2023 in Review: Best Narrative Films of the Year

It’s the last Friday of a pretty great year for film, so it’s time to reveal my Best of the Year list. As always, I was able to squeeze in about a dozen additional films in the last couple weeks of December—mostly titles that others have told me are worth checking out that I either missed when they came out in Chicago, or movies that were never released in Chicago at all. I also tend to do a great deal of re-watching in those last two weeks, primarily to solidify the order of my top 10.

According to my count, I saw 570 films in 2023 (up 80 from 2022), either in a theater or via screening link—from the cultural phenomenon of M3gan (the first press screening of 2023) to the final press screening of the year, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom. This tally does include a few vintage titles, but only if I saw them in a theater (often as restored prints, but not always). If I simply watched an older film at home, that doesn’t make the overall count—so my actual count of movies watched in 2023 is much higher.

As I do every year, I’ve separated my Best Documentaries list from narratives because I want an excuse to call extra attention to a whole other group of worthy films (20 this year) that might go unnoticed on a combined list.

In previous years, my Narrative Features list has reached anywhere between 30 and 50 titles; this year, 40 movies stood out to me. I often feel that after the first 10 titles, the numbers don’t mean as much, and that’s certainly true this year. As always, if you think a list of 40 films is annoyingly excessive, feel free to stop reading at 30, or 10. I have faith you’ll find ways of coping with my indulgent means of expression.

I’ve included excerpts of my original reviews of my Top 10 films, if I wrote one; if I didn’t, I scribbled down some thoughts. Hope you dig the list and that it gives you some ideas for future viewings on some platform. Most, if not all, of these titles should be available somewhere in some format right now.

10. Past Lives (Dir: Celine Song)

From playwright and first-time filmmaker Celine Song, Past Lives shows us three moments in time between two people who always seem on the verge of a relationship that never quite comes together. Nora (Greta Lee) finds out that her childhood sweetheart, Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), has been trying to find her online, and the two reconnect and maintain a virtual relationship via Skype for quite a while before Nora grows frustrated and abruptly ends the correspondence. Another dozen years pass, and now Nora is happily married to another writer (John Magaro), when Hae Sung reaches out again, just before a planned trip to New York. What follows is one of the most unique yet quite relatable love stories I’ve ever seen. Past Lives also deals with issues of identity, fate, and the Korean notion of destiny as connected to two people’s past lives (In Yun). I’m guessing the character you find yourself identifying with in this scenario will depend on the baggage you bring to the film, but it’s a delicate, inspiring, and desperately beautiful and moving experience.

9. All of Us Strangers (Dir: Andrew Haigh)

One night in his near-empty tower block in contemporary London, Adam (Andrew Scott) has a chance encounter with a mysterious neighbor, Harry (Paul Mescal), which punctures the rhythm of his everyday life. As a relationship develops between them, Adam is preoccupied with memories of the past and finds himself drawn back to the suburban town where he grew up, and the childhood home where his parents (Claire Foy and Jamie Bell), appear to be living, looking just as they were on the day they died, 30 years before. As a melancholy love story, there were few equals in 2023; as a story of someone clinging to the comforts of the past, All of Us Strangers is as heartbreaking as it is satisfying and soul-enriching.

8. Birth/Rebirth (Dir: Laura Moss)

My favorite film from the Midnight selections at Sundance 2023 is the feature debut of director/co-writer Laura Moss, birth/rebirth, a science-fiction/horror work that isn’t meant to be scary in the traditional sense but more horrifying in its implications. Mixing bits of Frankenstein and Re-Animator in some of the most interesting and heartfelt ways I’ve ever seen, the movie involves a maternity nurse named Celie (the fantastic Judy Reyes), who has structured her entire life around her lively, 6-year-old daughter, Lila (A.J. Lister). But when Lila dies unexpectedly of a very specific infection, Celie crosses paths with Rose (the equally great Marin Ireland), a gruff pathologist who works in the hospital morgue and likes it a bit too much. Once these two women enter into their shaky deal, the film becomes a morality play that asks necessary questions about scientific ethics, parental mourning, and a contemporary understanding of how someone would look past their own personal beliefs and boundaries in order to save a loved one. It’s a fascinating, chilling and complicated story that the leads all sell beautifully, and it won me over me completely on being one of the smartest horror think-pieces I’ve seen in quite some time.

7. Killers of the Flower Moon (Dir: Martin Scorsese)

David Grann’s best-selling book Killers of the Flower Moon was primarily centered on the true story of the Osage Nation in the years immediately following the discovery of oil under their land in and around Fairfax, Oklahoma, in the early part of the 1900s. Directed by Martin Scorsese, the film version is also a mystery about a rash of Osage deaths, a tale about the early days of the organization that became known as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and an improbable but passionate romance between a returning war hero named Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone), whose eventual marriage was one of many such couplings at the time between white men and Osage women, many of whom died of mysterious illnesses, leaving their oil rights to their husbands. Above all else, the film is about the worst kind of betrayal, and it’s that portion of this epic tale that hits the hardest emotionally, because we’re rooting for this couple even when we know we shouldn’t. We’re fortunate to live in a world in which Martin Scorsese still makes movies that matter—films of scale, vision, purpose, clarity, and full-bore emotional depth. There’s nothing like them, except other films by Scorsese, and Killer Moon is so quintessentially American that you can almost smell the spilled blood and gunpowder. It’s an ugly truth spread across the screen using beautiful images and some of the best actors imaginable.

6. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. (Dir: Kelly Fremon Craig)

Based on the one-for-the-ages novel by Judy Blume and set in the 1970s, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. concerns 11-year-old Margaret Simon (Abby Ryder Fortson) shortly after she and her parents (Rachel McAdams and Benny Safdie) move from New York City to suburban New Jersey. Less a single story and more a collection of moments involving Margaret and her new friends, her transformation into adolescence, and her emerging questions about faith, the film (directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, The Edge of Seventeen) is a note-perfect exploration into the minds of young people that doesn’t talk down to them or avoid topics that may make even some adults a little uncomfortable (the amount of time spent on Margaret’s frustration that her first period hasn’t happened has got to be a record). It’s a damn near perfect movie.

5. Oppenheimer (Dir: Christopher Nolan)

Although it sometimes feels like we’re watching a history textbook or a lengthy biography, writer/director Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is a sprawling, visually engrossing cinematic lesson in technology, innovation, American hubris, ego run amok, and just how petty and vindictive men can be when their pride is wounded. Based on the 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin (and adapted by Nolan), the movie is, above all else, another classic example of science getting so caught up in wondering if something can be done with every possible resource at its disposal that very few actually ask whether it should be done at all. With a cast that has to reach into the hundreds, including more famous or nearly famous faces than I can remember in any film in recent memory, Oppenheimer is effectively the tale of two men who should have been lifelong friends: J. Robert Oppenheimer (played by Nolan mainstay Cillian Murphy) and Lewis Strauss (a truly revelatory Robert Downey Jr.), a founding commissioner of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission.

Oppenheimer is less about an enigmatic figure and more about a man driven by multiple (and sometimes conflicting) passions. Murphy and Downey are extraordinary in these roles, and Nolan seems focused, connected to the material, and at the top of his game as an artist. It’s sometimes dry, but a film with this much going on needs to be in order to make the complexities easier to follow. And while I’ve accused Nolan of flopping when it comes to directing emotion in some of his films, here it seems a dominant presence, and it’s handled beautifully. I’m not sure the rest of the world is ready for a three-hour, R-rated, very grown-up film in the heart of the summer, but I sure was.

4. Anatomy of a Fall (Dir: Justine Triet)

For the past year, Sandra (an award-worthy Sandra Hüller), her husband Samuel (Samuel Theis), and their 11-year-old son Daniel (Milo Machado Graner) have lived a secluded life in a remote town in the French Alps. When Samuel is found dead in the snow below their chalet, the police question whether he was murdered or committed suicide. Samuel’s suspicious death is presumed murder, and Sandra becomes the main suspect. What follows is not just an investigation into the circumstances of Samuel's death but an unsettling psychological journey into the depths of Sandra and Samuel’s conflicted relationship. Anatomy of a Fall is part mystery, part relationship drama, and the two are so intertwined, it feels impossible to break them apart. The key to appreciating the film (directed by Justine Triet) is that there are three possible outcomes: Sandra killed her husband, Sandra didn’t kill him, or we’ll simply never know, and that’s the scariest outcome of them all. The film also blesses viewers with one of the great anti-villains of the year in Antoine Reinartz as the trial prosecutor.

3. The Holdovers (Dir: Alexander Payne)

From acclaimed director Alexander Payne, The Holdovers follows a curmudgeonly instructor (Paul Giamatti) at a New England prep school who is forced to remain on campus during Christmas break to babysit the handful of students with nowhere to go. Eventually he forms an unlikely bond with one of them, a damaged, brainy troublemaker (newcomer Dominic Sessa), and they both become close with the school’s head cook, who has just lost a son in Vietnam (Oscar-worthy Da’Vine Joy Randolph). Scripted by David Hemingson, the film celebrates those left behind by life, and each character is given their moments to let us know the story behind their story, and it breaks our collective hearts while still managing to be screamingly funny and insightful.

2. Barbie (Dir: Greta Gerwig)

Cultural domination aside, Barbie (written by director Greta Gerwig and her now-husband Noah Baumbach) begins as something playful and colorful and transforms itself into a testament of what it means to be human, female and powerful. Barbie (Margot Robbie) and Ken (Ryan Gosling) seem to be having the time of their lives in the colorful and seemingly perfect world of Barbie Land. However, when they get a chance to go to the real world, they soon discover the joys and perils of living among less than perfect humans, including a few that flat-out hate everything Barbie stands for. As a result, Barbie suffers a crisis that leads her to question her world and her existence—all to a highly infectious dance beat and with great songs to carry us toward a conclusion that incorporates everything from childhood dreams to very adult doctor’s appointments. The film caught fire because everyone could see themselves in one of these characters—human or otherwise (especially Weird Barbie).

1. Poor Things (Dir: Yorgos Lanthimos)

I didn’t put this film and Barbie side by side on my list on purpose, although a double feature of the two has been suggested by more than one critic in recent months (I would also throw birth/rebirth into that mix). Both are about women finding their place in a world in which they don’t quite fit, so rather than change who they are, they make the world change to suit them. From filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos comes the incredible tale and fantastical evolution of Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), a young woman brought back to life by the brilliant and unorthodox scientist Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe). Under Baxter’s protection and the watchful eye of a recruited med student (Ramy Youssef), Bella is eager to learn. Hungry for the worldliness she is lacking, Bella runs off with Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), a slick and debauched lawyer, on a whirlwind adventure across the continents. Free from the prejudices of her times, Bella grows steadfast in her purpose to stand for equality and liberation.

Anchored upon the year’s best performance by Stone and a visual backdrop that almost defies time and place, Poor Things is a brilliant, horny Frankenstein retelling in which Bella transforms from scene to scene, in her language, mobility, and sensibilities. And just when you think it’s winding down, the third act explodes with potential, introducing Christopher Abbott as a husband Bella didn’t know she had, who causes all manner of trouble for everyone involved. Poor Things gives us hope for the art of filmmaking, storytelling, dressmaking, acting, junk science, and humor. This is a movie that had it all and left none of its elements undercooked.

11. The Teachers’ Lounge (Dir: Ilker Çatak)

12. Monster (Dir: Kore-eda Hirokazu)

13. Godzilla Minus One (Dir: Takashi Yamazaki)

14. A Thousand and One (Dir: A.V. Rockwell)

15. The Zone of Interest (Dir: Jonathan Glazer)

16. American Fiction (Dir: Cord Jefferson)

17. The Artifice Girl (Dir: Franklin Ritch)

18. Bottoms (Dir: Emma Seligman)

19. Cassandro (Dir: Roger Ross Williams)

20. May December (Dir: Todd Haynes)

21. Priscilla (Dir: Sofia Coppola)

22. Concrete Utopia (Dir: Tae-hwa Eom)

23. Fair Play (Dir: Chloe Domont)

24. John Wick: Chapter 4 (Dir: Chad Stahelski)

25. When Evil Lurks (Dir: Demián Rugna)

26. Rye Lane (Dir: Raine Allen-Miller)

27. No Hard Feelings (Dir: Gene Stupnitsky)

28. Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One (Dir: Christopher McQuarrie)

29. Showing Up (Dir: Kelly Reichardt)

30. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (Dirs: Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers & Justin K. Thompson)

31. Dream Scenario (Dir: Kristoffer Borgli)

32. Air (Dir: Ben Affleck)

33. The Iron Claw (Dir: Sean Derkin)

34. Perfect Days (Dir: Wim Wenders)

35. The Boy and the Heron (Dir: Hayao Miyazaki)

36. You Hurt My Feelings (Dir: Nicole Holofcener)

37. The Creator (Dir: Gareth Edwards)

38. Beau Is Afraid (Dir: Ari Aster)

39. Talk To Me (Dirs: Danny Philippou & Michael Philippou)

40. Suitable Flesh (Dir: Joe Lynch)

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.