[Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics]

Fritz Esker's Best Movies of 2023

07:00 February 21, 2024
By: Fritz Esker

Where Y'at Movie Editor's Best of 2023

The moviegoing years since the COVID-19 pandemic began have been relatively thin in terms of both volume and quality. And while 2023 was not on par with 2019, which was an excellent year for film, it did have more going for it cinematically than 2020-2022.

[Courtesy of Focus Features]

My favorite film of the year was Alexander Payne's The Holdovers, which was a reunion with Paul Giamatti, the star of Payne's career-best effort Sideways. Giamatti plays an embittered classics professor at an elite boarding school in 1970 New England. He is tasked with babysitting a difficult student (Dominic Sessa) during a holiday break. Their only companion is the school cook (Da'vine Joy Randolph). Funny, poignant, and bittersweet, it's a great piece of character-driven cinema. Randolph has a real chance to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, and she deserves it. Giamatti is nominated for Best Actor and would be my personal choice, but I think that Oscar might go to another worthy candidate that's mentioned below.

[Courtesy of Universal Studios]

Cillian Murphy turned in a career-best performance in the title role of Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer. The sprawling, three-hour biopic about the man who invented the atomic bomb is a fascinating look at both an individual man and the moral quandaries faced by those who wanted to end a devastating global conflict but feared the tool they used to end that conflict (the atom bomb) would potentially end the world itself. There are a number of memorable supporting performances in the film: Emily Blunt (as Oppenheimer's wife) and Tom Conti (as Albert Einstein) stand out. Thankfully audiences responded well to it, and this very long movie with very little in the way of action or spectacle grossed almost $1 billion worldwide.

[Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures]

My favorite female performance of the year was Emma Stone in director Yorgos Lanthimos' Poor Things. Stone plays Bella, the result of a science experiment involving the placement of an infant's brain in a grown woman's body. Stone has to go from infantile tantrums to childlike innocence to adolescent rebellion to hard-won maturity in a single film. She does it brilliantly and Tony McNamara's script supplies her with a wide variety of witty lines. The surreal set design recalls the best films of director/animator Terry Gilliam.

[Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics]

The best under-the-radar film that I wish more viewers would give a chance is The Teachers' Lounge, the German entry in the Best Foreign Film category. This tight, tense, and economical drama (a quick 90-something minutes) follows an idealistic teacher (Leonie Benesch) at a school that's plagued by a series of cash and property thefts. Troubled by an incident where an immigrant student was falsely targeted and interrogated by administrators, she takes action to discover the real perpetrator. Her actions do discover the guilty party (or at least very likely identify the guilty party), but this also set forth a chain reaction with heartbreaking consequences. Director Ilker Çatak is a talent to watch.

[Courtesy of Paramount Pictures]

Hollywood proved it could still make rousing, grand-scale entertainments with Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part One. Yes it's a bit long, but the action sequences are in a league of their own. A car chase through the streets of Rome, a train crash, and a motorcycle leap off a cliff are just some of the jaw-dropping moments in the film. Star Tom Cruise is willing to put himself in harm's way in a manner that most people would (understandably) be completely unwilling to do. But his commitment to tactile, real-world stunts makes his films exhilarating in a way modern CGI extravaganzas all too often are not.

Honorable Mentions

Past Lives

Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret

Anatomy of a Fall

You Hurt My Feelings


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