The Phoenix’s Top Films of 2023

The Phoenix Staff reflect on their favorite films that premiered this year.

Barbie dream houses, Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer and Donatello of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ love for BTS are only some of the highlights of this year’s films. Writers of The Phoenix reflect on their stand out films of 2023.

“Asteroid City” directed by Wes Anderson –  Julia Soeder

It’s a movie about a TV show about a play called “Asteroid City.” If that wasn’t confusing enough, just wait until the alien shows up. 

Taking place at the world’s lamest excuse for a city, the junior stargazer convention brings together a smorgasbord of characters only possible in a Wes Anderson movie. 

Asteroid City, a tired town consisting of an auto-repair shop, motel service and vending machine selling real estate, was the site of a meteor crash 5,000 years ago and a space convention for child prodigies in 1955.

A love connection formed between Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) and Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson) alongside an attempted government cover-up offers a chance of escapism for any moviegoer. 

Anderson’s cult following will bow at his latest masterpiece, while those who hated his previous work will undoubtedly scream their dislikings into the abyss.

“Asteroid City” is available to buy or rent on various streaming platforms.

“Beau is Afraid” directed by Ari Aster – Hanna Houser

Content warning: Incest, murder

In the third installment of Ari Aster’s collection, “Beau is Afraid” is a continuation of Aster’s masterwork in unsettling, dark horror, brought about in an entirely new way. 

Previously known for A24 hits “Hereditary” and “Midsommar,” Aster concots a disturbia polluted by mommy issues, violent crime and inward humiliation. Starring Joaquin Phoenix as the troubled Beau Wasserman, the film is a sequence of misfortunes, as told by an unstable Beau, who embarks on a journey to see his mother. 

Within the first few minutes, Beau’s home is ransacked by an orderless, mob-like society. His plane ticket to his mother’s house is stolen, and he’s hit by a truck. As the title appropriately encapsulates, he’s afraid, anxious and unreliable as a narrator, creating a viewing experience sure to leave viewers on-edge. 

Altogether, the film is a hodge-podge of disturbing happenings, including layers of incest, murder and mental torture. It’s a refreshing addition to 2023’s horror collection, creating an unsettling experience fostered by a distrust between viewer and narrator. 

“Beau is Afraid” is available to buy or rent on various streaming platforms.

“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem” directed by Jeff Rowe – Catherine Meyer

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles finally feel like real teenagers in “Mutant Mayhem.” From Donnie’s love of South Korean boy band BTS to Mikey’s desire to sign up for the high school improv team, there’s no lack of entertaining teenage awkwardness.

The boys — Leo, Raph, Mikey and Donnie — disobey Splinter, their adoptive rat father and set out to achieve acceptance from the human world. To do so, they try to take down a mysterious crime syndicate with the help of their human friend April O’Neil.  

The sketchy, misshapen animation style is meant to emulate the “raw, unfiltered expression” of teenagers, director Jeff Rowe said in an interview with MovieWeb. The “passionately imperfect” art lends a hand in creating breathtakingly fluid fight scenes.

“Mutant Mayhem” delivers charm, action and humor to all audiences, and can be streamed on Paramount +. 

“Barbie” directed by Greta Gerwig – Bri Guntz

Through all things pink and sparkly — the quintessential elements of girlhood — “Barbie” reinvents what it means to be a girl with the message “you can be anything.” 

Life is perfect for Barbie (Margot Robbie) until she begins to experience thoughts of death. Faced with the reality that someone in the human world is playing with her doll, she must venture outside of Barbie Land and confront her dark thoughts, alongside a regressing Ken (Ryan Gosling).

It turns out that the human world is nothing like Barbieland — in the human world, men rule and girls can be mean.

Directed by Greta Gerwig, “Barbie” showcases a humorous — and at times devastatingly accurate — depiction of the afflictions experienced by women and girls. As the highest grossing film of 2023, its impact on the zeitgeist as a modern, feminist think piece makes it a standout from this year. 

“Barbie” is available to buy or rent on various streaming platforms.

“Oppenheimer” directed by Christopher Nolan – Aidan Cahill 

A film as complex as its subject, Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” captivated audiences with a gripping story and stunning cinematography. 

Set in the years before, during and after World War II, the film’s protagonist and creator of the atomic bomb J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) has to defend himself before a board looking to strip him of his security clearance. In doing so, Oppenheimer tells his life story — from studying in Europe, to his time at Berkeley, to building the atomic bomb and reckoning with its aftermath. 

Adding to this already complex narrative is the interwoven story of antagonist Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.). Shot in black and white, Lewis narrates the story of Oppenheimer’s downfall after World War II and their personal feud that led to it.

Combined with eye-popping visuals, a stellar supporting cast and a suspenseful soundtrack which crescendos till the very end, Oppenheimer leaves audiences feeling both amazed and terrified.

“Oppenheimer” is available to buy or rent on various streaming platforms.

“The Holdovers” directed by Alexander Payne – Brendan Parr

Everyone goes home for winter break — except the ones with nowhere to go. 

Directed by Alexander Payne, “The Holdovers” is the perfect blend of heart, humor and the holiday season.

The troublesome Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa) spends his Christmas at school whilst his mother goes on honeymoon. Requiring supervision, Angus is looked after by the prickly professor Hunham (Paul Giamatti) and humble cook Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph). 

Angus endures an ill father and absent mother at home, Hunham is beside himself in loneliness as a recluse and Mary reels from the recent death of her son. Each of the trio struggles with adversity but through the wintertime weeks, they rely on one another to keep themselves up.

Despite being filmed in 2022, the picture and audio have a soft graininess in their display. The film’s 20th century ambience contributes to its timeless warmth, having more in common with 1989’s “Dead Poets Society” or 1993’s “Rudy” than any release this year.

Taking place in 1970s New England, the film is dually a visual feast for entrancing snowfallen exteriors and cozy beige-patterned interiors. 

“The Holdovers” is a masterclass in heart-wrenching narratives and comforting aesthetics. It’s a soon-to-be Christmastime classic.

“The Holdovers” is available to buy or rent on various streaming platforms.

“A Thousand and One” directed by A.V. Rockwell – Matt Sorce

Content warning: Brutality, kidnapping

The world is an affectionate yet treacherous place, masterfully illustrated by A.V. Rockwell’s directorial debut “A Thousand and One.”

Set in a rapidly changing New York City, the unapologetic former convict Inez de la Paz (Teyana Taylor) kidnaps her son Terry (Aaron Adetola) from the foster care system to regain their feeling of home, identity and steadiness.

The story is conveyed slowly, yet it’s impossible to feel fatigued. Countless emotional climaxes, intense confrontations and intricate plot-twists are likely to have viewers on the edge of their seats, recontextualizing the entire film.

The film showcases the historical oppression of Black families in the 1990s. Police brutality, gentrification and economic hardships are frequently depicted on-screen.

The lead actors Teyana Taylor, William Catlett and Josiah Cross bring unprecedented depth to their performances, crafting an authentic, thought-provoking story.

“A Thousand and One” is available to buy or rent on various streaming platforms.

Featured image courtesy of Pop. 87 Productions

The Phoenix Staff

The Phoenix Staff