The best movies of the year showcased Hollywood at its best

Chronicle film critic Mick LaSalle shares his favorite movies of 2023.Chronicle staff illustration

Good and bad movies come in bunches, but great movies are something on their own.

In any given era, there can be a tendency for audiences to prefer rom-coms, action movies, or superhero movies, and these will dominate for a while. But great movies are almost always one-offs, products of imagination and idiosyncrasy, marvels of individual inspiration.

That’s why the nonsense that the author of “Anna Karenina” Leo Tolstoy said about families – “All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” — does not apply to the movies. The bad cracks along the predictable rifts, while the great find brand new ways to be great.

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The closest thing to a trend we can find in this year’s best movies is that biopics remain strong (“Maestro,” “Oppenheimer,” “Nyad”). But this is not new. This trend dates back to the turn of the millennium and has its parallel in the growing public interest in memoirs over novels.

Mostly, when we look at the best of 2023, we look at films that could not have been expected and cannot be duplicated.

“Maestro”

Bradley Cooper directs and stars as conductor Leonard Bernstein in The Maestro.

Bradley Cooper directs and stars as conductor Leonard Bernstein in The Maestro.

Jason McDonald/Amblin Entertainment

Bradley Cooper directs, co-wrote and stars in this story of Leonard Bernstein and his marriage to Felicia Montealegre, and the result is a biopic that’s not a career summary but a portrait of a relationship.

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As he did in A Star Is Born, Cooper gives at least half the film to his co-star, and Carey Mulligan responds with a performance of his career, one of 2023’s best.

If Cooper makes another great movie, we’ll have to start calling him a great director.

“Oppenheimer”

Cillian Murphy as J.  Robert Oppenheimer in Oppenheimer.

Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer in Oppenheimer.

Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures

In this dazzling three-hour display of filmmaking virtuosity, director Christopher Nolan tells the story of physicist and UC Berkeley professor J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), “the father of the atomic bomb.” Fascinating and often compelling, the film zigzags through different eras of Oppenheimer’s life, culminating in the first detonation of an atomic bomb, the single most impressive film sequence of 2023. More than a pyrotechnic performance, the scene captures the moral complexity of the event and its horror consequences.

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“One Fine Morning”

Léa Seydoux, left, and Camille Leban Martins in the French film One Fine Morning.

Léa Seydoux, left, and Camille Leban Martins in the French film One Fine Morning.

Carole Bethuel/Sony Pictures Classics

French director Mia Hansen-Lövé lets us into the life of a woman (Léa Seydoux) who embarks on a new relationship and copes with her father’s debilitating illness.

Hansen-Løve finds a subtly revolutionary way to tell the story: The scenes exist only to illuminate aspects of the woman’s character, and each one ends the moment the task is accomplished.

Hansen-Løve finds a way to do something that filmmakers have struggled to do since the beginning of cinema: replicate and make interesting the experience of real life.

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“The Quiet Girl”

This masterpiece from Ireland, about a girl from a troubled family who spends the summer with foster parents, captures – as well or better than any film ever made – both the experience of childhood and the childlike perception of adults. Told in Irish, it features Catherine Clinch in the best child performance since Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense.

“May December”

Natalie Portman, left, and Julianne Moore in May December.

Natalie Portman, left, and Julianne Moore in May December.

Francois Duhamel/Netflix

Julianne Moore plays a woman with a scandal in her past that inspired a movie, and Natalie Portman plays the actress who will play her on screen.

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Directed by Todd Haynes, it mixes comedy and drama and suggests that there is something vampiric about the artistic impulse. This is a brilliant, complex, multifaceted film.

“Dream Scenario”

Nicolas Cage in

Nicolas Cage in “Dream Script,” about a nondescript man who begins appearing in other people’s dreams.

A24

Nicolas Cage, who can do no wrong since The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022), finds one of his best roles as a soft-spoken professor who starts appearing in strangers’ dreams.

One of the most free-flowing and imaginative films of the year becomes a meditation on the culture of fame and undoing; it’s a serious movie with lots of funny scenes.

“Asteroid City”

Steve Carell, left, Aristo Meehan and Liev Schreiber in Asteroid City.

Steve Carell, left, Aristo Meehan and Liev Schreiber in Asteroid City.

Focus functions

Wes Anderson’s best and best film of Wes Anderson’s career, this story set in the desert in the 1950s near one of the nuclear test sites has very little story, but it is interesting , being interesting scene by scene. Anderson manages to convey his consciousness to the viewer so that the entire film feels like it’s inside the director’s head.

“Good man”

Florence Pugh and Morgan Freeman in A Good Man.

Florence Pugh and Morgan Freeman in A Good Man.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Florence Pugh plays a confident woman who emerges from a life-changing car accident with emotional problems and an addiction to Oxycontin.

Written and directed by Zach Braff, it’s a cinematic contemplation of Pugh as a screen entity, and one of the smartest and least boring screen portraits of addiction in recent memory.

“The Disappearance of Cher Hite”

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Sher Hite was a famous sex researcher along the lines of Alfred Kinsey or William Masters and Virginia Johnson, but today she is hardly known to anyone under 50.

This enlightening and infuriating documentary by Berkeley filmmaker Nicole Newnam shows the almost incredible sexism Hite faced and how it managed to suppress her work for decades.

“Nyaad” andWhat happens later’

Annette Bening as famous distance swimmer Diana Nyad in the biopic Nyad.

Annette Bening as famous distance swimmer Diana Nyad in the biopic Nyad.

Netflix

These two breakthrough films about a 60-year-old deserve to be paired.

“Nyad,” the story of swimmer Diana Nyad’s marathon swim from Cuba to Florida at the age of 64, was presented as a story about discovering new challenges in late middle age (or beginning old age), and What Happens Later, co-written, starring and directed by Meg Ryan, was about rediscovering love. Both films give an honest and moving account of a period of life that films usually ignore.

Contact Mick LaSalle: [email protected]

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