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the best of 2023

It only makes sense that 2023 at the movies would be defined by Barbenheimer – this was a year that toggled uneasily between bubblegum-bright optimism and apocalyptic doom.

The good news is that moviegoers proved there was life beyond the couch, at least when theatres offered original, groundbreaking cinema. The bad news – well, how long do you have? Between the meltdowns of trusted blockbuster brands (will The Marvels and Wish prove to be Disney’s endgame?) and the dual strikes that shut down Hollywood, it was hard to shake off the feeling that moviegoing is facing a crisis that not even Barbenheimer (or Taylor Swift) can solve.

Yet swinging back to optimism, the past year delivered so many excellent films – across the budgetary scale, from both studios and streamers – that this feels like a landmark year, as good (or perhaps better) than the most recent high of 2019. Here are the top 10 films of 2023 and how to watch (most of) them right now.

10. How to Blow Up a Pipeline

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Ariela Barer in a scene from How to Blow Up a Pipeline.The Associated Press

Director Daniel Goldhaber’s indie not only boasts the best title of the year, but also the best genre bait-and-switch. While it may sound like a docudrama – and indeed, Goldhaber is loosely adapting Swedish academic Andreas Malm’s 2021 non-fiction book of the same name – How to Blow Up a Pipeline is actually a rip-roaring heist movie of a manifesto. Following a group of wannabe saboteurs, each of whom has their own reasons for resorting to such a last-resort act of ecoterrorism, the film is as relentlessly thrilling as it is politically provocative. (On-demand, including Apple TV, Amazon, digital TIFF Lightbox)

9. The Holdovers

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From the left: Da'Vine Joy Randolph, Paul Giamatti and Dominic Sessa in a scene from The Holdovers.Seacia Pavao/The Associated Press

Sitting somewhere between About Schmidt’s title character and the grumpy grandpa of Nebraska in the great Alexander Payne canon of curmudgeons, The Holdovers’ Paul Hunham is a seventies-era prep-school history teacher who lives to humiliate his students. And as embodied by Paul Giamatti, Hunham becomes one of the great characters of 2023 cinema, a jerk of the highest order who is ripe for redemption. The Holdovers is the perfect balance of the sour and the sweet. (Now playing in theatres)

8. The Killer

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Michael Fassbender in a scene from The Killer on Netflix.The Associated Press

With his reputation for cold, calculating precision, there doesn’t seem to be much ocular space left in the demanding eyes of David Fincher to focus on comedy, that loosest and most improvisational of art forms. Yet here he is, the perfectionist of Se7en and Zodiac, making what might be his idea of a big-screen sitcom with the excellent hitman odyssey The Killer. Fast and mean, this tale of an assassin (Michael Fassbender) on the run from his employer has a devilish energy and ice-cold commentary on corporate America, walking the line between carnage and comedy as only a meticulous madman like Fincher could. (Streaming on Netflix)

7. Showing Up

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Michelle Williams in Showing up.Allyson Riggs/Handout

The film industry cannot be completely beyond repair if Kelly Reichardt is able to keep making stubbornly small, beautiful and brilliant films every two to three years. Following a Portland sculptor and arts-school administrator named Lizzy (Michelle Williams) as she prepares for her solo exhibition, Showing Up is a wonderfully amiable movie about the pains of being pure at art. Richly performed and carefully observed, Reichardt’s latest belongs in its own gallery. Or at the very least on as many streaming homepages as can be conjured. (On-demand, including Apple TV, Amazon, digital TIFF Lightbox)

6. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

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Gwen Stacy (voiced by Hailee Steinfeld), left, and Peter B. Parker (voiced by Jake Johnson) in a scene from Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.Sony Pictures Animation/The Associated Press

It is absurd how much more imaginative, funny and thrilling this animated Spidey sequel is next to the many other superhero movies out there, but also any other “children’s” film to come out over the past several years. Christopher Lord and Phil Miller’s epic fulfills the promises of every Marvel adventure times 10, with stupendous set-pieces, a brilliant script and awards-worthy vocal performances from Oscar Isaac, Brian Tyree Henry and Hailee Steinfeld. This is gigantic, boundary-pushing entertainment, no matter your affinity for Peter Parker and friends. (On-demand, including Apple TV, Amazon, Google Play)

5. Green Border

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A scene from Green Border by director Agnieszka Holland.Agata Kubis/TIFF

While it won’t be released in Canadian theatres until at least early 2024 – so far, there is no Canadian distributor attached – Agnieszka Holland’s terrifying new immigration-crisis film, which made the festival rounds this fall, is too important to not talk about, immediately and feverishly. Focusing on the inhumane situation faced by migrants caught between the Belarus-Poland border, Holland’s docudrama plays like a horror movie in which the boogeymen are you and I – comfortable citizens who want to ignore those unlucky enough to be born in war zones. Already denounced by fear-mongering elements of the Polish government, Green Border is gripping and devastating. (Coming soon to theatres)

4. BlackBerry

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Jay Baruchel as “Mike Lazaridis”
and Glenn Howerton as “Jim Balsillie”
in Matt Johnson’s BlackBerry. Courtesy of IFC Films / Elevation Pictures

Jay Baruchel as Mike Lazaridis and Glenn Howerton as Jim Balsillie in Matt Johnson’s BlackBerry.Courtesy of IFC Films / Elevation Pictures

I will shut up about Matt Johnson’s instant Canadian classic only once everyone else in the country – and beyond – has seen it, too. So, once again: BlackBerry is an intensely entertaining tale of corporate hubris that confirms Johnson as Canada’s most talented mischief-maker. Shot with a contagious live-wire energy and stacked with excellent performances, the nervy comedy about the rise and fall of the world’s first smartphone is a singular thing to behold. It’s as energizing a viewing experience as the rise enjoyed/endured by the favourite sons of Waterloo, Ont., Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton, who in a perfect world would be a shoo-in for a best supporting actor Oscar nomination). (On-demand, including Apple TV, Amazon, Google Play; miniseries version streaming on CBC Gem)

3. Killers of the Flower Moon

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Robert De Niro, left, and Leonardo DiCaprio in a scene from Killers of the Flower Moon.Melinda Sue Gordon/The Associated Press

Monumental in scope and intimate in construction, Martin Scorsese’s new epic is essential cinema. Partly a continuation of the career-long conversation that Scorsese has been having with moviegoers about the evil that men do, and partly a new dialogue he felt he needed to have with himself about just how the American West was won, Killers of the Flower Moon is an opus that could – but hopefully will not – act as the 80-year-old filmmaker’s last will and testament. (Now playing in theatres)

2. Oppenheimer

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Matt Damon as Gen. Leslie Groves, left, and Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer in a scene from Oppenheimer.Melinda Sue Gordon/The Associated Press

Christopher Nolan has burned cities to ash, bent time to his will and traversed the cosmos. But the filmmaker has waited until now to destroy existence itself. Because while Oppenheimer may have arrived looking like a familiar biopic, it is deeper, richer and more devastating than anything the director has ever made. Across three propulsive hours, Nolan’s film about the father of the atomic bomb progresses from layered character study to zippy heist film to political thriller to existential horror show. Oppenheimer is that rare mainstream-studio miracle: a film with the tenacity to ask the big questions while answering them, too. (On-demand, including Apple TV, Amazon, Google Play)

1. The Zone of Interest

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Sandra Huller in a scene from The Zone of Interest.Handout

As deeply chilling as it is precisely engineered, director Jonathan Glazer’s masterpiece is the perfect film to close out 2023, a year of blind eyes and buried heads. Very loosely adapting Martin Amis’s 2014 novel of the same name, The Zone of Interest follows the domestic routines of a husband (Christian Friedel) and wife (Sandra Huller) as they go about their days, running the household and raising children. Except the household is in the literal backyard of Auschwitz, the year is 1942 and the husband is SS commandant Rudolf Höss. Not so much about the banality of evil as the pernicious selfishness that fuels moral decay, Glazer’s film is a knockout in all senses of the word: It will flatten your soul, and it cannot be missed. (Opens in select theatres Dec. 22)

Honourable Mentions: May December, The Taste of Things (La Passion de Dodin Bouffant), Monster, Fallen Leaves, Maestro, Napoleon, I Like Movies, Godzilla Minus One, Asteroid City

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