2023 was a strange year, all things considered, when it comes to Hollywood and the domestic box office. From Marvel’s superhero machine running out of steam to the dual strikes, Barbenheimer, and overlong epics from octogenarian directors, it was at times a head-scratcher of a year — and now that December has arrived, the annual exercise of contextualizing it all has begun. In light of the traditional year-end “Best Of” lists that have begun to proliferate, I’d like to highlight three of the best movies I saw that, at least for me, made this crazy year worth it.
They include: Director Nida Manzoor’s Polite Society, Colin West’s Linoleum, and Celine Song’s Past Lives.
I should specify — these weren’t the three best; they were simply three of the best, just to make that point clear. And it’s not just me; I feel entirely certain that at least one of these will be on almost every critic’s Best Movies of 2023 list (like Variety’s just-released Best Movies of 2023 list), and I wouldn’t be surprised if some lists include all three movies.
So forget Barbie, Oppenheimer, and everything else that crushed at the box office this year. We’re going to take a look now at three underrated gems that absolutely belong on your watch list.
First up is this heartwarming drama from Manzoor, who also created Peacock’s We Are Lady Parts series about a Muslim female punk band.
The movie combines a story about the power of sisterhood mixed with martial arts action, a tribute to Bollywood, and razor-sharp British wit, with a raised middle finger to arranged marriages and the hierarchies of social class thrown in for good measure. Set in London, Polite Society follows schoolgirl Ria Khan, who dreams of one day becoming a great stuntwoman. She films YouTube videos of herself in training and gets in fights at school where she tries to put her training and martial arts prowess into practice.
Ria’s world is turned upside-down, though, when she learns that her older sister Lena has decided to get engaged. Ria believes she needs to save her sister, who’s giving up on her own dreams, by rounding up some friends and pulling off an epic wedding heist. It’s a universal feeling at the heart of this movie, with a sibling feeling abandoned as a result of impending matrimony — but, in the case of Polite Society, Ria actually does need to save Lena.
Where to watch it: Video on demand
“My dad used to always say: There’s two kinds of people in the world, Cameron. Astronomers — and astronauts.”
Next on my (for now) incomplete list of the best movies I saw in 2023 is Linoleum, which may actually be the most difficult to describe movie of the year. That’s because it’s super-hard to talk about this movie and summarize it enough to make you want to watch it without spoiling its devastating emotional revelation. What I can say is that star Jim Gaffigan displays a breathtaking acting range that I suspect will come as a surprise to most people who know him for his dad joke-style standup comedy routines.
Here, supported by a cast that includes Better Call Saul’s Rhea Seehorn, he plays a middle-aged former scientist and erstwhile wannabe astronaut whose life didn’t turn out like he’d hoped. He ended up hosting a children’s science show on TV, all the while dreaming of one day doing something truly great.
A meditation on regret and dreams deferred — that’s the kind of movie that you think Linoleum is going to be, before it takes a sharp turn towards the end and you realize the whole thing has actually been a setup for a much more profound rumination on memory and identity. I wish I could say more, but just watch it. You’ll thank me later.
Where to watch it: Hulu, and video on demand
Finally, we come to the quiet, understated triumph of A24’s Past Lives, which was a big winner at the Gotham Awards in recent days and which also just picked up five Spirit Awards nominations. From my review of the movie: “The characters at the center of Past Lives, Nora and Hae Sung, were childhood sweethearts who were wrest apart from each other after Nora’s family emigrated from South Korea. Two decades later, they reunite as adults for one week in New York City.”
Past Lives “has a languid, delicate pace to its storytelling that recalls Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love. It’s about childhood crushes and lost love; it ruminates on the immigrant experiences that spin off a tangle of parallel lives. All of which is to say: In thinking through the best movies I saw this year, I keep coming back to this dreamy marvel of a directorial debut from Celine Song.”
Where to watch it: Video on demand