In the Year of Our Barbenheimer, there were some very good movies.
How could anyone be disappointed with a year that gave us a twerking, titanium-based killer blonde android (“M3GAN”), a nasty new take on the Dracula legend (“The Last Voyage of the Demeter”), and a man-eating CGI bear doing her best 1980s-era stockbroker imitation (“Cocaine Bear”)?
I gave each of those films three stars — positive reviews, to be sure, but not enough to make my top 10. I can say the same thing about “Killers of the Flower Moon,” a movie I found more flawed than some of my critic brethren. It’s at number 30 on my list.
With its negative review of 2½ stars, “Oppenheimer” isn’t here, either. And I’ve no opinion of “Poor Things” or “The Color Purple,” because I haven’t seen those films yet.
So what is here, you ask? Well, there’s one film about lying to one’s significant other, and another about being accused of killing them. I’ve got a great adaptation of a classic young-adult novel, and two films that made me cry like a baby. There’s also an actor’s showcase set in the year of my birth, a hilarious satire on race, and a delectable slice of French food porn.
And, yes, there are movies about sneakers and dolls.
1. “Past Lives”
Any of the first three movies on this list could have been number one. But, for the second year in a row, my top choice is a movie whose poignant meditations I could not shake, and one that made me cry. Writer-director Celine Song’s feature debut asks us to ponder whether our choices in life are solely our own or if other forces may be at play. It also asks what could have been, and what may yet still be. Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, and John Magaro give excellent performances as three sides of what is not a love triangle per se; it’s more like a philosophical representation of past, present, and future.
2. “American Fiction”
Writer-director Cord Jefferson’s debut, which opens Dec. 22 in Boston, is an adaptation of Percival Everett’s satirical novel, “Erasure.” It stars Jeffrey Wright as Boston native Thelonius “Monk” Ellison, who’s sick and tired of being pigeonholed as “a Black writer.” Witnessing the success of a novel that’s a plethora of ‘hood stereotypes, Monk sets out to write the most racist and offensive book he can. He does so as a joke. Of course, it’s a raging success. While not as brutal in its satire as it could have been, “American Fiction” still hits some hilarious heights and features career-best work by Wright and Sterling K. Brown.
Number 3 will have to be “Kenough” for director Greta Gerwig’s shockingly good (and even more shockingly lucrative — $1.44 billion at the box office) take on the Mattel doll most of my childhood friends couldn’t afford to own. Margot Robbie is perfectly cast as Barbie, but it’s Ryan Gosling’s singing, dancing, Mojo Dojo Casa House-owning Ken who steals this picture. The script by Gerwig and Noah Baumbach poked so much fun at masculinity that it caused a right-wing uproar. America Ferrera’s climactic speech explaining the plight of women is a major highlight.
All hail Queen Viola Davis! As the mother of number 23 on the Chicago Bulls (some rookie named Michael Jordan), she’s the fire that burns beneath director Ben Affleck’s best movie so far. Your Boston buddy Ben casts himself as consistently barefoot Nike founder, Phil Knight, and gets a superb performance out of his old pal Matt Damon. Everyone in the ensemble cast, from Chris Tucker to Jason Bateman, brings their A-game to this very funny, entertaining origin story of the Air Jordan.
5. “You Hurt My Feelings”
Writer-director Nicole Holofcener’s latest cringe comedy proves that telling little white lies can not only hurt someone’s feelings, it can also blow up your marriage. Julia Louis-Dreyfus gets big laughs as Beth, a novelist whose husband, Don (Tobias Menzies), hates her latest book but doesn’t have the heart to tell her. So, he bends the truth. When Beth finds out, the movie becomes an exploration of whether honesty is always the best policy. Earns bonus points for relentlessly skewering the needy nature of a writer’s ego.
6. “The Taste of Things”
Boston won’t get France’s submission for the Best International Feature Oscar until February 2024. It’ll be worth the wait to see a never-better Juliette Binoche in director Trân Anh Hùng’s delectable slice of food porn. Some of the dishes presented here are so complex that they’ll drop your jaw while making your mouth water. Binoche and her former partner Benoît Magimel portray chefs who have worked alongside each other for years; their characters vibrate with palpable romantic longing. The lush cinematography and swoony score add to the overall mise-en-scene of this film, which will also make your heart ache and your stomach growl.
7. “The Holdovers”
After the dreadful “Downsizing” (2017), director Alexander Payne returns to form with this Hal Ashby-inspired paean to 1970s filmmaking that really commits to the visual aesthetic as well as the mood of the movies made during that time. In David Hemingson’s well-written dramedy, Paul Giamatti, newcomer Dominic Sessa, and the goddess Da’Vine Joy Randolph expertly play three lonely people who find each other while trapped in a soul-draining hellscape of a Massachusetts boarding school. A road trip ensues, with a major stop in Boston. For their wonderful performances, Giamatti and Randolph deserve Oscar nominations; Randolph deserves to win.
8. “Anatomy of a Fall”
When it comes to predicting the Oscars, writer William Goldman famously said “nobody knows anything.” The same statement applies to other people’s marriages, as director Justine Triet’s Palme d’Or-winning courtroom drama/murder mystery proves. Sandra Hüller gives a complicated, often unlikable performance as a woman whose passive-aggressive husband dies of a fall under mysterious circumstances. She’s put on trial, but her prickly personality does her no favors. Did she kill him? It’s no spoiler to say that this movie, which is all about what we can never really know, doesn’t provide a definitive answer.
9. “It Ain’t Over”
You don’t have to be a fan of my beloved Yankees to appreciate Sean Mullin’s sports documentary, a beautiful tribute to Yogi Berra. The film tells Berra’s story through the game he loved so much. Mullin celebrates the “Yogi-isms” that made him famous (“it’s déjà vu all over again”, for example) and shows the beloved catcher as an honorable, skilled, and intelligent man who won a record 10 World Series rings. Baseball fans will weep early and often.
10. “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.”
Kelly Fremon Craig’s outstanding adaptation of Judy Blume’s 1970 classic young-adult novel is everything a fan of the book could want. At my screening, women talked back to the screen in solidarity with Abby Ryder Fortson’s Margaret Simon as she conversed with God and awaited her first menstrual cycle. As Margaret’s mother, Rachel McAdams is full of love and understanding; she gives the quintessential supporting performance. Take your preteen kids. Yes, even the boys.
“Carmen,” “John Wick: Chapter 4,″ “All of Us Strangers,” “Blackberry,” “Full Time,” “Fallen Leaves,” “Blue Jean,” “Bottoms,” “The Boy and the Heron,” “Flora & Son”
Several fine documentaries in 2023 also deserve mention. “It Ain’t Over” made my top-10 list, but here are a few more worth celebrating.
“Menus-Plaisirs – Les Troisgros”
Frederick Wiseman’s look at the day-to-day operations of Le Bois sans Feuilles, a Michelin three-star French restaurant that’s been operating for decades in Roanne, France, would make a great double feature with “The Taste of Things.” Both films linger on complex, delicious meals being prepared and eaten. Granted, Wiseman’s documentary is four hours long, but it’s worth a lazy afternoon in the theater this January.
Imagine Rocky Balboa from 1976′s “Rocky” narrating his own life story, and you have an idea of Thom Zimny’s surprisingly touching and introspective look at Sylvester Stallone. I thought listening to Sly for 95 minutes might be torture; instead, I was moved by his vulnerability.
A master class in how a documentary should be made. Julie Cohen’s film about intersex people moves briskly, packs a lot of useful and important information into a short runtime, and lets its subjects tell their stories unimpeded by gimmicks. Even when resorting to occasional needle drops, “Every Body” is never cloying or obnoxious. And unlike so many films about LGBTQIA+ people, it focuses more on joy than misery.
“Bill Russell: Legend”
Sam Pollard’s documentary about Celtics legend Bill Russell is as unflinchingly honest and raw as Russell himself. As with all his films, Pollard rigorously interrogates how race factors into the American experience; we spend as much time off the court witnessing Russell’s struggles with racism, and his activism, as we do watching him lead Boston’s basketball team to glory.
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.