The Best Films of 2023 So Far: Uncle BlackBerry Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Three films are clear favourites in our critics' poll

If you thought going to the movies in 2020, 2021 or 2022 was weird, take a look at theatres in 2023. At least in Toronto, a homegrown movie like BlackBerry is packing them in, while rooms showing the latest Marvel movie have a vacancy rate that’s usually reserved for Canadian films. Audiences are back and the movies are back, so pass the popcorn because 2023 is only halfway done!

The year so far boasts an encouraging slate of quality flicks. It’s especially refreshing after the last few years in which distributors played cautiously, oscillating between strategies that were akin to releasing a sacrificial lamb or pumping the marketplace full of junk that was going to lose money anyway. This year boasts an exciting range of independent films and studio movies worth celebrating. Just when super-hero movies seem dead, a film like Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse proves one of the most inspired, entertaining, and artistic films of the year.

2023, much like 2022, finds the best films offering blasts from the past. The three biggest winners on That Shelf’s list of the best films of 2023 so far are ones that dial up nostalgia. BlackBerry, for example, is the consensus favourite for its zany portrait of the Waterloo upstarts who revolutionized mobile tech, but, unfortunately, didn’t anticipate the iPhone. Matt Johnson’s film has the highest points on the leaderboard for 2023 so far with three #1 citations, two top-five placements, and an honourable mention. On its heels, though, is Korean-Canadian filmmaker Celine Song’s debut Past Lives. This achingly passionate consideration of love lost, found, and lost again also has three #1 shout-outs. Swinging into third, meanwhile, is Spider-Man with two #1s, two ballot placements, and two honourable mentions.

All contributors for That Shelf were invited to submit their picks for the best films of 2023 so far. Writers could be flexible about what they considered a “2023 film” with awards contenders that didn’t open until this year and unreleased festival films/Sundance bounty being eligible. Streaming and theatrical were both fair game. Participants were also invited to highlight the best lead and supporting performances of the year, along with the films that flopped the hardest. Perhaps in the biggest surprise, not one critic flopped The Flashbut would mean any of us actually bothered to see it. That Shelf therefore salutes the all the films that thrilled us in 2023 by looking back—and leave us looking ahead to more movies. –Pat Mullen

 

The Best Films of 2023 So Far

 

Bil Antoniou

 

1. Past Lives

A tale of friendship divided by distance is observed in three different periods, between children who form a bond, as young adults who enjoy a muted romance through video chats and phone calls, then as older adults who are reunited for the first time in decades and made to feel the possibilities of what they missed out on. This understated romance poignantly explores the undercurrents of regret and doubt that hum beneath even the happiest and most satisfying lives, with elegantly wrought performances creating characters with whom you fall deeply in love.

2. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

It’s the same old multiverse nonsense again, but it’s rendered by exquisite storytelling and impressionistic animation that, for the first time in a very long time, reminds us that the genre is very much an artform.

3. You Hurt My Feelings

Holofcener lets her characters (and her audience) off a bit too easy here—the painful conflict of the beginning doesn’t explode into anything extraordinary in the climax. However, her observations about people coping with feelings of self-worth that are inextricably linked to their need for validation from their intimates are as warm and generous as they are witty and wise.

4. Tetris

Doubtlessly embellished for thrills and held back from true greatness by dialogue that function as on-the-nose plot exposition, this spirited stranger-than-fiction tale moves vigorously from one plot point to the next while humorously exposing human greed as the reliable constant that east and west will always have in common.

5. Plane

Efficient plotting, terrific action sequences, dedicated but not corny performances, and an unexaggerated running time, this one hits all its marks with clockwork (but not soulless) precision and is a standard by which all other modern action movies should measure themselves.

 

Colin Biggs

 

1. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

Honestly, this film will probably still be at #1 when we do these lists again in December. The sheer innovation at work on Miles Morales’ multiversal adventures is without peer. After reading so many blurbs comparing comic book sequels to Empire Strikes Back, Across the Spider-Verse legitimately earns that comparison.

2. Air

As far as movie speeches go, as Sonny Vaccaro, Matt Damon delivers one of the most rousing, memorable monologues of all-time. No exaggeration.

3. Huesera: The Bone Woman

Pregnancy is never easy, but Valeria’s (Natalia Solián) pending bundle of joy threatens to consume her in this terrifying supernatural thriller. Pay attention to director Michelle Garza Cervera: she’ll be a cinematic force to reckon with.

4. Infinity Pool

Brandon Cronenberg’s latest film offered surreal vision and scathing commentary, but what will really stick with me is Mia Goth’s creepy recitation of “James.”

5. John Wick: Chapter 4

Given how often the filmmakers behind the John Wick franchise topped themselves, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised they stuck the landing.

Honorable Mention: Sydney Sweeney in Reality

 

Courtney Small

 

1. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

My issues with splitting the film in two aside, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse continues to knock my socks off with each viewing. A visual tour de force on several levels, the film gleefully pushes boundaries in a time when superhero films are playing it way too safe. A coming-of-age film that captures the difficulties of both adolescence and parenthood, the film is the blueprint from which comic book films should be taking notes.

2. How to Blow Up a Pipeline

No other film this year has been able to create and sustain tension like this eco-thriller.  A heart palpitating experience that unfolds like a heist film, this is a film that I will be revisiting for years to come.

3. Tie: All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt / Rye Lane

Two standouts from this year’s Sundance Film Festival, both All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt and Rye Lane left a lasting impression on me in different ways.  One is a stunning look at the way memory, grief and love intertwine with nature and the other is one of the year’s most refreshing romantic comedies.

4. BlackBerry

Matt Johnson’s look at the rise and fall of one of the most popular cellphones in history effortlessly nails both its comedic and dramatic beats. Similar to The Social Network before it, no one thought we needed a film about the brains behind the once powerful BlackBerry phone prior to the film’s release, but we are grateful that we have one.

5. Blue Jean

Anchored by Rosy McEwen outstanding lead performance, Blue Jean may be set in the late 1980s, but feels extremely timely today. The film serves as a reminder of the importance of community in a time when LGBTQ+ rights are being attacked by those motivated by hate and fear.

Honourable Mentions: Chevalier, A Still Small Voice, John Wick: Chapter 4A Thousand and One, Infinity Pool

 

Dakota Arsenault

 

1. BlackBerry

Biopics about a single person are so passé, but biopics about companies are “in.” Matt Johnson takes what is probably the best modern Canadian invention, the BlackBerry phone, and gives it a movie worthy of its influence. With gargantuan performances from Glenn Howerton and Jay Baruchel playing Research in Motion co-CEOs Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis, director and co-star Johnson gives us the movie we deserve. The movie is essentially the bastard child of The Office and The Social Network and it includes the year’s most iconic line “I’m from Waterloo, where the vampires hang out.”

2. Scream 6

Dare I say that the second Scream film from directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett is the best in the franchise? Yes, yes—I do dare. It’s funnier, it’s scarier, and it manages to appropriately tie in the previous installments in ways that other legacy sequels have failed at.

3. Renfield

Is the CGI pretty mediocre? Yeah. Is the entire subplot revolving around Awkwafina trying to get revenge for her father’s death boring and unnecessary? Absolutely. But Nicolas Cage has been preparing to play Dracula his entire life and he hits the nail in the coffin… I mean, hits the nail on the head. This movie is the definition of fun.

4. Satan Wants You

This little documentary from Canadian filmmakers Steve J. Adams and Sean Horlor traces back to patient zero and explores the source of the Satanic panic that occurred in the ’80s and ’90s.

5. Showing Up

This might be director Kelly Reichardt’s breeziest film, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t loaded with pain and introspection. Michelle Williams along with a supporting cast that includes Hong Chau, Judd Hirsch, André 3000, and John Magaro bring to life this intimate story about the realities of being a so-called art genius.

Honourable Mentions:  Master Gardener; Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret? and Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre.

Emma Badame

 

1. Nimona

What was Disney’s loss is Annapurna and Netflix’s gain. This smart, witty, and joy-filled animated feature is not only the best thing to come out so far in 2023, but it’s also one of the most effective and beautifully-realized LGBTQ+ tales to come out of Hollywood in quite some time. Based on a graphic novel by bi-gender trans masculine writer ND (Nate) Stevenson, Nimona is an incredibly entertaining adventure that celebrates difference and effectively champions curiosity and compassion over close-mindedness and suspicion. At a time when empathy seems at a premium and marginalized communities fight for equality on a dishearteningly regular basis, it’s encouraging to see such a skillfully made cinematic fable with inclusion as its core theme. Add to that a host of eye-catching visuals and impressively charming voice-over performances from leads Riz Ahmed, Chloë Grace Moretz, and Eugene Lee Yang, and you’ve got the makings of a richly entertaining and heartwarming ride suitable for audiences of all ages. Here’s hoping Nimona isn’t forgotten come awards season, as any recognition earned would be richly deserved.

Honourable Mentions: Chevalier, Emily, Rye Lane, and Blackberry

 

Larry Fried

 

1. Past Lives

Cinematic perfection. Celine Song, previously best known as a playwright, breaks into the film world with a masterclass in visual storytelling. Each frame is so certain of its intent that every first-time director ought to make this film required viewing. Framed around a conventional romantic conflict, Song’s love triangle subverts tropes and clichés to become something far more poetic: a meditation on love and regret in the face of fate, a deconstruction of the paradoxical emotions you feel when confronted with a self-actualized vision of yourself that you know simply isn’t meant to be. Greta Lee and John Magaro are effortlessly vulnerable here, but it’s Teo Yoo’s transformative breakout performance that will really wow you. Song’s writing conveys more multitudes of truth in a single line than most films do in their entire runtimes. This the best film of the year and would be in any year. A modern masterpiece.

2. How to Blow Up a Pipeline

Daniel Goldhaber’s environmental heist thriller is a galvanizing cinematic experience. Tightly paced and expertly written, it takes a real-time debate and explodes it (pun so, so intended) with a story that will do more to instill the value of property destruction than most actual property destruction.

3. BlackBerry

Matt Johnson never misses. His latest, The Social Network meets The Office, captures the meteoric rise of the world’s first smartphone with sharp comedic timing and raucous handheld cinematography. Glenn Howerton Supporting Actor Oscar campaign when?

4. Sanctuary

Sadistically sexy and hilariously funny, Zachary Wigon’s visually dynamic chamber piece sees Margaret Qualley own the screen in what is easily her best performance to date. It’s a film about sex, which means it’s about power, specifically who wields it and why they wield it.

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

A story so beautifully captured and so important in its portrayal of female adolescence that it feels ridiculous it took us this long to see it. It explores sexuality, religion, and family with effortless charm but no punches pulled, as all children deserve in their cinema.

 

Honorable Mentions: Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, When You Finish Saving the World, Showing Up, Creed III, Joyland, Shortcomings

Best Performances: Margaret Qualley, Sanctuary; Teo Yoo, Past Lives; Glenn Howerton, BlackBerry; Alina Kahn, Joyland; Melissa Barrera, Carmen; Noah Galvin, Theater Camp; Justin H. Min, Shortcomings; Allan Henry, Cocaine Bear (he was the bear lol)

Flops: Enys Men; Skinamarink; Maggie Moore(s); Fool’s Paradise; Master Gardener

 

Manuel São Bento

 

1. Super Mario Bros. Movie

The Super Mario Bros. Movie delivers everything I wanted. It’s packed with fantastic references that will warm the hearts of those who lived and still live with Nintendo and Mario. The film has energetic action, dazzling animation and world-building, and iconic music – Brian Tyler’s score went straight onto my Spotify playlist. Mario and company marked my childhood and they continue to offer wonderful memories for life. As a viewer clearly belonging to the target audience, I couldn’t have left the cinema more joyful. Ya-hoo!

2. Knock at the Cabin

Knock at the Cabin marks the triumphant comeback of M. Night Shyamalan, who possibly delivers his best film since Signs. Extraordinarily gripping from start to finish. The next cult classic is born.

3. John Wick: Chapter 4

John Wick: Chapter 4 concludes the game-changing saga with a relentless, ruthless action masterclass that ultimately justifies its epic length. That drone sequence is an all-timer.

4. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is an emotionally powerful, tear-inducing “farewell” to James Gunn and his Guardians. Rocket’s bittersweet storyline is the soul, heart, and engine running the best MCU film since Spider-Man: No Way Home.

5. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is the epitome of incredibly detailed, gorgeously unique, undeniably epic animation. All cinephiles should bow to the ridiculously talented artists and animators behind this pure work of art.

 

Marko Djurdjic

 

1. Past Lives

So, let’s be raw and honest for a sec: other people’s love stories (tragic, painful, exulting, or otherwise) never truly connected with me until I too fell in love. Now, I cry every time characters hold hands. Context changes our relationship to art, and, in watching Past Lives—Celine Song’s beautiful debut feature—through my newly valentines-tinted glasses, I was floored. Rocked. LEVELLED. The film is filled with compassion, with life, with regret and empathy and remorse and somehow, through it all, resignation. But it is a peaceful resignation, controlled and inevitable. In a perfect world, Greta Lee would be the biggest star on the planet. Unfortunately, this isn’t a perfect world, but Greta Lee is the biggest star in my world, and Past Lives is a staggering film, one that resonates and refracts within me, like a jagged glass held up to the sun, casting shades and light and tones through me in all directions. I cried. Obviously. I look forward to being devastated by Song for years to come.

2. Asteroid City

Duh.

3. Sick of Myself

People rarely go into a film wanting to feel terrible. Fortunately, for those of us who consider ourselves cinematic masochists, Sick of Myself mimics the queasy pleasure of prodding a hangnail, which is surprisingly always a good thing.

4. Showing Up

I love my friends, but the jealousy that runs rampant through the central rivalry in Kelly Reichardt’s wistful art world muted comedy. Showing Up makes me glad we don’t have the same outlets. Or interests. Or hobbies. Or jobs…yeah. (PS: non-denominational blessings to any film that casts Hong Chau. REJOICE!)

5. Godland

Films are rarely this monolithic, but Godland—Hlynur Pálmason’s brooding, cold test of faith and reality—is just that, towering and glacial like a block of obsidian. Pálmason’s films are always blistering experiences, and Godland just might be his best yet.

 

Honourable mentions: Blue Jean; Air; John Wick 4Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse; Broker

Great Performances: GRETA LEE (!!!) in Past Lives; everyone in Showing Up; Rosy McEwen in Blue Jean; Song Kang-ho in Broker; Elliott Crosset Hove in Godland

THE WORST/THE FLOPPIEST: After watching (re: suffering through) Ari Aster’s Beau Is Afraid, I’m convinced that, instead of giving certain male filmmakers carte blanche to make whatever “films” they want, we should request that they air their various—in this case, Oedipal—grievances privately and stop subjecting us to any more whiny, inane, overcooked, self-indulgent, 3-hour+ (!) “passion projects.”

 

Pat Mullen

 

1. Blackberry

This made-in-Canada dramedy is a scrappy rise-and-fail tale that could only hail from the land of the maple leaf. Matt Johnson’s film brilliantly captures the unlikely success of underdog startup Research in Motion and its creation of the BlackBerry, which revolutionized technology for better and for worse (mostly worse) by putting email in the palms of consumers’ hands. Jay Baruchel gives quite possibly the most Canadian performance ever as Mike Lazaridis, the overly modest and deferential wizard to Glenn Howerton’s mercurial boss bitch Jim Basille. But it’s really the cinematic energy that sets BlackBerry apart from the pack this year. Johnson proves himself at the top tier of his generation by harnessing the jittery, fake-the-budget, go-big-or-go-home gamble that the RiM guys played while rolling dice with high tech. Finally, something good came from phones with email.

2. Milisuthando

I cannot praise this enigmatic essay film enough. Milisuthando Bongela’s Sundance standout shatters all notions of documentary convention as she studies apartheid and the social construct of racism through a fearlessly personal lens. Would someone please buy this film already?

3. Passages

Ira Sachs’ infidelity drama will be the bisexuals’ favourite film since Mr. and Mrs. Smith or Lincoln. This incomparably horny flick boasts some of the years’ best performances, too, in a love triangle that will have audiences aching with equal measure. Ben Whishaw convincingly plays a top!

4. How to Blow Up a Pipeline

Three cheers for this radically anarchic feat of socialist cinema! Daniel Goldhaber delivers a pulse-pounding thriller that perfectly encapsulates the hunger and rage of a generation screwed by capitalism.

5. 20 Days in Mariupol

A number of documentaries have tried to capture the unfolding war in Ukraine, but 20 Days in Mariupol could likely stand as the definitive record of this brutal tragedy.

 

Honourable mentions: Air, Blue Jean, Every Body, Joyland, Nimona, Other People’s Children, Past Lives, Showing Up, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, A Thousand and One, You Hurt My Feelings

Best Lead Performances: Jay Baruchel, BlackBerry; Gael García Bernal, Cassandro; Julia Louis-Dreyfus, You Hurt My Feelings

Best Supporting Performances: Ben Whishaw, Passages; Josiah Cross, A Thousand and One; Viola Davis, Air

Bye, flop! There’s no bigger turd of 2023 than Cat Person. The adaptation of the skin-crawlingly uncomfortable New Yorker short story just delivers two horrible people and a ham-fisted revenge saga that feels totally redundant after Promising Young Woman. Cats get no respect. (Dishonourable mention goes to the intolerably masturbatory Beau Is Afraid.)

 

Rachel West

 

1. BlackBerry

A quintessential Canadian story gets the big screen treatment it deserves. With stellar performances by Jay Baruchel and Glenn Howerton, Matt Johnson’s look at the rise and fall of Research in Motion’s BlackBerry is always compelling, often funny, and never dull. Johnson and co. knock it out of the park. It’s not only the best Canadian movie of the year, but the overall best movie of the year so far.

2. Tetris

Between BlackBerry, Air, and Tetris, 2023 is all about creation stories. Apple TV+’s Tetris puts a moustache on Taron Egerton and throws him into the centre of the Cold War in the 1980s mixed with video game graphics, elements of espionage, and delightful humour. Somehow, it all works to deliver a fun and exciting true story of Nintendo’s hit game.

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

I missed out on reading Judy Blume as a kid and am sad that I could have known all about Margaret much sooner in life. An absolute delight, I was smiling ear-to-ear the entire time.

4. Falcon Lake

Charlotte Le Bon made waves with her directorial debut when it premiered at Cannes last year, but finally getting to see it with an audience on a big screen at the Kingston Canadian Film Festival was a real treat. Subtle and achingly beautiful, Falcon Lake deserves all the accolades and raves, especially for its young stars, Sara Monpetit and Joseph Engel.

5. John Wick: Chapter 4

A fitting end to the franchise. No notes.

 

Honourable Mentions: Chevalier, How to Blow Up a Pipeline, Viking, The Blackening, Knock at the Cabin, Scream IV; Relax, I’m From the Future

Best Performances:  Calvin Harrison Jr., Chevalier; Abby Ryder Fortson, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret

Flops: 65, Elemental

 



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