On Set: Jeff Counts’ top films from 2023

Despite the Hollywood strikes at the start of the year, the movie industry pulled through with stellar productions from directors Emerald Fennell, Jonathan Glazer, Ava Duvernay, among others.
Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo in Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Poor Things.” (Searchlight Pictures)

by | Dec 21, 2023 | Culture, Film & TV

Who would have thought a year that included prolonged strikes by the writers’ and actors’ guilds would be so good for viewers? 2023 got pretty grim for the movie industry and, even though I understand that most of the projects I’m enjoying during this awards season were in the can before the strikes began, I was worried many of them (like “Dune: Part Two”) would choose to wait until next year. That didn’t happen, thankfully, and we were treated to a truly excellent late-season run. Here are my personal Top 5 movies from 2023.

Number 5 is “Saltburn.” The latest effort from director Emerald Fennell was stylish and strange, which was to be expected after her surprising “Promising Young Woman” debut in 2020. That story reset the revenge thriller subgenre by upending expectations and refusing to compromise on its boldness. “Saltburn” does the same, this time in the tale of a creepy manipulator that would make Mr. Ripley feel a lot less talented than he thought. It’s a hard R, this movie, with several unsettling scenes you will want to turn away from. It’s also a triumph for a director I can’t wait to see more from.

Next, at Number 4, is “The Zone of Interest”. Did anyone really think depicting the quotidian domestic rhythms of a Nazi death camp administrator was a good idea? Well, English writer/director Jonathan Glazer did, and if such an unpleasant thing can ever be called a success, he nailed it. It’s a strange thing to watch these pastoral daily lives go by, just this side of a wall that does not fully manage to hide the gunshots, screams and smokestacks of the horror next door. Imagine “Gone with the Wind”, set ten years earlier, with the sound of whips and shouts of terror nearly constant in the background. A stunningly edited, perfectly performed and highly uncomfortable experience.

Movies about writers are too common to count. Mediocre movies about writers are commoner still. “Origin”, about Isabel Wilkerson’s quest to develop a thesis on the ubiquity of caste structures is far from common. No. 3 on my list is director Ava Duvernay’s latest exploration of race and class in America. It’s part fiction, part documentary and all heart. It includes a gorgeously rendered depiction of grief in the first act that is better than anything else anyone has ever attempted on the topic. This is stunning, genre-bending filmmaking about a concept we all need to embrace.

Second best in 2023 was the film I thought for months would be my Number 1. Everyone who knows me knows I love Christopher Nolan’s work almost too much to be objective about it. “Oppenheimer” gave me the opportunity to be so without shame. The ambition, the shot-making, the silences and the non-linear risks – all of the hallmarks that make Nolan Nolan are present, yes, but so is a determined sense of historical heft that “Dunkirk” considered but did not completely realize. The personal stakes in “Oppenheimer” are as big as the science. This is a movie about a genius, told by a genius. And it’s magnificent.

Finally, we come to my real Number 1. Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Poor Things.” I’m not even sure how to talk about this film without ruining it. Suffice it to say that “Poor Things” creates and populates one of the most outrageous worlds I’ve ever seen on screen. Every character, every scene, every note of the score rings with a preposterous accuracy that makes the viewer wonder if they are losing their minds in real time or finally finding them. Universal truths? Human frailty? It’s all here, in vivid, storybook color and detail. It’s not for the faint of heart, but the best things never are.

I worry for 2024. The gap of the strikes will likely show itself then. But for now, in 2023, we are in the company of masterworks. It’s been a fabulous year. Work your way through my list, and beyond, and try to tell me I’m wrong.

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About Jeff Counts

Before moving to Jackson in 2019, Jeff spent five years reviewing movies as co-host of the public access television program "Big Movie Mouth-Off." When not focused on film, Jeff writes about opera and co-hosts the classical music interview podcast "Ghost Light."

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