Following The Film Stage’s collective top 50 films of 2023, as part of our year-end coverage, our contributors are sharing their personal top 10 lists.

Something you often hear cinephiles proclaim is that “Every year is a good year in film.” Well, that’s obviously true––if one pays attention and knows where to look––but then there are also years that are simply better. To me, 2023 has turned out to be one of those.

It’s a year where the top festivals like Cannes, Berlin, and Venice all overperformed with stellar lineups. Geographically speaking, American/UK cinema can be proud of its output while productions from the rest of the world, especially France, Japan, Latin America, didn’t disappoint either. It’s also a year where not only indie/arthouse films delivered, but (some) blockbusters dared to get smart too. Even the presumed Oscar contenders this season include legitimate masterpieces in the mix. Go figure.

Making a top 10 list in such a year is particularly nerve-racking because, even more so than usual, the chance of leaving out classics-in-the-making is high and your choices would inevitably say more about you than the films themselves. I’ll be first to admit it feels wrong/sacrilegious to not include the latest Scorsese or Miyazaki in my top picks. Killers of the Flower Moon is a magnificently realized piece of cinema that carries the weight of history and entertains throughout. It’s evidently and undeniably masterful work. The same can be said of The Boy and the Heron, a magically rendered meditation on existence that proves once again no one knows how to blend intimate details of the everyday with the trippiest flights of fancy like the legendary Japanese animator. 

Or what about something as wonderfully contemplative and stripped-back as Wim Wenders’ Tokyo-set Perfect Days? Or the similarly low-key, quietly stunning Past Lives by Celine Song? Newly minted Palme d’Or winner Justine Triet’s suspenseful and insightful Anatomy of a Fall is propelled to greatness by Sandra Hüller’s minutely calibrated portrayal of a woman/wife/mother/suspect, Spanish old master Víctor Erice’s mystery-drama Close Your Eyes unlocks a sea of tenderness on the strength of Jose Coronado’s layered, affecting performance, and Andrew Haigh’s supernatural love story All of Us Strangers glows with so much heart thanks to its quartet of terrific, deeply empathic actors.

More humanist gems arrived in the form of Georgian director Elene Naveriani’s endearingly quirky character study Blackbird Blackbird Blackberry which features one of the most moving endings of the year, Taiwanese director Ya-chuan Hsiao’s stylish, incisively observed coming-of-age story Old Fox, Swedish director Mika Gustafson’s engrossing, incredibly dynamic portrait of sisterhood and adolescence in Paradise Is Burning, Mongolian filmmaker Lkhagvadulam Purev-Ochir’s magnetic, transportive tale of youth and faith in City of Wind, as well as two superb refugee dramas: Italian director Matteo Garrone’s intense, fanciful Io Capitano and Polish veteran Agnieszka Holland’s harrowing, breathlessly immersive Green Border.

Other notable films approach our world via a more surrealist route, like Ari Aster’s bonkers nightmarish comedy Beau Is Afraid, French director Thomas Cailley’s imaginative, emotionally hard-hitting fantasy drama The Animal Kingdom, Canadian debutant Ariane Louis-Seize’s highly original faux-horror Humanist Vampire Seeking Consenting Suicidal Person, Hungarian filmmaking duo Tibor Bánóczki and Sarolta Szabó’s gorgeously apocalyptic animated feature White Plastic Sky. I also loved both French adaptations of the Henry James novella: Patric Chiha’s The Beast in the Jungle and Bertrand Bonello’s The Beast. The former captures the romanticism of a life spent in limbo waiting for something to happen, the latter is a directorial tour-de-force that expands on the idea of reincarnation to describe an ache that spans centuries. 

Arguments can be made for any combination of the above to fill out a Best-Of list. In a year like this, it’s the visceral impact that counts for me; it’s not so much about being flawless or “important” as about having that certain je ne sais quoi. With that in mind, it’s time for the favorites.

Honorable Mentions

Here (Bas Devos) 

The Echo (Tatiana Huezo)

Fallen Leaves (Aki Kaurismäki)

The Boy and the Heron (Hayao Miyazaki)

Killers of the Flower Moon (Martin Scorsese)

10. Fair Play (Chloe Domont)

Welcome back, Erotic Thriller, you’ve been missed! While Hollywood pretends sex is no longer a primal part of life, Domont bucks the trend with her gripping feature debut that explores the sexually charged power dynamics between a couple whose lust for each other turns into something else when they become competition at work. Slick, lurid, and compact like they used to do it in the 90’s, the film compels with its portrayal of America’s money fetish while serving deliciously hyperbolic drama built around basic instincts. Far from perfect in execution but gloriously blunt and ballsy, this one’s a wild ride and a half.   

9. Tótem (Lila Avilés) 

Joyous and full of life, Avilés’ sophomore feature is the warmest, wisest film about death. Directed with great naturalism and a precious sense of wonder, the sweet mayhem of a large Mexican family plays out like a symphony in the eyes of the young heroine who’s learning the truth about her sick father. Every moment of silly banter or hushed grown-up talk feels real, even the most random cameo made by rogue animals strikes you with its authenticity––not a false note anywhere. Saying goodbye is sad but, as this charmed dramedy so eloquently suggests, it’s the laughter along the way that marks every journey.  

8. Do Not Expect Too Much From the End of the World (Radu Jude)

Jude’s abrasive, shape-shifting road movie about an assistant’s never-ending day is momentous, meta, nostalgic, cautionary. it’s ten different things at once and encapsulates perfectly the chaotic zeitgeist of our times. Composed like a collage of materials from classic film stock to Tiktok videos, it also smartly comments on our evolving relationship with images and the sheer inventiveness of its form dazzles. Beneath a surface of hilariously crude jokes courtesy of the protagonist’s unforgettable alter ego, this is a most daring and thoughtful piece of cinema from someone who sees, and cares.    

7. Out of Season (Stéphane Brizé)

The stakes couldn’t be lower in Brizé’s wintry romance about two former lovers who reconnect. And yet. When the writing’s so good, so effortlessly skilled at capturing longings, regrets, and our need to be understood, you realize it truly is the little things that make up the grand, bittersweet human experience. Chemistry between the leads is off the charts; Alba Rohrwacher, in particular, delivers arguably the female performance of the year. Playing a character meant to be ordinary in every way, she lifts and breaks your heart with the most extraordinarily expressive looks that speak a language all their own. 

6. Oppenheimer (Christopher Nolan)

For all the criticism of Nolan’s work for being too technical or humorless, it’s hard not to be wowed by something so intricately, immaculately put together. Every aspect of this audio-visual feat clicks into place with the precision of s Swiss watch. The interwoven timelines deftly evoke the subjectivity of history and memory. Even more remarkably, this is blockbuster filmmaking that trusts the power of words and uses dialogue to dissect the complicated life and legacy of a guilt-ridden genius. At once spectacular and acutely intellectual, it’s that rare biopic that overwhelms the senses and challenges the mind.      

5. Afire (Christian Petzold)

A quintessential auteur film that both mocks the writer’s ego and takes comfort in the authorial omnipotence to give meaning through narrative, Petzold’s fable-like relationship drama is cinema at its most enchantingly lyrical. By turns funny and affecting, it pictures a series of lovestruck discoveries that unfold with the elegance of a novel. Thanks to a wonderfully gifted ensemble cast, plot twists take on the surprise and significance of fate. When the dreamy beats of Wallners’ “In My Mind” drop again at the end, you feel enthralled as by a book you have to re-read as soon as the final page is turned. 

4. May December (Todd Haynes)

A Haynes film bearing the creative DNA of Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore probably can’t help being fierce and fabulous. Everything from the style, the storytelling, the diva-licious performances feels tantalizingly extra, half a pitch above reality. The hypnotic vibes aside, this high-camp melodrama about a former tabloid celebrity and an actress captivates with its investigation of some tricky psychosexual terrain. In a triumph of a first screenplay, Samy Burch’s words build characters so morally ambiguous they illuminate all the things we tell ourselves in order to sleep at night. 

3. Poor Things (Yorgos Lanthimos)

Epic and (literally) balls-out crazy, Lanthimos’ satiric take-down of the patriarchy via a young woman revitalized through her unborn baby’s brain electrifies on all fronts. Emma Stone, Mark Ruffalo, and Willem Dafoe deliver irresistibly juicy star turns. James Price and Shona Heath’s eye-popping production design, Robbie Ryan’s lush, surrealist cinematography, Jerskin Fendrix’s so-weird-it’s-beautiful score further contribute to the realization of one bold, unique vision. A cinematic purge of puritanism and centuries of female repression has no right being so damn fun.

2. The Delinquents (Rodrigo Moreno)

The best kind of storytelling is both surprising as it unfolds and, when it’s over, you can’t imagine things having gone any other way. Moreno’s odyssey of a film explores moral dilemmas following a bank heist, only to morph into an Allen-esque tale of coincidence and romance before reaching a contemplative, poignantly open-ended conclusion. Carried by a diptych of matching performances from Esteban Bigliardi and Daniel Elías, it’s rich, expansive, filled with tonal shifts and narrative twists so unexpected yet jazzily organic they remind you of nothing less than life itself. Mesmerizing.  

1. The Zone of Interest (Jonathan Glazer)

Even among the extraordinary films of 2023––or any other year––Glazer’s fourth feature stands out like an alien being glowing with ghostly brilliance. Fearless in conception and executed with surgical exactitude, this singular exposé on the Holocaust peels away myths surrounding monstrous Nazis to reveal a capacity for evil that’s frighteningly familiar. The entire cast and crew, including DP Lukasz Zal, composer Mica Levi, lead actors Christian Friedel and Sandra Hüller, not only understood the assignment, they redefined what art about the unspeakable, the unthinkable can be. An astonishing achievement.        

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