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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, April 20, 2024

Best films of 2023

Be sure to watch Barbenheimer, Past Lives and other prime picks from the year that brought audiences back to the cinemas.

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Dominic Sessa, Paul Giamatti and Da’Vine Joy Randolph star in “The Holdovers.”

2023 was a big year for movies. As Hollywood continued to recover from the pandemic, the industry was shaken by unprecedented strikes as the actors’ and writers’ unions fought for fair pay and protections against artificial intelligence. Amid the chaos, audiences returned to the theaters, making 2023 the highest grossing year for movies since 2019. But it wasn’t the big-budget blockbusters that brought in the most money this year, as audiences showed in their excitement for new, original projects. With awards season in full swing, let’s take a look back at what Hollywood had to offer last year. In no particular order, here are the Daily’s picks for the best films of 2023:

Barbie” & “Oppenheimer”

No discussion of last year’s movies would be complete without everyone’s favorite cinematic duo that captured theatergoers’ attention last summer. Released on the same day in July, the combined box office success of “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” gave Hollywood its fourth-largest opening weekend in history. What could have been a rivalry turned into an unlikely double feature as fans and cast members encouraged audiences to embrace the differences between the two films. Cillian Murphy and Margot Robbie’s joint interview for Variety last month demonstrates just how much admiration the films’ actors have for one another.

But the films didn’t just bring audiences back to movie theaters — each one is groundbreaking in its own right. Greta Gerwig’s Barbie” is a singular feat of filmmaking that was embraced by audiences worldwide. Its script, written by Gerwig with her husband Noah Baumbach, is endlessly clever and filled with meta-jokes that comment on gender roles, consumerism and Mattel, the very company that produced the film. Its sleek costume and set designs welcome viewers into Barbie’s world, and its eclectic soundtrack, produced by Mark Ronson and Andrew Wyatt, helps to tie the story’s themes together. With a perfectly cast ensemble led by a charming Margot Robbie, a formidable America Ferrera and a sublime Ryan Gosling, Barbie is more than just a cultural phenomenon — it’s a sign of a changing industry that’s ready to embrace new kinds of stories.

In “Oppenheimer,” director Christopher Nolan reunites with his frequent collaborator Cillian Murphy, finally giving him the leading role that he deserves. Murphy’s nuanced performance as the “father of the atomic bomb” is the heart of Nolan’s three-hour historical epic, which dives deep into Oppenheimer’s development of the bomb and the political aftershocks that followed. With incredible performances from supporting cast members Emily Blunt and Robert Downey Jr., a brilliant score by Ludwig Göransson and impeccably crafted visuals created with practical effects, Nolan turns real-life events into cinematic gold.

“The Holdovers”

Director Alexander Payne transports viewers back to the 1970s with the story of Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), a curmudgeonly boarding school teacher who’s forced to stay on campus to take care of the students who have nowhere to go over Christmas break. Giamatti’s dynamic performance as an unpopular history professor is the perfect counterpart to Angus Tully, who is played by talented newcomer Dominic Sessa. Tully is a student left on campus during break who forms an unlikely friendship with his teacher. But it’s Da’Vine Joy Randolph who steals the show as the school’s head cook, Mary Lamb, an outsider at the elite boarding school who is grieving the loss of her son. The characters feel authentic, and the heartwarming script doesn’t need any big moments to make you feel deeply invested in the story. Filmed in snowy Massachusetts (with one scene in the Somerville Theatre!), Payne’s direction and Eigil Bryld’s cinematography perfectly capture the 1970s aesthetic, evoking powerful feelings of nostalgia as the characters search for meaning in their lives.

“Poor Things”

One of the year’s most bizarre films (and one of its best), Yorgos Lanthimos’ tale of self-discovery is like nothing you’ve ever seen before. After a mad scientist (Willem Dafoe) in 1800s London resurrects a deceased young woman (Emma Stone) using the brain of her unborn child, she embarks on a fantastical journey of self-discovery through a steampunk Victorian world. Based on a 1992 novel inspired by Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” Lanthimos’ creativity is at its peak in “Poor Things.” Emma Stone’s astonishing performance as Bella Baxter is the highlight of the film, as she transforms from a crudely reincarnated corpse to an intelligent young woman. The film’s cinematography and set design is some of the best of the year, and a hilarious Mark Ruffalo leads a talented supporting cast.

“Killers of the Flower Moon”

Martin Scorsese’s widely anticipated epic drama tells the harrowing true story of the oil-rich Osage Nation and a series of murders that destroyed their community in 1920s Oklahoma, orchestrated by local political boss William King Hale (Robert De Niro). While the 3½ hour film devotes plenty of time to the killings and their impact on the tribe, the story at its heart is about the relationship between Hale’s nephew Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his wife Mollie (Lily Gladstone), an Osage woman whose wealth Hale and Burkhart seek to profit off of. The haunting story represents an often overlooked moment in American history, and Scorsese’s efforts to center indigenous voices in “Killers” come across in his storytelling. Gladstone’s powerful performance is the emotional core of the story, and the late Robbie Robertson’s beautiful score pairs perfectly with the film’s sharp editing and Scorsese’s meticulous direction.

“Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse”

The latest installment in Sony’s animated Spider-Man series is the rare sequel that outshines its predecessor with new settings, incredible visual styles and a multiverse of characters that continues to grow. As Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) and Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) continue their interdimensional journey, the film’s astonishing comic-style animation and its fully realized storytelling keep audiences on the edge of their seats, up to the jaw-dropping cliffhanger at the very end of the film.

“Past Lives”

You wouldn’t guess that “Past Lives” is writer-director Celine Song’s first film, because her masterful storytelling is on display from the movie’s opening moments to its final heartbreaking scene. Greta Lee is captivating as Nora Moon, a South Korean immigrant now living in New York who contemplates how her life has changed when she reconnects with Hae Sung, an old friend from her childhood (Teo Yoo). The film’s intimate, beautifully simplistic narrative is propelled forward by the humanity of its characters and the chemistry between its lead actors.

A Few More 

“Theater Camp” — The small-budget film starring real-life childhood best friends Ben Platt and Molly Gordon could have easily been a clichéd sendup of theater kids, but the relationships at the heart of its story and its hilarious script make it worth the watch.

“Asteroid City” — Wes Anderson’s latest film is perhaps his most ‘Wes Anderson’ film yet, and his commitment to meta-storytelling, production design and an incredible ensemble of actors are sure to entertain fans of the director’s work.

“Nyad” — The story of long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad is remarkable for its depiction of her athletic feats, but it’s the endearing relationship between Nyad (Annette Bening) and her coach Bonnie Stoll (Jodie Foster) that gives the film a spot on this list.

“Rustin” — Many people haven’t heard of Bayard Rustin, the openly gay civil rights activist who organized the March on Washington, D.C., but they’ll never forget him after seeing Colman Domingo’s tour de force lead performance.