2023 in Review: Ten Favorite New-to-Me Movies

Elliott Folds
12 min readJan 2, 2024

Yet again, it’s time to indulge in one of my favorite new year traditions: my ten favorite new-to-me films of 2023!

It was a weird year, but mostly a good one! It was my first full year as a married person. I got a new full-time job (and then another part-time job within that job). I taught my first course as an adjunct professor. I got my MFA! I presented a paper at a conference for the first time. I attended a handful of weddings. There’s a lot of living to do, and I tried my hand at some of it. I also watched quite a few movies!

This is a wild, wild group of films, but all of them got under my skin in one way or another and made this year that much brighter. If you like, consider this a strong endorsement for each of them.

Same rules as always: no movies from this past year (2023) or the year prior (2022). Every other year is fair game. I’ve also tried to include ways you can watch these movies as of this writing (January 2, 2024).

Jim Henson’s head coming out of a plate in TIME PIECE (1965).

10. Time Piece (dir. Jim Henson, 1965; USA; 9 mins.)


Why yes, that is the head of a young Jim Henson on that plate!

It’s so weird seeing a Henson film without puppets, but if Time Piece is anything, it’s weird. It’s also brilliant — the product of Henson’s singular creative voice. At just nine minutes, the short is a striking, funny, strange meditation on what it means to be beholden to the relentless march of time. It also boasts impeccable sound design and music, courtesy of the late, great Don Sebesky.

Time Piece is currently available on Vimeo.

Marlene Dietrich making history in Josef von Sternberg’s THE BLUE ANGEL (1930).

09. The Blue Angel (dir. Josef von Sternberg, 1930; Weimar Republic; 108 mins.)

“Men swarm around me like moths ‘round a flame,
And if their wings are singed, surely I can’t be blamed.”

It’s easy to see The Blue Angel as a collision between the expressionism and full-body physicality of silent cinema (embodied in Emil Jannings’ performance) and the daring, tempting new-age sound cinema (embodied, of course, by the iconic Marlene Dietrich), but that almost devalues the skill of the actual storytelling and filmmaking going on here. Jannings’ relationship with Dietrich — as naive and one-sided as it may sometimes be — is inevitable and pitiful. It’s ridiculous and tragic to watch as he throws his entire life away for the most fleeting, meaningless romance imaginable.

Both lead performers are superb, of course. Dietrich, iconic across all of her Sternberg collaborations, is exquisite both in her onstage burlesque performances and her more intimate scenes with Jannings. Their chemistry is really lovely, even as we know it can never last. Jannings is tremendous, a layered and honest performance that culminates in an emotional breakdown that feels almost ripped from a Universal monster movie. The animalistic noises of his anguish are utterly haunting. Brutal stuff, and pretty handily my favorite Sternberg film.

The Blue Angel is available to rent on demand.

Isabel Sandoval, director, writer, and star of LINGUA FRANCA (2019).

08. Lingua Franca (dir. Isabel Sandoval, 2019; Philippines/USA; 95 mins.)

“It doesn’t matter where I go. They will hunt me down, and take me away.”

Speaking of sensual! Sandoval, a true multi-hyphenate, is the director, writer, and lead performer in the stunning Lingua Franca.

The story, following a trans undocumented Filipina caregiver, is urgent, unabashedly political, and deeply moving. Sandoval and Eamon Farren both turn in deeply affecting performances, evocatively painting portraits of bruised souls trying desperately to find a way forward. The beauty in Sandoval’s direction shows us that a way forward is within their grasp. It’s the choices they need to make in striving for a better life that drive them further apart. The much-discussed sex scene is one of the most sensual and breathtaking in recent memory, but so much of the central romance is painted with such empathy and grace and beautiful visuals that it makes the unraveling feel all the more gutting. Also gutting is Lynn Cohen’s quietly perfect performance.

Lingua Franca is not Sandoval’s directorial debut, but it does feel like the arrival of a major artist. She’s clearly one of the most exciting filmmakers working today.

Lingua Franca is currently streaming on the Criterion Channel.

Denzel Washington and Sarita Choudhury as the young lovers in Mira Nair’s MISSISSIPPI MASALA (1991).

07. Mississippi Masala (dir. Mira Nair, 1991; USA; 118 mins.)

“Home is where the heart is. And my heart is with you.”

There is so much in Mississippi Masala that’s wonderful. There’s the beautiful young couple at the center, Sarita Choudhury (in a lovely debut performance) and Denzel Washington (a few years after his first Oscar win), who are so hot together that it feels like the TV might catch on fire. There’s the supporting cast, too, including the legendary Sharmila Tagore, the great Charles S. Dutton, and the soulful Roshan Seth, whose sad, exhausted face is the heart of the film. There’s the sensitive script by Sooni Taraporevala, that somehow finds an intimate romantic drama in a sprawling story that includes the Indian exodus from Uganda, an immigrant family’s assimilation into the American South, and two clearly defined family dramas in vastly marginalized communities.

Perhaps most wonderful is Nair’s gorgeous direction. The film has an expressive, vibrant visual palette, with so many different shades of red accompanying Mina and Demetrius’ blooming romance. This is a rich, sensual film, and one of the great romantic dramas of the 90s.

Mississippi Masala is currently streaming on the Criterion Channel.

Kanemon Nakamura and Chojuro Kawarasaki in Sadao Yamanaka’s HUMANITY AND PAPER BALLOONS (1937).

06. Humanity and Paper Balloons (dir. Sadao Yamanaka, 1937; Japan; 86 mins.)

“How could he kill himself on such a nice day? How utterly selfish of him.”

Up until watching this film, I don’t think I ever paid any special attention to Sadao Yamanaka’s name. Within a year of the release of Humanity and Paper Balloons, the 28-year-old Yamanaka would be dead.

His untimely death only hints at the kinds of films he could have made with more time. This, though, is surely one of the finest (and most depressing) final films I can think of. One of the great strengths of Humanity and Paper Balloons is how startlingly modern it all feels: it’s a 1930s drama, yes, but Yamanaka’s thoughtful, assured direction really brings the poetic and tragic script (written beautifully by Shintaro Mimura) and performances (especially Kanemon Nakamura as Shinza the hairdresser) to life. Like the best tragedies, the events of Humanity and Paper Balloons feel senselessly cruel and brutally inevitable, but unlike other tragedies, Yamanaka is careful to keep just a bit of disarming humor to prevent the film from feeling too heavy.

An incredibly sad story beautifully told by a filmmaker struck down in his prime, this is an underseen gem that’s well worth a look.

Humanity and Paper Balloons is currently streaming on the Criterion Channel.

Teddy and Haley Joel Osment in Steven Spielberg’s A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (2001).

05. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (dir. Steven Spielberg, 2001; USA; 146 mins.)

“And for the first time in his life, he went to that place where dreams are born.”

Weepy existential sci-fi remains undefeated!

A.I. Artificial Intelligence is undeniably a huge swing. Genuinely feeling like that impossible mix between Spielberg’s and Kubrick’s sensibilities, A.I. achieves something of a hat trick — a fairytale steeped in existentialism. The Pinocchio comparisons are immediate and on-the-nose, but that doesn’t make it any less fertile grounds for a compelling story. There’s so much in this film that physically hurts the heart and the head to think about for too long — so much grief, so much cruelty — that framing it around David’s immediately accessible journey toward becoming a real boy is pretty ingenious.

Of course, this film, maybe more than any of Spielberg’s others, is deeply reliant on its lead performance. Haley Joel Osment is astonishing in this film, a blank slate for an entire world’s love and anguish to project itself. Without him, the film would probably still be a fascinating sci-fi epic, but Osment lends the film the bulk of its emotional power. If we don’t believe that David’s entire reason for being comes from his need for love from his adopted mother (which, admittedly, is a pretty thin clothesline for the film’s heavy plot to hang on), then we don’t care. Osment makes us care. From anybody, this performance would be a triumph, but from a 12-year-old? It might be one of the miracles of acting.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence is available to rent on demand.

Sandrine Bonnaire lives on the margins of society in Agnès Varda’s VAGABOND (1985).

04. Vagabond (dir. Agnès Varda, 1985; France; 105 mins.)

“I know little about her myself, but it seems to me she came from the sea.”

There really was nobody like Agnès Varda. Vagabond, or Sans toit ni loi, if you prefer its evocative original title, is pretty handily the most emotionally devastating film of hers that I’ve seen. As Varda shows us Mona’s journey through the French countryside, it’s hard not to see shades of Wendy and Lucy or even Nomadland. Like the protagonists of those films, Mona struggles to keep her head above water while living on the margins of society, and, like Reichardt and Zhao, Varda manages to find the joyful, the beautiful, and the life-affirming underneath the hardship. She also coaxes stunning work out of Sandrine Bonnaire, who turns in an extraordinarily unaffected and naturalistic performance.

Vagabond’s secret weapon might be in its structure. Marrying traditional narrative scenes with a documentary-like direct address, Varda creates an achingly realistic atmosphere. Her work as a documentarian is well-known, and as a bridge between narrative and documentary filmmaking, Vagabond may just be the crown jewel in Varda’s expansive body of work.

Vagabond is currently streaming on the Criterion Channel.

The hero in Richard Condie’s THE BIG SNIT, a sawing enthusiast who is very bad at Scrabble.

03. The Big Snit (dir. Richard Condie, 1985; Canada; 10 mins.)

“And stop sawing the table!!!”

God, I loved this one. Other than being vaguely aware of the title and its good reputation, I had no expectations going into The Big Snit, but everything about it worked for me. The utterly bizarre sense of humor, the voice acting (especially the CAT?!), and Condie’s deft combination of a marriage gone stale against the backdrop of nuclear anxiety make for a surprisingly moving ending. I think it might be a masterpiece of the form. And like Jeanne Dielman, it feels profoundly influential — it’s easy to see the aftershocks of The Big Snit in a decade’s worth of shows on Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network.

The Big Snit is currently streaming on the National Film Board of Canada’s website.

Boris Plotnikov in Larisa Shepitko’s THE ASCENT (1977).

02. The Ascent (dir. Larisa Shepitko, 1977; Soviet Union; 111 mins.)

“Thanks for not leaving me. With company, it’s… Okay, let’s move on.”

The final film in my 52 Films by Women challenge from a few years ago (which I finished this year), Larisa Shepitko’s The Ascent must be one of the greatest war movies ever made. Admittedly, it’s not a genre I’m often drawn to, but Shepitko instills this film with an emotional power that becomes almost too much to bear.

Every act of cruelty, every gun fired, every open wound, is accompanied by a visceral pain. The way Shepitko uses the natural world as a stage for this story is astonishing — the vast snowy expanse of an unforgiving Russian winter, the rows of trees. Each of her actors manages to convey so much with their faces, too, especially the devastatingly good Lyudmila Polyakova, but the heart of the film is in the work of the two leads. Boris Plotnikov and Vladimir Gostyukhin work beautifully as a pair and as individuals. Shepitko masterfully traces the arc of their relationship against the backdrop of the war, and the end result is absolutely shattering.

The Ascent was, tragically, Shepitko’s final film before she died in a car accident. It was my introduction to her as a filmmaker. I hope I can catch up with some of her earlier work, but The Ascent on its own is proof that she was a generational talent.

The Ascent is currently streaming on the Criterion Channel.

Delphine Seyrig in Chantal Akerman’s JEANNE DIELMAN (1975).

01. Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (dir. Chantal Akerman, 1975; Belgium/France; 202 mins.)

“I often cry when I think of you, Jeanne.”

Sight & Sound’s newly crowned Greatest Fim of All-Time was one of my first viewing experiences of 2023, and it loomed like a cloud over the rest of my moviegoing year. It was a bit of an ideal viewing experience — my favorite local independent theater had a showing, and the sizable audience was utterly enthralled by it. The massive Jeanne Dielman is a masterpiece in observation and behavior, and its power reveals itself through the way Akerman creates and unravels Jeanne’s routine. She turns the lights off in every room she leaves. She replaces the lid of the money jar every single time. She watches her neighbor’s baby for a little while in the afternoon. She looks presentable and pristine at all times, including after her sex work. When parts of these routines start shifting — the lid being left off the jar, the lights being left on for a bit too long, tousled hair — it plays like a jump scare.

I was shocked at how quickly this flew by. By the time the first day ended, I glanced at the time out of curiosity and was surprised to see it had already been an hour. Jeanne Dielman is a film that is frequently called “boring,” which is both fair and entirely the point. It’s still utterly mesmerizing within that boredom. This is thanks in large part to Delphine Seyrig’s performance. With her hypernaturalistic stillness, Seyrig reaches rare levels of unaffected authenticity. Jeanne doesn’t really feel like a character at all — even with as little as we truly know about her, she feels like a human being.

Essential viewing. Long live the queen.

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is currently streaming on the Criterion Channel and Max.

Three of Vittorio De Seta’s documentary shorts from 1955.

Special Mention: Vittorio De Seta’s 1955 documentaries.

In 1955, De Seta released six(!) documentary shorts: Islands of Fire, Surfarara, Easter in Sicily, The Age of Swordfish, Sea Countrymen, and Golden Parable. Stunning as individual films, but taken as a group, they become a meditation on the violence of living off the land and the endless cycle of life and death. Acting as director, editor, and cinematographer, De Seta marries ethnography and anthropology with artistry, creating bite-sized, miraculous films that immortalize life and labor in rural Sicily. The cinematography alone is jaw-dropping. Whether the films chronicle the Stromboli volcano, ancient religious rituals, a day of work in sulfur mines, harvesting grain, or the life of a fisherman, they are immersive and fleeting. The longest of these films is 12 minutes, and they all feel like dreams. Stunning stuff.

All six of these films, and more of De Seta’s work, are streaming on the Criterion Channel.

The iconic motorcycle slide from Katsuhiro Otomo’s AKIRA (1988).

Honorable mentions (in alphabetical order): After Yang (dir. Kogonada, 2021); Akira (dir. Katsuhiro Otomo, 1988); Asako I & II (dir. Ryusuke Hamaguchi, 2018); Beverly Hills Cop (dir. Martin Brest, 1984); The Boy Friend (dir. Ken Russell, 1971); Carnal Knowledge (dir. Mike Nichols, 1971); Dogfight (dir. Nancy Savoca, 1991); Game Night (dir. John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, 2018); Girlhood (dir. Céline Sciamma, 2014); The Great Piggy Bank Robbery (dir. Robert Clampett, 1946); Heat (dir. Michael Mann, 1995); Italianamerican (dir. Martin Scorsese, 1974); Kajillionaire (dir. Miranda July, 2020); Linda Linda Linda (dir. Nobuhiro Yamashita, 2005); Mean Streets (dir. Martin Scorsese, 1973); Night of the Living Dead (dir. George A. Romero, 1968); Pink Flamingos (dir. John Waters, 1972) Saving Face (dir. Alice Wu, 2004); Shake! Otis at Monterey (dir. D. A. Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus, and David Dawkins, 1987); Shiva Baby (dir. Emma Seligman, 2020); Three Thousand (dir. asinnajaq, 2017); Videodrome (dir. David Cronenberg, 1983); When the Day Breaks (Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby, 1999); While You Were Sleeping (dir. Jon Turteltaub, 1995); Windy Day (dir. John Hubley and Faith Hubley, 1968); Wings of Desire (dir. Wim Wenders, 1987); Your Face (dir. Bill Plympton, 1987)

And finally, some miscellaneous viewing stats:

  • First movie watched in 2023: Akira (dir. Katsuhiro Otomo, 1988)
  • Final movie watched in 2023: The Devil Wears Prada (dir. David Frankel, 2006)
  • Oldest movie: The Impossible Voyage (dir. Georges Méliès, 1904)
  • Longest movie: The Ten Commandments (dir. Cecil B. DeMille, 1956–220 mins.)
  • Shortest movie: Premonitions Following an Evil Deed (dir. David Lynch, 1995–1 min.)
  • Month with the most viewings: January (35)
  • Month with the fewest viewings: May (5)
  • First movie from 2023 seen: Rye Lane (dir. Raine Allen-Miller, 2023)
  • Total movies: 231



Elliott Folds

Atlanta-based freelance actor, dramaturg, and musician. Sometimes I watch movies. Hoping to use this as a place where my dramaturgical notes can live.