We are closing in on the top spot for the HeadStuff Film writers’ Best Movies of 2023. If you haven’t caught our picks from #20 to #11, you can check them out first. Now, let’s jump back in with our top ten.
10. Anatomy of a Fall
Far more intelligent people than me have had far more space and time to ruminate on how much we all seem to love true crime, and what it says about our culture that we do. The most compelling explanation I’ve heard for our obsession is that it’s the most palatable way to engage with the worst possible things we can imagine happening to us; real enough to haunt, distant enough to titillate. If that is indeed the case, then Anatomy of a Fall immediately renders 95% of true crime media utterly redundant.
Of course, it’s not a true crime film, but it seemed to me to resemble what the ultimate true crime film would look like, if it had limitless access to every event, every participant, every perspective, every contradiction, and boundless reserves of empathy and compassion. Justine Triet produced a movie so sober, thoughtful and immersive that it felt more real, and thus emotionally affecting, than half the entertaining but lurid documentaries about unsolved deaths that might flash across your eyeballs or through your headphones. The individual performances in the movie were universally terrific, but li’l Milo Machado-Graner deserves particular credit for the tenderness he brings to the movie as Daniel, and how accomplished he is as portraying the sort of insane emotional stress the events of the film would place on a child, without coming across as histrionic. Anatomy of a Fall is a film with enough depth and nuance to appeal to pretty much everyone, and it’s unsurprising the critical acclaim has been so universal. Jack Stevenson
9. Beau is Afraid
Beau is Afraid was a three hour long film that I would have quite happily allowed to run for another three hours. Ari Aster crammed so many ideas into it, and wandered down so many rabbit holes, that he should objectively be creatively exhausted for life. I was certainly mentally exhausted coming out of the cinema, but I also felt the sort of ‘runners high’ that runners claim to achieve from, well, running. While Ari Aster’s previous two films featured far more overtly upsetting and gruesome imagery, I thought Beau is Afraid was equally as effective at sustaining a level of real dread in you while you watched, particularly with the plot being so abnormal and unpredictable, so you really didn’t know what you’d be confronted with in the next five minutes.
It was also genuinely, uproariously funny, and also, as absurd and pathetic a character as Beau was and as gratuitously bizarre as his adventures were, he was an obviously brilliant everyman, a blank canvas (albeit a canvas played with colossal panache by Joaquin Phoenix) for any and all neuroses you may possess to be splattered across. Most importantly, Beau is Afraid was just an utterly unique cinematic experience that I’ll be going into every film looking to replicate. To be confined in a dark room, wholly absorbed in a strange dream world, is all I want from going to the movies. In that respect, for me, Beau is Afraid was the perfect film. Jack Stevenson
8. Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part 1
After saving cinema from the COVID-19 pandemic in 2022, with Top Gun: Maverick, Tom Cruise is back to take on Hollywood’s latest foe — AI. And oh boy, does he put up a helluva fight!
Overshadowed at the box office by the Barbenheimer phenomenon, Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One joins the ranks of recent blockbusters – Dune and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-verse – opting to split their stories into piece meals; meaning we’ll have to wait till 2025 to see how it all pans out. But if Part Two is anything like its predecessor, it’ll be worth the wait. While Cruise’s previous outing, the marvellous Top Gun: Maverick, relied on good ol’ fashioned Hollywood schmaltz, Dead Reckoning ramps up the action to a head-spinning degree. Though it may not quite reach the level of intensity seen in Fallout, Dead Reckoning boasts a couple action sequences that undoubtedly rank among Cruise’s most extraordinary. The last set piece alone will have you giggling with joy, so much so that you may even say to yourself, if only a whisper: “The movies are back.” Cruise – 1. AI – 0. Brian Bowe
7. The Killer
Unfortunately, David Fincher films are rare these days. The man who made two of the greatest films of the 21st century, Zodiac and The Social Network, struggled for years to get films financed. He ended up signing a deal with Netflix and The Killer represents only his second film in nearly 10 years. While his last film, Mank, didn’t land with many viewers, it was a critical success; winning 2 Oscars from 10 nominations. The Killer is a very different film and in many ways it’s a return to Fincher’s stylised genre roots.
Michael Fassbender plays the titular assassin and when a hit goes wrong in Paris, he finds himself targeted by his former employer and seeks vengeance. Stripped and intuitive, The Killer is a thoroughly brilliant exercise in focus and simplicity, the director’s methods mirroring the calculated and mantra driven mind of Fassbender’s violent but precise killer.
Fassbender is supported by a range of great character actors, peaking at his face off with Tilda Swinton towards the end of the film, a scene of beauty and tension showcasing both actors brilliance. This quiet battle of morals between the two killers is preceded by one of the most brutal and visceral fight scenes you will see in any film from 2023. That’s how Fincher likes it – thoroughly engrossing in its quietness and utterly enthralling in its violence. Peter Morris
6. Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves
I don’t think anyone was expecting much from Dungeons & Dragons, so the fact that it turned out to be really rather enjoyable was a very welcome surprise. And not only did it turn out to be a fun and inventive fantasy film, it served as a much-needed reminder that movies based on existing game properties can actually be good!
Honor Among Thieves is smart enough to avoid hand-holding, letting its audience piece things together and generally not letting the lore get in the way of a good time: which, come to think about it, is also what a good D&D session should look like. There’s also something particularly apt in having John Francis Daley (aka Sam Weir from Freaks and Geeks) as on half of the directing team. It’s rare that I look forward to any franchise branching out further, so the fact that that is what I’m saying here is about as big a compliment as I can pay these days. Now, if any sequels could properly lean into the queer subtext just longing to be text, I would be very happy indeed. Sarah Cullen
Greta Gerwig’s Barbie provided one half of the biggest event in cinema this summer, Barbenheimer. Although the film at times feels like a two hour SNL skit, the set design, performances and script are some of the most creative entries the picturehouses have seen in a long time. Margot Robbie’s Barbie and Ryan Gosling’s incredibly memeable Ken take the audience from Barbieland to the real world and back again, providing nuanced social commentary, emotional suckerpunches and a seriously catchy soundtrack in the process. One scene, where Barbie is chased by Will Ferrell and corporate Mettel goons through an office space with Charli XCX’s “Speed Drive” playing in the background was particularly memorable, encapsulating the film’s sense of fun and earwig quality. Equally memorable, albeit for different reasons, is Barbie and Ken’s respective discoveries of self throughout the film (even if Gosling’s route takes a few less admirable turns than Robbie’s, such as turning Barbie’s dreamhouse into a “mojo dojo casa house”).
Barbie will live long in my memory for the simple reason that I had to queue behind fifty to sixty (mostly adult) people dressed in neon pink and cowboy hats in order to see it. All in all, a sublime moviegoing experience. Jonathon Boylan
4. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse
In 2018, Sony struck gold with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Oscar gold to be more specific as the film won Best Animated Feature at the 91st Academy Awards). It was a real surprise of a film that took a very refreshing approach to the familiar spider-man origin narrative and introduced us to a new hero, Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore).
Its sequel takes us “across the spider-verse” with an incredible multiverse adventure that includes a number of beautifully animated worlds, a range of satisfying call-backs to other iconic Spider-Man adaptations, a richly layered narrative and a whole new roster of other likeable Spider-Man variants (including a scene-stealing Spider-Punk voiced by Daniel Kaluuya). If ever there was an argument against superhero movies becoming tired and redundant then look no further than this one. Here’s hoping Sony go three for three and go ‘beyond’ the standard of this film when Spider-Man: Beyond The Spider-Verse swings into cinemas next year. Seán Moriarty
After winning all the plaudits (and losing all the Oscars), writer/director Todd Field’s third feature stands on its own two feet as a daring, diverting and discomforting piece of prestige cinema. Cate Blanchett delivers her best performance in a career full of bests as Lydia Tár, the acclaimed but conceited conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic who finds herself embroiled in a #MeToo-flavoured takedown, for which she has no-one to blame but herself. Tár could easily have become overly-concerned with current events, but with style, grace and intelligence, it transcends contemporary talking points to emerge as a tale of thwarted ambition and the corrupting power of power itself.
Field makes this a portrait rather than a statement, daring the audience to spend their time with this ingenious but deeply flawed woman. Tár’s sleek and sterile look, unnerving sound design, and terse but eloquent dialogue put you on edge from the beginning, and it never lets up until arriving at its darkly hilarious conclusion. Blanchett is the mesmerising anchor around which Field crafts this tale, with a cold but incisive eye reminiscent of his one-time director Stanley Kubrick. Tár is an insightful, instructive masterpiece. Philip Bagnall
Did any of us really doubt Christopher Nolan? Arriving at somewhat of a crisis point in the film industry, Oppenheimer took note of how the world perceived three hour biopics about a historical figure and revitalised it to an extent that it has become Nolan’s most successful film thus far. Oppenheimer deals with difficult subjects but Nolan treats viewers with enough respect and trust to be able to leave the screens with more than just a quick Letterboxd rating.
Cillian Murphy’s performance is astounding and a remarkably large cast is so full of memorable moments for each character that it simply beggars belief. Oppenheimer is a film that simply stops you in your tracks. It’s absurd in how deft it handles its runtime and it will forever be a resounding reminder of the power of grand storytelling in the cinematic format. The final sequence alone will forever be cemented in this writer’s brain. Audiences who were lucky to see it in IMAX still have a ringing noise in their ears but by gosh was it worth it! William Healy
1. Killers of the Flower Moon
Critics often cannot resist the urge to argue that when an aging filmmaker delivers a late-career triumph, the work must be in some way a comment on much of the director’s past efforts. Martin Scorsese’s true American epic is, however, so much more than that. Killers of The Flower Moon is as much a comment on the enduring cruelty of an insufficient representation of an injustice as it is on that very miscarriage of justice. Scorsese’s three-hour elegy is not so much in conversation with his own acclaimed, sometimes violent, filmography as it is in complex discourse with much of American–and particularly Western–cinema.
Typical of the style we’ve seen in the likes of The Irishman, our director has slowed things down considerably. Gone are the frenzied montages, uptempo, slightly salacious depictions of criminality, and mid 20-century pop classics. The harrowing murders of the Osage are often shot in nearly static frames with little fanfare to highlight both how commonplace the dehumanisation had become and the sense of powerlessness we feel as the inevitable is drawn out to intolerable levels. Killers is not about the bad guys getting caught, but more about the collective effort it takes to ensure true debasement of the life of the “other”. It takes a village to raise a child, and so too does it take one to eradicate a people and its culture. That village is not just found in the people of Oklahoma in the 1920s, but in all of us today. In the deeply moving final moments, our director breaks the fourth wall and explicitly reminds us that that act of remembering, and remembering correctly, won’t change our past but it might just help us better understand our present. Mark Conroy