It’s the most wonderful time of the year! That time after Christmas but before New Year’s where you’ve unwrapped the gifts, pulled all the crackers, and consumed your body weight in roast potatoes. What is there left to do? Why go on? Well, before you slip away into a food coma, check out our HeadStuff film critics’ annual picks for The Best Movies of 2023. We’ve crunched the numbers and tallied the votes. Below is our 20-11. Don’t forget to check back for 10-1 which will be announced soon!
20. Knock at the Cabin
It’s been a wild couple of decades for M. Night Shyamalan. Hailed as the saviour of cinema after the transformative success of the Sixth Sense, he had a few hits, then descended to the status of perennial flop merchant. He’s since stabilised his career, and now works as a reliable genre operator – while retaining the quirks that made him such a distinctive voice in the first place.
His latest, Knock at the Cabin, has a compelling setup: a couple and their daughter are taken captive by a doomsday cult who offer an ultimatum, kill one of yourselves to avert the apocalypse. The film plays out as a chamber piece all set in the titular cabin, with a tantalising hook: what if this group is actually telling the truth?
It makes for fun little potboiler, with Shyamalan using novel tactics to heighten the tension, such as making the violence implied rather than explicit, and managing to make it more effective in turn. The film also contains one of the year’s most memorable performances: ex-pro wrestler Dave Bautista as the home invader’s leader. Delivering his dialogue in a gentle, teacherly hush, the utterly jacked actor makes for a striking figure, that seems to dwarf his co-actors and his surroundings.
As the director is wont to do, Knock at the Cabin has a divisive ending (one that irked some fans of Paul G. Tremblay’s original novel), but ultimately it’s another fun addition to M. Night’s career resurgence. Jesse Melia
19. Enys Man
Every film is a stone. Some, like shale, come apart under the gentlest examination. Others are firm favourites like pebbles in a riverbed old and worn by time but still beautiful. There are granite films that glitter the right light. Some are as dull as a rain-soaked footpath. The rarest are the precious stones. Beautiful from every angle they glitter and spark in the light. Enys Men is one of these jewels but it’s edges both where it was cut and where it was not are sharp and its depths are dark, almost impenetrable. Enys Men, Mark Jenkin’s second film set on the Cornish coastline, is evasive and nebulous with all the qualities of a black opal.
Meaning Stone Island in Cornish Enys Men tells the story of the Volunteer (Mary Woodvine) on the titular island. Tasked with tracking the growth of a small plant she soon finds her daily routine disrupted by events from both her own and the island’s past intruding on her present. A girl falling through a skylight. Moss growing on a wound. Miners haunting the island’s deep tunnels. An angler’s floating corpse. Jenkin’s stunningly warm and hazy 16mm camerawork captures these images and more as if they were memories floating before the viewers’ eyes. At once there and not there, ghosts on film. Like every precious stone, each facet of Enys Men flashes and sparks in the light but its depths remain hidden and everyone that looks deep into the heart of Enys Men will come out with something different. Andrew Carroll
18. How to Blow Up A Pipeline
For anyone in the vein of Homer Simpson who was disappointed in To Kill A Mockingbird, they’ll be pleased to hear Daniel Goldhaber’s environmental thriller How to Blow Up a Pipeline follows through on its premise! Following a group of environmental activists who join together to target and destroy a Texan pipeline. Through clever use of sociological storytelling, based on Andreas Malm’s book of the same name, How to Blow Up a Pipeline does an admirable job of juggling numerous intersecting storylines, demonstrating how people from disparate walks of life have their own undeniable need for a better climate future. Big industry looms large on the film’s landscape, with oil rigs and industrial plants always overlooking the characters’ activity, all the way from Alaska to California.
From radical students to disenfranchised farmers through to cancer sufferers whose illness has been caused by air pollution, Goldhaber’s narrative weaves together both their agreements and points of contention to create a complex dialogue – which becomes even more so when up against the all-encompassing barriers erected by the ever-present petroleum industry. How to Blow Up a Pipeline has the frenetic energy – not to mention the twists and turns – of a casino heist movie, but one in which the stakes are much higher than usual. Sarah Cullen
17. Sick of Myself
Between this and Dream Scenario, Kristoffer Bergli has had a busy year. Sick of Myself is a pioneer of its genre; the genre of body-horror comedy. We watch as protagonist Signe, an aspiring influencer based in a neat and fashionable Oslo, battles with her artist boyfriend, Thomas, for the attention of the public. After witnessing a shocking incident, it occurs to Signe that pity might be just as good as admiration, and she comes up with a plan. This plan involves decimating her own body using a dodgy prescription medication, under the guise of falling mysteriously ill. She is willing to sacrifice literal pieces of herself in the hopes of getting likes – one particularly visceral scene sees her fall asleep at the kitchen table in the stylish apartment she shares with Thomas, only to wake up from a nightmare to find that her ruined face is physically stuck to the table.
There is a twisted irony of Signe’s pursuit of social media fame. She and Thomas vie to one up one another with increasingly dire consequences until they cannot push things any further. Sick of Myself is a brightly-lit disaster film; The Worst Person in the World, if it was directed by David Cronenberg or Julia Ducournau. Laoise Slattery
From Brief Encounter to When Harry Met Sally, there have always been great films that interrogate the nature of love. What is its role in our lives; what does it do to us? Passages, Ira Sachs’ effective relationship drama, argues that whatever love’s role in our life, humans are rutting sociopaths that can often destroy the very things they love.
At the story’s centre is Tomas, a mercurial, argumentative control freak who can’t control himself. He finds himself caught in a love triangle between his current partner, the sensitive and retiring Martin, and his magnetic new quarry Agathe.
The film operates in a kind of low-key, slow burn that would dissuade some viewers, but is buoyed by stunning performances by its three leads. While Adèle Exarchopoulos and Ben Whishaw both deliver career-highlight performances, the film’s engine is the ostensible lead, Tomas. Played by Franz Rogowski, this character’s brash and argumentative scenes cut a swathe through the film’s icy remove, and make it one of the year’s best. Jesse Melia
15. Evil Dead Rise
Any doubts I had about Evil Dead Rise were put to rest when a scalping and a decapitation happened in the first five minutes. From there it was all gravy, sticky gory gravy. Pregnant and upset Beth (Lily Sullivan) visits her sister Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland) and her kids Danny (Morgan Davies), Bridget (Gabrielle Echos) and Kassie (Nell Fisher) in their condemned L.A. apartment building. When an earthquake hits the kids discover a bank vault containing a vinyl record and a book bound in human skin. When wannabe DJ Danny plays the vinyl, an old recording of a priest reading from the book summons a demon that possesses Ellie who proceeds to massacre everyone she can get her undead claws on.
You will never look at cheese graters the same way again after Evil Dead Rise. Ditto that for scissors, elevators, wood chippers and a doll’s heads stuck on a broom handle and nicknamed Staffanie for that matter. Lee Cronin has clearly levelled up from his debut The Hole in the Ground and traded in the eerie subtleties of Irish folklore for buckets of blood and guts. His writing is sharp and to the point never lingering too long on the why of the plot instead focusing on the how of a possessed corpse gobbling an eyeball straight from its socket and then spitting it into another person’s mouth. The chainsaw, the boom stick and even Bruce Campbell – in a voice cameo shouting “It’s literally called The Book of the Dead! Don’t read it!” – all return but this is Cronin’s monstrous baby and, Evil Dead or not, I can’t wait to see what he does next. Andrew Carroll
14. May December
Just when you thought the movie year was coming to an end, Todd Haynes delivers a stunner, and what I think is the director’s best since 1995’s Safe. If, like me, you enjoy films that say: “People are incomprehensible… so, I dunno… whatever,” then May December is for you. Its humour has caused much online debate: is it camp? Well, it is — but it’s a lot of other things, too. It’s raw, knotty and nuanced. Sure, It’s deliciously trashy and soapy, but what makes the film so compelling is that it remains emotionally grounded and sensitive the whole way through.
Moore rocks it as usual, while Natalie Portman delivers what I believe to be her career-best. But it’s Charles Melton who steals the show. Known to many as Reggie from the CW teen series Riverdale, Melton’s performance in May December showcases a level of anguish and depth that truly solidifies him as one of the year’s standout performers.
Haynes is without his regular cinematographer Ed Lachman, working here instead with Chris Blauvelt, who previously lensed First Cow back in 2019. He does an equally great job with May December; look no further than the film’s opening for evidence of his stunning sense of imagery. Right from the start you know you’re in safe and skilled hands. Though, in all honesty, nothing can compare to the pure relief I felt when Moore swept back Portman’s bangs during a pivotal scene, good riddance! Brian Bowe
13. Talk to Me
If you consider yourself a card-carrying Horror Freak™, you will likely know that when it comes to horror, the Aussies do it better than anyone. From Wolf Creek to the Babadook, Australian cinema has a proud heritage of psychologically disturbing and grisly fare.
And this year’s horror highlight, the Phillipou brother’s debut feature Talk to Me, adds to that heritage. It begins with an irresistible setup: a group of teens become hooked on a dangerous new party game, using an embalmed hand to communicate with spirits – which of course goes terribly awry.
The film’s directors originally got their start as YouTube creators called Racka Racka, who made punchy and inventive videos about wrestling, Star Wars and Street Fighter. And while Talk to Me doesn’t have the same madcap energy, it still bristles with creativity – with some genuine creepy moments, and some wince-inducing gore (one character in particular has a TORRID time in this film).
The story is tied together with a great performance from lead Sophie Wilde, who gives the film its emotional pulse. So, from its striking, upsetting intro, to its poetically haunting end – Talk to Me marks the Phillipous as horror directors to watch. Jesse Melia
12. Past Lives
The Korean-Canadian director Celine Song’s debut feature Past Lives connects the lives of three individuals over childhood love sacrificed, rekindled, and negotiated across continents. Premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2023, the film begins with the idyllic endearment between schoolmates Na Young (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), only to be torn apart when Young’s family emigrates from Korea to Canada. While they try reconnecting online after several years, their priorities and constraints keep them apart. The dramatic tension in this understatedly-borne, cross-border relationship conflates when Young marries the writer Arthur (John Magaro) from New York, followed by Sung’s visit to the city to meet her and make sense of a liaison that never had the chance to manifest.
The director crafts the story with an impressive narrative economy. It stays grounded in the intimate realities of the characters’ lives alongside spawning metaphysical reflections around fate, destinies, past lives, and the Korean-Buddhist concept of In-yun. For a drama circling as commonplace a theme as unfulfilled love, the film remarkably keeps the narrative threads taut and newfangled, suffused with solemn poeticity. Santasil Mallik
11. Asteroid City
Wes Anderson has become something of an easy target in recent years. He has his devout acolytes, of course, but his detractors are becoming increasingly vocal about taking umbrage with his impish style and perceived lack of depth. To regard Asteroid City as merely an irreverent showcase of his intricate production design and arch, idiosyncratic dialogue, is to miss out on a powerful message about art’s unique ability to move us. Asteroid City is the third “nesting doll narrative” Anderson has given us and it forms an interesting triptych with both The Grand Budapest Hotel and The French Dispatch. Those two films are odes to the European novel and travel writing respectively, but his 2023 drama is an even more impassioned plea for American theatre.
The setup is complex: A 1950s television host guides us through a documentary about the production of a play set in a sun-drenched, isolated desert town. This is not just some cheap framing device, rather Anderson is embracing artifice to make a point about how the fictional can offer a “realer” emotional reality for us than the mundanity of our day-to-day lives. The events of the play are fantastical and borderline ludicrous, but really it’s brought to life by the viewer’s hyper-awareness of make-believe. In the Asteroid City-set sequences, are we watching characters like any other film or actors playing those characters and wrestling with how the story forces uncomfortable feelings?
The emotional climax in the play is cut, instead it is read out with relatively little fanfare in an extraordinary alleyway scene involving Margot Robbie and Jason Schwartzman. They are playing two actors with no real emotional connection to the words, and yet, we feel all the same. Anderson can take away all his bells and whistles, and you’re still moved. Mark Conroy