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Critics recommend their must-see movies of 2023


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Amna Nawaz: Over the holidays, you might have some time to catch up on new films at home or to venture out to the theaters.

To help guide us on the best ones to add to your list, Jeffrey Brown speaks to two film critics on their top picks of the year. It's for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: Union strikes caused delays and other bumps in the road in Hollywood this year, but some films still stuck out from the crowd.

To tell us about this year's best films, I'm joined by Justin Chang, film critic of The Los Angeles Times, and Linda Holmes, host of NPR's "Pop Culture Happy Hour."

Nice to see you both.

Justin, why don't I start with you?

Why don't you give us a couple of your favorites?

Justin Chang, The Los Angeles Times: Yes, hi, Geoff.

My favorite movie of the year really snuck up on me. It's called "All of Us Strangers." And it's the latest from the English writer-director Andrew Haigh. It tells the story of a lonely screenwriter who's played in a quietly gut-wrenching performance by Andrew Scott.

Actor: Are you ready? I'm going to press it.

Actress: Merry Christmas.

Actor: Merry Christmas. Here you go.

Actress: Merry Christmas.

Justin Chang: I don't want to say too much about it. It's a gay love story. It's a drama about parent-child reconciliation, and it's also — and this is not a spoiler — it's a ghost story.

I haven't seen a more intimate movie this year. What makes it work, I think, is that it's really hauntingly ambiguous on one hand, but it's completely emotionally direct and satisfying on the other. And it features what is for me the acting ensemble of the year, with not only Andrew Scott, but also Paul Mescal, Claire Foy, and Jamie Bell.

A very different movie that I also loved is "The Zone of Interest," which is Jonathan Glazer's chilling and searing drama about a Nazi commandant and his family living next door to Auschwitz. This is a movie I hesitate to describe as a Holocaust drama because it so completely subverts what we have been conditioned to expect about Holocaust dramas.

It is very much about the banality of evil, but the movie itself is never banal. And it's the opposite of holiday cheer this season, but it is a movie that I hope audiences will embrace the challenge of, because I think it's rewarding to watch.

Jeffrey Brown: All right.

So, Linda Holmes, do you have any cheer for us? Those were two independent and pretty heavy films. What's on your list?

Linda Holmes, Pop Culture Correspondent, NPR: I did love a lot of heavy films this year, but I'm also happy to provide a couple that have maybe a little more cheer.

I am one of the many people who enjoyed "Barbie." I very much admired all the crafts that were on display in that film, the production design, the scoring, the costuming. All of that stuff I thought was wonderful. And I think the story in the end just was much more interesting. Greta Gerwig, in writing and directing that, just did much more with it than maybe people expected.

And another one I…

Jeffrey Brown: And clearly struck a chord.

Linda Holmes: Absolutely.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Linda Holmes: I mean, theatrical distribution still needs some big hits. That's still a really good thing for theaters. And I was really happy to see that happen.

Another one I would mention is "The Holdovers," which is from Alexander Payne. And it's about these three people who are stuck over the holiday break in a school. And it is Paul Giamatti as this very grumpy teacher, and then one of the kids that is in his class, and then the woman, played by Da'Vine Joy Randolph, who plays the woman who runs the food service.

And they all get stuck there. I think it's a beautiful movie. It's very generous to its characters. And, to me, it's warm without being cloying. That was how I responded to it.

Jeffrey Brown: You know, Justin, just thinking about "Barbie," getting back to this big and small and that moment of "Barbie," and I think you had "Oppenheimer" as one of your favorites from the year.

That moment of "Barbie" and "Oppenheimer," was that a — how does it feel now? Was it a one-off? Did it have a lasting effect?

Justin Chang: It's hard to say. I mean, it did feel like one of those unpredictable and perhaps unrepeatable phenomena.

I remember going into a theater, not even to see "Barbie" or "Oppenheimer," both of which I enjoyed very much in different ways. I went to see another movie and just seeing theaters, like, crowded on a Monday night. And I think the lessons of both these movies is that personal vision and big-budget blockbuster filmmaking can and should merge together in a way that they so rarely do.

My concern about it is that it was so heartening to see two filmmakers that I respect as much as Greta Gerwig and Christopher Nolan succeed in this way. My fear is that it just contributes to the eventization of movies. I love event movies. I love being in thrall with an audience to a really big, glorious vision.

But, as a film critic, I'm concerned with the audience going to movies on a regular basis to make it a regular part of their entertainment diet, rather than just an exception. But what a glorious exception it was.

Jeffrey Brown: You want to give us another one that fits any category you like? I mean, what are you telling people at this time of year that they should see?

Linda Holmes: I cannot resist bringing up one that I really liked that I know Justin didn't like at all.

Jeffrey Brown: Oh.

Linda Holmes: Because I think sometimes that's the most interesting, which is "Saltburn," which is this very extravagantly vulgar, loopy thriller that was made by Emerald Fennell, who made "Promising Young Woman" a couple of years ago.

Actor: My parents, they have got problems.

Actor: What kind of — what do you mean problems?

Actor: I don't think I will ever go home again.

Actor: Well, why don't you come home with me?

Linda Holmes: Very divisive movie. I knew walking out of the theater how divisive it was.

And I have actually really enjoyed talking to people about it. I have heard a lot of smart people who can't stand it and really smart people who thought it was terrific. It's my favorite thing that happens is when people have smart conversations about divisive things.


Jeffrey Brown: Ah. Well, OK.

Justin, you can either push back on that or maybe go positive and come up with another one that divided people, but you liked.

Justin Chang: In a spirit of holiday charity, I will say that, while I did not like "Saltburn," as Linda says, I do think that Rosamund Pike gives one of the great comic performances of the year in it. And Jacob Elordi, who's also great in Sofia Coppola's "Priscilla," really does terrific work in "Saltburn" as well.

So, but another movie…

Linda Holmes: That's very generous, very generous.


Justin Chang: You're welcome.

Another favorite of mine, to branch into animation, is "The Boy and the Heron," which is the latest and maybe the last, although we have heard that before, from the 82-year-old Japanese anime master Hayao Miyazaki.

If you like "Spirited Away" and "Princess Mononoke" and "Howl's Moving Castle" and other Miyazaki films, it's a safe bet you will like this one too. It's a gorgeously drawn and surreal and inventive piece of animation. But what makes it so moving is, it's also very much the story of an older man, perhaps Miyazaki himself, looking back at a younger version of himself and asking questions like, how do we reconcile the pain of the real world and the escapism of fantasy?

It's a beautiful film, and I think a profound one too.

Jeffrey Brown: And just in our last minute, Linda Holmes, it's hard to talk about this year without, of course, thinking about the strike.

Do you see any impact now, or are you looking for it to come, or where has that left things?

Linda Holmes: You will see some films that are delayed. There are some that are already being delayed. So it's going to take a while for the schedule to kind of reset.

But I was so heartened by the fact that we have mentioned just a handful of movies here, but there are so many that were great this year that are still coming out. "American Fiction" is great. I like "The Iron Claw," which is about to come out.

Jeffrey Brown: Justin, brief last word?

Justin Chang: I am just heartened by the fact that, as devastating as the strike was, I think writers and actors are happy to return to work. And I think they have seen the power that solidarity can accomplish and that they can and should be remunerated in accordance with their work.

I mean, they make this business run. And so I — it's just a shame that it took the devastating losses and just pain of the strike in order to accomplish that. So — but, hopefully, this season will be a good one for all of them.

Jeffrey Brown: All right, Justin Chang of The Los Angeles Times, Linda Holmes of NPR, "Pop Culture Happy Hour," thank you both very much.

Linda Holmes: Thank you.

Justin Chang: Thank you for having me.

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