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The Pamphleteer’s Top Ten Movies of 2023
Photo by Timothy Eberly / Unsplash

The Pamphleteer’s Top Ten Movies of 2023

The best flicks to hit the big screen last year

Now that another Oscar season has faded to black with Christopher Nolan, Cillian Murphy, and Robert Downey Jr. gaining the plaudits that have long eluded them, it’s time for a clear-eyed look at the last year in cinema. If anything, 2023 proved that the movies still matter. Barbienheimer remains a hot topic of conversation, Taylor Swift’s Eras staved off the impacts of the interminable writers’ and actors’ strikes, and Sound of Freedom changed movie distribution and marketing as we know it.

Still, the trajectory of 2023 didn’t quite pave a path forward for the future of the movies. With the exception of the latest Guardians of the Galaxy, superhero films shifted from the foundation of Hollywood’s business model to the year’s biggest albatrosses. Tinseltown’s nostalgia obsession also came up short when Disney’s The Little Mermaid and Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny underperformed. Even a host of stalwart turn-of-the-century franchise entries like Fast X and the well-reviewed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem and Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning - Part 1 eked out just enough to justify the next entry. 

Regardless, what’s most important is that the movies are not just back, but better than they have been since 1973 or 1999–as long as one knows where to look. Here are The Pamphleteer’s top ten films of 2023:

10) Pacification

International arthouse royalty Albert Serra helms a tropical fever dream that follows a high-ranking French official in Tahiti (Benoît Magimel) keeping up appearances and fending off talk of renewed nuclear testing. With its fly-on-the-wall treatment of wheeler dealers and an ambiguous portrait of colonialism straight from a Conrad who preferred cocktails with umbrellas in them to the jolly lager-beer, it’s a damning indictment of the bureaucratic class. 

9) Surprised by Oxford

God’s not dead, but Ryan Whitaker’s Anglophile romantic drama about a guarded literature grad student (Rose Reid) finding faith in the halls of Britain’s most prestigious university may well prove the Christian movie as we know it is. In adapting Carolyn Weber’s memoir, Whitaker crafts a college coming-of-age tale that probes spiritual life in ways the movies haven’t seen since Ingmar Bergman exited left a decade and a half ago. Charming, smart, and deeply moving, it deserved the sustained hype that Sound of Freedom enjoyed all summer long. 

8) Priscilla

Sofia Coppola cements her status as the chronicler of teenage girls trapped in insular, ritualistic worlds with her take on the Elvis mythos through the eyes of his better half, thanks to an utterly astonishing turn by Cailee Spaeny. Neither hagiography nor the takedown of The King a majority of critics wanted it to be, Coppola’s film is, instead, a meticulously crafted exploration of the South and its place in American pop culture.

7) Eileen

Sure, Margot Robbie was robbed of a Best Actress nomination for Barbie, but the real crime of the Oscar season was the utter absence of Thomasin McKenzie from the conversation for her turn as an isolated New England prison secretary in Eileen. Fantasizing about killing her abusive ex-cop father and displaying a fixation on post-bath detritus that would make the guy in Saltburn blush, McKenzie sums up the psychological weight of World War II on American women in one outlandish look in the mirror. Caught up in the femme fatale hijinks of Anne Hathaway’s Harvard gal Freudian analyst, Eileen comes to terms with herself as director William Oldroyd engages in a sense of tragic regionalism long absent from the American cinema.

6) Asteroid City

Wes Anderson proves once and for all that the kitschy mid-century twee synonymous with his name is merely a tool for grappling with a distinct type of American trauma we’d rather pretend doesn’t exist. As the Junior Stargazers and the adults around them ranging from Tom Hanks, Maya Hawke, and Scarlett Johansson to Anderson perennial Jason Schwartzman, deal with government-imposed lockdowns in the wake of alien contact, Anderson also quite un-accidentally crafts the ultimate pandemic allegory. 

5) The Holdovers

Those who bemoan that the 20-year-old Elf is the closest we have to a contemporary holiday classic need look no further than Alexander Payne’s caustic 1970s-set tale of an outcast teacher (Paul Giamatti) left to attend the riff-raff whose parents abandoned them at their tony New England boarding school over Christmas break. Part top-shelf Hal Ashby with a dash of Dead Poets Society’s darker undercurrents, it's an adult movie that takes direct aim at the elites and the carnage they cause–whether the mire of Vietnam or Harvard’s perpetual plagiarism leniency. As a mother in mourning for her KIA son, Da'Vine Joy Randolph more than deserved her Oscar. In a just world, this one would have been the runaway hit of the holiday season. 

4) The Iron Claw

This gritty retelling of the rise and tragic fall of the Von Erich wrestling dynasty may seem like an unlikely double feature with The Holdovers. Still, both movies seamlessly interrogate the folks left at the margins by those who think they know best. Zac Efron approaches Day Lewis levels of artistry as the Texas clan’s elder brother torn between the quest for stardom his father drilled into him and the well-being of his kid brothers forced to follow in the old man’s footsteps. Sean Durkin has long been American indie film’s most unassuming talent. Now, he’s proven himself a master of deplorable mythology.  

3) May December

Todd Haynes's wry melodrama, loosely based on the life of Mary Kay Letourneau, is a high-comedy admonishment of armchair scandal mongers who get off on others’ tragedy. Natalie Portman stars as the second-string actress looking to reignite her career by playing Julianne Moore’s cougar decades after she’s out of prison and married to the kid she once seduced when he was a middle schooler part-timing as a pet store stock boy. Using Savannah’s insular coastal milieu as a microcosm, Haynes mourns American culture's decline and injects a jolt of humanity into those we live to demonize. 

2) The Zone of Interest

Critics want to dismiss the most important Holocaust movie ever made by citing Hannah Arendt’s “the banality of evil” into banality, but Jonathan Glazer’s detached examination of the Höss family’s pastoral haven next door to Auschwitz may be the cinema’s most vital statement about the dangers of naked ideology and adherence to systems ever put to screen. It’s a singular film that is easy to recommend and nearly impossible to take to heart. 

1) Poor Things

Yorgos Lanthimos took a five-year break after The Favourite, but returned in full force with this riff on Frankenstein about a reanimated woman (Emma Stone) who tries to make sense of polite society when a scarred mad scientist (Willem Dafoe) brings her back to life with the brain of her unborn child. A picaresque that blends the bawdiness of Restoration literature with the Victorian Era’s industrial shifts, Lanthimos’s film is far more concerned with breaking down the sanitized barriers of history and uncomplicated politics than making some type of bland feminist statement tailored to directly appease the culture class and ignite its most vocal enemies. Poor Things is beyond understanding because it’s about the impossibility of understanding. And, thanks to Stone’s undying commitment, it also manages to be one of the few films in recent memory that earns the mantle of provocative in every sense of the word.