best films of 2023

The best films of 2023, and the state of cinema heading into 2024

5 Cult MTL film critics list their favourite films of 2023 and comment on a year in cinema that defied all expectations.

All contributors to Cult MTL’s film section were asked to submit their lists of the best films of 2023, along with some thoughts on the past 12 months. With some notable exceptions, all films mentioned screened in Montreal theatrically, via streaming or at a local film festival.

Alex Rose: The best films of 2023

May December Todd Haynes film review
May December: The best films of 2023
  1. Killers of the Flower Moon (Dir. Martin Scorsese)
  2. May December (Dir. Todd Haynes)
  3. Poor Things (Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)
  4. The Holdovers (Dir. Alexander Payne)
  5. Anatomy of a Fall (Dir. Justine Triet)
  6. Les chambres rouges (Dir. Pascal Plante)
  7. Asteroid City (Dir. Wes Anderson)
  8. The Old Oak (Dir. Ken Loach)
  9. Passages (Dir. Ira Sachs)
  10. Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One (Dir. Christopher McQuarrie)

2023 was the first year in a decade where I didn’t really work the film beat under even the loosest of descriptions. It is also the first year in recent years where I did not attend even one screening at a film festival. This leaves me in early January with many key titles to see AND a Top 10 that seems, for lack of a better term, extremely normie. Granted, this is almost always the case; my Top 10 films of any given year will always look extremely different a year after filing it. 

Of major titles I have yet to see, I have to mention Radu Jude’s Do Not Expect Too Much From The End of the World, Michael Mann’s Ferrari, Aki Kaurismaki’s Fallen Leaves, Kore-Eda’s Monster, Christian Petzold’s Afire and a variety of smaller festival titles that may not even have had a proper release yet. 

By all accounts, this was a particularly strong year for established auteurs making some of their best work in a while. Though most seemed mixed on Asteroid City, citing a certain fatigue with Wes Anderson’s extremely particular style, I found it to be a surprisingly moving meditation on the legitimacy of the creative act… that looked like a Wes Anderson movie. Same thing goes for Todd Haynes, who expanded his reinterpretation of classic melodrama codes to encompass the Lifetime movie with May December, a movie that manages to be as moving as it is strange. Ken Loach, now in his mid-80s, has started to showcase more overtly manipulative techniques in his last few films; his latest, The Old Oak, is unadorned and unsubtle in its treatment of the arrival of Syrian refugees in a small Scottish village, but I found myself tremendously moved by it nonetheless. Ira Sachs moves away from monied New Yorkers and towards slightly younger monied Europeans with Passages, as captivating a portrait of narcissism as I saw this year.

As mainstream blockbuster filmmaking starts to move ever-so-slightly away from the diminishing returns of superhero movies, Tom Cruise continues to make the most satisfying of spectacles with the Mission Impossible franchise. This installment features an extensive setpiece aboard a train, and I’m nothing if not a sucker for trains. Legal thrillers also got a shot in the arm this year with the Palme d’Or-winning Anatomy of a Fall, which draws out every fine detail from a seemingly banal death, and Pascal Plante’s Les chambres rouges, which places modern true-crime obsession in a hermetically sealed world of antiseptic obsession. Yorgos Lanthimos enters his Terry Gilliam era with the opulent steampunk sex comedy Poor Things, which also finds Lanthimos more open-hearted than ever before, and The Holdovers is exactly what one expects from Alexander Payne at this juncture — which is why it’s so satisfying.But really, I have to hand it to Martin Scorsese, still pulling off blindfolded three-pointers nearly 60 years into his career. Killers of the Flower Moon — all three-and-a-half thorny, oppressive hours of it — might not even be one of his five best movies and it remains the best film I’ve seen this year. Not too shabby!

Becca McKay: The best films of 2023

Priscilla review
Priscilla: The best films of 2023
  1. Sweet Dreams (Dir. Ena Sendijarević)
  2. Humanist Vampire Seeking Consenting Suicidal Person (Dir. Ariane Louis-Seize)
  3. Booger (Dir. Mary Dauterman)
  4. Les chambres rouges (Dir. Pascal Plante)
  5. Infinity Pool (Dir. Brandon Cronenberg)
  6. NAGA (Dir. Meshal Aljaser)
  7. Killers of the Flower Moon (Dir. Martin Scorsese)
  8. Priscilla (Dir. Sofia Coppola)
  9. May December (Dir. Todd Haynes)
  10. Eileen (Dir. William Oldroyd)
Honourable mentions (short films)
  • #BOSSBABE (Dir. Kassy Gascho)
  • Wheek Flesh (Dir. Annie Macleod & Clare Dawson)

If you glance at my Top 10, you might come to the same conclusion as I did: It seems if a film was directed by or about a woman, it’s probably something I watched and enjoyed. It’s the most common thread among these wildly different films. 

A big takeaway from this last year is how important it is to catch films in theatres, whether at a film festival to see a premiere or at a local or megaplex cinema. I focus less on what I am going to see, who is in it or directed it and instead focus on getting in a seat and experiencing what is in front of me. 

Therefore, this Top 10 list is made up of movies I truly enjoyed in theatres. I watched many of this year’s films at home, some of which were undoubtedly great, but they didn’t make it onto my list for a couple of reasons: Mostly, because movies are best watched in a theatre — period. But also because many of these films are not accessible through streaming or on-demand services and must be seen at their single festival screening or limited theatrical run. 

You can find Infinity Pool, Killers of the Flower Moon, Priscilla, May December and Eileen at your local theatre or online, and I highly recommend you check these films out. On the other hand, movies like Sweet Dreams, Humanist Vampire Seeking Consenting Suicidal Person, Booger, Red Rooms and NAGA, may be harder to find but are well worth the search. It was a privilege to get to see each of these films this year, which is not something I say lightly, so please do yourself the service of attending a new-to-you film festival in 2024, and maybe you will find yourself catching your favourite movie of the year, or maybe even of your life there. Lastly, don’t forget the short blocks! If you have ever wondered what an easy way to get in the know of up-and-coming filmmakers or how to tap into niches, you’ve never even heard of a short film block is for you. My two favourite short films from 2023 are Canadian short films: #BOSSBABE directed by Toronto’s own Kassy Gascho, and Wheek Flesh, directed by the Montreal filmmaking duo Annie Macleod and Clare Dawson. Young women making movies, I love everything about that.

Chico Peres Smith: The best films of 2023

Anatomy of a Fall review TIFF
Anatomy of a Fall: The best films of 2023
  1. Menus-Plaisirs – Les Troisgros (Dir. Frederick Wiseman)
  2. La Chimera (Dir. Alice Rohrwacher)
  3. Cielo Abierto (Dir. Felipe Esparza Pérez)
  4. BlackBerry (Dir. Matt Johnson)
  5. Anatomy of a Fall (Dir. Justine Triet)
  6. Monster (Dir. Hirokazu Koreeda)
  7. Killers of the Flower Moon (Dir. Martin Scorsese)
  8. Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World (Dir. Radu Jude)
  9. The Human Surge 3 (Dir. Eduardo Williams)
  10. Allensworth (Dir. James Benning)
  11. Therapy Dogs ( Dir. Ethan Eng)
  12. As Filhas do Fogo (Dir. Pedro Costa)
  13. Messy Legend (Dir. Voyeurism aka Kelly Kay Hurcomb & James Watts)
  14. Puss in Boots: The Last Wish (Dir. Joel Crawford)
  15. Beau Is Afraid (Dir. Ari Aster)
  16. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (Dir. James Gunn)
  17. Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves (Dir. John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein)
  18. Skinamarink (Dir. Kyle Edward Ball)
  19. Lost Ladies (Dir. Kiran Rao)
  20. Cobweb (Dir. Samuel Bodin)

2023 is a post-pandemic year that surprisingly defied all expectations regarding quality over quantity. Each Film, from the enchanting magical realism world of La Chimera to the thought-provoking Monster, resonated deeply with its labyrinthine exploration of human emotions and the notion of what it is to be a victim and a perpetrator, hinting at the potential of nonlinear narratives challenging the very definition of monstrosity. In Anatomy of a Fall, Justine Triet masterfully dissects the anatomy of human relationships with surgical precision, revealing the intricacies of love, loss, and the perpetual dance between the complexity of truth and the fragility of reality.

All these films deeply inspired me, not only because of their wide variety of genres, distinctive perspectives and authenticity, but also because they have become firm milestones in my own creative path — from low-budget independent films, to slow cinema, to contemplative experimental wonders to high-octane and meticulously crafted spectacle billion-dollar studio blockbusters. 

The unexpected joys of the year weren’t confined to grand productions like Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3 and Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves but balanced by the subtle slow cinema nuances of James Benning’s Allensworth and the daring spirit of Felipe Esparza Pérez’s Cielo Abierto, the four-hour long epic immersive experience Menus-Plaisirs Les Troisgros, where Frederick Wiseman peeks into the culinary world, serving a visual feast that goes beyond the kitchen, focused on the spaces that reveal the soul of a five-star Michelin restaurant. In Beau is Afraid, Ari Aster — a master of psychological unravelling — invites us into a surreal, symbolic and Jungian nightmarish realm where fears, both rational and irrational, shape the boundaries of sanity and reality. In Cobweb Samuel Bodin’s feature film horror debut, he invites us into an expressionistic world where the delicate threads of reality and horror intertwine, through the eyes of a child. Killers of the Flower Moon transported me to a historical but internal place, instigating a fascination with not only untold native stories that shape our present but also the complexities of human love and our sense of good and evil. Similarly, Kiran Rao’s Lost Ladies, with its whimsical narrative in a delightful Indian rural setting beyond the laughter, serves as a thought-provoking commentary on the constrictions of patriarchal marriage traditions, shedding light on the entrapment of Indian women within these norms echoing forgotten narratives, giving voice to stories of resilience and rebellion. 

It’s inspiring to see cinema that strives to be fearless and push beyond form and conventional cinematic expectations, such as Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World, Radu Jude’s exploration of societal assumptions, which challenges us to confront the absurdities we’ve grown accustomed to. With The Human Surge 3, Eduardo Williams, a virtuoso of the unconventional, takes us on a surge through humanity, exploring our interconnected existence’s raw, unfiltered essence. Pedro Costa’s As Filhas do Fogo is a musical tryptic that emphasizes the potency of intimate but experimental storytelling, affirming the impact of the ordinary and the unconventional. 

Directly from Canada, we were gifted with some of my favourites, including Ethan Eng’s Therapy Dogs, the resonating coming-of-age docu-fiction about the power of friendship and the hardships of becoming an adult. Kyle Edward Ball’s Skinamarink, with his unique, unsettling, immersive experimental cinematic experience like no other, transforms the mundane into the macabre, navigating the realm of childhood fears where ordinary situations morph into the stuff of our nightmares. Messy Legend had Hurcomb and Watts craft a strangely familiar legend that defies categorization, celebrating identity and legendary existence’s messy, chaotic beauty. In BlackBerry, Matt Johnson creates an expressionistic biopic where the ordinary becomes extraordinary by telling the story of not only the rise and fall of a tech company but the stories of the bigger-than-life characters that are usually left untold, elevated by Jay Burachel and Glenn Howerton into heights never before seen. The creativity, authenticity and ingenuity of these Canadian films excite me more than ever for the future of Canadian cinema.

For me, all these are not merely movies; this is film at its best, the art of cinema that keeps pouring through the cracks of the industry that become the fragments of my evolving internal search for my own artistic identity, shaping the tales I wish to tell someday.

Justine Smith: The best films of 2023

do not expect too much of the end of the world
Do Not Expect Too Much From the End of the World: The best films of 2023
  1. Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World (Dir. Radu Jude)
  2. Killers of the Flower Moon (Dir. Martin Scorsese)
  3. About Dry Grasses (Dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
  4. Poor Things (Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)
  5. Afire (Dir. Christian Petzold)
  6. Saint Omer (Dir. Alice Diop)
  7. Last Summer (Dir. Catherine Breillat)
  8. The Zone of Interest (Dir. Jonathan Glazer)
  9. The Beast (Dir. Bertrand Bonnello)
  10. La Chimera (Dir. Alice Rohrwacher)

When reflecting on the state of cinema in 2023, I keep coming back to Christian Petzold’s Afire. On the surface, the film is about artists on a seaside vacation. There’s work, there’s tension, there’s comedy and romance. But, the action is undercut by the approaching forest fires in the background: the red glow of the sky, ash that falls like snow, and the screech of emergency vehicles. The film captures the feeling of considering art within a climate apocalypse. What use is cinema, novels, or painting when the world is on fire and people are dying?

Many of the films that stood out to me grapple with this question in some way or another. Radu Jude’s Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World, my favourite of the year, is a riotous and contemporary film that follows a Production Assistant as she drives around Bucharest interviewing people to be in a workplace safety video for an Austrian company. She barely sleeps, and in between work, she makes horrifically hilarious TikToks parodying Andrew Tate. It’s a film that captures both the ennui and overstimulation of the current economy: its layers of images and references,  the exhausting double-speak of corporate powers and the dull, dangerous drum of a disposable workforce. It’s a film about art in that we live in a world so devoid of it. 

About Dry Grasses, Poor Things, The Beast, and Saint Omer tackle questions about making art amid chaos and despair. They ask questions about the kind of life we’re owed, art in the age of digital reproduction, our responsibility to the world, and our commitment to our subjects (even ourselves). They’re all films that thrilled me as much for their examination of moral and spiritual questions, as their form: the long snowy takes of Dry Grasses, the candy-coloured sensuality of Poor Things, the digital fragmentation of The Beast and the solemn witness/testimony of Saint Omer

Then there are the films that tackle questions of history. In Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest, with icy detachment, he presents the life of Germans living in a “suburb” right outside of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. The violence of genocide is a background player to the petty “keeping up with the Joneses” violence of the housewives and commanders building a “perfect” society. The film questions how we portray historical violence and genocide; what do we do with history’s monsters? Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, an epic about the systematic murder of the Osage, asks similar questions. The film folds over itself in fourth-wall-breaking incidents that challenge historical perspectives and the artist (Scorsese) itself. It’s a thorny and complex film, a crowning achievement defined as much by its messiness as its mastery. Of the films I haven’t touched on, Last Summer feels like a deep inquiry into the pornification of culture by one of our greatest erotic auteurs. It’s a dark, funny and troubling film about a stepmother/stepson’s sexual relationship. La Chimera is pure joy, with layers of histories, yearnings and anecdotes — the story of a thief searching for his lost love.

Sarah Foulkes: The best films of 2023

Passages Ira Sachs interview
Passages: The best films of 2023
  1. Killers of the Flower Moon (Dir. Martin Scorsese)
  2. Showing Up (Dir. Kelly Reichardt)
  3. Passages (Dir. Ira Sachs)
  4. Barbie (Dir. Greta Gerwig)
  5. May December (Dir. Todd Haynes)
  6. You Hurt My Feelings (Dir. Nicole Holofcener)
  7. Civic (Dir. Dwayne LeBlanc) short
  8. Priscilla (Dir. Sofia Coppola)
  9. La Garde Blanche (Dir. Julien Elie)
  10. La Chimera (Dir. Alice Rohrwacher)
Honourable mentions

2023 was a year of contrasts. The same year that Barbenheimer brought people back to the theatre, many of them for the first time since even before the pandemic, was also the year in which a double strike halted almost all Hollywood productions, with filmworkers demanding a living wage in the face of studio executives’ shameful but unsurprising show of greed. Of course, many, if not all of the films on this list were shot long before the strikes, which will likely impact 2024’s Best Of lists rather than this one. And yet, to view these films in light of the labour strikes is to see the curtain being drawn in both entertaining and uncomfortable ways.

Many films here are also about the process of making art — be it cinema, sculpture or a novel. Barbie, in particular, brings up the thorny question of art’s relationship to commerce, while Scorsese’s masterpiece dives headfirst into the murky waters of American genocide and cinematic representation. This list feels incomplete to me, as there are many films that have made it onto a number of top 10 lists that I have still not seen (The Zone of Interest, The Boy and the Heron and Poor Things, just to name a few), but it is comprised of galvanizing films that left me with a heap of unformed thoughts that I spent the next few days or weeks trying my best to untangle. 

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