Pop Mythology’s 10 Best Films of 2023

 

“Post-pandemic” is a very interesting term. Not only is it deceiving in that covid is still prevalent and threatening, but it also implies that we as people living during this time have reached a new era. Sadly, this doesn’t entirely seem to be the case as the few positive aspects of limited social interaction and activity; namely reductions in air pollution, fossil fuel consumption, and street crime; have been largely wiped out in the rush to return to what I ostentatiously dubbed “The Before Times.” Meanwhile, the United States is perilously close to having trauma-induced memory loss by threatening to repeat one of the greatest mistakes in history.

However, one permanent change of the Post-Pandemic Era is in the distribution and consumption of entertainment. I’m sure, even with our memory loss, all of us can recall the speed with which new streaming services popped up to take advantage of the closure of movie theatres and the billions of people around the world forced to stay home. Disney, Paramount, Warner Bros (now Warner Bros-Discovery), and Apple all joined in to compete for the eyes of this captive audience, leaving longtime services like Netflix and Amazon hustling to keep up. As a result, several of the biggest films of the last three years received, at most, short theatrical runs with only the biggest cinematic figures – Spider-Man and Tom Cruise – retaining their Before Times appeal. Of course, it must be noted that this change was inevitable as it allows the biggest corporations in the world to retain more of the public’s entertainment dollars by cutting out movies theaters and not having to pay royalties. One thing that is always true about a crisis is that the richest entities in the world will find a way to profit from it.

In viewing the films of 2023 one theme that came to mind is that of adaptation. Like so many of us living and working in the world, cinema itself seems be undergoing an adjustment period as it tries to find new ways of presenting old ideas. This can be found in the films themselves with several on this list functioning as updated versions of exhausted cinematic tropes; in smaller films which would have previously enjoyed modest theatrical runs finding new life through rapid streaming access; in how larger films are struggling with that same rush to streaming; in franchises such as DC restarting its universe under James Gunn (we’ll talk about him later) and Marvel trying to reestablish its identity (and quality); and even in the industry itself with writer and actor strikes forcing studios to share some of those profits and actually invest in human beings rather than computers to tell stories which draw from more than numbers on a spreadsheet and suggestion lists. All indications are that 2024 will see even more adaptation as IATSE, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, without whom the writers and actors would have no industry to work in, are posed to strike as well. Although trends seldom go this way, perhaps with a little post-pandemic wisdom, cinema in specific and entertainment as a whole can use old ideas and new technology to create a fairer system which allows artists of every sort to share their work with anyone interested and earn a wage which allows to them to share more (and as a novelist myself, that’s all I’ve ever really wanted). We have the means, the methods, all we need is the will. And after such a dark, destructive period in which we were deprived of so much, the least we can be is a little more generous with what we receive.

Finally, I have to state here that some of the films I most want to watch – namely Poor Things, Ferrari, and The Iron Claw – are not on this list, nor are some non-English offerings – Monster, Fallen Leaves, and The Zone of Interest – as they have not been available in the country where I live, are not in a language I understand, or are not available on any streaming service I have access to. I had hoped that by delaying this list until the end of January I’d be able to see some of these films. Nope. For all the billions of dollars streaming services have made by consolidating their properties, exploiting their talent, and cutting out theaters, some movies remain unavailable.


Honorable Mentions:

As bestas (The Beasts) – While in undergrad I wrote a short story which I subtitled “An Agricultural Thriller” yet nothing has more closely fit that description than Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s spellbinding film about growing tomatoes in the Spanish countryside. Touching on themes of xenophobia and exploitation, The Beasts lets the quiet tensions which often shimmer beneath small, insulated communities boil over into terrifying hostility. Although a little too long in execution (we’ll see that criticism again later), The Beasts maintains its unease even through a narrative shift. The film is only an honorable mention on this list because it was originally released in 2022. However, in that year it dominated several international award ceremonies winning multiple best picture, best director, best screenplay, best actor, and best actress awards, with its supporting cast only losing to each other.

Mutt – There is no film on this list which I hope will become more unnecessary than Vuk Lungulov-Klotz’s debut feature. Himself a trans man, Lungulov-Klotz captures the experience of the post-transition period through Lio Miehel’s Feña as he corrects people’s use of his name, answers silly questions, deals with unresolved feelings for his ex-boyfriend, manages his little sister, and tries to avoid looking like a loser upon first meeting his father. Although exceptionally well made, with a grimy, lived-in quality, it’s easy to see that nothing happening on screen would be interesting if not for the person it is happening to, a natural byproduct of a society adapting to greater recognition of its members. For now, Mutt is an important step toward understanding a population that far too many people would rather deny not only rights but existence. For the future, I hope that society will evolve to the point where a film like Mutt isn’t necessary.

They Cloned Tyrone – Rich in color, detail, and character, They Cloned Tyrone continues the recent trend of melding genre films (in this case science fiction) with neo-blaxplotation to create something that feels so much more vital than its tired components. Although not as inventive as Sorry to Bother You or as hilarious as Black Dynamite, Tyrone still finds his own way to surprise and delight the audience with John Boyega’s intensity, Teyona Parris’s heart, Keifer Sutherland’s cackling evil, and Jamie Foxx’s funniest performance in memory serving a narrative that’s just about fifteen percent crazier than our own reality. If nothing else, They Cloned Tyrone earns at least a mention for Erykah Badu’s re-recording of “Tyrone” as “Mutha****as cloned Tyrone (Cloned ‘em).” Although it does lose a little prestige for not adding “And tell him come on, help you get your… self.”


10. The Creator

Image: 20th Century Studios.

Speaking of new approaches to old material, Gareth Edward’s latest science fiction offering is less innovative in what it brings to the human vs. creation genre than in how it brings that genre to life. In an era where even ensemble comedies cost over 100 million dollars to produce, it seems impossible that a film as spectacular as The Creator would cost only (“only” ha!) 80 million dollars. Better still, Edwards’s favoring of filming in front of real locations instead of screens makes his world tactile and familiar while his tactic of completing the film prior to creating the digital effects proves that animators and effects artists don’t have to work inhumane hours to make a film that looks and sounds amazing. While not exactly novel, the film sparks necessary discussion on the use and misuse of artificial intelligence as well as humanity’s history of exploitation. Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus introduced an entire new genre of literature. Hopefully The Creator can introduce an entire new way of presenting that genre on screen.  

9. The Boy and the Heron

Image: Toho.

Hayao Miyazaki’s latest and last film doesn’t become good until after forty minutes, when protagonist Mahito finally breaks out of his mundane environment, and it doesn’t become great until the end credits roll, when we realize Mahito was never the film’s protagonist. Like Mahito, Miyazaki was born into a nation at war with some of his earliest memories being bombed out cities of imperial Japan. Like Mahito, Miyzaki found a way to escape, hopefully not through head trauma, into entirely new worlds often as horrifying as they are wondrous. The Boy and the Heron is the perfect encapsulation of Miyazaki’s legendary career, from his reliance on wartime settings to his obsession with flight to his unmatched talent for world building and/or destroying. Similar to another filmmaker we’ll talk about later, Miyazaki knows that his time is limited. Through The Boy and the Heron, Miyazaki says goodbye to these worlds, both the ones he’s built and the ones he never will, while seeking someone to carry on that legacy after him. Yet, rather than being sad that none can, the film finds joy in the promise that his influence will carry on in its own way, filtered through the imaginations of animators who, like Miyazaki, allow us to live and experience worlds that even the master himself could have never conceived. The Boy and the Heron is a stirring, ponderous, often beautiful farewell from a filmmaker who gave us so much and yet didn’t give us enough. Hopefully is next “last film” will be just as good.

8. The Holdovers

Image: Focus Features.

The Holdovers is the exact type of funny and sad that both Alexander Payne and Paul Giamatti excel in. There’s nothing glamorous in their characters, nothing grandiose in their worlds, and even nothing particularly holy or sentimental in their depiction of Christmas. Yet, lonesome as the characters and their situation are, Payne’s writing never strays into pathos. Instead, there’s buoyancy, even joy in their small moments of finding comfort around uncomfortable people. It helps as well that despite playing a repellent, unlikeable grouch, Paul Giamatti has undeniable charisma which co-stars Dominic Sessa and, especially, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, play perfectly with making each of their exchanges, from the tense to the triumphant, feel alive. The Holdovers isn’t a film of great ideas or innovation and those of us who weren’t alive in the 70’s won’t find any insight nor is there an observation on the meaning or myth of Christmas, and it’s this exact simplicity which makes the film stand out. In line with the holiday itself, The Holdovers isn’t as much about what happens as it is about the people those things happen with. After hundreds of Christmas movies, most of them either leaning too much into or too much against the image of the holiday, we finally have a film for the millions of people for whom the holidays are just a time when every place is closed and the only people around are as lonely as we are.

7. How to Blow up a Pipeline

Image: Neon.

In a better, more united, more purposeful world, How to Blow up a Pipeline would be a dangerous film. With a tiny budget and a cast of unknowns, Daniel Goldhaber’s second feature truly does feel like a determined group of activists raging against our corporate masters. The film’s non-linear, overlapping structure allows the audience to understand each character’s rational and place in the story. While some will look at the cast as a checklist of different demographics, the diversity of both performers and characters reflects the oil industry’s impact on every single person living on this planet now and for the foreseeable future. Granted, my attitude toward the film would change if the narrative were aimed in a different direction – say, for example, How to Poison a Liberal or How to Install a Dictator – but as is this taunt, compelling thriller about young people taking action against the industry which is ruining their lives demands that we consider how much longer we can tolerate environmental destruction before drastic action becomes not only necessary but required.

6. Past Lives

Image: A24.

Drawing heavily from her own life, first time film director Celine Song crafts a simple, low stakes narrative which compels the audience to consider how our decisions, be they ones we made or ones made for us, have changed and altered who we are. Solid filmmaking, effective dialog, and wonderful performances (particularly by Greta Lee) breathe new life into an otherwise stale genre and elevate a personal story into a universal one. In following Nora and Hae Sung we imagine risks we didn’t take, goals we didn’t fulfill, and potential we sacrificed in pursuit of things we considered better. Although lacing in themes of cultural expectations through Nora’s adaptation to her new home and Hae Sung’s development within his old one; romantic expectations in how the characters connect and disconnect from each other; and even genre expectations by stating how an outsider may view its situation, the film remains firmly rooted in the experience of these specific characters, letting us to do the work of bringing ourselves into their relationships. The film dares us to decide what we consider important between who we were and who we are. Showing us who Nora and Hae Sung were as children and who they are as adults, how they are drawn to and diverged from each other, challenges the promise upon which so much of the romantic drama genre is built – that some people belong together – by asking a simple question: When?

5. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3

Image: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

It’s debatable whether another filmmaker would’ve been able to make one of Marvel’s least interesting properties into a compelling (and profitable) film franchise. What isn’t debatable is that no one other than James Gunn could have made these Guardians. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 makes it absolutely clear that Gunn and the Guardians cast love these characters. And this love, both in the way the characters are written and how they’re performed on screen, makes the Guardians films standout among comic book fare. There is of course spectacular action (particularly the third act fight scene that’s among the best in MCU history), a sharp script with on-screen great chemistry, and even the villain is among Marvel’s most engaging, but what no one could have expected is that the love we all have for these characters makes Guardians Vol.3 one of the most painful and fulfilling films of the year. Decades of MCU, DCEU, Star Wars, Game of Thrones and countless other media have conditioned us to associate a finale with death. We were prepared for characters to die. We weren’t prepared for characters to live. Perhaps the greatest compliment Gunn and the Guardians can receive is that Vol. 3 earns a happy ending. With Gunn now serving as co-chairman of DC Studios the debate becomes: Did James Gunn make the Guardians, or did Guardians make James Gunn?

4. Anatomy of a Fall

Image: Le Pacte.

I’m finding it hard to grasp one cohesive thought in describing what makes Juliet Triet’s family legal drama one of the best films of the year. There’s the intelligent script which keeps the audience questioning what we know about the characters and embraces ambiguity. There’s the deliberate pace which at times seems agonizing and yet entirely purposeful as the trickle of new and reframed information deepens the narrative. There’s the absolute powerhouse of a lead performance by Sandra Hüller whose distant demeanor makes her eventual outburst all the more impactful. There’s the beautiful scenery which amplifies the isolation and juxtaposes public life with private. There’s even an understanding of how the media impacts popular interpretation of the legal system and those involved with it. There’s so much that Anatomy of a Fall does well that it becomes hard to focus on any single strength. Triet is in such control of her craft that every element works in seamless cohesion with every other making for a viewing experience that never once feels contrived or inelegant, never rushed or blatant, and that any lulls or distaste or frustration are entirely intentional. Anatomy of a Fall is just a great film. But, if that’s not enough of an argument then I’ll add that Anatomy of a Fall has a really cute dog.

It’s also the film which made me realize that my first rule of storytelling is that nothing bad can ever happen to the dog.

3. Rye Lane

Image: Searchlight Pictures / Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

Here’s the thing about romantic comedies: They suck.

They’re the same tired formula over and over again with two impossibly pretty people meeting and at first they don’t like each other but then they do like each other but they can’t say they like each other but just when they’re about to say they like each other something happens to make them not like each other and then some other stuff happens and in the end they’re all happy and we’re meant to assume they’re destined to stay together forever and see Past Lives to determine how well destiny works.

Here’s the thing about Rye Lane: It’s awesome.

It’s the offspring of Before Sunrise style single-day romance narratives with the vivid colors and fish-eye lens of late 1990’s Hype Williams-directed hip hop videos, if that offspring was born in South London with a wild sense of humor, endless energy, and an appreciation of the necessity of possessing its own copy of A Tribe Called Quest’s Low End Theory for both artistic and sentimental value which some people would call nostalgia but it’s not nostalgia because this is the first time it’s ever met an engaging, intriguing person who it thinks might be interested in it but it’s not sure so it just keeps walking with that person though a vibrant, nearly overwhelming city yet feels and at times looks entirely alone in its own little bubble with only that other person while the rest of the world is impossibly far away and it hopes that the day will never end but it also has to deal with its ex cheating on it and/or keeping its copy of Low End Theory so it tries to break into its ex’s gaff to knick its vinyl but really it’s a cheeky reason to ‘ave a laf wif someone it fancies, innit?

Yeah, Rye Lane is awesome.

2. Killers of the Flower Moon

Image: Paramount Pictures / Apple Original Films.

So much of what happens in Martin Scorsese’s western crime drama is infuriating and heartbreaking yet it isn’t until after nearly three-and-a-quarter hours when the legendary filmmaker personally delivers the most crushing event of the entire film. This single moment, delivered as part of a cheesy radio recreation of the tragic events, transforms this great piece of cinema into perhaps one of the most profound statements on the limits of the entire craft. As with Hayao Miyazaki, Martin Scorsese is aware that his time, like those of the people portrayed in Killers of the Flower Moon, is limited. He’s also aware that for as much as he has given to cinema, and as much as it has given to him, it will never be enough. There are of course more stories to tell, especially considering that much of Scorsese’s output over the last several years are projects he started developing decades ago, but mostly because as a filmmaker he can only tell the story. He can’t make us demand justice for the lives lost. He can’t bring the victims back or undo the wrongs done to them. All he can do is recreate to the best of his unparalleled abilities. Even Lily Gladstone, whose performance is as Oscar-worthy as any in memory, or Robert DeNiro and Leonardo DiCaprio for their outspoken activism, can never end the horrors which continue to happen in Native and other marginalized communities all over the world. Scorsese has spent his entire life outlining the consequences of exploitation and corruption and warning of institutions which encourage and even reward these practices and yet for all his personal and artistic success, for the years he’s devoted to painstaking historical details, for the life he’s given to this art It. Will. Never. Be. Enough. His films, brutal and painful and beautiful as they are can’t make us stop hurting each other. All he can do, as does with such power in Killers of the Flower Moon, is assure that their lives, and his, are never forgotten.

1. Spider-Man: Across the Spider Verse

Image: Sony Pictures Releasing.

See that picture right there? I teared up just looking at it.

In fact, re-watching Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse as my first film of the year often had me blinking and wiping wells from my eyes. Not because the film is particularly sad, although it does have such moments, but because every single second is so beautiful. Of course there’s the animation which even four years after Into the Spider-Verse is unlike anything else we’ve ever seen. But no, what makes this film, and the one before it, so overwhelmingly beautiful is that Across the Spider-Verse is art in its highest form.

The first twenty minutes alone – from the subtle cracks in Hailee Steinfeld’s voice as she delivers opening lines reframing the entire first film, to Gwen’s angst manifesting through drums that underlay and then overtake the score, to the spread of warm watercolors when she hugs her father, to the interpolation of Renaissance-Era pencil drawings and Gwen’s whip-smart commentary on the criteria of art, to the gentle often implied emotions both written and withheld in Gwen’s confrontation with father, to the unique styles of every character: the cold angularity of Spider-Man 2099, the fluid curves and matronly concern of Jessica Drew – are a master class in how artists of every sort can and should aspire to use dialog, narrative, character, setting, design, color, shade, music, performance, movement, culture, and even their own flaws. Yet the mind-blowing part is that this is all in only the first twenty minutes. There are still another two hours equally packed with meticulous details. It would be too much if it weren’t so wonderful.

However, this isn’t what I mean by art in its highest form. Sure, in terms of presentation, Across the Spider-Verse is matched only by its predecessor, but art is not presentation alone. Our review emphasized how Across the Spider-Verse speaks to the experiences of people from different backgrounds and cultures with varying demands on art. For me, good art is that which I find enjoyable, for whatever reason. Great art teaches me something and stays with me long into memory. Art in its highest form frustrates me in how advanced it is beyond anything I’ve ever created while inspiring me to reach that same level. Across the Spider-Verse isn’t art at its highest because it’s fun to watch. It’s art at its highest because it makes us want to elevate ourselves.

Although not as much an embrace of science as Into the Spider-Verse, this second film pushes further into the limitless bounds of human potential. Sure, two of the year’s worst films – The Flash and Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania – dealt with the concept of a multi-verse, but what Across the Spider-Verse offers isn’t limited to an array of superheroes. Like the best film of last year – Everything Everywhere All at Once, another example of art in its highest form – Spider-Verse offers the endless possibilities possessed by every person living in this world. In seeing Miles Morales, Gwen Stacy, Peter B. Parker, Jessica Drew, even Miguel O’Hara, and so many others we understand the people we are capable of being. Best of all, the success of Spider-Verse and the cultural impact of Miles and Gwen offers children growing up now characters they can aspire to in the same way that kids of my generation, mostly skinny white kids like me, had Peter Parker. Now, if every single one of us is capable of infinite growth and potential, just imagine what a group of us, an entire society, can do when we work together. We all know that not every hero wears a cape. What we seldom know is that we don’t need to limit superheroes to fiction. In bringing writing, visual art, vocal performance, motion capture, and so many other aspects of animated filmmaking that I don’t even know together, Spider-Verse is proof that genius within entire groups is not only achievable but may be the only way it can be achieved. Cynically I’d like to add that the singular method by which this ideal could be improved is if the animators are treated to better conditions and better pay for their efforts. Personally, I don’t mind if it takes another four years, or even another ten, to make Beyond the Spider-Verse as long as the quality is on the screen showing the film and in front of the screens making the film.

On an even more personal level, both Across and Into the Spider-Verse are films I wish I could grow up with. Sure, the 90’s Spider-Man cartoon, the McFarlane-Larsen-Bagley comics era, and the Sam Raimi films were fun, but the technology and the craft and even the science and understanding of human thought weren’t there to equal Spider-Verse. In the same way that old masters Martin Scorsese or Hayao Miyazaki may wish to have fifty more years to explore modern filmmaking technology, I wish I could have another twenty-five for these films and characters to inspire me. I envy those who do because they’ll be able to achieve things that I’ve never dreamed. And this, as much as it frustrates the competitive artist in me, also makes me very excited for where art can go when pushed by passionate, talented humans – not machines – to its highest form. In my imagination, this future, one where the sensibilities displayed in Spider-Verse are the prevailing thought, is a beautiful thing. Overwhelmingly so.

About Jess Kroll

Jess Kroll
Jess Kroll is a novelist and university professor born in Honolulu, Hawaii, and based in Daegu, South Korea. He has been writing film reviews since 2004 and has been exclusive to Pop Mythology since 2012. His novels include 'Land of Smiles' from Monsoon Books and young adult series 'The One' and 'Werewolf Council' from Epic Press.