The top 10 best (and worst!) movies of 2023

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Michael Phillips | Chicago Tribune

So many good and even great films this year! It’s nice to use an unironic exclamation point for the movie year that was, amid a year soaked in political dread and menace, in America and beyond.

The Writers Guild of America and Screen Actors Guild strikes fought back against the studios and streaming giants, gaining some meaningful financial ground and some roadblocks, at least, to de-accelerate the artificial intelligence encroachments in an industry barely, chaotically recognizable from a few years ago.

The summer of 2023 drew audiences as if COVID wasn’t a thing anymore. Millions responded to the weirdest, simplest, happiest ad hoc marketing coup of recent movie times: Barbenheimer! The “barb” half was based on a toy, the “enheimer” half told the story of the man behind the weapon that stripped our planet of any future certainty. Both were verifiable and remarkable eyefuls. And “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” ended up making nearly $2.5 billion as a double act.

Meantime, the corporate consolidation riddle of Warner Bros. Discovery is such that “Barbie” can gross $1.4 billion and it’s a gnat on the elephant of debt now vexing CEO David Zaslav.

Money can market hits, and sometimes make them, but this year’s highlights — lavishly budgeted in some cases, micro-budgeted in others — worked closer to an artistic impulse. We take heart from the year’s signs of cinematic life. In some cases, the titles included in my list premiered on the 2023 festival circuit and will become available commercially in 2024. In one or two cases I’m deliberately withholding a movie or two from inclusion until next year. There’s more than enough to contend with as is!

Again, with the unironic exclamation point. Never thought I’d see the day, or type the punctuation.

Best movies

10. “May December”: Dueling, intertwining portraits in damaged and damaging women, with an extraordinarily tricky tonal range and sterling work from Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore. Directed by Todd Haynes.

9. “Oppenheimer”: Propulsive almost to a fault, but a genuine feat of intelligent showmanship in the service of legitimately sticky and eternally troubling moral complexity. Written and directed by Christopher Nolan.

8. “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar,” “The Rat Catcher,” “The Swan” and “Poison”: For Netflix, Wes Anderson adapted four Roald Dahl stories, adding up to a nearly perfect 90-minute experience. Comparisons are cheap, but I prefer this project to Anderson’s “Asteroid City,” even if I’m still singing “Dear Alien (Who Art in Heaven).”

7. “Return to Seoul”: A Korean-born wanderer returns to Seoul, three different times in her life, in search of her long-buried origin story. This one lingers in mysterious ways. Written and directed by Davy Chou.

6: “The Zone of Interest”: Using only the horrific Auschwitz setting of Martin Amis’ novel, writer-director Jonathan Glazer’s razor-sharp exercise in sustained and brutal irony is unlike anything else on, or even near, the subject. Premieres in Chicago Jan. 12.

5. “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret”: Judy Blume’s evergreen charmer of a bestseller gets the film version it deserves, even if it didn’t get the audience. Written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, with wonderful work from everyone, none better than Rachel McAdams.

4. “Barbie”: Director/co-writer Greta Gerwig takes Mattel on a quest of existential inquiry, funny first, reflective and touching when it counted. Not what the toy company wanted, probably, until the money rolled in. But Gerwig wanted it, and we did.

3. “Killers of the Flower Moon”: Martin Scorsese’s mournful elegy is an Old West gangster movie about American might, right and murderous racism. Though it didn’t go deeply enough into the lives of the Osage Nation characters, this was a near-miss, saved and elevated by late-stage rewrites. It’ll last a long time.

2. “The Boy”: All of 25 minutes, this singular portrait of one broken Israeli soldier’s life at home, in perpetual wartime — filmmaker Yahav Winner was killed in the Oct. 7 Hamas massacre — has zero interest in anti-Palestine propaganda. Streaming on YouTube.

1. “Past Lives”: “Brief Encounter,” chronologically expanded, and told through the eyes and heart of a Korean woman (Greta Lee) reconnecting in New York with her childhood friend (Teo Yoo). Written and directed by Celine Song with exquisite observational acumen.

Top 11-20, in alphabetical order: “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt”; “Fair Play”; “Four Daughters”; “I’m a Virgo” Amazon limited series; “In the Rearview”; “Poor Things”; “The Royal Hotel”; “Showing Up”; “A Thousand and One”; “The Unknown Country.”

Worst movies

The bummer list, in alphabetical order:

“Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania”
“Cocaine Bear”
“Fast X”
“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3″
“Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny”
“The Killer”
“Meg 2: The Trench”

Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.

Twitter @phillipstribune

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