There's nothing like watching a movie with an audience — and, as I realized a few months ago, there's nothing like watching an audience watch a movie.
It was in October during the 61st New York Film Festival and, as one of the event's part-time programmers, I found myself backstage at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall during a screening of Yorgos Lanthimos' "Poor Things." I'd seen it twice already and liked it enough to linger for about 45 minutes in the wings, surveying a giant video feed of the packed auditorium that reduced the big screen itself to postage-stamp proportions.
It was far from an ideal way to actually watch the movie, or indeed any movie: The images looked stiff and remote; the dialogue and music echoed unnaturally; and the audience laughter, while explosive, felt oddly muffled and distant. But it was a fascinating experience too, enveloping in its own way even as it was alienating. Here was my first time seeing "Poor Things" with a crowd, and I still felt like I wasn't really seeing it with a crowd.
In the months since, that disconnect has been playing in my head on a loop, and it's come to feel like a metaphor for my own distance from the readers I write for — a distance I try my best to close with every review, every essay and, yes, every list like this one. It isn't always easy. One of the necessary privileges of being a critic is the opportunity to see new movies early, sometimes a week or two before they're released (in the case of most studio pictures), and sometimes months in advance at film festivals. This year, my NYFF duties meant seeing more than a few major movies in unfinished form, which made them all the more intriguing to revisit later, with fresh eyes, when the time came to actually write about them.
That's how I came to watch Andrew Haigh's "All of Us Strangers," for me the best movie of 2023, first in an empty screening room with only a tight-lipped Searchlight-hired security guard present. It's a film so breathtaking in its impact, it actually hurt not to be able to talk about it for another few months. On a completely different note, I saw Jonathan Glazer's "The Zone of Interest" at a morning press screening at Cannes and couldn't get its images out of my mind or its sounds out of my ears. I saw it again the next day, less in the spirit of a rewatch than of an exorcism. I've had months since to process its horrors; for many of you, those months still lie ahead, and I hope it's a challenge you'll embrace.
And so as I prepare to tell you about all the other movies I liked and loved this year, it's not lost on me that many of them still have yet to open, let alone be widely seen. I've watched each of my 10 favorite movies of 2023 more than once, and some of them have already achieved the permanence of old friends, even before they've had the chance to really seep into the cultural ether. Here they are, arranged as a series of themed pairings — in fitting tribute to "Barbenheimer," though only one-half of that celebrated mashup made the cut:
1. 'All of Us Strangers' / 2. 'The Boy and the Heron'
An unusual pairing, to be sure, but one that for me makes a sad and sublime kind of sense. In Andrew Haigh's metaphysical heartbreaker "All of Us Strangers," a lonely screenwriter (Andrew Scott, giving the performance of the year) falls for a handsome neighbor and reunites with his long-dead parents. In "The Boy and the Heron," likely the final animated marvel from the 82-year-old Hayao Miyazaki (though we can hope otherwise), a boy ventures into a fantastical realm and reckons with his mother's recent death. In both movies, painful memories become wondrous hallucinations, a tower becomes a portal between worlds, and questions of reality versus fantasy, or old versus young, blur into insignificance. Miyazaki asks us how we live; Haigh, with no less urgency, asks us how we love.
("All of Us Strangers" opens Dec. 22 in theaters. "The Boy and the Heron" is now playing in theaters.)
3. 'The Zone of Interest' / 4. 'Oppenheimer'
©2023 Los Angeles Times. Visit latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.