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The Pomegranate

The Student News Site of Granada High School

The Pomegranate

The Student News Site of Granada High School

The Pomegranate

Top 15 Films of 2023

Sterling K. Brown in American Fiction 2023 Dir. Cord Jefferson

I have the honor of writing The Pomegranate’s inevitable rundown of the greatest films that received a wide release in the year 2023. There were so many fantastic movies released this year, that picking just 10 was too difficult. 

However, these 15 films show the range of greatness that was exhibited in cinema this year. From blockbusters to independently produced foreign films, and everything in between, each of these films is a finely-crafted, valuable work of art. They all have passion for their ideas and explore unique themes in a novel way.

For context, if there was no way to watch it in the United States outside of a film festival before January 1st, 2024, it does not count for this list. That is why great films like Nigeria’s Mami Wata, Romania’s Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World, and the madcap Hundreds of Beavers will instead be saved for 2024. This also only includes narrative features, so no documentaries are included.

Alexander Skarsgård in Infinity Pool 2023 Dir. Brandon Cronenberg

15. Infinity Pool

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If you have a weak stomach, you might be better off skipping this one entirely.

The glory of Infinity Pool is seeing writer/director Brandon Cronenberg carefully build a solid foundation of characters, setting, and rules, before knocking them all over with such an infectious, fun energy. Infinity Pool sees Alexander Skarsgård as an upper-class novelist sojourning in the fictional seaside country of Li Tolqa, where he soon learns that a strange, barbaric judicial system lies underneath the scenic vistas.

On a deeper level, Infinity Pool uses a wild core concept to explore themes of classism, cultural appropriation, lust, and exploitation. Simply calling it a horror film fails to do it justice. Like Jordan Peele’s film Nope, the goal is to entertain you, but then it pulls back and asks why we enjoy such sensationalism; the best of both worlds. The film also features some gorgeous and striking CGI imagery, solid cinematography, great production design, and a gloriously committed libertine performance from Mia Goth.

It’s a hallucinatory nightmare, but an undeniably great one. If you are going to seek Infinity Pool out, I suggest making sure you watch the unrated version of the film. While largely the same experience, the version that was released in theaters was edited down for an R-rating, and as such lacks some of the oomph factor. Check out the unrated version because, if there’s one thing I learned from Infinity Pool, if you are going to do it, you should go all the way.

Tia Nomore and Erika Alexander in Earth Mama 2023 Dir. Savanah Leaf

14. Earth Mama

One of the best independent films of the year, Earth Mama finds that elusive sweet spot of being heartbreaking without feeling discouraged. 

The film follows newcomer Tia Nomore as Gia, a single mother with two kids in foster care as she embraces her community in the Bay Area, while in the late stages of pregnancy. This is the feature debut of Savanah Leaf, former volleyball Olympian turned photographer turned filmmaker.

Tender, raw, honest, and intimate, Earth Mama is a stunning debut for Tia Nomore and Savanah Leaf. The film is quite simple but powerful. With beautiful 16mm photography, tons of fantastic quiet moments, and realistic performances, we can only hope this is the first in a long career for Savanah Leaf.

Hilmar Guðjónsson and Elliott Crosset Hove in Godland 2023 Dir. Hlynur Pálmason

13. Vanskabte land (or Godland)

Godland is, in genre, an Icelandic drama, but in practice is a dramatic portrait of Iceland. It, without a doubt, features the most lyrical and poetic filmmaking of the year.

The film is about a Danish priest who sets out to build a church and take photographs in Iceland. The longer he stays, however, the more his mission and his purpose blurs.

Godland is a masterfully directed film to add to writer/director Hlynur Pálmason’s catalog. Beyond the breathtaking scenery, the direction and framing of shots are fantastic. Cinematographer Maria von Hausswolff gives us one of the best-shot films of the past decade. Pálmason’s often bleak, deceptively humorous, and disturbing shots are populated with many interesting characters and an absorbing story progression. Along with that, you have some standout performances and a foreboding, sparse score.

Be warned: this is a slow and meditative film, and if that isn’t your thing, then you will probably be more frustrated than engrossed. But if you are willing to go along with it, Godland is one of the most immersive and thematically unique films of the year.

Jaime Vadell in El Conde 2023 Dir. Pablo Larraín

12. El Conde (or The Count)

El Conde was a surprising but welcome turn for award-darling Pablo Larraín. Taking home the Best Screenplay award at the 80th Venice International Film Festival, the film will probably not see any Oscars’ attention because of the closed-minded one-film-per-country rule. It is disappointing because, despite being a deeply strange and absurd film, it rewards viewers with its unique charm. 

This bone-dry satirical Chilean black comedy horror film reimagines the real-life dictator Augusto Pinochet as a 250-year-old Vampire, finally ready to accept his death. As the film opens, we hear an English woman narrating the film (a choice that will be explained in a funny third-act twist), and we see a young Pinochet fighting against the French Revolution, only to witness Marie Antoinette’s execution. As he travels the globe, he develops a thirst for elite conservatism and blood, working to shut down any revolutionaries anywhere.

Original, gory, breathtaking, and funny, with a biting satirical edge, El Conde delivers on its strong premise and then some. Tied with the film in 9th place as the best-looking movie of the year, it feels like Pablo Larraín and Director of Photography Edward Lachman poured so much love and care into every shot. The production and costume design is expressive and meaningful. The performances are laid back but fitting. The score is solid and has an effective repeated motif. The ending is as powerful as it is funny and has easily one of the strongest final lines of the year.

El Conde may stretch its premise a bit too thin for some, but it is a silly yet powerful reminder that, in real life, Augusto Pinochet may be dead, but his fascism lives on.

Cillian Murphy in Oppenheimer 2023 Dir. Christopher Nolan

11. Oppenheimer

Audacious, bombastic, fierce; Oppenheimer is mass entertainment at its finest. The spectacle of Nolan’s vision comes less from the events in the story than the audio-visual experience it creates.

Based on American Prometheus, as the title suggests, the film isn’t so much about the building of the atomic bomb as it is about the paradox of the man behind it: J. Robert Oppenheimer. Played by the impeccable Cillian Murphy, who communicates so much with his face, the film uses him as a vessel for toying with perspective, emotion, subjectivity/objectivity, and time. The film also features an outstanding supporting cast including Emily Blunt, Robert Downey Jr, Matt Damon, Florence Pugh, Rami Malek, and Kenneth Branagh.

It may be too grand and stylized for its own good, and its female characters are almost laughably underwritten, but it is an undeniably monumental cinematic achievement.

Read the Pomegranate’s full review here.

Margot Robbie in Barbie 2023 Dir. Greta Gerwig

10. Barbie

Based on cast and brand recognition alone, Barbie was going to be a hit no matter what. What wasn’t so sure, however, was if the movie was going to be any good. Ping-ponging back and forth between directors, writers, and stars, it’s surprising how confident and smooth the final product of Barbie is.

Barbie finds her cheerful life upended when she starts having alarming thoughts about death, setting her off on a journey into the real world.

Wickedly funny and strikingly smart, it’s hard to not be won over by Greta Gerwig’s vibrant, visually stunning vision. This film delights in pushing the envelope, not just in terms of edgy humor and adult themes, but how unafraid it is to be critical of its brand. Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach are two of the smartest people working in their field, and they make this fantastic screenplay feel effortless. The way the film handles its emotional moments is wonderfully subversive as well.

The all-star cast of this film glides through creative setpieces with perfect timing. Margot Robbie’s bubbly, yet contemplative, fish-out-of-water performance matches the tone of the film perfectly. Ryan Gosling is finally starting to get the recognition he deserves for comedy, and this is probably his second funniest role after The Nice Guys.

It’s honestly mind-boggling that Rodrigo Prieto did the cinematography for two of the films on this list in one year.

If you haven’t watched Barbie yet, what are you even doing? This movie has gotten more attention than any other film this year, and I would be a lunatic if I said it wasn’t 100 percent deserving of it.

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse 2023 Dir. Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers and Justin K. Thompson

9. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse explodes onto screens with non-stop energy and creativity. It’s hard to create a sequel to one of the best films of its decade, but this is a more than worthy follow-up. 

Miles Morales is reunited with Gwen Stacy and is sent on an adventure across the multiverse, to stop a new threat. 

The film is stunning to look at. With hundreds of unique characters, each with its own visually pleasing design, making each frame an effervescent collage of colors and movement. This feels like the kind of film that should’ve taken a decade to produce. It isn’t just the gorgeous animation, the direction in the film is fantastic. There is just so much movie in here, and, incredibly, the team behind it was able to keep up with a screenplay paced this rapidly.

The film is even more of a love letter to its title character(s) than its predecessor and is truly a visual and storytelling treat from start to finish. We are going to be talking about this one for years to come.

Jorma Tommila in Sisu (2022) Dir. Jalmari Helander

8. Sisu

Somewhere between a 2010s Tarantino movie, a Rambo sequel, and a Chuck Jones-era Looney Tunes short is where Sisu loudly, proudly sits. A lean, mean, classic exploitation action flick, the film manages to say a lot without ever needing to say much of anything.

At the tail end of the second world war, a legendary Finnish gold prospector played by Jorma Tommila crosses paths with a Nazi Death Squad. The film ramps up from its quiet, but never slow, opening act, to a bombastic, show-stopping climax. It doesn’t take long for Nazi corpses to begin piling up, in some blazingly gory moments. Some memorable sequences include a wince-inducing hanging, a clever method of surviving a shootout underwater, and a death-defying plane stunt. There were only a few people in my theater when I first saw the film, but that did not stop them from being incredibly vocal during the ensuing bloodbath. At one point, someone in my theater laughed, “Ain’t no way!”

Tommila rarely speaks in the film, and his physical performance is an all-time great. There is no revenge, no dark backstory, just a guy who likes gold and killing Nazis. And that simplicity is part of what makes the film infinitely watchable.

The film doesn’t just offer carnage, it also provides a smart commentary on the legacy of colonialism with its subplot following a group of badass women the Nazis hold captive. Sisu is one of the smartest action films of the past few years.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone in Killers of the Flower Moon 2023 Dir. Martin Scorsese

7. Killers of the Flower Moon

He’s done it again. Killers of the Flower Moon is another original Scorsese masterpiece, this time a true crime western. 

In the over-saturated niche of true crime, it’s rare to get stories as sobering as this film is. Even this year’s Oppenheimer was, not without an artistic meaning I might add, willfully ignorant of the atrocities connected to its story. Refreshingly for true crime, and even this director, Killers of the Flower Moon reminds the audience that the people behind true crime stories are real people.

With fantastic editing, acting, writing, cinematography, and music, Killers of the Flower Moon is a transcendent cinematic experience. 

Read the Pomegranate’s full review here.

José Coronado in Close Your Eyes 2023 Dir. Víctor Erice

6. Cerrar los ojos (or Close Your Eyes)

The King is back. After 30 years of silence, Spanish director Víctor Erice finally released a new movie in 2023. Only directing two fictional features before, his 1973 masterpiece The Spirit of the Beehive is considered to be the greatest Spanish film of all time. While I personally wouldn’t go that far, it is a fantastic picture, and it’s hard to think of a more perfect return for this man than Close Your Eyes.

Close Your Eyes is about… well, a lot.

The film is about the revived interest in fictional actor Julio Arenas, who mysteriously disappeared after shooting a film in the 90s. The film’s cast is lined out by Manolo Solo as director and Arenas’ friend, Arenas’ daughter played by Ana Torrent, Soledad Villamil as his friend/lover, and Mario Pardo as film editor. 

The film is a coup de maître, an elegant swan song from a man who was truly born to make films. Like a great poet or composer, Víctor Erice weaves both the lived and the unlived, the remembered and the forgotten, the real and the surreal into one interpretable fable. The scale is small, but the scope is wide. With one exception, this is probably the film on this list you are going to have the least fun with. It is a languid work of art, but one which has to be experienced to be understood. Ultimately, you will probably walk out of Close Your Eyes with a newfound perspective on how identity and memory are inseparable concepts. 

A film so well made, so thought-out, that it would feel like a eulogy for a lost type of filmmaking even if that wasn’t one of the explicit themes explored. It may not be Víctor Erice’s final film, but if it is, it was a perfect way to go out. I wouldn’t change a single thing about it. We can only hope that it will get the recognition it deserves over time.

Dominic Sessa stars as Angus Tully and Paul Giamatti as Paul Hunham in director Alexander Payne’s THE HOLDOVERS, a Focus Features release.
Credit: Courtesy of FOCUS FEATURES / © 2023 FOCUS FEATURES LLC (Courtesy_of_FOCUS_FEATURES)

5. The Holdovers

While it may not be this year’s best drama-comedy, The Holdovers is certainly its sweetest.

The film reunites Sideways’ killer combo of Alexander Payne and Paul Giamatti and follows a grumpy school teacher who is forced to stay on campus over the holidays. Setting an inspirational and potentially melodramatic story against the crass cynicism of the 70s was a perfect choice to give this film its edge. 

Not as boundary-pushing as Payne’s early body of work, the film will still win you over with its dry wit, endearing characters, and fun performances.

Read the Pomegranate’s full review here.

Swann Arlaud and Sandra Hüller in Anatomy of a Fall (2023) Dir. Justine Triet

4. Anatomie d’une chute (or Anatomy of a Fall)

Anatomy of a Fall was awarded the highest honor at the Cannes Film Festival and one of the most prestigious awards in the film industry, the Palme d’Or. Directed by Justine Triet, and co-written by her and Arthur Harari, this original French courtroom drama unfolds slowly but surely over 2 and a half hours.

Sandra Hüller plays a writer determined to prove her innocence in the murder of her husband and son.

The film has one of the strongest screenplays of the year. A winding web of characters, events, and dialogue form a unique puzzle that carefully clicks into place. Held together by a masterful performance from Hüller, this film is best-experienced blind. It is not straightforward, and it will surprise you, it is not a traditional whodunnit, but every subversion and twist is conducted with such a memorable finesse. This is one you can never watch the same way again.

Jeffrey Wright in American Fiction 2023 Dir. Cord Jefferson

3. American Fiction

In the greatest high-concept comedy since Jojo Rabbit in 2019, Cord Jefferson demolishes all expectations with his hilarious, thought-provoking directorial debut, American Fiction. Based on Percival Everett’s experimental 2001 novel Erasure, the film deals with turbulent subject matter, mainly the unrealistic burdens put on African-American artists, with such a ferocious wit that it is impossible to not enjoy. 

The film stars an electric and charismatic Jeffrey Wright (who deserves an Oscar Nomination in this year’s very competitive Academy Award for Best Leading Actor category) as struggling author and professor Thelonious “Monk” Ellison. After being told that his books aren’t “black enough”, he spitefully writes an intentionally provocative and terrible novel that appeals to white readers with easy-to-digest stereotypes. Surprise! It’s a huge hit.

Throughout American Fiction’s brisk 2 hour runtime, the film refuses to submit to tropes and conventions more so than any other film on this list. By perfectly balancing comedy and drama, as to never overdo either tone, the film feels like no other. The film also features an incredibly smooth, emotional, jazzy score from Laura Karpman. Combine that with an excellent cast, solid direction, and great comedic timing, this is one trip that everybody should take.

Teo Yoo and Greta Lee in Past Lives 2023 Dir. Celine Song

2. Past Lives

Celine Song’s directorial debut, Past Lives, is one of the best American romantic dramas in years.

Past Lives is about two childhood friends Nora and Hae Sung who meet back up after one of them emigrates from South Korea.

Simple, tender, and personal, Past Lives is a rare film with humble ambitions and a cosmic execution. A masterpiece that never overwhelms, and never looks down on its viewers. Not a single moment feels wasted. With its winning emotional moments, fantastic performances, and a unique immigrant perspective on classic themes, this is one of the greatest films of the decade so far.

To say much more would be to overcomplicate the simple beauty of Past Lives.

Christian Friedel in The Zone of Interest 2023 Dir. Jonathan Glazer

1. The Zone of Interest

In the greatest film of the year, The Zone of Interest, director Jonathan Glazer gives us no spectacle. No excitement. No catharsis. No attempts at emotional manipulation. The movie’s only goal is to make you think.

The movie is very complex, yet simple at the same time. The film is based on a very short period in the life of real-world SS officer Rudolf Höss, one of the most despicable people in recorded human history, as he and his family go about their daily lives in their dream home right outside of the Auschwitz concentration and extermination camp. 

Jonathan Glazer makes what may be the single boldest choice of any film this year: he makes a holocaust film that shows no imagery from inside the camps. Not to sanitize the horrors, no, he does the opposite. He shows the evil, the stupidity, and the hubris that is required for an individual to act out a genocide, all seen through a chillingly distant lens. Throughout the film, while characters are going about their day-to-day trifles, there are distant screams and gunshots heard. The adult characters in the movie have been bred to not notice the sounds on the other side of the wall.

The cinematography is gorgeous and unique, the performances are subtle but enthralling, and the editing is carefully brisk. 

The Zone of Interest is the greatest film of 2023 not just because it is unafraid of confronting incredibly difficult and hard-to-swallow themes but because those themes are explored through bold, challenging artistic choices that push the medium of cinema to new places with a terrifying, piercing edge. Try to see this on the biggest screen you can while it’s still out. You will never forget it.

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