2023 Was An Incredible Movie Year – These Are The Best Movies You Didn't See 

Was 2023 a good year for movies? The end of each moviegoing year always raises that age-old question and, as always, the ultimate answer remains squarely in the eye of the beholder. For most, that tends to come down to the most populist theatrical offerings. If the latest superhero sequels and nostalgic remakes and most highly-anticipated blockbusters failed to live up to their crowd-pleasing billing, well, at least there's always next year. But for those of us who spend entirely too much time and effort on the hunt for hidden gems beneath the surface, international cinema from the most exciting talent around the globe, and overlooked indies that didn't have millions of marketing dollars to throw around, that turns out to be the wrong question to ask in the first place.

What we should be talking about is whether we've caught up on all the undeniably great movies readily available to us, because they're absolutely out there for those curious enough to look. But if you haven't, that's okay! It's easy for someone literally getting paid to watch movies all year to look down on the tastes of the masses, but such condescending attitudes have never once been an effective way to convert anyone to the cause. Instead, consider this article a guilt-free, nonjudgmental, and altogether motivational push to check out some of the most underappreciated movies of 2023. Some rode a wave of festival hype but never quite crossed the pop culture threshold, and others you may never have even heard of, but we promise that each and every one of the following titles is well worth your time.

These are the underseen movies that challenged us, surprised us, and stuck with us long after the credits rolled. Here's to the best movies you (likely) didn't see ... yet!

The honorable mentions

Don't let appearances fool you. These first five films might be filed under the qualification of "Honorable Mentions," but that's only so that I could get away with hyping up 15 total movies instead of a nice, round number like 10. I regret nothing!

2023 was a year where quiet, understated brilliance truly came from anywhere — such as streaming. Paramount+ delivered one final burst of brilliance from the late, great William Friedkin with "The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial," a gripping remake that hearkens back to one-location courtroom thrillers of yore. If you couldn't get enough of Jason Clarke yelling at Cillian Murphy in "Oppenheimer," then may we interest you in a performance where he channels that exact same energy against the fearsome might of Kiefer Sutherland for the entire runtime? There was also "Flora and Son," director John Carney's wonderfully subdued follow-up to "Sing Street" starring the fiery Eve Hewson as single mom Flora and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as her guitar teacher in a star-crossed romance ... over Zoom. And even a typically botched Netflix release couldn't put a damper on star John Boyega's big post-"Star Wars" leading turn in "They Cloned Tyrone." Directed by Juel Taylor, what starts out as a barely heightened crime drama in an ambiguous American neighborhood soon transforms into a fantastical sci-fi satire that's no less compelling.

And if you missed these in theaters, "The Royal Hotel" and "Story Ave" are standouts. The former lends an almost horror-like tone to a story of two free-spirited friends ending up in the unfriendliest of male-dominated spaces, while the latter brings a frequently moving and heartfelt touch as a coming-of-age drama about Black identity, art, and the choices we make. Both take very different approaches to similarly trenchant social concerns and are well worth a watch.

International flavor

As much as we like to pretend otherwise, there's a much bigger and more exciting sphere of influence out there outside of our filthy Americentric tendencies. No article about the year's best and most underappreciated gems would feel complete without including as many international contenders as possible. Even my own paltry selections barely scratch the surface of what's out there, so let's just consider this a mere jumping-off point to the wider world of cinema.

We'll start with the brutally violent joys of "Sisu," directed by Finnish filmmaker Jalmari Helander. The World War II-set film follows an aged, hardened gold prospector (Jorma Tommila) who brings hellfire down on scattered Nazi forces in Finland when they make the fatal mistake of messing with the wrong ex-soldier of Finnish legend. To say much more would spoil the fun (not that there's much "plot" to speak of, anyway), but let's just say John Woo's "Silent Night" isn't the year's best dialogue-lite thriller. "Afire," meanwhile, is a far more sedate exploration into the greatest fear of writers everywhere: dispassion, writer's block, and the nagging feeling that we're talentless hacks. German director Christian Petzold takes this odd assortment of ingredients and puts together a simmering stew of jealousy and insecurity that threatens to explode at any moment. Finally, "The Eight Mountains," directed by Belgian filmmakers Felix van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch, uses a childhood friendship and their unexpected reunion decades later as the centerpiece of a sweeping, grown-up, and complicated tale about whether our fates are truly written in stone.

For my money, these three highlights earned their consideration on the strength of boldness, storytelling prowess, and, particularly in the case of "The Eight Mountains," combining everything we love about movies into one of the best and most unforgettable experiences of the year.

The boundary-pushers

The thing about searching high and low for the movies worth shining a light on, as it turns out, is that you're not always going to land on films that go down easily. For any filmmaker with something worth saying, it shouldn't be about watering down their message and making it palatable to the masses. Instead, it's about communicating those stories as effectively as possible — even (or maybe especially) if it ends up alienating certain viewers.

Perhaps no 2023 movie better sums that up than "Sanctuary," the erotic psychological thriller starring Margaret Qualley as a dominatrix with her own hidden motivations and her unlikely submissive, a wealthy businessman (Christopher Abbott), who's about to break off their relationship. What follows is a twisty, tasteful, and frequently insightful look into the world of power dynamics and boundaries. You'll want to check any presumptions and prejudices at the door for this one. "Brother" operates in a similar headspace, even if it tackles very different subject matter. Here, two young and wildly different African-Canadian siblings attempt to navigate life under the thumb of societal expectations and rampant racism. The unflinching drama by writer/director Clement Virgo is deeply personal and completely unafraid to go to some hard-hitting places. Finally, "How To Blow Up A Pipeline" rounds out this trilogy by showing us the true cost of meaningful activism. But should this come across as merely a heavy-handed call to arms for ecoterrorists everywhere, rest assured that director Daniel Goldhaber has immaculately crafted one of the year's tensest and most vital experiences.

None of this is to say that these films only dealt in provoking or dividing audiences, mind you, but there's certainly something refreshing about the way they boldly and fearlessly put everything on the line.

Our favorite filmmakers

Finally, we've come to a quartet of films that time will undoubtedly be kind to down the line. It's hard to believe that 2023 alone gave us new movies by Kelly Reichardt, Sofia Coppola, Paul Schrader, and Ira Sachs ... and even wilder that most (if not all) of them had to end up in an article like this to truly give them their flowers. Luckily, it's never too late to right past wrongs, as all of these are readily available to rent or stream online.

"Showing Up" is probably the most under-the-radar title here, though it's hardly Reichardt's fault that her latest collaboration with Michelle Williams doesn't get as much attention as more headline-grabbing directors and muses. This time, Williams shines as a put-upon sculptor carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders: an unhelpful landlord, an injured pigeon, and the trials and tribulations of a woman artist surviving the gig economy all at once. This adds up to something even greater than the sum of its parts, not unlike how "Master Gardener" unfolds. Schrader has made a career out of getting his hands dirty with some of the shadiest protagonists in all of film, but few rival the secrets that Joel Edgerton's quiet Narvel Roth holds. The journey this one takes is shocking and abrasive but also more than a little optimistic.

Last, but not least, few 2023 titles would make for a more fascinating double-feature than "Priscilla" and "Passages." Ostensibly about romance and identity, both films thrust a thoroughly unlikable figure into the spotlight (Jacob Elordi's predatory Elvis and Franz Rogowski's terminally indecisive Tomas) and task viewers and characters alike with picking up the shattered pieces they leave behind. Both movies are complex, unpredictable, and two of the best of the entire year.

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