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2023 was a great year for moviegoing — here are 10 of Justin Chang's favorites

A24; A24; Searchlight Pictures; Grasshopper Film & Gratitude Films; Janus; Atsushi Nishijima/Searchlight Pictures

Film critics like to argue as a rule, but every colleague I've talked to in recent weeks agrees that 2023 was a pretty great year for moviegoing. The big, box office success story, of course, was the blockbuster mash-up of Barbieand Oppenheimer, but there were so many other titles — from the gripping murder mystery Anatomy of a Fall to the Icelandic wilderness epic Godland — that were no less worth seeking out, even if they didn't generate the same memes and headlines.

These are the 10 that I liked best, arranged as a series of pairings. My favorite movies are often carrying on a conversation with each other, and this year was no exception.

All of Us Strangers and The Boy and the Heron

Andrew Scott and Paul Mescal in <em>All of Us Strangers,</em> left, and 12-year-old Mahito in an otherworldly realm in <em>The Boy and the Heron.</em>
/ Searchlight Pictures; Studio Ghibli
/
Searchlight Pictures; Studio Ghibli
Andrew Scott and Paul Mescal in All of Us Strangers, left, and 12-year-old Mahito in an otherworldly realm in The Boy and the Heron.

An unusual pairing, to be sure, but together these two quasi-supernatural meditations on grief restore some meaning to the term "movie magic." In All of Us Strangers, a metaphysical heartbreaker from the English writer-director Andrew Haigh (Weekend, 45 Years), Andrew Scott plays a lonely gay screenwriter discovering new love even as he deals with old loss; he and Paul Mescal, Claire Foy and Jamie Bell constitute the acting ensemble of the year. And in The Boy and the Heron, the Japanese anime master Hayao Miyazaki looks back on his own life with an elegiac but thrillingly unruly fantasy, centered on a 12-year-old boy who could be a stand-in for the young Miyazaki himself. Here's my The Boy and the Heron review.

The Zone of Interest and Oppenheimer

<em>The Zone of Interest </em>portrays life next-door to Auschwitz, left, and Cillian Murphy in <em>Oppenheimer.</em>
/ A24; Universal
/
A24; Universal
The Zone of Interest portrays life next-door to Auschwitz, left, and Cillian Murphy in Oppenheimer.

These two dramas approach the subject of World War II from formally radical, ethically rigorous angles. The Zone of Interest is Jonathan Glazer's eerily restrained and mesmerizing portrait of a Nazi commandant and his family living next door to Auschwitz; Oppenheimer is Christopher Nolan's thrillingly intricate drama about the theoretical physicist who devised the atomic bomb. Both films deliberately keep their wartime horrors off-screen, but leave us in no doubt about the magnitude of what's going on. Here's my Oppenheimer review.

Showing Up and Afire

Michelle Williams in <em>Showing Up</em>, left, and Thomas Schubert in <em>Afire.</em>
/ A24; Janus
/
A24; Janus
Michelle Williams in Showing Up, left, and Thomas Schubert in Afire.

Two sharply nuanced portraits of grumpy artists at work. In Kelly Reichardt's wincingly funny Showing Up, Michelle Williamsplays a Portland sculptor trying to meet a looming art-show deadline. In Afire, the latest from the great German director Christian Petzold, a misanthropic writer (Thomas Schubert) struggles to finish his second novel at a remote house in the woods. Both protagonists are so memorably ornery, you almost want to see them in a crossover romantic-comedy sequel. Here's my Showing Up review.

Past Lives and The Eight Mountains

Teo Yoo and Greta Lee in <em>Past Lives</em>, left, and Alessandro Borghi and Luca Marinelli <em>The Eight Mountains.</em>
/ A24; Sideshow/Janus Films
/
A24; Sideshow/Janus Films
Teo Yoo and Greta Lee in Past Lives, left, and Alessandro Borghi and Luca Marinelli The Eight Mountains.

Two movies about long-overdue reunions between childhood pals. Greta Leeand Teo Yoo are terrifically paired in Past Lives, Celine Song's wondrously intimate and philosophical story about fate and happenstance. And in The Eight Mountains, Felix van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch's gorgeously photographed drama set in the Italian Alps, the performances of Luca Marinelli and Alessandro Borghi are as breathtaking as the scenery. Here are my reviews for Past Lives and The Eight Mountains.

De Humani Corporis Fabrica and Poor Things

A surgeon in <em>De Humani Corporis Fabrica</em>, left, and Emma Stone in <em>Poor Things.</em>
/ Grasshopper Film & Gratitude Films; Atsushi Nishijima/Searchlight Pictures
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Grasshopper Film & Gratitude Films; Atsushi Nishijima/Searchlight Pictures
A surgeon in De Humani Corporis Fabrica, left, and Emma Stone in Poor Things.

Surgery, two ways: The best and most startling documentary I saw this year is Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel's De Humani Corporis Fabrica, which features both hard-to-watch and mesmerizing close-up footage of surgeons going about their everyday work. The medical procedures prove far more experimental in Poor Things, Yorgos Lanthimos' hilarious Frankenstein-inspired dark comedy starring a marvelous Emma Stone as a woman implanted with a child's brain. Here is my Poor Things review.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.