No year-end best-movie list is definitive, because no year of moviegoing experience can be reduced to bullet points—nor should it be. Particularly now, when we can watch so many new movies without leaving our homes, the experience of watching has changed drastically, and in ways we may never be able to fully reckon with. When you finish watching a movie at home, you may still be thinking about it as you tee another one up, or head off to bed, or patter into the kitchen to make a sandwich. But a movie watched in a theater, in the company of other human beings, takes up space in a different way. As you drive away, or head to the bus or subway, a great movie—or even a terrible one—follows you. It expands to fill the air, rather than shrinking back into a little box. This is the space in which its greatness, or the overwhelming force of its mediocrity, is fully revealed to you.
You can watch a great movie at home and fully acknowledge its greatness: after all, streaming older movies, or watching them on physical media, is how most of us learn about movie history. But a year of new movies, whether you watch them at home or not, should be much more expansive than your living room. Following are 10 movies—plus a large handful of honorable mentions—that kept me thinking in the hours, days, and months after I watched them. These are the movies that followed me home.
It’s impossible to get through life without messing a few things up. But how much messing up is too much? At the center of Ira Sachs’ sometimes funny but also piercing Passages is a self-centered filmmaker, played in a dazzling performance by Franz Rogowski, who windmills through life with reckless disregard for the feelings of those around him, including his husband (Ben Whishaw) and the young woman who has temporarily entranced him (Adèle Exarchopoulos). At best, he’s exasperating; at worst, he inflicts deep and lasting pain. And still, you feel something for him. His electricity is also his curse, and as this love triangle unfolds, it may leave you feeling the charge and the anguish all at once.
9. Dreamin' Wild
There are two types of people in the world: those who view rock’n’roll dreams as small things you eventually grow out of and those who never stop living them, even if they confine their dream time to the spiral grooves of sides A and B. Bill Pohlad’s Dreamin’ Wild—based on real-life events, and starring Casey Affleck and Walton Goggins—is for the second group, a story about what happens when two people who sought pop stardom as teenagers get a second chance in middle age. Music can mean a lot in one lifetime: it can break dreams, but it can also mend them.
8. Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret
Movies dealing with the specifics of women’s experience are still a relative rarity on the movie landscape. How many studio execs are going to leap at the chance to finance a film about the onset of menses and—by suggestion—its lunar twin, menopause? Featuring a superb cast (including Rachel McAdams, Benny Safdie, and Abby Ryder Fortson), Kelly Fremon Craig’s adaptation of Judy Blume’s 1970 coming-of-age classic is largely about the confusion of adolescence—but also, more subtly, it addresses what it means for women to say goodbye to all that as they hit middle age. This is a great movie for young people, but maybe even a better one for those who find themselves look-ing through the far end of the telescope.
7. Killers of the Flower Moon
To watch Lily Gladstone (above) in Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon is to recapture a thread of history that has, until recently, eluded most of us. Scorsese has made a somber, poetic adaptation of David Grann’s account of how a group of greedy white men systematically murdered members of the Osage Nation in early 1920s Oklahoma. As Mollie Burkhart, a rich Osage woman whose family was gradually killed off around her, Gladstone gives face to a million stories that have been conveniently forgotten in modern America. Scorsese’s mournful epic also features bigger movie stars, like Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro. But Gladstone’s Mollie is the soul of his film, and he knows it.
6. Past Lives
In writer-director Celine Song’s stirring debut film, a Korean immigrant who has built a life for herself in Toronto and New York (Greta Lee) reconnects with the childhood friend she left behind years ago (Teo Yoo); her husband (John Magaro) stands by, a witness to the subterranean crackle of their connection. In any life, there are an infinite number of roads not taken—we can be on only one road at a time. Song’s movie is all about the mournful beauty of missed opportunities, a recognition of the truth that yearning is part of life. Without it, all we’re left with is false certainty, perhaps the greatest dishonesty of all.
5. Revoir Paris
The brother of French writer-director Alice Winocour survived the 2015 terrorist attack at the Bataclan concert hall in Paris; unable to communicate with him as he hid, she had to wait to hear if he'd made it out alive. In Revoir Paris, Virginie Efira gives a shattering performance as a woman who survives a similar, but fictional, attack—though the meaning of survival here is complex. Efira’s Mia can’t recall much of the horrific event; the experience was too traumatic. But over time, she finds her way back to life, and to feeling, by connecting with others whose lives were also broken by the tragedy. Without preciousness or platitudes, Winocour and Efira plumb the stark and sometimes painful truth of what it means to commit to the world of the living.
Read more: The 100 Best Movies of the Past 10 Decades
Elvis is everywhere, even 46 years after his death. But what about Priscilla Beaulieu Presley, the woman he met when he was a 24-year-old soldier stationed in Germany and she was just a girl of 14? Sofia Coppola’s film, adapted from Priscilla Presley’s 1985 memoir, brings this story to the screen with infinite tenderness. Jacob Elordi plays Elvis, a great artist and a messed-up man who mistreated the woman he loved most. But the movie belongs to Cailee Spaeny as Priscilla, preternaturally self-possessed as a young teenager but both wiser and more resilient by age 27, when her marriage to royalty ended. Spaeny walks us through this extraordinary but also painful span of time in one woman’s life, one satin-slipper step after another.
3. The Zone of Interest
The everyday things many of us want and need—plenty of food, marital companionship, a safe and comfortable home —are the same things German SS officer Rudolf Höss, the longtime commandant of Auschwitz, and his wife Hedwig wanted for themselves and their family. In Jonathan Glazer’s ghostly, ice-cold film—adapted from Martin Amis’ 2014 novel—Sandra Hüller plays Hedwig, who runs her household with starched-linen efficiency, vaguely cognizant of the horrors being perpetrated beyond her garden walls but viewing them as an annoyance rather than an atrocity. Christian Friedel’s Höss is highly inventive when it comes to pleasing the higher-ups; his ideas are a fuel for evil. The Zone of Interest isn’t just a semi-fictionalized view of history. It’s also a story for the here and now—a reminder that happiness built on the suffering of others is no kind of happiness at all.
Pledging your life to another person is not for the faint of heart. Bradley Cooper’s Maestro, less a biopic than a window into a complex, passionate marriage, is a modern rarity: an example of a starry, big-ticket production put to use in telling a truly grownup story. Cooper stars as conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein, complicated and charismatic as both an artist and a man. Carey Mulligan gives one of the finest performances of the year, a portrait of both steeliness and human fragility, as the Costa Rican–Chilean actor Felicia Montealegre, who became Bernstein’s wife and the mother of his three children. This is grand-scale filmmaking that’s also bracingly intimate.
1. Fallen Leaves
A tentative romance between a woman who’s making the best of dreary workaday life (Alma Pöysti) and a metalworker whose perpetual drunkenness keeps him underemployed (Jussi Vatanen), plus a dog who helps his human bridge the expanse between loneliness and the contentment of solitude: those are the main ingredients of Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki’s Fallen Leaves, and he works magic with them. Kaurismäki is the master of the deadpan humanist comedy, the type of picture that people may think of as merely odd or charming. Yet so much of life is made up of little revelations that form the core of who we are. This is Kaurismäki’s gift: to catch those moments, seemingly snatching them from the wind, and put them onscreen so that we, too, will know them when we see them.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, Paul Schrader’s Master Gardener, Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things, Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant, Lisa Cortes’ Little Richard: I Am Everything, Frances O’Connor’s Emily, Mia Hansen-Løve’s One Fine Morning, Anh Hung Tran's The Taste of Things, Ava DuVernay’s Origin, Andrew Haigh's All of Us Strangers, Wim Wenders’ Perfect Days
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