Rantz: These were the 10 best films of 2023

Dec 31, 2023, 5:31 PM | Updated: Jan 1, 2024, 7:39 pm

Image: An image from the movie "Saltburn"...

"Saltburn" stars Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi and Rosamund Pike. (Photo courtesy of Amazon MGM Studios)

(Photo courtesy of Amazon MGM Studios)

Who saw the 2023 box office reality coming? The landscape presented a striking contrast between genres that soared and those that stumbled in the post-COVID-19 era’s return to theaters.

On the one hand, audience preferences significantly shifted, with audiences saying no to superhero films (“The Marvels,” “The Flash” and “Aquaman” and the “Lost Kingdom”) and some action-adventure blockbusters (“Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part 1” and “Fast X”). Some of the results weren’t so shocking: the truly dreadful final “Indiana Jones,” which should never have been made, flopped.

Perhaps this means studios will rely less on continuing old franchise films and create more fresh, interesting, and provocative films. Warner Bros’ “Barbie” and Universal’s “Oppenheimer” were among the biggest successes, with “Barbie” becoming the highest-grossing movie of the year at $1.44 billion and the three-hour-long “Oppenheimer” amassing $951 million.

The domestic box office totaled roughly $8.58 billion in 2023, a notable rebound since the pandemic but still short of pre-pandemic levels. The number of film releases was lower compared to previous years, with 88 movies released in 2023 compared to 108 in 2019. But less was more when it came to quality, at least. This past year featured truly spectacular filmmaking, unforgettable performances, and shining new filmmakers. Here are the 10 best films of 2023.

The ten best films of 2023

10. “Gran Turismo,” directed by Neill Blomkamp, offers a rousing and inspirational retelling of Jann Mardenborough, wonderfully portrayed by Archie Madekwe, from gamer to professional racer. David Harbour complements with a strong performance as Jann’s mentor, Jack Salter. The film excels in its fast-paced and emotionally engaging narrative, capturing the thrilling essence of professional racing in ways that few films have been able to. It stands out for its effective blend of inspiration, action, and heart, making it a compelling watch that resonates with audiences seeking a blend of excitement and motivational storytelling.

9. “May December,” directed by Todd Haynes, delivers another masterclass in complex, nuanced, darkly comical storytelling with its exploration of relationships and moral ambiguity. It’s loosely based on the Mary Kay Letourneau crime. Charles Melton’s portrayal of Joe Yoo, a man robbed of his adolescence thanks to a predatory relationship with a much older woman, is exceptional, offering a depth that makes his performance Oscar worthy. The film manages to avoid clear-cut moral judgments, which lets the viewer sit with a narrative that’s both challenging and thought-provoking.

8. Randall Park’s “Shortcomings” is a sardonic character study that stood out for its rejection of rom-com tropes. The film excels in portraying supposed cultural taboos, with a standout performance from Justin H. Min as Ben, a snobby movie buff who deals with the perceived (and actual) conflicts between identity and love. The film’s strength lies in its ability to address complex themes with a lighthearted touch, navigating some tricky themes with both humor and honesty in ways that never seem woke.

7. John Carney’s latest gem is “Flora and Son,” a film showcasing the intersection between music and life’s raw complexities. The story may be simple, but delivers a captivating story about the gritty yet soulful lives of a working-class Dublin family. Eve Hewson kills it as Flora, a single mother whose effort to bond with her troubled son, Max (Orén Kinlan), through music, is both heartfelt and profound. Joseph Gordon-Levitt adds a surprisingly compelling layer as Flora’s long-distance music teacher.

6. “Anatomy of a Fall,” deftly directed by Justine Triet, stands out as a compelling drama that effectively weaves a murder (?) mystery with a deep and uncomfortable examination of a turbulent marriage. Sandra Hüller and Milo Machado Graner deliver remarkable performances, portraying the complex dynamics of a mother-son relationship set against the backdrop of a tragic event where a son, who happens to be blind and the trial’s only witness, wonders if his mother is guilty. Hüller’s portrayal of Sandra is stunning — she can be a warm and caring mother in one scene, and cold and distance defendant in another. This is how a courtroom drama should be. It wasn’t just a murder at the center of the trial, but a troubled marriage.

5. There was never a film that seemed less necessary than “Wonka.” I was shocked to be so wrong. The origin story of the quirky chocolatier delivers with warmth and whimsy, exceeding all expectations. Timothée Chalamet delivers a shockingly captivating and breezy performance. The vibrant and colorful cast adds depth and humor. This film became a multi-layered story that offers much more than meets the eye, with Hugh Grant’s Oompa Loompa stealing the film. One should never doubt director Paul King. (Though, in my defense, the trailer is awful.)

4. “Past Lives,” by newcomer Celine Song, is about two people destined to be together but cannot because of a life choice — or series of choices — they make. It’s about a willingness to torture oneself over a love that will likely never happen. This is a raw romantic drama that could be both uplifting or emotionally devastating depending on how you look at the characters’ love for one another. Greta Lee and Teo Yoo deliver deeply affecting performances, perfectly capturing the nuanced emotions of a love that makes one vulnerable, all delivered with subtle tenderness. It’s a film approached with deep sensitivity that lingers with you long after viewing.

3. The visually stunning “Spider-Man: Across the Spiderverse” managed to, again, redefine the limits of animated films. The animation itself is a character, conveying the story as much as the dialogue. It wasn’t just thrilling to watch, of course. The voice acting, led by Shameik Moore as Miles Morales, is extraordinary in a sequel that has as much heart as it does relentless action sequences. It was hard to believe this sequel could surpass the first, yet it did in every way. The film’s innovation is also likely why it wasn’t subject to the superhero box office woes — this film delivers.

2. “Oppenheimer,” directed by Christopher Nolan, emerged as a cinematic tour de force (a term you can’t truly understand until you see this on the biggest screen you can), brilliantly combining visual spectacles with profound storytelling that never feels heavy handed. At the helm is Cillian Murphy, who delivers a mesmerizing performance as J. Robert Oppenheimer. This film masterfully navigates the intricate and conflicting layers of its protagonist, while also casting a critical eye on Senator Lewis Strauss (portrayed by Robert Downey Jr.) and his blatant political maneuvering and opportunism. True to Nolan’s signature style, the score is a driving force to amplify the tension and urgency as scientists race against time in their monumental task to develop the bomb. Remarkably, the film avoids the pitfall of preachy moral lessons, choosing instead to delve into the characters’ emotional turmoil over the implications of his creation. Despite its intellectual depth (it’s quite brainy) and a runtime of three hours, Oppenheimer stays as captivating as it is accessible, balancing the science with the human story at its core.

1. Saltburn stands out as an unpredictable and nearly indescribable cinematic experience. It dives deep into the depths of obsession, offering a modern, darkly twisted interpretation reminiscent of “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” Barry Keoghan delivers a performance that is nothing short of remarkable, embodying a character who manages to be both sinister and pitiable as a fish-out-of-water. You almost feel bad rooting for him. The cast is impeccable, with each actor bringing to life distinct, multifaceted characters. Rosamund Pike, in the role of Elsbeth, shines particularly bright, delivering lines with a sharp, sardonic wit that adds depth to the story (“She’d do anything for attention,” she says of a friend’s suicide). Saltburn daringly ventures into uncharted territories, culminating in a shock ending. It’s a delicate tight rope director Emerald Fennell walks as she balances the film between being disturbing and fun. Saltburn not only sets a new high for dark comedies, but stands out as the best film of 2023.

A number of these films were nominated for the Critics Choice Awards, of which I’m a voting member via the Broadcast Film Critics Association. The awards show airs on The CW on Sunday, Jan. 14. Rush to see these films before the awards show.

Listen to the Jason Rantz Show on weekday afternoons from 3-6 p.m. on KTTH 770 AM (HD Radio 97.3 FM HD-Channel 3). Subscribe to the podcast here. Follow Jason on X, formerly known as TwitterInstagram and Facebook.

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