The top films of 2023, thus far

There's a ton of exciting films still to come out this year. Between Mission Impossible 7, the double whammy weekend of Greta Gerwig's Barbie and Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer (Barbenheimer? Oppenbarbie?), and Scorsese's Killers of the Flower Moon alone, the second half of 2023 promises to be intriguing.

So far this year, the state of the cinema in America seems to be dominated by either massive franchise chapter entries and remakes, or a slew of beautiful new, independent filmmaking. As streaming conglomerates continue to consolidate power, we seem to be losing middle-budget options of a more diverse array. This has positive elements too: a leveling of the playing field for younger directors to enter the fray. Some of the best films thus far this year feel emblematic of a world hungry to deal with the present reality while offering glimpses into a cautiously optimistic future.

Here's a list of ten of the year's best thus far, in alphabetical order.

Creed III (Michael B. Jordan): Popular cinema is in such a state these days that most franchise entries should carry a warning sign. But the Creed franchise continues to carry the flag for American popcorn movie-going. The fight choreography here is just electric — and rivals any other boxing film ever made. That it also boasts a compelling question about assimilation and institutional racism is just impressive.

De Humani Corporis (Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Véréna Paravel): Originally reviewed here. A stunning and rare feat. The directing pair's latest takes up Frederic Wiseman's ethos by plunging us, literally, into the human body. Shot in various rooms and back hallways of French hospitals, the film is a rare glimpse into an all-together foreign realm. Though the movie is shot with novel access, it recalls cinema's early days, when English photographer Eadweard Muybridge used the new apparatus to answer some of science's more persistent questions of bodies, human and otherwise, in motion.

The Eight Mountains (Felix van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch)'s film charts the ups and downs of the friendship between Pietro and Bruno (played as adults by Luca Marinelli and Alessandro Borghi) and touches on themes of class division, memory and regret, and people's relationship to the land across its nearly two-and-a-half hours. It's a vision of the Empyrean that sneaks up on you, proving to be more than the sum of its disparate, photogenic parts. This is a beautiful and provocative story about a profoundly rooted friendship and one that's obsessed with the consequences of living freely and asking us to consider that which we leave behind in the pursuit of personal enlightenment.

The Innocent (Louis Garrel): Role-playing, theatricality, and slippery love quadrangles. It's safe to say that Louis Garrel's The Innocent, with its story of knotty love and escalating bouts of petty thievery, is his strongest to date, and by a considerable margin. Individual characters are bathed in their own distinctly muted neon hue as if existing in a comedic French version of Sin City. These and other cinematic flourishes infuse the breezy romance with the Hitchcockian tension of a cat-and-mouse caper. Who is the innocent of the film's title? In lieu of the narrative complexity of a traditional heist film, Garrel focuses on the cosmic complications of multiple characters stumbling toward self-betterment. As lies and truths unravel, with unspoken feelings coming to the fore and changing perspectives, the characters flip from victim to criminal, from friend to lover, from imprisoned to liberated, and back again. The innocent, it turns out, isn't a single character but the person inside us all, playing at the version of ourselves we'd rather be.

John Wick: Chapter 4 (Chad Stahleski): Like The Good Bad and The Ugly meets Amélie meets Buster Keaton. Arguably the best of the entry of the franchise based on the breathtaking set pieces alone, this is the kind of pop action spectacle that makes you want to relive it seconds after leaving the theater.

Knock at the Cabin (M. Night Shyamalan): Shyamalan has become something of an acquired taste in recent years, and Knock at the Cabin isn't different from his past work in embracing some frankly silly irrationality. Yet, this is easily one of Shyamalan's best: tight and taut and extraordinarily well-acted from top to bottom. Shyamalan's unapologetic love and optimism for humanity bursts at the seams.

The Maiden (Graham Foy): One of the stronger feature debuts of recent memory, the film suggests a pointillist depiction of loss—of impressions and feelings, the way we remember how a leaf was illuminated by the lights of an approaching train, how a helicopter roared overhead between massive cloud formations. Here is an evergreen curiosity for how our everyday world shapes us in big and especially small ways.

Master Gardener (Paul Schrader): An unusual turn for the master of cynicism, in that the film displays an uncommon optimism and sympathy for some people far on the fringes of society. The cogency and precision here – in telling the story of a florist and his muse, marries the rigidity of landscape architecture to a story of redemption.

The Stroll (Kristen Parker Lovell, Zackary Drucker): Originally reviewed here on Boing Boing. Some films are little acts of revolution, simply in their very existence. A searing ode to the fortitude of Black trans sex workers in New York City's Meatpacking district pre-gentrification, the HBO Documentary reifies the importance of bearing witness.

Tótem (Lila Avilés): A film of unexpected beauty, using Sol (Naíma Sentiés), a precocious nine year old, as a conduit for exploring the quandaries of a family navigating matters of love, heartbreak, class, innocence, and, perhaps most prominently, mortality. What her father is dying of and how soon begins as a kind of mystery. In place of fast answers, Avilés's camera moves to the rhythms of youthful discovery and impending grief, in the process opening a searing window into one middle-class family's love for one another.