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Top 10 Films of 2023

Amidst the ongoing consolidation of major studios, their penchant for disappearing films, historic actor and writer strikes, and a couple of significant misfires (such as "The Flash"), 2023 stands out as one of my favorite years for movies in a long time. Compiling this list posed a considerable challenge, and even some beloved films like Oppenheimer and The Killer didn't make the cut. With that being said, here are my top 10 films of 2023.

10. Rewind & Play

"Rewind & Play" delicately captures the essence of jazz legend Thelonious Monk. Set against the backdrop of his 1969 European tour finale at Salle Pleyel in Paris, the film takes place behind the scenes of his performance on a French television program. Director Alain Gomis skillfully employs rare archival footage to depict Monk as an incredible artist, grappling with a media landscape tainted by casual racism and self-aggrandizement, exemplified by an interviewer whose approach borders on harassment. This film is beautiful, experimental and there is a reverence that lingered with me long after viewing.

9. Another Body

“Another Body,” the documentary, unravels a chilling narrative that revolves around a young woman whose life took an irreversible turn when her face was maliciously superimposed onto an adult actress in an explicit video, which then circulated within her school, a horrifying revelation made all the more shocking when her friends sent it to her.

In a time when such stories are distressingly relevant, this film serves as a crucial and unsettling account of the digital age’s dark underbelly. In an era where little recourse exists for victims of such acts, and with the ever-increasing accessibility of deep fake technology, the line between real and fabricated video blurs with each passing month.

What sets “Another Body” apart is its impactful use of deep fake technology. By employing actors to lend their image to the actual voices of the victims, the film not only fosters a deeper connection with the characters but also highlights the concerning potential of this technology as we venture into an uncertain future. The thought that we’re navigating a world where video evidence can be convincingly manipulated is profoundly disconcerting, pushing us further into a post-truth era.

Beyond its compelling subject matter, “Another Body” is a masterfully crafted documentary, excelling in cinematography, sound design, special effects, and overall presentation. It exudes empathy and compassion, offering an ephemeral yet immediate experience that resonates deeply. I wholeheartedly recommend it.

8. Passages

PASSAGES, the new film directed by indie auteur Ira Sachs, opens on a set where a period film is being made. An actor is being directed by filmmaker, Tomas, played by Franz Rogowski. Tomas is particular in his vision and stern in his direction, but in his personal life, he is feeling bored. His marriage to Martin, played by Ben Whishaw, is stagnant, and a distance is growing between them. This leads Tomas to have an affair with a teacher named Agate, played by Adèle Exarchopoulos.

The film unfolds with forbearing tension. There is passion and love, but it's tinged with distrust and heartbreak. The cinematography has an incredible texture and the blocking is purposeful. The film feels lived in. The camera moves through Paris and these relationships with a roaming patience, letting scenes play out in long takes, allowing us to feel like we're in the room with these people in their most vulnerable and intimate moments.

The performances from the cast are fully realized, especially our guide through the story, Franz Rogowski as Thomas. In lesser hands, this character could have been unbearable, but Rogowski brings a mix of curiosity, passion, and confusion to Thomas, who is in love but careless in the way he communicates with those around him.

Ben Whishaw, as Martin, goes through an incredible journey from a broken-hearted ex-lover to someone who is finding his strength. His performance is deeply felt. Adèle Exarchopoulos brings an honest and tender arc to Agate’s story. She starts off as the mysterious and sexy other person and unfolds to become a full character as well.

Ira Sachs has been one of my favorite filmmakers for a long time, and Passages is among his best. Do yourself a favor and see it as soon as you can.

7. Past Lives

"Past Lives" unfolds as an achingly human narrative, weaving together threads of nostalgia, love, and loss. Though its premise is simple and its approach modest, the film delivers an emotional punch that nearly knocked me out of my seat. Greta Lee, in the lead role, emanates a natural and engaging presence, subtly donning a tinge of dissatisfaction that enriches the emotional layers of the story. Much like a finely crafted tapestry, the film masterfully captures the intricacies of the human experience.

6. Our Body

In the almost three-hour-long epic "Our Body", French director Claire Simon documents a public Parisian hospital, following the doctors and their relationships with various patients who are women dealing with pregnancies, illnesses, gender-affirming care, abortions, breast cancer, and more.

The film reminded me of the best of Frederick Wiseman, where we get an exhaustive view of an institution and how it works, but there is a subtle, almost ephemeral poetic element as well. The focus on the humanity of the patients and the staff, along with gentle interruptions and quick contemplative movements that Simon captures with her camera, make the film an insightful, curious, and caring experience.

In a world where women's needs are often put second, Claire Simon makes their struggles the star, along with their bodies. The literal vessels that our consciousness exists in are often full of shame, and in society, we often don’t discuss them. However, this film is focused on it. I feel like this film transcends its form and becomes something like a mirror. Yet, this film is also very honest and vulnerable for the filmmaker herself. There is a lot of her in this film; we feel her behind the camera, and then she becomes a part of the film herself.

Our Body is beautifully shot, and the soundscape layered with the background commotion of a hospital, the beeps of machines, the intimate and vulnerable conversations between doctor and patient, there are times where we hear the filmmaker ask questions and we hear light additions of a musical store, pulled back in the mix, but its rarity adds to the effectiveness.

"Our Body" is a masterclass in vérité or observational filmmaking, but it's also much more, the 3 times that Simon appears in the film, adds an intimacy that is often missing in vérité documentaries, it transcends observation and becomes participatory. I loved this film, it feels like a revelation and I plan to dive more into the Claire Simon cannon in the coming months.

5. Bunker

"Bunker" is truly a unique cinematic experience, delving into the lives of individuals who inhabit and construct bunkers. In an era marked by the ascent of isolationist ideologies, this film provides a nuanced and humane perspective on this subculture, avoiding sensationalism and refraining from reducing its subject matter to mere punchlines. The documentary exudes empathy, genuine care, and authenticity, offering a beacon of hope for the future of the documentary genre.

4. Poor Things

Like Godwin Baxter, the character deftly portrayed by Willem Dafoe in a Frankenstein-like role, director Yorgos Lanthimos skillfully weaves together a tapestry of genres and profound concepts, resulting in the original dark comedy, "Poor Things." The film is produced by Emma Stone, who takes on the role of protagonist Bella Baxter, a creation brought to life by Godwin in his questionable scientific pursuits. It unfolds as Bella ventures beyond her home in Victorian London to experience the world before settling into marriage with Max McCandless, a mild-mannered doctor played by Ramy Youssef.

The film, based on Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel of the same name, is an exploration of what it means to be human, and, more specifically, a woman in a patriarchal world. Stone’s performance here is the foundation of the film. As a result of Bella’s body being reanimated using a baby’s brain, we see a grown actress believably progress from toddler, to adolescent, to world-weary adult within the span of a little over two hours and without the need for age makeup or prosthetics. I was in awe of Stone and her understanding of this world and the character she shaped. You root for Bella, you learn with her, and you care for her.

"Poor Things" is a film that I immediately wanted to rewatch once it was over. It reminds me of the promise of independent cinema and the power of telling unique and difficult stories — stories that feel dangerous but with a strong sense of justice at their center

3. Smoke Sauna Sisterhood

"Smoke Sauna Sisterhood" unfolds as a cinematic miracle, a quietly powerful documentary set within the warmth of a small Estonian sauna amidst winter's chill. Despite its seemingly limited scope—centered in a dimly lit room, focusing on everyday women and their intricacies—the film defies expectations, carrying a profound weight. It immerses the audience in intimate conversations, fostering a genuine care for the subjects and their life experiences. The film's heart lies in vulnerability and love, a testament to the trust cultivated by the filmmakers. Engrossing sound design and respectful, roving cinematography, utilizing bodies as landscapes, contribute to the storytelling. "Smoke Sauna Sisterhood" is a healing masterpiece that captivates with its quiet strength and authenticity.

2. Showing Up

Kelly Reichardt's latest film, "Showing Up," follows in the footsteps of her signature style – a deceptively humble narrative layered with quiet devastation. Michelle Williams, a consistent collaborator with Reichardt, embodies the role of Lizzy, a sculptor and administrative assistant at her alma mater.

This film, to me, exudes an almost ethereal quality – a captivating meditation on the essence of being an artist. It delicately explores the dialectic between passion and dissatisfaction, delving into the intricacies of creative expression.

1. May December

After triumphing with his inaugural documentary, "The Velvet Underground," in 2021, Todd Haynes returns to his storytelling prowess with "May December." Regarded by some as a dark comedy – a label met with consternation by those who find little humor in its depths – Haynes once again plunges into the shadows of humanity. Drawing inspiration from 90s crime TV and the melodramas of Douglas Sirk, a perennial muse for Haynes and a personal favorite of mine, the film navigates the darker realms of human nature. Julianne Moore delivers an incredible performance, complemented by Natalie Portman's unbelievable portrayal and a heart-wrenching turn by Charles Melton. "May December" pulsates with tension, cutting through the air like a knife. The interplay between Portman and Moore is nothing short of mesmerizing, delving into morally ambiguous territory, yet the film manages to be both artistically profound and emotionally compelling, making it fun to watch.

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Joshua LaBure is a documentary filmmaker, radio producer and podcaster based out of Omaha, Nebraska. His experience includes having directed and produced several short films, two narrative features and two documentary features, with his works featured at the Lone Star Film Festival, The Bureau of Creative Works and other filmmaker showcases. His most recent documentary had a sold-out premiere and received a standing ovation at the Benson Theatre. Furthermore, he founded the Denver Filmmakers Collective, which hosted local filmmaker showcases, has served on jury for major film festivals and has hosted countless film screenings.