top of page

An Exploration of the Best Films of 2023

Updated: Jan 6

Jan 4th, 2024

By Walker Sayen / TinDragon Media

As we enter a new year, I’ve been doing a lot of looking back and reminiscing, as we all do, when the year ends. And since I’m an unreformed cinephile, a lot of that looking back entails thinking about the movies. 

Personally and professionally, 2023 has been filled with challenges and hardships, yes. But also filled with joy. It often felt like it teetered on the side of challenges (I was hit by a car and broke my arm in the last act after all), but when looking back the things that stand out the most are the moments with friends and family, the professional projects I will treasure for years to come. Isn’t every year that way? A toggle between the happy and the sad? If anyone can tell me the last time they had a perfect year without any struggle, I’ll eat my shoe.

But back to the movies. In the annals of Hollywood history, this one will go down in the books. 2023 feels like a turning point for the industry. It was the year of a two-pronged writer and actor strikes, when AI emerged as a real question mark for how it would affect the future of the filmmaking process, when established franchises faltered but IP still held sway over the biggest blockbusters: the year of Barbenhimer, of the re-assessment of the streaming wars and confronting how streaming has affected the theatrical indie-film and documentary market, shattering the already unstable pipeline for indie profitability. 

I’m very unsure what the future of film will hold, all I know is that it will be very different and not at all what we expect. And most of all I’m sure people will keep making new shit (and I mean that both as a positive and a pejorative) as that’s what we do as a species, make shit and tell stories. 

Just like our personal lives, the good comes with the bad in the world of the movies. While Hollywood had to reckon with paying its workers an adequate wage causing economic hardship across Los Angeles, in my estimation 2023 will go down as a top-tier year movie-wise. Before I get into my personal Top Ten I wanted to shout out some of the near misses and pay homage to the breadth of wonderful work. 

As mentioned above this is the year of Barbenhimer, and it will be impossible to escape the shadows of both Barbie and Oppenheimer, when film lovers look back on this year. I had a blast at Barbie which uses its IP shackles to create something wholly distinct, filled with wonderful craft and even more wonderful performances. Even though Oppenheimer didn’t work for me as well as it seems it did for the rest of the world, feeling less than the sum of its parts and desperately in need of a breath, it is undeniably an impressive cinematic achievement. And while neither makes my top ten, they are certainly the best movies to top the box office charts in a while. 

There were other quality blockbusters this year too. John Wick 4 and Across the Spider-verse (and to a lesser extent but still thrilling M:I Dead Reckoning) proved that there is still life left in franchise storytelling if you commit to keeping the series fresh (and delivering actual spectacle in your set pieces instead of gobs of pixels). There is also still hope for new franchises if you look at films like Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves and are just looking for a few fun hours in the theater with a bucket of popcorn and a barrel of laughs. 

Speaking of laughter, this was also the year I laughed at the movies (in a theater!) more than I have in some time. From Theater Camp to Bottoms to Rye Lane, any movie with feelings in the title (No Hard Feeling, You Hurt My Feelings), and again the above-mentioned Barbie, I had a rollicking time experiencing the many different modes that comedy takes in 2023. I’m glad we can have improvised mockumentaries, bonkers go-for-broke high school mashups, indie romcoms, classic raunchy comedies, comedies of manners, and giant studio blockbusters that all conjure the magic of laughter in the same calendar year. 

Before moving on from the comedies, I want to particularly spotlight You Hurt My Feelings, which in my heart belongs up there with the rest of my Top 10, unfortunately, I ran out of numbers (numbering things is meaningless even though it is also so much fun). Deceptively simple, Nicole Holofcener's second collaboration with Julia Louis-Dreyfus made me laugh more than any other movie this year. Ostensibly about a petty squabble over whether Dreyfus’ character’s husband likes her new novel, it is really about the way we communicate and how easily it is to get on each other's nerves, even with the best intentions. The true magic of Holofcener’s work is that the comedy always comes from the characters and the situation, not something as common as a punchline. 

This was also a killer year for thrillers, from The Killer to How to Blow Up a Pipeline to Knock at the Cabin to Infinity Pool, if you wanted to sit at the edge of your seat you had your pick of poisons. I particularly liked to see master stylists like Fincher and Shyamalan execute straightforward genre fare with high craft. Meanwhile, How to Blow Up a Pipeline felt like a jolt of fresh energy into the cinema landscape and shows the path forward for the future of scrappy genre storytelling.

Then if you venture towards the action side of genre I had a fabulous time at Polite Society, which exuded fun because you could tell the team was having a blast making it. Venturing further down into the horror depths this might not have been a banner year in my experience but there were still delights to be had from the oblique Skinamarink to the queasy thrills of Talk to Me

I didn’t see as many documentaries this year as I would’ve liked, but there were two that I did see that are worth mentioning, Against the Tide and Once Upon a Time in Uganda. Using lyrical direct-cinema techniques, Against the Tide captures the evolving challenges of fishing in a warming world through the story of two friends in India and the different choices they make. This mode of Cinéma vérité storytelling, where the camera sits with its subjects and films their life, creating an intimate drama instead of resorting to interviews has been expanding in beautiful ways in recent years and this is one of countless docs each ear that rival the best indie narrative films and deserve a larger audience. 

On the other hand, Once Upon a Time in Uganda takes a more stylized approach to documentary craft that befits the subject. Highlighting the rise of true DIY auteur Isaac Nabwana who created his own movie studio, Wakaliwood, where he makes action films out of duct tape, camcorders, and perseverance. Really what I recommend is to watch Nabwana’s films, Bad Black or Who Killed Captain Alex?, because they will restore your faith in the wonder of true filmmaking (not giving a shit and just going out and making magic with whatever you have). The documentary gives a great primer on how these action masterpieces are made, but make sure to check out the real thing. 

There are so many movies I missed or haven’t been released in enough theaters or dropped on streaming that I want to catch. More documentaries like King Cole, Occupied City, and 32 Sounds, more end-of-year limited releases like The Zone of Interest, Fallen Leaves, Perfect Days, and All of Us Strangers, and other titles like Joy Ride, Fremont, When Evil Lurks, The Beasts, Return to Soul, Godzilla Minus One, All Dirt Roads Tast of Salt, and many more. I’m excited to continue to watch the catalog of 2023 titles deep into 2024.

Maybe I’m getting soft in my old age………..of 29, but I enjoyed most of the movies I saw this year.  Now to the the best films of 2023!

Honorable Mention 

Beau is Afraid

Beau Is Afraid

Before I get to the good stuff I have to give some love to my least favorite movie of the year. Beau is Afraid made me so angry watching it that I have to give it props. I’d rather green-light a thousand more films like Beau that elicit such a strong negative reaction than watch any of the middling dribble that populates so many screens. I want to make myself clear, I did not like Beau is Afraid, I think it’s overlong, indulgent, and squanders the incredible craft of the first act (and a breathtaking animation sequence in the middle) on what essentially amounts to a very long shaggy dog joke that hammers its mommy issues so far into the ground that it end up becoming plain old tedious. However, it is a movie that has stuck with me since squirming in my seat and begging it to be over. And any movie that sticks with you gets under your skin, and makes me want to punch a wall has some value, maybe. Anyway, thank you Ari Aster for giving me this gift, I will be in line for your next movie. Here’s hoping that one makes me want to kick a wall instead. 

Top Ten Films of 2023

Eileen and Rebecca dancing

10) Eileen

A twisty little Christmas noir about a prison receptionist whose meager life is jolted into action when a glamorous stranger enters her life. I’m probably biased when it comes to this one since I love the work of Ottessa Moshfegh (on whose novel the film is based), but then again my love of her writing could bias me in the opposite direction just as easily. The resulting film (co-written by Moshfegh and her husband Luke Goebel) is in my estimation, a perfect encapsulation of the contrast between how to tell a story through prose or film. 

The novel is told in first person and is locked into the interiority of the character of Eileen. Penetrating the innermost thoughts of a character is something that literature can capture but is almost impossible to do in film. You can use abstraction to create the visual impression of what it’s like to experience something using montage and audio-visual stimulation, but if you’re creating a classical narrative you are relegated to depict action. Some films resort to voiceover (VO) to hear a character's inner life, and that would’ve been the easy option when adapting Eileen.  

Instead, the movie uses the spaces that could’ve been filled by VO to sit and watch Eileen (played by Thomasin McKenzie) as she watches others. I could almost hear the lines from the book rattling around in my head as I watched McKenzie’s expressive eyes. If I had never read the book I would be left to imagine what devious thoughts were rattling around her head, and the film is all the stronger for leaving those thoughts to the imagination. Only queuing the audience into her thoughts through a series of fantasy sequences that are played straight so you are constantly questioning what is a fantasy and what is not. 

This stripped-down approach creates a very effective denouement that plays slightly differently from the novel but has a unique power all its own. While McKenzie doesn’t quite replicate the Eileen from the book, her performance is beautifully open in a way that lets the audience in, and serves the film version of this story very well. I would highly recommend reading and watching this story, as both mediums capture a moving story of self-actualization that is all the more effective by being unsentimental. Throw in one of the best performances by Ann Hathaway and you’ve got the perfect Christmas classic for all of us who love poison with our pudding. 

The Boy and the Heron

9) The Boy and the Heron

Fairy Tales are about embracing strangeness, the unknown mysteries of the world. They should be a little scary, enfolding real loss into their magical worlds. This is something I feel modern children’s films often lose, but in the over 40-year career of Miyazaki, he has never lost sight of the fearful wonder of a magical tale. 

The Boy and the Heron is no exception, it visualizes some of the most tragic and somber themes in his enter filmography (that I’ve seen). As many have noted this certainly feels like a summative work, melding many elements from his films into a unified whole, it also feels distinct in its tone and world. There is an elegiac quality, aided by the wonderfully mysterious score and a protagonist, Mahito, who only speaks when he has to. However, the elegy doesn’t prevent the film from being very funny with some truly playful visual gags.

In the opening sections of the film, from the blazing inferno that consumes Mahito's mother to the introduction of the Heron swooping into his life, I was enraptured by the pacing and tone. It felt like an ancient fable and a brand-new vision all at once. And the creativity on display only grows more and more as we enter a new world filled with decay and beauty, and lots and lots of birds (and their droppings). The overwhelming imagination culminates in a powerful statement on what it means to pass stories onto new generations and what it means to live in the real world. Here’s hoping we still have more journeys down Miyazaki’s rabbit hole. 

Margaret and her Mom

8) Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret.

A last-minute addition to the list, I caught Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret on VOD on New Year's Eve, but even so fresh in the memory it immediately charmed itself into my favorites of the year. Capturing such a pure sense of what it is like to grow up, and how serious everything seems, even while the filmmaking maintains a natural easygoing flair. It balances the word-shaking importance of navigating friendships at school, moving to a new home (in New Jersey of all places!), having crushes, learning about your family’s messy stories, and everything else coming of age with the simple joys of life. There isn’t a sweeter film you could watch this year, or most any year. 

Paul Hunham, Angus Tully, and Mary Lamb

7) The Holdovers 

This year's second instant Christmas classic, The Holdovers is deceptively simple. What starts as a loving throwback to the quirky 70’s character dramas of Hal Ashby slowly builds into what I expect to be one of Alexander Payne’s more rewatchable films, and a film I would genuinely recommend to everyone, of all ages, no matter your taste. It’s refreshing to see a film that isn’t trying to be smart or edgy but just focuses on character and emotions.

The film is built around the three central performances of Paul Giamatti, Dominic Sessa, and Da'Vine Joy Randolph and they all deliver the warmth and heartbreak needed to melt the New England snow. I especially love to see Giamatti work with Payne again, he truly is a great movie star and one of my favorite leading men in modern movies. My New Year's wish is that we get to see Paul in many more movies like The Holdovers very soon. 

Nora Moon, Hae Sung, and Arthur

6) Past Lives

During the first half of 2023, there was no movie I was anticipating more than Past Lives. It seemed like a perfect match for my taste, lyrical visuals with an interpersonal drama about relationships and longing, and when I sat down in the theater it delivered. I was enraptured by its simplicity and striking structure. However, as the year wore on it started to fade more than I expected as I watched newer and shinier pieces of cinema. I started to question if I loved it as much as I thought. 

Now that the year has ended and I look back on everything I watched, I think I was wrong to second guess the beauty of Past Lives’ subtleness. I desperately want to revisit the tension between the three principal characters. A tension that is always true to life and never falls into melodrama. To explore the story about the many paths we do not take. It may not be as showy as some of the other acclaimed 2023 titles but it holds a power that few other films this year can match. And it’s got an achingly powerful ending that tops the list of best endings in a year where so many of the best films were the best at the very end. 

Asteroid City

5) Asteroid City

I’ll admit it, I’m a Wes Anderson fan. I’m not an acolyte but I like to read the pamphlets (that Anderson has symmetrically arranged on a pastel-colored coffee table, being handed out by Bill Murphy, Tilda Swinton and Adrien Brody). At this point, it seems you either like him or hate him, and as he further digs into his esthetic obsessions, I doubt he’ll win many new converts. But among the converts and convert-curious, it’s fun to see which entries emerge as favorites. Based on my discussions Astroid City seems to be an entry that some Anderson faithful find lacking, while others champion it as one of his all-time best. I find myself in the latter category.

To me, this nesting doll upon a nesting doll of a movie ends up being one of his most emotionally raw confections. Instead of being smothered by the layering, it uses his obsession with framing to break free and reach a climax that feels genuinely open. When I left the theater it felt like I had just burst forth from a box and was seeing the expanse of the world before me in all its messiness.

Sandra Hüller as Sandra Voyter

4) Anatomy of a Fall

If you love animals in cinema, look no further than Snoop in Anatomy of a Fall. Winner of the Palm Dog, Snoop delivered one of the best animal performances, maybe ever. The rest of the cast is pretty good too… Sandra Hüller delivered an incredibly nuanced performance that always feels real while also being completely unknowable. Hüller’s performance might be the best of the year but is nearly overshadowed by the actor who plays her blind son, Milo Machado Graner. He gives this knotty story about the impenetrability of truth a beating heart. 

The film charts the aftermath of the death of a father and the legal battle over whether his wife is a murderer. Through the structure of a courtroom drama (the French court seems wild), the film is a true anatomy of a relationship, dissecting the ability to understand what is behind a marriage and if it’s possible to ever know what is locked within someone’s heart. The film is the best kind of ambiguous, never frustrating but infinitely complicated and rife for discussion. 

Natalie Portman as Elizabeth Berry and Julianne Moore as Gracie Atherton-Yoo

3) May December

A perfect companion piece to Anatomy of a Fall, May December is also about how it’s impossible to know what it’s like to be in a relationship, from the outside and from within. Taking the true life story of Mary Kay Letourneau as the backbone and adding the story of an actress who has come to study for one of the strangest parts imaginable.

May December is multiple films in one, a procedural, a story about the showdown between a narcissist and a sociopath, about the ethics of performance, and the dissection of a strange and toxic marriage. That may be a lot for one film to handle but the resulting film directed by Todd Haynes from a screenplay by Samy Burch is able to juggle the many different threads and tones into a film so rich I expect it to shape-shift every time I watch it. It manages all that dense stickiness all while also being a riot and a half; one of the funniest and most brutal movies of the year. Oh, and I can’t forget the use of the score, adapted from a theme by Michel Legrand to the 1971 film The Go-Between, the Da-dum, DA-DUM will forever echo in my head. 

Michelle Williams as Lizzy

2) Showing Up

Kelly Reichardt has possibly become my favorite working director as I’ve watched her filmography over the past few years. Her quiet, small stories of everyday people are captured with simple beauty by her still, observant camera. Never showy,  Reichardt proves that you don’t need a flashy style to be cinematic, the most powerful stories simply need a patient eye and detailed texture. 

When I first saw Showing Up in April 2023, I was taken by the gentle rhythms of the world of the Oregon art college - of sculpture, painting, and flutes. I was moved by the simplicity of the ending, its quotidian acceptance of the intricacy of friendship and competition between artists. I was immediately a fan, but I wasn’t sure if it was one of Reichardt’s masterpieces. Maybe it was a little small. 

But as the year wore on the film would pop into my mind unbidden, and I’d discover myself basking in its rhythms, and with each appearance in my mind it grew in estimation until now I think it might be one of her absolute best films. I love art, I want to create art, and this movie is one of the most accurate depictions of the artist's life I’ve ever seen. The balance between wanting to create your art, and show it to the world, and the little tasks and detours that take up most of our day and seem to get in the way. Michelle Williams completely immerses herself in the character of Lizzy, crafting a character who is prickly and relatable and so real I feel like I’ve met her. If you take any recommendations from me, watch this. If you can give yourself over to Reichardt’s world you’ll love it. And did I mention one of the main characters is a pigeon (the 2nd best animal in 2023 cinema).

Lily Gladstone as Mollie Kyle and Leonardo DiCaprio as Ernest Burkhart

1) Killers of the Flower Moon

Filmgoing is a personal experience, even as you share it with dozens, maybe hundreds (hopefully), of strangers in a dark theater. Yes, there are agreed-upon masterpieces and quality can be ascertained by certain criteria. But mostly it’s just did you like it or not. If judging critic awards as any barometer for quality, " Killers of the Flower Moon" seems like one of the agreed upon “best films of the year”. And while part of me wants to be unique and choose a film more obscure that I can champion, I have to be honest, the film that bulldozed me and left me a sobbing wreck as the credits rolled was indeed Killers of the Flower Moon. 

Despite all of the acclaim, it’s not a perfect movie, but for me, it’s a movie whose faults and messiness become a kind of strength through sheer force of will. The film itself knows it is imperfect, that its tragic story is impossible to do justice to. Its mic-drop of an ending expresses such an earnest attempt to tell the story to the absolute best of Scorsese’s ability while acknowledging it is not his to tell. It is determined to dig a knife into America's worst sins and let out a scream of grief. Reckoning with our history will always fall short but we must wrestle with it, knowing we will fail. I know not everyone will have this reaction, but for me, even just writing about this film, makes me want to cry. To cry not only out of sadness but out of the inability to confront such human tragedy. 

The film manages to be both an overwhelming sledgehammer that will make you feel buried 10 feet underground by the weight and also one of Scorsese’s most lyrical films. Add in a majestic score by the late great Robbie Robertson that echoes in your bones, along with a trio of crackling performances from Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro and Lilly Gladstone who’s quiet strength is the loadstone of the entire film, and you have a movie that will be sitting within me for years to come. 

Anyway, those are my thoughts on the year in cinema. Here’s to 2024 and another year of great movies! 

About Walker

Walker Sayen is the Co-Founder and President of TinDragon Media.

Born and raised in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, Walker Sayen always loved telling and crafting stories. Storytelling through the medium of film was an immediate passion of his as a kid. Influenced by many genres, from fiction filmmaking to documentary storytelling, he has merged his influences from spaghetti westerns to the documentaries of Frederick Wiseman.

Walker brings his unique vision and experience to making movies. ​ After graduating from Emerson College in 2016, Walker has developed a wide-ranging slate of production experience in the film industry. He’s worked in every aspect of the filmmaking process, from Cinematographer to 1st AC to Gaffer; he knows the ins and outs of a set like nobody's business!

He loves to film unique voices and capture beautiful images that make the every-day magical. He especially loves filming, architecture, art, and craftspeople at work. His eagerness to experiment with a camera brings another level of professionalism and creativity to TinDragon's projects.

Email him ( about your projects, nature photography insights, and favorite restaurants in the Greater Los Angeles Area!

Walker Sayen

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page