Table of Contents
“Sorry, I’m doing my own thing,” says Miles Morales at a crucial moment in Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, rejecting the orthodoxy of his fellow Spider-folk in search of originality. In 2023, the idea of an idealistic outlier who is trying to throw a wrench into the superhero-industrial complex is both inspired and inspiring—especially since the epoch of comic book IP dominance seems to be waning (and on David Zaslav’s watch to boot). But in a more general way, the line describes the MO of the movies on our Best Movies of the Year So Far list. Whether they’ve worked in the mainstream, at the margins, or in between genres, the filmmakers gathered here stared down the status quo—and didn’t blink once.
Honorable Mention: John Wick: Chapter 4
It doesn’t stick the landing, probably because it just keeps on hovering: Not since The Return of the King has a blockbuster featured so many potential endings. That said, it’s understandable why Chad Stahelski and Co. would be reluctant to bid farewell to the decade’s defining action hero, and while John Wick 4 is a long goodbye at 169 minutes, it’s also got plenty to help pass the time. Give it up for, in no particular order, the unflappable Donnie Yen as a blind swordsman; the unrecognizable Scott Adkins as a bloated assassin; the elegant Rina Sawayama, who makes her debut as a new Continental concierge; the late Lance Reddick, who takes his bows as the older one; Bill Skarsgard avec an outrageous French accent as the aristocratic asshole bad guy; and, of course, our man Keanu Reeves, who has aged into a genuine icon and, as an actor, somehow manages to give the title character’s slapstick indestructibility some melancholy edge. Sensational stunts, rigorous physical blocking and camera choreography, judicious but satisfying gore, and an incongruous nod to Frogger—good stuff, Mr. Wick.
I don’t often get to play the Canadian card here, but it’s been a banner year for filmmaking in my home and native land. Matt Johnson’s rollicking BlackBerry origin story has been compared to The Social Network, but it’s closer to a tech-bro riff on Inside Llewyn Davis—a tender but unsentimental portrait of guys smart enough to come up with the Next Big Thing who were still ultimately reduced to a speck underneath an iPhone-sized shadow. The MVP: Glenn Howerton as BlackBerry’s unscrupulous co-CEO, Jim Balsillie, who never met an underling he didn’t want to snap in half.
9. Past Lives
Celine Song’s much-acclaimed Sundance standout concerns a pair of childhood sweethearts who keep finding each other in fateful 12-year intervals: the first time via Facebook after one relocates from South Korea to the United States, the second after he decides to visit New York even though he knows that she is married. As a necessarily compressed single-film riff on Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy and its sliding-door metaphysics, Past Lives is schematic but effective; what makes it work are the performances by Greta Lee and Teo Yoo as these star-crossed not-quite lovers’ adolescent and adult incarnations. Especially in the final act, they make the dance of attraction and reluctance feel simultaneously nimble, awkward, and urgent, while John Magaro, as Lee’s husband, makes for a surprisingly affecting third wheel—a decent, loving, supportive man who’s so sympathetic to his partner’s life story that he risks rewriting his own.
8. Asteroid City
I didn’t exactly love Wes Anderson’s all-star salute to mid-century American aspirations and anxieties; its multilevel narrative and embedded role-playing games felt almost too intricate, as if the director who once displayed a knack for finding the emotional jugular had refined his approach to the point of paralysis. But even if Asteroid City doesn’t totally work, its moving parts are all precisely tuned, with enough terrific moments—many generated between Jason Schwartzman and Scarlett Johansson as wary, wounded lovers stranded in no-man’s-land—to earn a spot on this list. One by-product of Anderson’s detail-oriented filmmaking is that it benefits from repeat viewing, and if there’s one movie on this list that’s likely to improve upon reflection, this is it.
Anybody who’s ever used a laptop as a shield during a weekend in the boonies can identify with the (anti)hero of German master Christian Petzold’s new comedy of manners; sullen, sweaty, and unwilling to jump in the lake even if it means quality time with his vacation crush, 20-something writer Leon (Thomas Schubert) is where the party goes to die. He knows it too, and his inability to get over himself and his probably shitty sophomore novel yields plenty of wonderfully cringey moments—although the point seems to be that awkwardness isn’t the end of the world. For that, the characters only have to look up at the crimson haze blowing in from across the Baltic Sea, the by-product of not-so-far-away forest fires that give the film its title and apocalyptic ambience. It’s hard to blend mumblecore tropes with existential panic, but Petzold makes it work, especially in a final act rife with fleeting, surreal touches.
6. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse
Both installments of the Spider-Verse series have been, to an extent, allegories about occupying, renovating, and subdividing intellectual property; out of an ornery corporate compromise between two companies with claims on an iconic 20th-century character, a talented group of designers, animators, and directors has wrought something close to vital, millennial pop art. On one level, the continuing adventures of web-slingers Miles Morales and Gwen Stacy across various stylized planes of reality satirize the ready abundance of Spider-Man-related content; the twist this time is that both characters (and their alter egos) are obliged to mess with what they—and we—recognize as franchise canon: an existential no-no that’s also the key to truly liberated comic book storytelling. It’s smart stuff, leaps and bounds beyond Marvel’s snarky hegemony, and it’s about as politically progressive as could be expected from a big-studio blockbuster, with a gorgeously illustrated parent-child scene that integrates LGBTQ iconography into not only the story, but the frame itself.
The Catalan director Albert Serra makes slow, droning art movies that invite you to share in their encroaching torpor: You can either surf on his dreamy wavelength or stay ashore. The signature image of his absorbing new Tahiti-set thriller, Pacifiction, finds a group of Pacific Islanders hanging ten, dwarfed by swells bigger and scarier than anything in Point Break—50-foot metaphors for the larger forces swirling through a stormy, globalized economy. Benoît Magimel stars as a shady French diplomat whose rumpled white suit casts him as the veritable embodiment of old-school colonialism, but Serra’s too sly and sophisticated a filmmaker to make him an obvious villain. Instead, Magimel’s eloquent cipher keeps shifting positions—and allegiances—on a lush island chessboard where the rules are written (and rewritten) by the winners, and checkmate is a potentially thermonuclear proposition. At once tactile and impenetrable, this is the hard-core art film of the year so far.
4. Knock at the Cabin
In which a one-man cottage industry in the field of claustrophobic, supernatural parables makes a claustrophobic, supernatural parable set in a literal cottage. Like Signs, Knock at the Cabin is structured as a home-invasion fable, except the intruders aren’t alien this time: In both their teary-eyed reticence and lethal conviction in the name of (human) sacrifice, Dave Bautista and his not-so-merry band of end-of-days fanatics are all too human. The theme—again, like Signs—is faith versus doubt, and give M. Night Shyamalan credit (and respect) for not hedging his bets à la Cabin’s more ambiguously executed source novel. Instead of trendy, no-fault ambiguity, he pushes the material to ideological (and theological) extremes guaranteed to disturb (or piss off) a certain percentage of the audience. And even better, it’s clear that he doesn’t care if he does; even though his spiritual successor, Jordan Peele, is reaching for the A-plus B movie torch, Night remains the industry standard.
3. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.
Kelly Fremon Craig fulfills the promise of her endearingly tough debut, The Edge of Seventeen, with a perfectly realized adaptation of Judy Blume’s kid-lit classic. As the spiritually questing protagonist—whose wish list to the man upstairs inventories a host of social and biological anxieties exacerbated by new-kid-on-the-block status—Abby Ryder Fortson eschews cuteness for the kind of pensive, low-level anxiety that late(ish) bloomers of all kinds will recognize as 100 percent authentic. And as her sweetly attentive but creatively stifled mom who’s never quite outgrown her own teenage doubts, the superbly cast Rachel McAdams does the kind of emotionally precise, seriocomic acting that, in a perfect world, would earn her an Oscar (a small, loaded scene involving the actor and a bird outside her window is sublime). Fremon Craig is a very gifted director: The ’70s period detail is evocative without being overbearing, and the tone never pushes too hard or drifts out of focus. In an interview, Blume herself said that the film improves on her source material; she’s being modest, but she’s also telling it like it is.
2. Dry Ground Burning
No 2023 movie so far vibrates with the political friction of this metafictional gangster thriller, set and shot in Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil and indebted equally to the legacies of Third Cinema and the Mad Max franchise. Boldly torquing reality to suit their science-fictional vision, codirectors Joana Pimenta and Adirley Queirós cast a group of female favela dwellers as self-styled oil pirates, tapping corporate pipelines and selling the runoff at a discount. They’re pitted against an all-male police force whose dark, sleek machinery evokes a faceless authoritarianism—the larger forces that make activism, feminism, and antiestablishment filmmaking risky propositions. That it’s hard at times to tell what’s authentic and what’s speculative here is very much the point of the enterprise, but the mix of radical ideology and hybrid aesthetics is completely galvanizing. The film also has the year’s best hip-hop soundtrack, topped off by a song about a threesome in a helicopter that goes harder than humanly possible.
1. Showing Up
Kelly Reichardt hasn’t made a bad movie in 30 years of writing and directing. With respect to all the usual suspects of capital-A American cinema, I’m not sure that any of her contemporaries could say the same. The gentle—but not too gentle—art-world comedy Showing Up represents a career peak, casting the filmmaker’s muse, Michelle Williams, as a sculptor grinding out a career in academia, depicted here as a vicious circle of Photoshopped flyers, wine-and-cheese receptions, and carefully crafted backhanded compliments from friends and rivals alike. Because Reichardt is such a supple dramatist, she’s able to weave plot strands around her frustrated protagonist so deftly that we don’t notice the narrative arcs until they’re cresting; because she’s so attentive to matters of place and time, Showing Up plays almost like a wry, probing documentary about artistic practice, littered with images of students at work on projects that a less sympathetic satirist would treat as sight gags. A paradox worth pointing out and celebrating: It’s because Reichardt takes artists and artistry seriously that she gets so much comic mileage out of their foibles. There’s no punching down in Showing Up and not much navel-gazing either: just a master of her craft contemplating the myriad difficulties endemic to creating anything, and then making it look effortless.
Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.