward hero careening about, saving infants who were also threatened by a shower of scalpels and errant bottles of poison, was perhaps the single most joyous moment I experienced at the movies this year.

Chuck Koplinski

Writing for Illinois Times since 1998, Chuck Koplinski is a member of the Critic's Choice Association, the Chicago Film Critics Association and a contributor to Rotten Tomatoes. He appears on WCIA-TV twice a week to review current releases and, no matter what anyone says, thinks Tom Cruise's version of The Mummy...

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