Best of 2023: Emily Zemler’s Top 10 Movies

This awards season, thanks to a flush of great movies, will be a competitive one. Here are 10 impactful, provocative, and thoughtful films that make it that way.

 

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Clockwise from top: A24, Mubi, Warner Bros, Searchlight

After several dire years following the pandemic, 2023 felt like the year Hollywood finally got back on its feet. Filmgoers returned to the theaters, drawn by blockbusters like Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One and Barbie. But they also championed quieter releases, from Past Lives to Passages. This awards season, thanks to a flush of great movies, will be a competitive one. Determining the best of the best is a challenge, especially when many Top 10 lists feature the exact same movies and filmmakers. So like last year, I looked back at the ones that have stuck with me, that have made me think or that have provoked a reaction. 

Two of the year’s biggest films, Oppenheimer and Flowers of the Killer Moon, did not make my list and that’s purposeful. While incredible skill went into making both of those movies, they each come from a problematic perspective, one that underscores the fact that Hollywood prioritizes a certain type of filmmaker instead of taking chances on those who should be telling these stories. I respect Christopher Nolan and Martin Scorsese immensely and they deserve the accolades, but I’ve chosen to focus on other films and other filmmakers for this list. 

It was difficult to pare down everything I’ve watched this year, but these 10 movies impacted me as a viewer in a memorable way. Honorable mentions go to American Fiction, The Taste of Things, Anatomy of a Fall, The Holdovers, The End We Start From, Wonka, You Hurt My Feelings, and One Fine Morning

Andrew Scott and Paul Mescal in All of Us Strangers. Parisa Taghizadeh, Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

All of Us Strangers

Andrew Haigh is a singular filmmaker whose work unflinchingly examines the intricacies of the human condition. While his previous movies never got the attention they deserved, All of Us Strangers has thankfully propelled him into the spotlight. The film, which stars Andrew Scott has a lonely gay man searching for connection, meditates on our relationship with the past and how that past shapes who become. It’s technically an adaptation, but Haigh, who wrote the screenplay during the isolation of the pandemic, has given the story its own life, reshaping the source material to portray a same-sex relationship. Every performance in the film is thoughtful and nuanced, from Scott to Paul Mescal, who plays his mysterious neighbor, to Jamie Bell and Claire Foy, who embody ghostly iterations of his parents. It’s emotionally impactful, leaving every viewer feeling something by the heart-wrenching but uplifting conclusion. A great movie doesn’t need explosions or a massive budget; it needs a human touch, which is what Haigh has brought to the screen here. 

Sandra Hüller in The Zone of Interest. A24

The Zone of Interest

Imagining a horror can be far worse than seeing it, an idea that’s at the heart of Jonathan Glazer’s Holocaust drama The Zone of Interest. The film is loosely based on Martin Amis’ 2014 novel, focusing on what happens just outside the walls of Auschwitz rather than the atrocities occurring within. Acting MVP Sandra Hüller plays Hedwig Höss, the wife of the concentration camp’s commandant Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), and their picture-perfect life stands in sharp contrast to their surroundings. Hedwig keeps a tidy house, a well-manicured garden and throw parties while human beings burn nearby. It’s devastating and incredibly made, with shots that purposefully linger and linger. By removing the characters and thereby the viewer Glazer forces you to confront the reality of what was going on during World War II. It’s one of his best. 

Ryan Gosling and Margot Robbie in Barbie. Jaap Buitendijk

Barbie

Barbie could have been a plastic exercise in mass consumerism, but in the hands of director Greta Gerwig and her co-writer Noah Baumbach the film is a clever, feminist take on the iconic doll. It’s also a deeply hopeful film—something much-needed in the world right now. As I wrote in my review for Observer, Barbie “is infectiously delightful, even if you’re someone who might typically steer clear of chipper, pink-hued flicks. Somehow Gerwig has struck a balance between unhinged whimsy, deep humanity and comedic bliss.” It’s also a masterpiece of craft, with impressive production and costume design. Every detail is considered and I still think about Ryan Gosling’s performance as Ken daily. He deserves that Best Supporting Oscar and his own spin-off sequel.  

Greta Lee and Teo Yoo in Past Lives. Jon Pack

Past Lives

Regret can consume us, but it can also help solidify our choices. Celine Song’s beautiful Past Lives, about two long-time friends who reconnect after taking separate paths, is relatable and moving, but also exists is as singular expression of the filmmaker’s culture. It’s quiet and contemplative, with a memorable performance by Greta Lee, who has been long-underestimated. It encourages the viewer to ask their own questions and examine their own romantic choices without judgment on its characters, which is a difficult balance to strike. Hollywood is obsession with big movies with big action based on existing IP, but Past Lives is the sort of film we should be championing—something that grapples with how we exist in a world where we can’t have everything we want. 

Mia McKenna-Bruce in How to Have Sex. Mubi

How To Have Sex

This was a banner year for British cinema, with numerous first-time filmmakers releasing dynamic, exciting debuts. One of these is How To Have Sex, written and directed by Molly Manning Walker, which premiered at Cannes and will be released in the U.S. early next year. It follows lively British teen Tara (an incredible Mia McKenna-Bruce) as she embarks on a holiday trip to Greece with her two best friends. They party, drink, dance, and meet a group of British guys in the room next door, but Tara soon realizes sex isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Walker, a longtime cinematographer, knows exactly how to frame each shot for maximum emotional impact. The film reflects on consent and pressure and female sexuality in a way that is provocative but also thoughtful and important. McKenna-Bruce recently won the British Independent Film Award for Best Lead Performance, which should come as no surprise. 

Cailee Spaeny in Priscilla. Sabrina Lantos, Courtesy of A24

Priscilla

Sophia Coppola’s last few movies haven’t made much of a lasting impact, but Priscilla, her eighth film, is one of the director’s career-best moments. Based on Priscilla Presley’s 1985 memoir Elvis and Me, the film stars Cailee Spaeny as Priscilla and Jacob Elordi as Elvis Presley, an impressive dual casting that really works. Spaeny in particular immerses herself into the role, tapping into a sense of contrasting vulnerability and strength that is portrayed with complex nuance. Unlike the trainwreck that was Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, Coppola’s film draws us inside past the spectacle and the headlines. It feels intimate and raw, and you rarely notice that Presley’s music never plays. Like in The Virgin Suicides and Marie Antoinette, the director reveals something about what it’s like to be a woman in a man’s world, especially if that man is enabled by fame and money. 

Barry Keoghan in Saltburn. Courtesy of MGM and Amazon Studios

Saltburn

This will be a divisive pick, but Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn forever ingrained itself into my consciousness as soon as Barry Keoghan started licking a bathtub drain. Fennell’s debut feature, Promising Young Woman, was a delightful sledgehammer to the back of the head, but this one comes right for your face. Movies should rile you up and provoke you with unhinged images you’ll never forget, which is exactly what Saltburn does. Keoghan is fearless as Oliver Quick, an Oxford student who becomes obsessed with his wealthy classmate Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi, doing another perfect accent). It’s an insane movie with insane scenes and I loved every minute of it. The cinematography, costume design and production design is all impeccable, and Rosamund Pike’s line delivery as an aristocratic matriarch deserves awards of its own. 

Julianne Moore and Charles Melton in May December. Courtesy of Netflix

May December

Todd Haynes is one of America’s greatest filmmakers, an auteur who draws on the art of the past in order to create new and lasting work. His latest, May December, is based on a screenplay from Samy Burch, who was inspired by the real-life story of Mary Kay Letourneau. It’s not salacious in the hands of Haynes, who plays with melodrama and camp in a way that is disconcerting and evocative. Julianne Moore maintains her winning streak as a woman trying to preserve the façade she’s built since marrying a much younger man in a local scandal, but it’s Charles Melton and Natalie Portman’s performances that feel revolutionary. Portman, in particular, undercuts perception by playing an obsessed actress who begins to mimic her subject in a way that is both hilarious and uncomfortable. Haynes thoughtfully builds the tension between the two women, leaving the viewer unsettled and enthralled. Bonus points to cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, who captures these moments with absolutely perfect framing. 

Emma Stone in Poor Things. Photo by Atsushi Nishijima. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

Poor Things

Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things is an unlikely companion piece to Barbie and one of the director’s most creative films to date. Emma Stone plays Bella Baxter, a Frankenstein-like woman who is curious to learn about the world around her. The whimsical tale of her enlightenment, during which she comes to realize that life has its ups and its downs, stretches across fantastical sets, which reimagine Lisbon, Alexandria and Paris. It looks like nothing you’ve ever seen before, a deeply exciting thing to find in a film in 2023, and Lanthimos plays on existing stories and imagery in a completely new way. Stone is an undeniable star, carrying the emotional heft of the film, but Willem Dafoe is also memorable as Bella’s strange creator. Everything about Poor Things feels unique, which is the highest accolade you can give a movie these days. 

Madeline Voyles in The Creator. Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

The Creator

As we hurdle towards the life controlled by AI, Gareth Edwards’ low-budget sci-fi movie The Creator hits even closer to home. While the story, about a military operative (John David Washington) who finds himself protecting a robotic child in the midst of a war between humans and AI, isn’t perfect, the visual world-building is. The scope and imagination of the film is impressive, and Edwards has created a version of the future that feels original by seamlessly combining real-world locations with visual effects. It should sweep all of the technical categories at the Oscars (although certain bigger budget movies will likely prevail), but it’s worthwhile for the thematic ideas alone. Edwards cleverly switches your allegiances midway through the narrative, encouraging you to wonder whether we can, in fact, live in harmony with artificial intelligence. 

Best of 2023: Emily Zemler’s Top 10 Movies