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The best movies from the first half of 2023

A couple sequels, some strong directorial debuts and a few European thrillers are among the standouts in the world of film this year.
Credit: A24 / Neon / Focus Features

TEXAS, USA — A year in which much has already been made about the bounty that awaits in the fall and winter months has not left us wanting in its spring and summer ones.

While a strike from Hollywood’s writers stretches into its second month, the first half of 2023 has offered myriad examples of their elemental importance to the form—the way strong writing makes an action scene hit all the harder or reveals the humanity behind a comedy’s punchline. 

Elsewhere, other early standouts provide thrilling testament to the fact that we’re talking about much more than directors and writers when we talk about “filmmakers.” Some of the below movies wouldn’t have made as strong an impression if not for how a multiversal showdown was animated, how the ambient noise of a years-in-the-making reunion was constructed, how a jaunt through busy South London streets was choreographed. If there are films that transcend the sum of their parts, it’s in so small part a triumph of the individual contributors on the team that made it. To watch a movie is still a singular communal act, and it remains vital to recognize the communal efforts that go into making them. 

These movies make it easier to do just that. 

“Asteroid City” (dir. Wes Anderson)

Wes Anderson’s latest quirkacopia is yet another strong rebuke of criticisms that boil the Houston-born director’s movies down to mere quirk. It also happens to be his best film since “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” and perhaps even better—accomplishing a tricky task of demystifying his deadpan style's emotional aims while challenging longtime admirers with a structural reflexivity as disarming and alluring as a spaceship floating calmly overhead. 

The depth of “Asteroid City’s” ensemble borders on the ludicrous – take a pee break and you might miss Willem Dafoe, Margot Robbie or Hong Chau, any of which would headline any other film – and the same can be said for how poignant this movie about Space Cadets and government conspiracies can suddenly become, like a roadrunner zipping out of frame as quickly as it entered it. 

In theaters now.

“Beau is Afraid” (dir. Ari Aster)

Oscar-winning director Bong Joon-ho recently called Ari Aster’s fiendish comedy about Freudian obsession “the most overwhelming movie I’ve seen in years.” Both its detractors and admirers would surely agree, though for different reasons. 

That’s what’s so compelling about “Beau is Afraid,” which sees Joaquin Phoenix losing his mind while burrowing ever deeper into it over the course of 179 utterly unpredictable minutes and climaxing with one of the most unforgettable and off-putting monsters in recent movie history. To opine that “Beau’s” – and Beau’s – dilemmas are too one-note to justify its mammoth runtime and squirmy cinematic ambitions might be missing the point: This man-child’s paranoia is without reprieve, and Ari Aster misses no opportunity to prove it. 

Available on VOD.

“BlackBerry” (dir. Matt Johnson)

Slightly more palatable but no less prickly than the last entry on this list, “BlackBerry” rises above this year’s curiously topical trend of capitalism victory laps (“Air,” “Flamin’ Hot,” “Tetris”) by telling a story about short-lived titans of tech that is no victory lap at all. Even when inventor Mike Lazaridis (an unexpectedly excellent Jay Baruchel) has found his path to bringing a groundbreaking mobile device to market – upturning an industry in the process – you wonder what abuse he’s levied at himself that’s numbed him to the feeling of white-collar sharks clamping down, motivated not by Mike’s genius but by their own desperation. This is a fleet and funny movie, but it isn’t without its moments of darkness—the higher Mike and company go, the more bottom-feeding they become. 

Available on VOD.

“Full Time” (dir. Eric Gravel)

Director Eric Gravel does his best Safdie brothers impression in this nerve-wracking drama about a single French mother racing against mounting headaches and transit delays for a future where career responsibilities and family ones no longer feel like they’re splitting her in two. 

Whether Julie (Laure Calamy) is working towards her ambitions or merely trying to outrun her insecurities is a worthy question in “Full Time.” Much of it is about impressions and the unknowable trials endured by others; you feel complicit when Julie conspires to leave work early to rush to a job interview but sympathetic when she can barely control a burst of passion with a handsome neighbor because she hasn’t given herself any grace. Its ultimate catharsis is so sudden that it feels like a dream, but its intensity is a testament to just how dizzying the previous 80 minutes are. 

Available on VOD.

“How to Blow Up a Pipeline” (dir. Daniel Goldhaber)

No, Daniel Goldhaber’s thriller isn’t a step-by-step guidebook on committing terrorism, despite the apprehensions of various law enforcement agencies. “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” becomes vital through the portrayal of its motivations rather than the depiction of process, its radicalism wired through the narrative conceit that a group of young people from all manner of backgrounds can arrive at the same conclusion: At a certain point, stepping over the line is the only way to ensure it can be kept in sight. 

Cutting with thrilling confidence between the plan in action and the coming-together of the team that’s had enough with mere words, “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” is the kind of blazingly contemporary movie that underscores reality instead of giving you an escape from it, right down to the land acknowledgement that kicks it off. Its strong ensemble of young performers creates urgency beyond traditional heist-narrative clichés – there’s a plan, there’s a deadline, there’s unforeseen crises – to reach something more radical in the notion that they’re only ever at odds with their own expectations of themselves in the face of gargantuan odds.

Available on VOD.

“John Wick: Chapter 4” (dir. Chad Stahelski)

The latest installment in a franchise matched only by “Mission: Impossible” in terms of outdoing – outgunning, outrunning, outstylizing – its previous entry, the third act of the fourth “John Wick” is enough to secure it a spot on this list. Lasting almost an hour, it sees Keanu Reeves’ indomitable hero blasting his way through Paris to reach a fated duel. In terms of sheer ferocity, however, Wick might as well be journeying through hell; each dispatched foe begets 10 more, weapons are brandished that spit hellfire, and awaiting the end of it all is a date with the devil. Even the architecture itself takes a swing, in a most memorable stairs-centered sequence that affirms how cosmic these movies can feel when they’re firing on all crotch-biting-dog cylinders. It’s a majestically bloody finale worthy of Wick’s humble beginnings, and a nice reminder that new franchises can still electrify in a way that pure nostalgia doesn’t always accomplish. 

Available on VOD.

Past Lives” (dir. Celine Song)

One of the summer’s most immersive movie experiences doesn’t have an A-list star with an instantly recognizable name. It isn’t part of a decades-strong franchise, and its budget is probably what it cost to cater a day on the “Transformers” set. And yet, the superbly gentle craft of “Past Lives” (opening Friday in San Antonio) envelops you completely in its story about the detours that shape the maps of our lives, and the unexplainable – and heartbreaking – curiosity that abounds when we wonder where a different turn might’ve taken us. 

Two Korean-born friends-and-maybe-more-than-friends reunited after years apart in director Celine Song’s astonishing feature debut. Will they be able to make peace with where their lives have taken them, with the distance it’s put between them?

It’s intensely engaging to watch them try, even as “intense” is hardly the right word to describe a romantic drama without the screaming matches and climactic ultimatums traditionally associated with the genre—its melodies are too cosmic to fully comprehend in the space of 100ish minutes, and “Past Lives” doesn’t cheapen itself by suggesting there’s such a thing as right or wrong when it comes to its characters. There’s no dramatic sprint through the airport, but instead casual strolls along the Hudson River that finds the camera lilting up before gliding back down. Sometimes, shots are composed like we were observing our characters from a distance, as if Song was foregrounding the fact that the stories of these people – like the ones who pass ever so briefly through our own lives – are ones we can't ever fully know. 

In theaters now. Read our full review here.

“R.M.N” (dir. Cristian Mungiu)

This Romanian drama about xenophobia that sparks and sweeps through a small community like wildfire opened in U.S. theaters nearly a year after its Cannes debut, but it would’ve felt terrifyingly relevant even if it waited another five. The town feels like it’s started to devour itself long before we meet its residents, and the apocalyptic sense of mood conjured up by director Cristian Mungiu beckons us to consider the cyclical nature of toxicity and cultural exclusivity that even isolated societies must reckon with. 

That the story is filtered primarily through a dangerously impatient father and the self-destructively sympathetic manager of a local bread factory only complicates the question of where hate comes from and what fuels it. A 20-minute-long uncut sequence of an expertly staged town debate is “R.M.N.’s” showstopper, but an ending suggestion that its worst impulses will endure no matter what these denizens decide is the final acid-tipped blow. 

Available on VOD.

“Rye Lane” (dir. Raine Allen-Miller)

David Jonsson and Vivian Oparah give two of the year’s most energetic performances – his rooted in roguish skepticism, hers in livewire impulsiveness – in this British romcom so brightly imagined that it practically revives the subgenre. As Dom and Yas, two livewire twentysomethings marred by recent romantic stumbles, poke at each others’ vulnerabilities in South London, the streets around them sing with a liveliness and spontaneity accentuated by how Olan Collardy’s camera moves through them alongside our companions. Schematic as the story may reveal itself to be at times, the setting serves as a reminder that love stories are as much about what we see as what we feel, and how each sensation informs the other. 

Available on Hulu. 

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” (dirs. Joaquim Dos Santos, Justin K. Thompson, Kemp Powers)

What’s most awe-inspiring about this visually resplendent, hyperkinetic follow-up to 2018’s smash hit is that its humanity is as dynamic as its spectacle; we feel the intensity and weight of Miles Morales’s decisions, and somehow the pathos is only magnified by the maximalism that defines the Spider-Society portion of the film at its most bombastic. When a spider-suit-wearing T-Rex – Spider-Rex? – comes bursting onto the screen, it somehow works beyond a mere sight gag. 

Amid the rapid-fire quips, thoughtful cultural touches and enough energy to power an MCU phase, “Across the Spider-Verse” has the thematic grace of a follow-up in direct dialogue with its predecessor instead of merely starting a new chapter: Whereas “Into the Spider-Verse” follows a budding butt-kicker out to prove he’s great enough to join a band of heroes, “Across” sees Miles contending with a rejection from said community, in part because of what he does but also because of where he comes from. It deepens the heart of its predecessor at the same time as it deepens its on-screen universe, and to a substantial degree. 

In theaters now. Read our full review here.


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