Following The Film Stage’s collective top 50 films of 2023, as part of our year-end coverage, our contributors are sharing their personal top 10 lists.

There was much to be thankful for in 2023. Besides new works by several legendary directors, there were personal opportunities that allowed me to spread a larger net and take stock of the cinema landscape from a more privileged vantage point. I got to attend the Cannes and Toronto film festivals for the first time and also became a voter for some key year-end awards. The experience of thus watching films, before most of my cinephile brethren, allowed me to contemplate how much campaigns and narratives can alter a film’s reception and trajectory.

What has come into sharper relief, and what is evident from the list below too, is that Cannes has the lock on much of the best product of the year––at least anything not wanting to premiere in the fall awards season. Toronto, as a mega festival of festivals, does have its luster stolen by the overlapping Telluride and Venice film festivals. It seems the only big addition by Toronto to the general cinema conversation was American Fiction and the premiere of The Boy and the Heron outside Japan.

As mentioned above, being an awards voter also brought me into closer proximity with a large crop of year-end awards hopefuls and it is, generally speaking, a credit-worthy bunch of films, more accomplished than most years. I found much to admire in The Holdovers, May December, Poor Things, Monster, Perfect Days, Priscilla, Wonka, and Barbie. Conversely, I had a feeling of ambivalence towards several feted titles including Oppenheimer, Killers of the Flower Moon, Anatomy of a Fall, Hit Man, About Dry Grasses, Asteroid City, The Killer, All of Us Strangers, and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.

Some underseen films that I wish had an opportunity to shine were Plane, Youth (Spring), Alcarràs, In Water, and Will-o’-the-Wisp. And as is the nature of acquisition, distribution, and staggered release schedules, several worthy films that I saw this year, will only make their way to audiences in 2024––among them Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World, Dear Jassi, Inside The Yellow Cocoon Shell, In Our Day, Eureka, Club Zero, Black Flies, The Beast, The Dead Don’t Hurt, and Boy Kills World.

Without further ado, here is a list of films that in my estimation were the most artistically successful in 2023.

10. Stonewalling (Huang Ji and Ryuji Otsuka)

Certain attributes of the universal “art cinema” language are often cynically deployed by festival titles to create a patina of respectability, among them––a Brechtian, observational camera; absence of a musical score; realistic settings; and sober, naturalistic acting. Stonewalling is a staggering demonstration of how these techniques when artfully used, can capture life with stunning, eye-opening verisimilitude. A tale of a working-class young woman’s unwanted pregnancy becomes a window through which we get an unvarnished peek at contemporary China. What we see doesn’t so much highlight our cultural differences but a shared collective human experience.

Stonewalling premiered at the 2022 Venice Film Festival in the Giornate degli Autori sidebar. It was released in the United States by KimStim.

9. The Iron Claw (Sean Durkin)

A Bressonian restraint permeates Sean Durkin’s third film, a gripping portrait of the ruinous family history of the Von Erich wrestling dynasty––a tale of fathers and sons; and the societal demands of masculinity: external, emotional, and psychological. Durkin guides us through mounting family disasters without sensationalism, and with graceful filmmaking that shows more ambition than your average American indie, even the ‘awardsy’ kind. Anchoring it all is a career-best performance by Zac Efron, not often afforded dramatic opportunities. Efron turns what could’ve been a vain, performative feat of bodybuilding, into an astounding, physical portrait of masculine hurt and anguish.

The Iron Claw was released in the United States by A24.

8. Godland (Hlynur Pálmason)

One of the visual spectacles of the year, Godland is primed to reshuffle audiences’ dream holiday destination lists and decisively push Iceland near the top. It tracks a fictional Danish Lutheran priest, ostensibly on a mission to build a church in 19th-century Iceland but also to photograph its landscapes and people. Pálmason uses the photographic theme to capture the most stunning nature footage you are likely to see outside of an IMAX doc––on pristine 35mm film no less. Godland is no empty spectacle though and its tale of cultural alienation and moral corruption is as beguiling as its memorable images.

Godland premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival in the Un Certain Regard sidebar. It was released in the United States by Janus Films.

7. Four Daughters (Kaouther Ben Hania)

Cinema at its most searching, can illuminate incomprehensible human actions, and give us a means of contextualizing experiences that are completely alien to us. This is especially true of the documentary format when used in novel and daring ways. Ben Hania, in an extraordinary melding of objective and recreated reality, helps us understand––for the first time perhaps––how well-adjusted, happy, loving, intelligent young women might end up joining ISIS. In this wrenching tale of a Tunisian family torn asunder by radicalization, Ben Hania challenges the audience to find within themselves the capacity––not of judgment, but empathy.

Four Daughters premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival in Competition. It was released in the United States by Kino Lorber.

6. Nobody’s Hero (Alain Guiraudie)

​​A story about a terrorist attack crossed with a bedroom sex farce sounds like an outrageous tonal disaster. Yet Guiraudie, who’s never shied away from the more grotesque and lurid aspects of human behavior, makes it work. Nobody’s Hero delves into the paranoia, racism, and xenophobia bubbling up in contemporary urban France, away from metropolitan Paris. If that sounds too heavy for a comedy, you also have a diverse cast of eccentric characters drolly switching sexual orientations and partners throughout. Guiraudie is the unlikeliest of humanist filmmakers––he not only tolerates human perversions and aberrations but smiles upon them with generosity.

Nobody’s Hero premiered at the 2022 Berlin Film Festival in the Panorama sidebar. It was released in the United States by Strand Releasing.

5. The Delinquents (Rodrigo Moreno)

Yarn spinning is a supremely underrated skill and is in short supply these days. An original, fascinating story, narrated with skill and wit will always find purchase. Nobody seems to grasp this better than filmmakers of the New Argentine Cinema movement. They effortlessly dole out entertaining tall tales, their imagination unrestrained by modest production means. The Delinquents, ostensibly a comedy about frustrated tellers robbing their own bank, unspools across several disparate tangents and digressions. By the time it dips its toes into surreal and bizarre waters, you are along for the ride because you’re so deeply invested in the beautifully drawn characters.

The Delinquents premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival in the Un Certain Regard sidebar. It was released in the United States by Mubi.

4. Showing Up (Kelly Reichardt)

Kelly Reichardt, one of our unheralded filmmaking greats, is a poet of the mundane. The most ordinary, commonplace subjects ascend to the plane of high art when seen through her ennobling gaze. The subject this time is the work of two humble artists at an Oregon art school, preparing for their respective art shows in nine days time. Any cliche and trope you can conceive of in a film like this, Reichardt avoids with unyielding rigor and good taste. Her crystalline, scintillating filmmaking is a model of unfussy clarity and unostentatious mastery. And it’s wryly funny and moving to boot.

Showing Up premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival in Competition. It was released in the United States by A24.

3. Trenque Lauquen (Laura Citarella)

How little we ask of our screenwriters and directors these days is evident by contemplating what Laura Citarella accomplishes with humble means. With only her imagination and a game cast at her disposal, Citarella crafts a film of novelistic sweep and ambition––juggling several mysteries and narrative frames––while questioning our conception of reality. With a mastery of tone, she mixes a detective story, a romantic drama, and a creature feature into one unified whole. As our protagonist Laura gets ensnared in the strange happenings around the town of Trenque Lauquen, you are right beside her, just as curious and searching.

Trenque Lauquen premiered at the 2022 Venice Film Festival in the Orizzonti (Horizons) sidebar. It was released in the United States by Cinema Guild.

2. Fallen Leaves (Aki Kaurismäki)

These days when even the work of our storied legends is marked with bloat and indulgence, it is thrilling to have a master take the opposite tack and work towards rigor, discipline, and concision. Kaurismäki needs only two characters, a few settings, and 80 minutes to make a masterpiece––a deeply felt romance between lonely working-class 40-year-olds. It contains his trademark deadpan humor but is unleavened by explicit sentimentality. Yet in its precise rhythms, fastidious construction, and tight pacing, it finds plenty of room for the two leads to unpack an ocean of longing. You’ll swoon, and then you’ll cry.

Fallen Leaves premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival in Competition. It was released in the United States by Mubi.

1. Pacifiction (Albert Serra)

The year’s best film about nuclear testing comes from Catalan director Alberta Serra and is set amidst the stunning environs of French Polynesia. As insidious rumors about the resumption of tests spread among the fearful indigenous population, France’s top diplomat to the region finds himself hurtling down a maelstrom of vertiginous politicking and colliding agendas. Serra levels up in extraordinary fashion with this original, masterfully rendered portrait of swirling paranoia and festering geopolitical tensions. The unsettling feeling of dread forms a bracing counterpoint to the staggering beauty of the island surroundings––a constant reminder of what’s at stake.

Pacifiction premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival in Competition. It was released in the United States by Grasshopper Film.

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