Barbie Dream Scenario

Crisis at the Box Office, Part Deux: The Best Movies of 2023

December 25, 2023Ben MK

One of the most turbulent years for the film industry since the height of the pandemic, 2023 marked a turning point for Hollywood. With both the actors and writers unions voting to strike in protest of the inequalities brought about by the rise of streaming services and artificial intelligence, the news became more about the behind-the-scenes drama rather than what's on-screen. And with Hollywood brought to a standstill, moviegoers saw some of their most highly anticipated upcoming releases delayed to 2024 and beyond. Despite all that turmoil, however, cinema-going audiences were nonetheless treated to some of the most high-caliber movies in recent memory. Yet, when it comes to the roller coaster ride of a year in film that was 2023, there were ten movies that stood out above the rest as clear contenders for the title of the year's best.

For over 60 years, the star of Mattel's bestselling doll line has served as a role model, style icon and even a best friend for millions of impressionable children around the world. And now, thanks to writer-director Greta Gerwig, Barbie is finally making her long-awaited live-action debut. What makes Barbie special, however, isn't its commitment to replicating the pink plastic perfection of Barbieland and its like-minded inhabitants, but the message of the film itself. Uproariously funny yet achingly heartfelt, the result is a crowd-pleasing blockbuster that wows moviegoers with its fun and colorful visuals, dazzling pop soundtrack and star-studded cast, while also walloping viewers with a timely reminder about the continuing need for gender equality in the workplace and beyond. At the heart of it all, though, it all comes down to the universal question of what it means to be human. And despite basically being a tale about dolls, that's where Barbie excels.

Filmmakers like Guillermo del Toro, Wes Anderson and Richard Linklater have all done their part to champion the notion that animation can also be a viable storytelling medium for adults. And with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller proved that it was indeed possible to make an animated feature with mass appeal for both grown-ups and kids alike. Now, Lord and Miller are back with a followup bursting at the seams with superhero spectacle and blink-and-you'll-miss-it Easter Eggs. From the dimension-jumping set pieces to the uncountable variations of Spider-Men and Spider-Women, there's no shortage of action-packed eye candy to keep viewers on the edge of their seats. What's even more impressive, though, is just how much heartfelt emotion and gravitas is packed into Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, which keeps our heroes' journeys feeling intensely personal, despite the film's record-setting high stakes.

Whether it's the sleight-of-hand suspense of The Prestige, the sci-fi drama of Interstellar, or the time-bending thrills of Tenet, Christopher Nolan's repertoire is virtually flawless. And with Oppenheimer, the 52-year-old writer-director maintains that record, as he takes viewers on a decades-spanning journey about J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), the father of the atomic bomb. As one of history's most divisive figures, Murphy completely disappears into the role of a man who begins with altruistic intentions but who comes to be dogged by the terrifying reality of his own achievements. It's a part that proves just as engaging as watching Leonardo DiCaprio plan a heist into the human psyche, or witnessing Christian Bale battle Heath Ledger. And while the rest of the cast — especially Robert Downey Jr. as Oppenheimer's power-hungry, secret nemesis, Lewis Strauss — is unquestionably stellar, it's impossible not to be mesmerized by Murphy's haunting portrayal.

When you think of holiday movies, you might think of films like How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Elf, or A Christmas Carol. Every now and then, however, a holiday movie comes along that doesn't quite fit the standard genre boilerplate. Marking a long-overdue reunion between director Alexander Payne and star Paul Giamatti, who last worked together on 2004's Sideways, The Holdovers is a film steeped in the grainy, post-Vietnam aesthetic of 1970s cinema, making it a fitting companion piece to other teen coming-of-age movies from the era. Bolstered by all-around superb performances from the cast, especially Giamatti, newcomer Dominic Sessa and their co-star, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, this is a story about finding friendship, family and strength in the unlikeliest of places. And even though it takes place a century and a half in the past, it's the universal appeal of that very theme that’s guaranteed to make The Holdovers mandatory — if not, ironic — seasonal viewing.

A master storyteller whose eagerly anticipated works have touched the hearts of animation fans and general audiences alike, Hayao Miyazaki doesn't just make movies — he makes event movies. And with his 12th feature masterpiece, The Boy and the Heron, Miyazaki has done it yet again, this time with a fantasy-infused, wartime drama about an adolescent boy struggling to cope with the death of his mother. Based on Genzaburo Yoshino's 1937 novel "How Do You Live?," the result is a beautifully drawn, breathtakingly animated tale that has no trouble enthralling viewers from the very first frame to the moment the credits start to roll. Rich with symbolism and overflowing with densely layered thematic mythology, The Boy and the Heron is a worthy addition to Miyazaki's acclaimed body of work. And considering the recent news that the 82-year-old filmmaker isn't quite done with making films yet, perhaps it won't be the final chapter in his remarkable legacy.

Turning a beloved movie into a hit song-and-dance production means honoring the spirit of the original while also crafting something new. And with The Color Purple, director Blitz Bazawule does just that, as he turns Steven Spielberg's somber, groundbreaking 1985 drama into a joyous, musical celebration. It's a fine line to walk, due to the story's themes of racism and sexual and domestic abuse. Thankfully, Bazawule and screenwriter Marcus Gardley don't just have the characters sing and dance around the film's subject matter, but instead confront it head on. The result is a decades-spanning odyssey of hope, love and forgiveness that's guaranteed to resonate with all audiences. What will stay with viewers the most, however, is Fantasia Barrino's portrayal of the movie's main character, Celie. It's her performance that makes The Color Purple as life-affirming as it is. And in a year marked by so much real-world conflict, that's exactly what moviegoers need right now.

Whether it's a beloved pop culture icon, an all-woman squad of superheroes, or a no-nonsense action heroine, Hollywood has conditioned audiences to come to expect a certain style of storytelling when it comes to feminist-themed movies. But with Poor Things, director Yorgos Lanthimos intends out to upend those expectations, in this offbeat tale about a mad scientist and his creation. Based on the 1992 novel by Scottish author Alasdair Gray, the result plays like the twisted offspring of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. Ultimately, though, it's Emma Stone's tragicomic portrayal of the film's leading lady that helps Poor Things and its powerful themes of sexual liberation and gender equality resonate so strongly. Suffice to say, fans of Lanthimos' previous work will find no shortage of quirky, unsettling and downright laugh-out-loud moments. In the end, however, it's the movie's feminist message that will stay with viewers the most.

One of author Roald Dahl's most beloved creations, Willy Wonka is a character who has held a special place in moviegoers' hearts for decades. And now, Paddington director Paul King is setting out to tell the never-before-told origin story of literature's most famous chocolatier. Bursting with singalong-worthy musical numbers, family-friendly comedy, and more visually resplendent set pieces than you can shake a candy-themed walking stick at, Wonka is chock-full of everything viewers might expect. Most importantly, though, it's a film that's brimming with genuine heart. And while it's certainly a dazzling spectacle to behold, it's the movie's sincere emotional core that proves the most enduring once the credits begin to roll. Suffice to say, only time will tell if Willy Wonka will one day gift viewers with another candy-colored, big screen adventure. Until then, audiences will be plenty preoccupied with trying to get the Oompa Loompa song out of their heads.

We all have dreams. And at the end of the day, no matter how weird the dream might be, we can always rest assured that it's just fantasy. But what if what happened in our dreams actually had a very definitive impact on our lives in the real world? That's the situation facing the main character in writer-director Kristoffer Borgli's surreal horror comedy Dream Scenario, in which an ordinary man (Nicolas Cage) finds his life turned upside down after he suddenly starts appearing in the dreams of random people around the world. A surrealist noir comedy that also has something to say about cancel culture and the influencer lifestyle, what follows is as darkly hilarious as it is deeply disturbing. That said, it's still Cage's performance as the film's befuddled and bumbling protagonist that makes Dream Scenario as entertaining as it is. Suffice to say, the result is one of the most unique and imaginative movies of the year — so, in other words, don't sleep on this one.

When it comes to cars, like any other consumer product, brand recognition is everything. And with Ferrari, director Michael Mann sets out to tell the real-life story behind one of those iconic names, in this gripping biopic of Enzo Ferrari, a man whose ambition and vision changed the sport of automotive racing forever. Pure precision filmmaking that strikes a winning balance between form and function, the result earns a top spot in Mann's impressive filmography alongside the likes of such modern cinematic classics as Heat, Collateral and The Last of the Mohicans. It's the movie's stellar cast, however, that really make it as compelling as it is. Whether it's Adam Driver, who's commanding behind the wheel of this high-performance drama, or Penélope Cruz, who's the fuel that propels the film to the finish line, the acting is top-gear through and through. And as far as year-end theatrical releases are concerned, moviegoers couldn't ask for a better Christmas present.

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