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Out with a bang: the Top Ten movies of 2023

Marc Mohan shares his picks for this year's best films.

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Joaquin Phoenix in “Beau Is Afraid”

I try to wait as long as possible each year to compile a “10 best” list, not necessarily because something I see in the last week of December will unexpectedly crack the celluloid glass ceiling (although that can happen). It’s more because I like to think of the exercise as one that captures a snapshot of my opinions and tastes at a specific moment.

If I had made this list last week, it would be different. If I were to make it next week it would be differently different. For instance, looking back at last year’s list, Bones and All probably doesn’t make the cut, but All Quiet on the Western Front or Aftersun probably does. In any case, all the usual caveats apply, which basically boils down to “your mileage may vary.” Here, then are the absolutely definitive, canonically sacrosanct Ten Best Films of the Year. (In reverse order, for suspense purposes!)

10. Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One: The best train sequence in action movie history is the cherry on top of this Tom Cruise sundae, as IMF agent extraordinaire Ethan Hunt has to save humanity (again!) from some sort of AI ghost-in-the-machine thingy. Even if you don’t get the callbacks to earlier franchise entries—which I largely didn’t—the whole 163-minute thrill ride tops itself so many times that you simply forget that it’s nothing more than an expertly crafted clockwork. And that Tom Cruise probably knows what happened to Shelly Miscavige. (Available to rent on various platforms and on disc.)

9. Dream Scenario: If Nicolas Cage didn’t exist, we’d have to invent him. And in a way, we have, by taking this committed and fearless actor and turning him into a meme. The first page of Google results for “Nicolas Cage gif” features images from at least a half-dozen of his roles, most prominently Raising Arizona, Face/Off, Con Air, and Vampire’s Kiss. And that doesn’t even take into account his ability to move from box-office smash hits like the National Treasure movies to the far side of the human psyche in something like Mandy. Anyway, he’s been doing his own damn thing for forty years now, and Dream Scenario spends some of that currency by casting him as an ordinary guy who achieves unexpected fame after he starts showing up in everybody’s dreams. It’s a brilliant high concept and one director Kristoffer Borgli exploits to the hilt. (Available to rent on various streaming platforms.)

8. Showing Up: Portland gets the spotlight yet again from director Kelly Reichardt and screenwriter Jon Raymond. Their sixth collaboration stars Michelle Williams (in her fourth collaboration with them) as a local sculptor trying to keep her life together while preparing for an upcoming show. A quiet but extremely potent counterpoint to the myth of the creative genius, it’s a fitting synecdoche for the career of Reichardt, who continues to demonstrate the results that come from combining perseverance and intelligence. (Available to stream via Showtime and Paramount+, to rent through various streaming platforms, and to purchase on Blu-Ray and 4K disc from the A24 shop.)

7. Maestro: Hopefully we never have to hear kvetching about Bradley Cooper’s prosthetic nose again. Cooper follows up A Star Is Born by cementing his status as a legitimate auteur in this creatively staged, impeccably acted biography of Leonard Bernstein. Necessarily selective in its treatment of Bernstein’s eventful life, Cooper focuses on his relationship with wife Felicia (an excellent Carey Mulligan) as much as his multifaceted influence on American classical music. Is it something of a vanity piece for Cooper, who’s almost guaranteed multiple Oscar nominations? Sure, but when you’ve got it, flaunt it. (Available to stream on Netflix.)

6. Fallen Leaves: The Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki has been dispensing droll diversions of the Scandinavian sort for over thirty years, and his latest is one of his strongest, most affecting works. It’s a romance, of the sort only cynics can appreciate, between an alcoholic construction worker and a recently fired grocery store worker. Frankly, YouTube user @whyrishabh said it best when they wrote, “Watching this film is like being touched by the gust of fresh, tender breeze all over your body.” (Opened at Living Room Theaters on December 15, but I guess you missed it.)

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5. American Fiction: Taking satirical potshots at the literary establishment definitely counts as going after low-hanging fruit, but this scathing satire wraps race up in its caustic crepe as well. Based on an even more vicious novel by Percival Everett, it centers on a Black literary novelist (expertly played by Jeffrey Wright) who, frustrated with his lack of commercial success, ghostwrites a novel that exploits every African American thug-life stereotype so appetizing to white audiences. Of course, it’s a smash hit. Would make a great double feature with Spike Lee’s Bamboozled. (Opens in Portland on January 5.)

4. May December: Surely it’s not pro-Portland bias that has both a Kelly Reichardt AND a Todd Haynes film in the top ten? Even if that’s the case, Haynes’s latest exploration of performative living is a dense, layered work that allows two of the finest American actors going, Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman, to dig into fresh meat. Though the subject matter, inspired by the Mary Kay Letourneau case, may give some the creeps, it’s a perfect vehicle to explore buried trauma and the vampirism of actors. Also, Persona. (Available to stream on Netflix.)

3. Beau Is Afraid: It says something about the range of Joaquin Phoenix that he could play both Napoleon Bonaparte and the anxiety-ridden mess of a man at the center of this film. (Then again, his Napoleon does share some of the same sexual insecurities…) Director Ari Aster (Hereditary, Midsommar) breaks out of the traditional horror genre to produce something even more terrifying: the psychic demolition of a guy who’s just trying to get home to visit his sick mother. This Oedipal odyssey takes truly absurd twists and turns, including an extended detour living with a bunch of weirdos in a forest. The last act gets a bit too literal, but otherwise this is the scariest movie of the year. (Available to stream via Showtime and Paramount+, to rent through various streaming platforms, and on DVD and Blu-ray.)

2. Barbie: It’s kind of astonishing to remember when Greta Gerwig first showed up in the mumblecore ensembles of Joe Swanberg and the Duplass brothers. Now, a mere fifteen years after her work in Baghead and Nights and Weekends, she’s the director of the year’s biggest box-office hit, which also happens to be an amazing movie, and the chair of next year’s Cannes Film Festival. And it would be impossible to argue that any of these accomplishments are less than fully deserved. The alchemy that she used to transmute problematic IP into a nerve-hitting, hilarious cultural phenomenon may never be replicated, but we can at least be grateful that it happened once. (Available to stream through MAX, to rent through various streaming platforms, and on DVD and Blu-ray.)

1. Poor Things: The two best movies of 2023 are both stories about female empowerment that comes from within. Liberation that is taken, not given. In both Barbie and Yorgos Lanthimos’s bizarre masterpiece, the female protagonists start off as empty shells, unaware of the barriers that society places between them and self-realization. But by the end of each, our heroes have, through their own investigations and adventures, discovered a path to autonomy that their creators never imagined. Paired with extraordinary work from Emma Stone, Mark Ruffalo, and Willem Dafoe, Lanthimos’s unfettered imagination runs rampant. In another Barbie parallel, it’s so gratifying to see the guy who made Dogtooth and The Lobster finally get the full attention of American audiences. (Currently in theaters.)

Honorable mention: You Hurt My Feelings, Past Lives, Oppenheimer, Saltburn, Stop Making Sense

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since, as the manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité; and as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, he pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017 and graduating cum laude in 2020 with a specialization in Intellectual Property. He now splits his time between his practice with Vérité Law Company and his continuing efforts to spread the word about great (and not-so-great) movies, which include a weekly column at Oregon ArtsWatch.

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