Film reviews and more since 2009

Steve Pulaski’s Top 10 Films of 2023

The first week of the year always provides me with a few constants. The need and budding desire to clean my apartment usually follows me taking my Christmas tree down, and when all that is said and done, I turn my focus onto my year end lists. This year, however, due to some commitments, I still have not cleaned my apartment nor taken my tree down just yet.

Regardless, being as I’m already one of the people who publishes their year ends lists late as is, I don’t want to wait any longer. Unfortunately too, I wasn’t able to watch The Color Purple nor Maestro in time to make my list. That said, I still watched 109 movies, 71 of them in theaters. That tells me two things: my handle on 2023 releases was not only strong, but heavily dominated by theater releases.

For some additional fun math as well, seeing as I am an AMC Stubs A-List member, I did some math several days ago and realized that my Stubs membership has resulted in me paying about $3.88/ticket this year. That’s amazing value, and if you’re someone who goes to the movies at least two or three times a month (or could see yourself going at that rate, for that matter), and have an AMC Theaters near you, you need to become a member.

Without further adieu, here are my favorite films of 2023. Also included are streaming platforms where you can watch said movies.

[….]

1. The Holdovers: It’s so fitting that The Holdovers is from the same director who gave us such cinematic gifts as SidewaysThe Descendants, and Nebraska. More than a decade ago, Alexander Payne remarked that there might be a problem with a world in which “making small, human, and humorous films is considered ‘an achievement.” “It should be the norm,” he stated. Back in the 1970s, it certainly was.

The Holdovers is a return-to-form for one of the most humanistic American directors working today. Underscored by a trifecta of individually excellent performances, this is a film that reminds you of those friendships and mentorships that came at a pivotal time in your life. Paul Giamatti is irascibly hilarious as a crusty prep school proctor while Da’Vine Joy Randolph is the heart and soul of the picture as she plays a grieving mother. Dominic Sessa is a knockout in his first major film role. It truly feels like a lost 1970s gem.

Where to watch: Peacock
My review of The Holdovers

2. I Like Movies: Those of us who were young cinephiles might not want to admit it, but we were a Lawrence Kweller at times. Someone so obsessed with film that we lived and breathed it, schooling those who didn’t love the same movies as us and devouring new ones while our peers went to parties and made everlasting memories.

Chandler Levack’s exceptional new film, I Like Movies, is not a love-letter to those individuals. In many ways, it’s an indictment on the perils of their/our unchecked passion; not something we want to hear but need to hear. It’s a hyper-realistic drama with innumerable lessons coupled with divine character work. Set in 2003, its era-specificity, from its presentation to its costumes, makes it feel like a product of the past generation for purposes not exclusive to nostalgia.

Where to watch: TBD (follow Chandler Levack on Twitter/X for more updates)
My review of I Like Movies

3. ShortcomingsBased on the lovely graphic novel by Adrian Tomine, one of the best in the business who also wrote the film, Shortcomings challenges us to spend 90 minutes with someone who is an undeniable prick. You almost wonder if Ben hears people, specifically women, when they speak, or is he just listening intently enough to know when it’s his turn to respond. Shortcomings has the feel of a breezy Woody Allen comedy that sneaks up on you with its wit, charm, and themes. While the film takes on the structure and appearance of a romantic comedy, Randall Park and Tomine opt for a far more realistic ending — a great one I’ll add, which concludes a film that’s a win for Asian representation and a win for an immensely talented graphic novelist who could very well have a second career act in screenwriting.

Where to watch: Available to rent on multiple platforms
My review of Shortcomings

4. Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret.: Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. covers a lot of ground in a briskly paced 100 minutes. It manages to tell the coming-of-age story of an 11-year-old girl, cycle through some defining moments of her adolescence, provide an in-depth look at her family and their dynamics, extend some scenes to her grandmother, and deal with the festering conflict of her religious identity — all while offering bright, whip-smart context on what it means to grow up as a young woman, regardless of your generation.

Where most films of this ilk struggle to do two of those things well, Kelly Fremon Craig’s does so in such an effortless manner. However, there’s a lot working to make this film a worthy adaptation.

Where to watch: Starz, Hulu, and available to rent on multiple platforms
My review of Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret.

5. OppenheimerSteven Spielberg’s West Side Story in 2021 was such a remarkable picture that you would’ve been led to believe the then-74-year-old filmmaker had been making musicals his entire career. On the contrary: that film was a first for the veteran. Similarly, watching Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, you might need to remind yourself that this is the cinematic tactician’s first ever biopic. Yet, it’s perfectly fitting that the acclaimed director’s first biographical outing intensely focuses on a self-destructive man obsessed with solving a seemingly impossible math problem in order to create chaos and potentially put the world on the brink of disaster.

Where to watch: Available to rent on multiple platforms
My review of Oppenheimer

6. BS High: I like to include one documentary on this list every year, and for 2023, one of the best stories given the investigative treatment was BS High. The film tells the story of the Bishop Sycamore High School scandal, which garnered national attention when a clearly outmatched, rag-tag high school football team went up against the renowned IMG Academy and got their doors blown off in a 56-0 rout. At the center of the doc is Roy Johnson, a slimy con-man whose lack of remorse for the kids and families he negatively affected with this heist, is one of the most loathsome characters you’ll find in any film released this year.

Where to watch: Max
My review of BS High on Sleepless with Steve

7. May DecemberLoosely based on the Mary Kay Letourneau scandal from the late 1990s, Todd Haynes’ May December opens by juxtaposing the lives of two very different woman. Their introductions to us are banal, as one (Natalie Portman) checks into a posh hotel while another (Julianne Moore) organizes a backyard dinner party. All of this occurs while Marcelo Zarvos’ score slowly rises before it crescendos after Moore’s character plainly remarks, I don’t think we have enough hot dogs.”

This is the tone Haynes and screenwriter Samy Burch look to set early: one that is equal parts introspective human drama and salacious melodrama. It says something that in a movie with Natalie Portman playing a woman with an identity crisis and Julianne Moore playing a registered sex offender that Charles Melton might runaway with the performance of the hour. There’s more to May December I won’t dare reveal, but unlike most films in the streaming era, this one loans itself to active engagement and conversation both during and after.

Where to watch: Netflix
My review of May December

8. MissingAneesh Chaganty’s Searching was a captivating thriller set entirely on computers and iPhone screens. It belongs to a genre known as “screenlife,” which has gained some momentum ever since. One of the many ways Chaganty’s film succeeded was that it didn’t draw attention to this fact. In a sleight-of-hand-esque way, it made you forget the situational conveniences because the central mystery was so involving.

Now, we have Missing, and Chaganty and collaborator Sev Ohanian are merely producers and story credits. Nick Johnson and Will Merrick take the reigns as the writing/directing duo. Like any sequel to a runaway success, Missing practically has red flags and caution-tape draped around its very existence. However, those warnings disappear relatively early as you realize that Johnson and Merrick are loyal to the concept of Chaganty’s sleeper hit and not much else. They’re keen on giving you similar thrills and making you an active moviegoer with an entirely different, more complex story. Prepare to be anxious all over again.

Where to watch: Netflix
My review of Missing

9. Priscilla: There might not be a better director than Sofia Coppola to make a film on Priscilla Presley, particularly one that bears this much empathy and compassion. Coppola likely has an inkling of what life was like for a woman thrust into the world of fame and luxury beyond her wildest imagination before she could even reckon with the consequences. She undoubtedly knows what it’s like to be inextricably tethered to a man who is of legend status. Coppola expertly chips away at the legacy of the King while dutifully adapting Priscilla Presley’s memoir Elvis and Me from 1985.

Where to watch: Available to rent on multiple platforms
My review of Priscilla

10. Barbie: The hype train is a dangerous ride to hop aboard. When the speed picks up, and seemingly goes faster than anybody anticipated, the potential for things to go off the rails increases. Ultimately, it could lead to disappoint, regret, and the general feeling of foolishness. The hype train has made a sucker out of me before, and most of the time, it’s to my own detriment.

Let it be known, dear reader, Greta Gerwig’s Barbie — arguably the most anticipated film of 2023 — is not a case of overhype. I’m ecstatic to report that this film is the visual feast, technical marvel, and award-worthy display of exuberantly imaginative storytelling that so many of us hoped it would be. One wonders if during her mumblecore days as a freewheeling actress and sometimes-filmmaker, Gerwig had a vision for a movie based on the iconic line of toys that would subvert our expectations in the best possible way.

Where to watch: Max
My review of Barbie

Honorable mentions (no order): Jelly Roll: Save Me, Saw X, Dream Scenario

Steve Pulaski’s Top 10 Worst Films of 2023

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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