CBC’s Eli Glasner picks his top 23 films of 2023

CBC’s Eli Glasner picks his top 23 films of 2023

Oppenheimer, The Super Mario Bros. Movie and Barbie. After years of super hero domination at the box office, something changed in 2023. Audiences rediscovered a taste for original stories. 

Granted, movies based on famous figures, a doll and a video game aren’t exactly independent cinema. But if the supremacy of Barbenheimer proved anything, it’s that audiences are hungering for fresh experiences. They want to be challenged, to be taken somewhere new.    

That’s why 2023 was a good year for the movies. My first run at this list stretched into the 40s. Scroll down and you’ll find queer fight clubs, zen janitors, tech titans and more. Enjoy.

23. Nyad

Annette Bening has this look. The gaze of a woman who refuses to give up, who is determined to reach her goal and is willing to sacrifice everything — her health, her friends — all to do this thing they said couldn’t be done. Based on the true story of marathon swimmer Diana Nyad, the movie certainly has soggy moments of storytelling, but Bening fully subsumes herself into the role, aided by Jodie Foster’s performance as the best friend that’s so good she almost steals the show. 

Where to watch: Netflix

22. Bottoms

Bottoms is the product of an inspired collision between Canadian director Emma Seligman and her muse and co-writer Rachel Sennott. Who knew that after the surprise success of Shiva Baby they would burst out of the gate with Bottoms? A campy teen sex comedy meets combat with the bloody heart of queer longing pulsating at the centre.  

Where to watch: Prime Video 

21. Therapy Dogs 

If Therapy Dogs had a smell, it would be weed, sweat and testosterone. With this visceral guerrilla-style look at high school life, Ethan Eng becomes part of a new vanguard of Canadian filmmakers, clearly influenced by mentor Matt Johnson’s mockumentary shooting style. This is filmmaking that should come with kneepads as Eng (who shot this at the age of 17) throws us headlong into the high school experience.

Where to watch: Crave & Hoopla

LISTEN | Ethan Eng tells Q’s Tom Power about capturing the last year of high school: 

Q15:14Ethan Eng on Therapy Dogs and inadvertently capturing the last year of high school before the pandemic

Therapy Dogs is a 2019 coming of age docu-film directed and co-written by Ethan Eng in his final year of high school. Now, nearly three years since it was shot and produced, the film has become a rare time capsule of teenage life as it was just before the pandemic changed everything. Eng joined Tom Power to tell us more about Therapy Dogs, which will make its debut at the Slamdance Film Festival.

20. Rye Lane

Rye Lane could be your next favourite rom-com. The feature film debut of Raine Allen-Miller positively vibrates with wit and colour, all driven by a random meeting between awkward, shy Dom and life-of-the-party motormouth Yas. Set in Brixton, England, there’s never a dull moment as Yas pulls the poor sad sack moping about his ex-girlfriend out of his shell.

Where to watch: Disney+

19. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem

If you’re looking for signs of an animation renaissance, grab your skateboard and head into the sewer. Brought to life by the mad geniuses at Montreal’s Mikros Animation, TMNT:MM is the first turtle toon to use actual teenage actors to voice the characters. Their performances come with an undeniable energy and exuberance that’s complimented by a scribble-tastic animation style. Cowabunga indeed.   

Where to watch: Paramount+

18. Plane

All hail Gerard Butler as the new action hero. The rumpled, grizzled star has picked up the torch passed by Bruce Wills, turning in a series of effective (and explosive) films. Who needs Taken when you have Butler as a trapped pilot trying to get home to see his daughter? Buckle up!

Where to watch: Crave

17. The Artifice Girl 

Move aside M3gan, if you want a real thought-provoking look at the unsettling power of AI, check out this low-budget thriller that’s a smart, slippery exploration of a program created to ensnare predators. As the AI evolves so does the storytelling, building to a powerful payoff. 

Where to watch: Hoopla

16. Perfect Days

Zen and the art of toilet maintenance. Who knew that Wim Wenders, the master behind Wings of Desire, would get his groove back by going to Tokyo. A movie about mindfulness, music and little moments with big meanings. 

Where to watch: Opening in February 

15. Stop Making Sense

Talk about a perfect day, or night for that matter. The scene was TIFF 2023, the movie was a special simulcast screening of the seminal Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense. After the band reunited for an onstage interview with Spike Lee, the newly remastered version started to play. Soon, people were shaking in their seats, rushing the stage and dancing along with David Byrne’s frantic frenzy of a frontman looming over us. Bliss. 

Where to watch: Available to buy or rent online

14. Godzilla: Minus One

While the Warner Bros. King Kong & Godzilla franchise continues to devolve into further layers of incoherence, the company that started it all, Toho Studios, returned to remind us why Godzilla is the real king of the monsters. This blockbuster has city-smashing set pieces and a heart-wrenching human core, all made for just $15 million. 

Where to watch: In theatres, ideally on the biggest screen you can find 

13. Past Lives

There’s something so inspiring about the way first-time Canadian director and playwright Celine Song took a moment she experienced in a bar, and spun out this complicated story about immigration, choices and a sense of longing that reaches around the globe. There’s a wordless moment near the end between former friends Nora and Hae Sung. His taxi is coming. Her husband is waiting. Her jacket fluttering in the breeze as they both stand together is certainly one of the most indelible movie moments of 2023.  

Where to watch: Available to buy or rent

12. Swan Song

Most documentaries about dance tend to be too precious, swooning over the gracefulness of their subjects. Not so with Swan Song, a multi-layered look at the Canadian National Ballet Company’s production of Swan Lake that thrusts us into the trenches. Witness firsthand the chaos backstage, the frustrations during rehearsals and the all too real struggle as a range of dancers prepare for opening night. Not since Pina have I seen a documentary that does justice to the subject, accentuating the artform with wildly creative editing and cinematography. 

Where to watch: In theatres or on CBC Gem as a four-part series 

11. Origin

Origin is the film director Ava DuVernay has been building toward her entire career. Fusing the personal story of an academic struggling through loss with a thesis on the relationship between the caste system and racism shouldn’t work. But what could have been a dry dissertation transcends the subject matter powered by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor’s performance.

Where to watch: Opens in January

10. A Thousand and One

A film far too many people have slept on, this first-time feature by A.V. Rockwell is about a mother’s fierce love and people trying to find their place in a world that’s pushing them out. Similar to Moonlight, this is a story told in phases, capturing the passage of time, but also documenting how gentrification adds pressure to those living on the margins. Evocative and visceral, A Thousand and One is anchored around Teyana Taylor’s tenacious performance and an ending that will stay with you long after the credits role.  

Where to watch: Prime Video 

9. The Zone of Interest

In 1940s Poland a middle class German family frolic in their backyard, the children splashing in the fountain, while in the background plumes of smoke gush out of chimney stacks. Only it’s not smoke. It’s ash, and the chimneys are part of an industrial enterprise devoted to eradicating the Jewish people. Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest is about a Nazi commander and his family who live in the literal shadow of Auschwitz. Glazer never takes us inside the concentration camp, but its existence looms over every beautiful and banal moment. 

Where to watch: In theatres

8. Blackberry 

If you still pine for the keyboard of your Blackberry Bold. If you wonder what director Matt Johnson, the enfant terrible of Canadian film, has been up to. If you’ve always wanted to see Jay Baruchel stop playing for punchlines and flex his acting muscles. If you really, really like watching Glenn Howerton yelling. Then Blackberry is ready and waiting to blow your mind with the somewhat true and unabashedly patriotic story of the Canadian-made smartphone that changed the world.

Where to watch: Available to buy or rent and on CBC Gem as a limited series 

7. How to Blow Up a Pipeline

Equal parts instruction manual, manifesto and heist film, How to Blow up a Pipeline is an urgent and lean little thriller about a group of radicals, loners and outsiders who band together to strike an oil pipeline. Like the activists of the film, director Daniel Goldhaber has rigorous discipline in documenting how far the group is willing to go. 

Where to watch: Available to buy or rent

6. American Fiction

Jeffrey Wright is one of those actors who when he comes on screen, you know you’re in for a treat. He’s lent his gruff growl of a voice to a variety of commanders, agents and opponents, but with American Fiction, Wright finally gets a part worthy of his talents. As a novelist who’s tired of being placed in the Black author box, Wright rages and simmers in this cutting satire that takes aim at the intersections of race and the publishing industry. It’s a story about a writer’s worst nightmare and greatest fantasy, all coming true. 

Where to watch: In theatres

5.  Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

My biggest fear with Spider-Verse, is that the dizzying blend of art styles that’s riddled with cartoon cameos and Easter eggs risks overshadowing what is a perceptive story about bonds between a teen and his parents. This is a film about growth and trying to find your place in the universe while straining against your parents’ expectations and perceptions. There’s much to be said about the expressive, almost experimental animation and hilarious side characters, but the writing might be Spider-Verse’s real super power. Bring on the next chapter.  

Where to watch: Available for rent or to buy.

4. Maestro

All right. There’s been some ribbing of director Bradley Cooper on the internets. The video of him explaining his no chair policy to Spike Lee did not go over well. Maybe Coop is too Hollywood for some, but what I know is, when I left theatre after seeing Maestro, I was levitating. Beyond the moments of pure cinema, beyond the specificity of following the life of composer Leonard Bernstein through the decades, beyond the way Cooper used Bernstein’s own music to accent certain moments — at the heart of it all is a story about a couple. A story about choices and compromises and a performance by Carey Mulligan as Bernstein’s wife that nearly steals the film from its intended subject.

Where to watch: Netflix

3. Poor Things

To call Poor Things a feminist Frankenstein tale is just scratching the surface of this luridly entertaining look at a woman who is unabashedly in charge of her own destiny, undaunted by society’s whims and norms. Emma Stone as Bella Baxter is a performance for the ages, hilarious and hungry to experience everything life has to offer. Go for the greatest dance sequence of the year featuring a peacocking Mark Ruffalo, stay for Willem Dafoe’s deft and demented father figure.

Where to watch: In theatres 

2. Oppenheimer

Part of what makes the success of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer so exciting is what is represents. Audiences are ready to dive into new worlds, stories and challenging ethical debates … if you give them a reason. The brilliance of Oppenheimer is how Nolan built a bomb to lure them. The bait is the fireball, that first monstrous display of atomic power. But the hidden payload is a man of science wrestling with his conscience. In a just world, David Krumholtz would be in the Oscar conversation for best supporting actor for his role as Isidor Rabi, Oppenheimer’s friend and in many ways the soul of film. Still, from Cillian Murphy’s chameleon-like performance to the eerie seconds of silence before the detonation, Oppenheimer is a banger. 

Where to watch: Available to buy or rent

1. Killers of the Flower Moon

What connects the top two films of the year is that both are in dialogue with the audience. Killers of the Flower Moon is long, yes, but the rewards are plentiful. While there’s been much talk about centring a story of Indigenous genocide on Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, by embedding the audience with his charismatic schemer Ernest, we’re implicated, drawn in by his charm and his budding romance with Mollie (Lily Gladstone). Then attraction turns to horror and we start to realize what Ernest and his uncle (Robert De Niro in a command performance) are capable of. Unlike Origin, Killers is not a bird’s-eye view of genocide. It’s close up and personal. It’s about Lily Gladstone bearing witness as the world shirks around her.  At the centre of the movie are the imperfections of the human heart, with equal chambers for love and evil. It’s a film that acknowledges its limitations but also peels back the layers of love and greed in a way that only Martin Scorsese can.