WTOP’s Jason Fraley ranks the best movies of 2023

WTOP's Jason Fraley breaks down his favorite movies of 2023

It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost a year since “Everything Everywhere All at Once” dominated last award season, but the ensuing year turned out to be an incredible time for the movies.

Blockbuster audiences enjoyed “The Super Mario Bros. Movie,” “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse,” “Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 3,” “The Little Mermaid,” “Creed III,” “John Wick: Chapter 4,” “Sound of Freedom,” “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny,” “Mission: Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part 1” and of course “Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour.”

Meanwhile, cinephiles hailed such art house offerings as “Maestro,” “Poor Things,” “May December,” “Saltburn,” “Priscilla,” “Ferrari,” “Chevalier,” “Beau Is Afraid,” “Infinity Pool,” “The Killer,” “Asteroid City” and “Anatomy of a Fall.”

And yet, believe it or not, none of these aforementioned films are in my top 10 best movies of 2023.

What cracked my list of personal favorites in the year of “Barbenheimer?”

Let the countdown begin!

Honorable Mentions

Before the countdown, here are a dozen honorable mentions that almost made my list:

  • “A Thousand and One”
  • “Bottoms”
  • “The Burial”
  • “The Color Purple”
  • “Elemental”
  • “Flora and Son”
  • “The Iron Claw”
  • “Joy Ride”
  • “Knock at the Cabin”
  • “Rustin”
  • “Rye Lane”
  • “The Zone of Interest”


Not Yet Released

Also, it’s important to mention that some other great award contenders haven’t even been released in the D.C. area yet, so it didn’t quite feel fair to include them on a recap of the best movies of 2023. Even so, I implore you all to check out Andrew Haigh’s dramatic fantasy “All of Us Strangers” once it arrives on Jan. 4 and Ava DuVernay’s magnum-opus “Origin” once it arrives on Jan. 19. Stay tuned for reviews of both gems on WTOP.

Now, on with the list!


10. ‘The Holdovers’

Director: Alexander Payne

Kicking off my top 10 list is a dramedy that was a hit with both critics and audiences heading into Thanksgiving. Writer/director Alexander Payne has a knack for offbeat comedies from “The Descendants” to “Nebraska,” this time reuniting with “Sideways” star Paul Giamatti as a cranky history teacher at a New England prep school forced to remain on campus over the holidays. Dominic Tessa is a revelation as the neglected student, while Da’Vine Joy Randolph may win best supporting actress as the grieving head chef. I recently revisited the final 15 minutes to admire how well it ties up its character arcs, starting them in one place, then fully changing them by the end.


9. ‘Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.’

Director: Kelly Fremon Craig

After her impressive directorial debut “The Edge of Seventeen” (2016), Kelly Fremon Craig was the perfect choice to helm this adaptation of Judy Blume’s 1970 novel, which was way ahead of its time in dealing with puberty. Child star Abby Ryder Fortson finds wonderful chemistry with her on-screen mother Rachel McAdams and grandmother Kathy Bates. Visual symbolism includes McAdams sitting inside an egg-shaped chair when her daughter first asks about menstruation, then removing the extender slat of the dinner table after a disappointing family dispute. It instantly joins “Lady Bird,” “Eighth Grade” and “CODA” as the best female coming-of-age movies of the past decade. Just remember that the title, like the film, has a period at the end.


8. ‘Talk to Me’

Directors: Danny and Michael Phillippou

Every Halloween, critics rank their best scary movies, but few have the guts to put them on their overall best of the year lists (myself included as I could have easily put “Barbarian” or “The Black Phone” on last year, but I chickened out). This year, I’m mustering the courage to include the Australian horror flick “Talk to Me,” directed by twin brothers Danny and Michael Phillippou about a group of teenagers who contact spirits using a mysterious embalmed hand like a casual game of spin the bottle. The result is equally creative and terrifying with a perfect cut to black, joining Jennifer Kent’s “The Babadook” as proof that some of the best horror comes from Down Under.


7. ‘Nyad’

Directors: Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi

Few things are as inspirational as true stories of impossible athletic achievement. Enter this biopic about 60-year-old Diana Nyad, who swam from Cuba to Florida in 2013. It’s wild that Annette Bening has never won an Oscar, but she deserves a nomination here for proving age is just a number when you’re chasing an impossible dream. Jodie Foster will likely also be nominated for best supporting actress, spitting encouraging zingers like Mick in “Rocky” but from a boat like Quint in “Jaws.” Directing it all is the filmmaking duo behind the Oscar-winning rock-climbing documentary “Free Solo,” this time braving natural obstacles from jellyfish stings to shark attacks. You’ll be standing and cheering by the end.


6. ‘Air’

Director: Ben Affleck

I hate when top 10 lists only include Oscar bait that no one saw or isn’t even out yet. My favorite from the first third of the year was the April release “Air,” which chronicles the entrepreneurial spirit behind Air Jordan (the best product origin story in a year of “Tetris,” “BlackBerry,” “The Beanie Bubble” and “Flamin’ Hot”). Matt Damon reminds us how quietly good he is as a leading man, while Ben Affleck directs himself, Jason Bateman, Marlon Wayans, Chris Tucker and Viola Davis, who steals the show as Michael Jordan’s mom. If “Argo” hadn’t already done it, Affleck could have made an underdog run at best picture this year. It’s that damn good. I can’t wait to watch again.


5. ‘American Fiction’

Director: Cord Jefferson

Voted best picture by the Washington Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), “American Fiction” follows a serious author who’s told that he’s not “Black enough,” so he jokingly pens a novel of stereotypes that becomes acclaimed by the white literary community. Jeffrey Wright leads an all-star cast of Tracee Ellis Ross, Sterling K. Brown, Erika Alexander and Issa Rae. Don’t expect a laugh-out-loud comedy like Robert Townsend’s “Hollywood Shuffle” or Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled.” The tone is more subdued than the trailers suggest, but filmmaker Cord Jefferson brilliantly balances family drama with social satire for one of the year’s most thought-provoking movies.


4. ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’

Director: Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese finally paired his two career muses, Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio, in this adaptation of David Grann’s nonfiction novel, a unique Western that becomes a chilling gangster movie after oil is discovered on the land of the Osage Nation in 1920s Oklahoma. Blackfeet Nation native Lily Gladstone is earning Oscar buzz just a year after the death of Sacheen Littlefeather, who accepted Marlon Brando’s Oscar for “The Godfather” as Vito Corleone. De Niro played him in part two and is now whacking Gladstone’s on-screen family. Could we see a full-circle Oscar moment?


3. ‘Past Lives’

Director: Celine Song

My top three includes the quiet, tear-jerking A24 indie “Past Lives” about two childhood best friends in South Korea who reconnect years later as adults in New York City. Arguably the best directed movie of the year, Celine Song delivers some of the most symbolic compositions you will ever see as the kids visually separate (one down an alley to the left, the other up a staircase to the right), then the adults discuss reincarnation as a carousel spins around. The transcendent script doesn’t take any cheap ways out by chasing scandalous, low-hanging fruit, but rather paints a realistic portrait of how this scenario might play out.


2. ‘Barbie’

Director: Greta Gerwig

In a year threatened by Hollywood strikes off the heels of several years of a pandemic, the organic marketing blitz of “Barbenheimer” saved the movie industry over the summer. “Barbie” was the year’s top-grossing blockbuster, featuring a perfectly cast Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling. Hats off to director Greta Gerwig and co-writer Noah Baumbach for contrasting Barbie Land vs. the Real World with a monologue by America Ferrara about women facing countless contradictions in our patriarchal society. This film inherently faced so many potential pitfalls in its Mattel toy brand that it’s a mini miracle that it exists as both a social commentary and pop-culture phenomenon.

1. ‘Oppenheimer’

Director: Christopher Nolan

No. 1 on my list is the other half of “Barbenheimer” with Christopher Nolan’s stunning biopic on the father of the atomic bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer, brilliantly portrayed by Cillian Murphy. Not only does it deserve Best Picture, Nolan should win his overdue Oscar for best director, flashing the scientist’s molecular visions with brilliant sound design, particularly during the bomb test at Los Alamos as the sound cuts out until the rush of shock waves. What’s more, the script intercuts the end of World War II with its Cold War ramifications (shout out Robert Downey Jr.). As Oppenheimer shares concerns with Albert Einstein, the stakes become higher than any movie: mankind discovering its ability to blow up the planet. “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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