Exclaim!'s 20 Best Films of 2023

BY Exclaim! StaffPublished Dec 4, 2023

Without a doubt, the cinematic highlight of the year was Barbenheimer. Sure, it's a silly internet portmanteau, but what it produced should have any film lover overjoyed. Not only did cinemas receive a healthy boost, with audiences flocking to watch Christopher Nolan and Greta Gerwig's summer offerings, but Nolan's epic reignited an interest in analogue film (and subsequently highlighted the need for skilled projectionists), and Gerwig's existential Mattel send-up became a hot pink phenomenon. 

Not to be outdone by Hollywood heavyweights, Canadian film showed out this year in one of the strongest years CanCon has seen in a while. Seasoned filmmakers like Clement Virgo and Matt Johnson made their welcomed returns to the big screen, and new faces like Chandler Levack and Anthony Shim made their marks.

Unlike last year, when horror reigned supreme, the best of 2023 is a mosaic of genres and themes from filmmakers new and old, creating a list that has something for everyone.

Exclaim!'s best films of the year are below. Read all of our year-end 2023 coverage here.

20. 299 Queen Street West
Directed by Sean Menard
(Sean Menard Productions)

This doting tribute to the glory days of MuchMusic will scratch a deeply nostalgic itch for Gen Xers and millennials who grew up watching Canada's music channel. Director Sean Menard plumbs the Bell archives to lovingly create this tapestry of archival clips, wisely deciding not to shoot any contemporary footage and instead telling the entire story through voiceovers and snippets from classic shows like Electric Circus, Intimate and Interactive and The Wedge. The result feels a bit like mainlining your adolescence.
Alex Hudson

19. The Killer
Directed by David Fincher

Featuring a relentless perfectionist trying and failing not to let emotion and his first significant failure impact his professionalism, The Killer might be David Fincher's most autobiographical film yet. No matter how you slice it, this film is meticulously crafted, dryly funny, appropriately brutal, and features a killer performance from Michael Fassbender as a man desperately trying to present a calm, collected exterior to hide the torrential rage swirling inside him.
Matthew Simpson

18. Dream Scenario
Directed by Kristoffer Borgli
(VVS Films)

There's a lot of weirdness in Dream Scenario, but perhaps the weirdest of the weird is found with the normalcy of Nicolas Cage's performance. Playing a nondescript, unremarkable college professor, Cage's Paul Matthews suddenly begins showing up in people's dreams around the world. Through this inexplicable phenomenon, Dream Scenario considers fame, pop culture and the whims of humanity in a tortuously delightful exercise in comedic cringe. In a filmography that spans every emotion, Cage's mundanity turns out to be a career high.
Rachel Ho

17. The Holdovers
Directed by Alexander Payne

The Holdovers delivers a funny, sentimental and unflinchingly human portrait of America during the Vietnam War. Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), a cantankerous boarding school teacher, is tasked with supervising students staying onsite over the Christmas break, including arrogant troublemaker Angus Tully (played by newcomer Dominic Sessa, who impressively holds his own opposite Giamatti's simmering intensity). The film's yellow-toned, deep mahogany aesthetic is so steeped in the feel of New Hollywood, future generations may genuinely confuse it for a lost '70s gem.
Sarah Bea Milner

16. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse
Directed by Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers and Justin K. Thompson

It's a testament to its animators, its artists — the ones breathing life into these characters and these worlds, the folks on the ground floor effectively providing the visual performances and paving the digital roads — that so much humanity, clarity and spontaneity can be found within the cacophony that is Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. A richly textured slurry of light and colour, the film dives into an emotional examination of transposed trauma. 
Julian Bata

15. Brother
Directed by Clement Virgo
(Elevation Pictures)

Winner of 12 Canadian Screen Awards and a finalist for the Toronto Film Critics Association's Best Canadian Film Award, Clement Virgo's Brother is more than deserving of the praise it's received. Adapting David Chariandy's award-winning novel about two brothers (played brilliantly by Aaron Pierre and Scarborough's own Lamar Johnson), the film pulsates and mesmerizes as an exploration of the immigrant experience, identity, grief, family bonds and the tensions that arise when impoverished communities are over-policed.
Courtney Small

14. Beau Is Afraid
Directed by Ari Aster
(Sphere Films)

In Beau Is Afraid, we see Joaquin Phoenix as failed-to-launch Beau caught in an anxiety-ridden journey to his mom's house. As his situation spirals out of control, he just can't seem to catch a break — and neither can the audience. The three-hour runtime is packed with dark humour as we're immersed in Ari Aster's disturbed cinematic universe with endless clever details and Oedipal references. Keep an eye on your blood pressure when watching this one. 
Marie Saadeh

13. Anatomy of a Fall
Directed by Justine Triet
(Elevation Pictures)

Justine Triet's meticulous presentation of bureaucratic processes as cold and largely indifferent is juxtaposed by the warm treatment of her very flawed, very human characters, while Sandra Hüller's performance as a woman on trial for her husband's death is a force of vicious vulnerability (or is that vulnerable viciousness?). Replete with moral ambiguity, Anatomy of a Fall is a scathing indictment of gender expectations and male fragility, and a darkly accomplished examination of what it means to be family.
Marko Djurdjic

12. Riceboy Sleeps
Directed by Anthony Shim
(Game Theory Films)

There is something alive and haunting about Riceboy Sleeps; it's the kind of film whose sweet aching soul can be felt in your limbs. Chronicling the life of a single mother recently arrived from South Korea who works to ensure her son has a comfortable life in Canada, the film excavates complex ideas of assimilation and identity, meditating on whether the latter can ever be replaced, and whether we can ever erase who we have been. The answer writer-director Anthony Shim unwaveringly lands upon is heartbreaking as it is crucial: it's impossible to exorcize the ghosts of our past. 
Alisha Mughal

11. Barbie
Directed by Greta Gerwig
(Warner Bros. Pictures)

Humorous, self-aware and aesthetically pleasing, Barbie playfully trolls all those who are askin' for it. When I saw it in theatres, there were some people fussing and making a scene as they left in disgust, adding to the fun of my moviegoing experience. Polarizing or not, there's no denying that it engaged audiences and was a cultural moment — and made over $1 billion around the world while doing so.
Tobias Jeg

10. Poor Things
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
(Searchlight Pictures)

Taking the Frankenstein story to neo-Victorian fairy tale lengths, Yorgos Lanthimos's Poor Things offers audiences a bizarre, yet gracious, depiction of humanity and family. In one of the best performances of her career, Emma Stone portrays Bella, a young woman who, following a suicide attempt, is brought back to life by Willem Dafoe's Dr. Baxter — or "God," as Bella calls him. The entire cast, including Mark Ruffalo and Ramy Youssef, deliver Tony McNamara's script with comedic aplomb while also balancing the heart and tragedy of Bella and God. One of the oddest films of the year, but also one of the tenderest, Poor Things is an exercise in absurdity at its finest.
Rachel Ho

9. Killers of the Flower Moon
Directed by Martin Scorsese
(Apple Studios)

Now 81 years of age, Martin Scorsese's latest feature reveals that the auteur is still at the top of his game with no signs of slowing down. Scorsese crafts a gripping Western epic about the dreadful and nearly forgotten history of the Osage murders in 1920s Oklahoma. Although the film is grand in scale, Scorsese allows for a flow of poignant intimacy in both people and landscapes. Lily Gladstone's performance is a highlight, expressing an array of emotions purely through her eyes. As for the daunting three-and-a-half-hour runtime? The subtly layered movie score by the late Robbie Robertson is magic, and keeps everything moving forward.
Sarah Regan

8. Talk to Me
Directed by Michael and Danny Philippou
(VVS Films)

Few production companies unearth young filmmaking talent as consistently as A24. One of this year's strongest examples is Australian twins Michael and Danny Philippou and their feature directorial debut Talk to Me. The high school horror flick, which follows a group of friends who summon and become possessed by spirits through an embalmed hand, leaves its mark by setting an eerie tone with a moody colour palette, uncomfortable score and themes of alienation and grief, all of which make the scares resonate and linger. Anchored by strong performances from the cast's stellar group of young actors, Talk to Me is the year's quintessential "elevated horror" film — whether you like the term or not.
Paul Dika

7. All of Us Strangers
Directed by Andrew Haigh
(Searchlight Pictures)

A metaphysical, fantastical love story that explores loneliness, acceptance and grief, Andrew Haigh delivers a gut punch and a warm hug all at once. Lead by a tremendous performance from Andrew Scott, All of Us Strangers contends with questions unanswered and opportunities missed as Scott's Adam goes on a journey back to his hometown where he seemingly meets his parents who passed away 30 years earlier. The supernatural aspects could have been a gimmick, but Haigh weaves the temporary time travel seamlessly into a repressed love story. Scott's chemistry with Paul Mescal overwhelms the screen, rounding out one of the most haplessly beautiful stories of the year.
Rachel Ho

6. American Fiction
Directed by Cord Jefferson 
(Warner Bros. Pictures)

The social and the political go hand in hand in Cord Jefferson's feature directorial debut American Fiction. A film where satire cuts the tension with humour, Jefferey Wright plays an English professor and unsuccessful author suffering from writer's block. Fed up with authors profiting from Black entertainment that relies on tired and offensive tropes, he parodies the trend and becomes a surprise success in the process. The script and dialogue's writing is smart, and the performances are a marvel — especially Wright's, whose comedic turn makes him one to watch out for come award season.
Marriska Fernandes

5. Oppenheimer 
Directed by Christopher Nolan
(Universal Pictures)

Arguably Christopher Nolan's best film, Oppenheimer shows the director operating at his usual height of spectacle — this time with a damning indictment of the ethics of scientific pursuit to back up his technical expertise. And his collaborators deserve commendation, too. Editor Jennifer Lame's astounding cross-cutting between eras eventually collapses its ruminations on science, morality and consequences in on each other, all while keeping this biopic feeling like an action movie, with a thee-hour runtime that feels like half that. Ludwig Göransson's "Can You Hear the Music?" may very well be the pinnacle of movie scores in 2023. And then there's Cillian Murphy's endlessly expressive eyes, Robert Downey Jr.'s triumphant return to real movies, and Emily Blunt's put-upon wife becoming so much more than a tired convention. Not to mention the absolute murderers' row of "That Guy" actors (Alden Ehrenreich, David Krumholtz and Benny Safdie's Hungarian accent!) who populate this story of the American Prometheus.
Nicholas Sokic

4. I Like Movies
Directed by Chandler Levack
(Mongrel Media)

I Like Movies carries itself like an empathetic remediation of the film bro persona, tenderly couched within a nostalgic coming-of-age portrait in Southern Ontario during the early aughts. Through the socially inept trials of video store employee and aspiring filmmaker Lawrence (Isaiah Lehtinen), who views the world around him through the cocksure lens of cinephilia, writer-director Chandler Levack crafts an endearing and sympathetic tribute to wayward youth who substitute movie quotes for social skills. I Like Movies effortlessly charms with its painfully accurate characterization that can invoke cringey affinity, second-hand embarrassment and tender-hearted hope that we can all grow out of our film bro phase. Film lovers young and old will be hard-pressed to find a 2023 film that evokes a "he's just like me, for real" reaction more than Levack's stunning debut.
Chris Luciantonio

3. BlackBerry
Directed by Matt Johnson
(Elevation Pictures)

Matt Johnson's comedy-drama BlackBerry makes me proud to be Canadian. The thrilling tale of the corporation's rapid rise and fall immerses audiences in late-'90s and early-aughts Ontario realness, complete with Timbits and a Waterloo deep cut. Jay Baruchel plays against type as the timid tech genius Mike Lazaridis, who co-founded Research in Motion with his childhood friend Doug Fregin (played by Johnson). Glenn Howerton, in arguably his best performance (so far), chews scenery as the raging force-of-nature Jim Balsillie, a C-suite exec whose aggressive business practices gave RIM the early edge it needed to compete in the marketplace. BlackBerry mixes a documentary-style "fly on the wall" cinematic approach with palpable tension and biting dialogue, creating a feeling of intimacy that amplifies the drama unfolding on screen. Although the film is an exaggerated version of history, there's an emotional truth running throughout, making for a deeply satisfying watch.
Sarah Bea Milner

2. The Zone of Interest
Directed by Jonathan Glazer
(Elevation Pictures)

Playing like a horror film where the most gruesome aspects occur off screen, Jonathan Glazer's The Zone of Interest is not easily forgotten. What's so remarkable about the film is how mundane it all is. Observing Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) and his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) as they go about their daily lives in their home on the grounds of the concentration camp, audiences are lulled into a comfortable rhythm that's only occasionally broken when the screen turns red and we're alerted to the horrors transpiring on the other side of the garden wall. In Glazer's skilful hands, The Zone of Interest presents a version of the Holocaust that is rarely seen on film. It's a chilling work that forces viewers to reflect on how people can turn their backs on the mass suffering of others when accountability and humanity are absent.
Courtney Small

1. Past Lives
Directed by Celine Song
(Elevation Pictures)

Past Lives considers romance in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the beauty inherent in that disconnect. Celine Song, in her directorial debut, brings together two kids on the cusp of first love, and promptly tears them apart. As they both grow and mature on opposite sides of the world, Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) and Nora (Greta Lee) never forget each other or their enduring bond as they continue to cross paths. Through a heartfelt and layered script, Song grants Hae Sung, Nora and her audience the grace and patience love demands but doesn't always receive. Her film serves as a reminder that the tortured cracks in life are worth the joy that created them, even if it ends in heartache. Every now and then, a love story comes our way that stirs the soul and roots itself deep into the subconscious, and Past Lives has done just that.
Rachel Ho

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