Stephen David Miller

Startup cofounder, AI researcher, podcaster, person, etc.

Best Films of 2023: Appendix

Cut to the chase: Want to see this year’s actual list? Head over to Decoding Everything.

Previous write-ups: Check out the last decade of end-of-year lists to get a sense of our similarities and differences.

Podcast: You can listen to my straightforward Top 10 list on The Spoiler Warning.


This is my 10th consecutive year of writing Best Of movie roundups. But for the first time since I conceived of this tradition, this year’s write-up will not be hosted on my personal blog. Instead, I was thrilled to be asked to contribute my 2023 Best Of list to David Chen’s newsletter, Decoding Everything.

As someone who has been listening to David since long before I started writing about movies, this was a massive honor. I’m well aware that my style—dense, ruminating, personal—doesn’t always make for the most attention-grabbing content. So the opportunity to reach a wide audience, in collaboration with a creator I admire, was huge for me. I’m immensely proud of the resulting piece, and hope you’ll read it before scrolling any further.


Still, I’m a completist at heart, so I had to put something here for posterity. Rather than just link to the essay and be done with it, I thought it’d be fun to use this space as a sort of Addendum or Special Features section. So let’s dive into a few extras, starting with a bonus pairing which I really loved, but couldn’t make fit within the storytelling theme of the Decoding Everything piece.

Bonus: Visual Feasts — Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse and The Taste of Things

It’s a maxim I hold dear for art, meals, and Top 10 lists: Sometimes more is more. Though these write-ups tend to fixate on narrative and theme, those aren’t the primary reasons I go to the theater. The pleasures of cinema are far less textual than textural, communicating something more expressive than a plot.

This bonus award is for maximalism in filmmaking, highlighting two films which have virtually nothing in common except for a shared sense of abundance. Indulgent and overwhelming in the best possible way, they enchanted me from the opening frame.

A case could be made that Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse was the greatest technical triumph in cinema this year. It’s become a standard bit of hyperbole to claim that “every frame could be a painting,” but here it would arguably be damning with faint praise. Given its manic synthesis of visual styles, it’s more accurate to say that every frame could be its own exhibit—variations on a theme by a collective of creators, in conversation with one another but unmistakably distinct. From the pulsing pastels of Spider-Gwen to the zine-inspired anarchy of Spider-Punk, it’s bursting at the seams with visual invention. And like Everything Everywhere All At Once before it, that overstimulation is vital to its emotional core. Miles’ struggle to stay grounded in the face of swirling contradictions rings all too familiar in our present media environment. It’s a feeling best conveyed by way of cacophony.

If Spider-Man overwhelmed my visual cortex, The Taste Of Things had other senses on its mind. Tran Anh Hung’s luxurious drama about a gourmand and his muse is as antithetical to Miles’ multiverse as one can get. It’s intimate, unhurried, and obsessively focused. Though the dialogue is technically uttered in French, the characters prefer to speak in a more universal tongue: the love language of food being prepared and enjoyed. Large swaths of runtime are devoted to their passion, most notably a near-wordless half hour sequence in the kitchen. The camera glides through the crowded space, peeping into bubbling pots of stew and lingering on sweaty hunks of veal with voyeuristic intensity. From my vantage point in the front row at the red carpet premiere, the experience was borderline pornographic. Eight months later I still vividly recall a glistening rack of lamb splayed beyond my field of vision, literally too much decadence to take in at once. You never forget your first time. I entered the theater hungry, left positively ravenous, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.1

And now, in the spirit of lush excess, let’s throw in a beverage pairing!

Supplemental Pairing: 1950s Vintages

I caught 125 new releases last year, but that only reflects about half of my total film intake. For the remainder, I continued a tradition I began early in the pandemic by marching backwards through film history to fill in embarrassing blindspots. Though I pull from a few sources, my biggest inspiration for this effort is the Filmspotting Madness shortlist, a collection of about 100 titles which feed into their annual March Madness-style tournament to name the “greatest” film of a given decade. This year’s tournament is focused on the 1950s, and the lineup is fantastic.

So, in the spirit of maximalism, let’s add a supplemental pairing to complement the main course. For each of the ten themes from my Decoding Everything piece, I’ll offer you one or two barrel-aged expressions from my personal cellar—treasured discoveries from my 1950s marathon which complement the dialogue the two 2023 films are engaged in.

10. Coming Home Can Be a Trial — ‘Beau Is Afraid’ and ‘Omen’
Pairs with: Wild Strawberries (1957)

This pairing is about fraught family gatherings: films which use heightened storytelling to explore the complicated emotional inheritance parents pass down to their children. Wild Strawberries (1957) fits beautifully in this regard while also flipping the script, focusing instead on the messy combination of grief and guilt which the parent feels about the inheritance they’ve created.

9. Invisible Protections — ‘Shayda’ and ‘Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret’
Pairs with: Pather Panchali (1955)

These two films celebrate mothers who work tirelessly to protect their children from an often brutal, uncaring world, while also functioning as retrospective coming-of-age stories. Satyajit Ray’s entire Apu Trilogy does this brilliantly. While Aparajito (1956) is arguably the most mother-focused of the three, I have to insist that you watch them in order, which means recommending the first (and also, by my reckoning, the greatest) entry: Pather Panchali (1955).

8. Unexpected Compositions — ‘Maestro’ and ‘The Blue Caftan’
Pairs with: A Star is Born (1954) and A Place in the Sun (1951)

This pairing has a few layers to it: 1. what it means to love an artist, 2. what it means to love someone for whom you will never be fully “enough,” and (though I tried to tread lightly on spoilers) 3. the pressures the closet imposes on a marriage, both for the man who has to hide his fullest self and for the woman who loves him. For #1 and #2, I’d suggest George Cukor’s A Star is Born (1954), both for the thematic resonance of loving an artist, and for the fun tie-in to Bradley Cooper’s last directorial outing. While I found this year’s 1950’s marathon surprisingly subversive, the Hays Code still generally kept #3 in the realm of subtext. For that one, I’ll throw in A Place in the Sun (1951), a film which—especially if you’re familiar with Montgomery Clift’s personal life and his friendship with Elizabeth Taylor—functions as a moving metaphor for sexuality and repression. It’s a film about a man caught between two worlds, and the women he loves whom he nevertheless hurts.

7. Thriving is Overrated — ‘You Hurt My Feelings’ and ‘The Holdovers’
Pairs with: Marty (1955)

There are many films from the 50’s which would pair with each of these individually. But taken together, as an ode to people who learn to be at peace with their shortcomings and use that honesty to build meaningful relationships, I can’t think of a more heartwarming companion than Marty (1955). Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair’s unlikely romance will melt the heart of even the toughest critic, while also begging the question “Are we honestly supposed to believe these people are not attractive?”

6. Double-Edged Dreams — ‘Dream Scenario’ and ‘BlackBerry’
Pairs with: A Face in the Crowd (1957)

This pairing is about the downside of ambition, and particularly the way that fame can make confidence curdle into a toxic sort of entitlement. Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957) is a shockingly prescient look at that phenomenon. But rather than inhabit the mind of the man who throttles to fame, this focuses on the people in his orbit, on the outside looking in, simultaneously fascinated and horrified by the ascent. While Cage and Howerton are both excellent in their respective roles, neither can light a candle to Andy Griffith’s mind-blowing turn as Lonesome Rhodes.

5. Nothing Is Theoretical — ‘Oppenheimer’ and ‘The Teachers’ Lounge’
Pairs with: The Human Condition: No Greater Love (1959)

These films serve as cautionary tales about the limits of theory, and the importance of letting real-world empathy intrude on any calculation. Masaki Kobayashi’s The Human Condition trilogy may be the most monumental work of fiction on this subject in any medium. By focusing on the experiences of a Japanese soldier, it also provides a useful counterbalance to Oppenheimer’s (intentionally) narrow Western lens. While the three films function best as a single statement, if you can only see one it should be No Greater Love (1959), which traces one man’s loss of idealism when presented with real-world suffering.

4. The More Satisfying Narrative — ‘Anatomy of a Fall’ and ‘American Fiction’
Pairs with: Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

This pairing is about films which blur the lines between truth and narrative satisfaction, interrogating which stories we tend to gravitate to and why. While Rashomon (1950) arguably set the template for stories-about-storytelling, I just can’t resist pairing this with Anatomy of a Murder (1959), the courtroom drama whose title Anatomy of a Fall is alluding to. This Jimmy Stewart classic is a brilliant deconstruction of confirmation bias, playing on audience expectations to reveal how easily our convictions can be manipulated. To anyone who thinks major American films weren’t subversive or ambiguous until New Hollywood showed up, I’d strongly recommend giving this one a watch.

3. When The Pieces Don’t Fit — ‘The Boy and the Heron’ and ‘Asteroid City’
Pairs with: A Man Escaped (1956) and Floating Weeds (1959)

These are stories about characters who derive meaning from confined spaces, walled-off worlds. Not coincidentally, they’re also made by famously meticulous directors who create “walled-off” worlds of their own. So it’s only fitting that I pair this with something by a similarly meticulous director. Hell, I’ll give you two. Bresson’s A Man Escaped (1956) is a moving depiction of one man’s ingenious way of finding meaning, and hope, in a WWII prison camp—his quiet recitations of faith, drained of all affect, are as good a proof of Wes Anderson’s “You can’t wake up if you don’t fall asleep” mantra as anything I’ve seen. Add to that Ozu’s Floating Weeds (1959), whose traveling troupe of actors use confinement and repetition to work through more complex emotions. A case could be made that Ozu is a shared inspiration for both modern directors—a master of composition known for his recurring collaborators and his empathetic depiction of children, who deals as much with head-on sentiment as he does with solitude, negative space.

2. While The World Burns — ‘The Zone of Interest’ and ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’
Pairs with: Night and Fog (1956) and The Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

This is a somber pairing about people who have severed their moral compasses, and the atrocities they (we) are capable of as a result. So it only feels fitting to pair this with Night and Fog (1956), Resnais’ powerful documentary about the Holocaust and the blinders the world put on in response. Warning: For as much as this is essential viewing, it is also graphic in its depiction and should not be entered lightly. If fiction is more your speed today, I’ll recommend The Sweet Smell of Success (1957), a gloriously dark character study about men who shut off their consciences and wield language as a weapon.

1. Containing Multitudes — ‘Past Lives’ and ‘Perfect Days’
Pairs with: Nights of Cabiria (1957)

These two films are about emotional plurality, following characters who hold multiple conflicting feelings at once. Nights of Cabiria (1957) springs to mind as a lovely complement to that idea. Like Perfect Days, it’s about a person whom society would typically ignore, who finds joy in life’s oddities and minutiae. Like Past Lives, it’s about a woman coming to terms with her identity, her romantic entanglements, and what alternate paths might be available to her. But the main reason I’d consider these together is a specific quality they all share: a perfect (and, in many ways, remarkably similar) closing shot. I won’t spoil any of them; just know that you’re in for a treat.

Closing Bits

It has now been a full decade since I started doing these year end write-ups. When I started, this site was mostly devoted to weekly film reviews. Nowadays I put my immediate thoughts on Letterboxd, and reserve this space for lengthier reflections. This year I wrote an essay about Past Lives and Eternal Sunshine which meant quite a lot to me. I also wrote a recap of Cannes. In addition to my lengthier 2023 recap, I also wrote a TIFF retrospective for David Chen’s Decoding Everything newsletter. Both festival roundups cover a handful of titles on this list.

Over at The Spoiler Warning podcast, we’re still going strong at a (near) weekly cadence: The vast majority of the films above we’ve discussed at length on the podcast, either in self-contained review episodes or in festival deep dives. You can listen to our 2023 recap episode to hear me wax poetic about the above (and a dozen other) favorites, or listen to our 2024 State of the Podcast episode to hear a bit about the 17(!) year history of the pod and what we might shake up in the future.

I do this as a passion project, but many others do it professionally. I firmly believe in financially supporting the people whose creative outputs I enjoy. For a few movie-adjacent suggestions: I’m a proud supporter of (podcasts) Filmspotting, The Filmcast, Decoding TV, Blank Check, and The Next Picture Show, as well as (individuals) Walter Chaw, David Chen, Mike D’Angelo, Robert Daniels, Marya E. Gates, Emily St. James, Nathan Rabin, Keith Phipps and Scott Tobias. I’d encourage you check them out, and throw in a few bucks if you’re able.

See you next year!

  1. To whittle my list(s) down to a manageable size, I arbitrarily restricted myself to fiction. But if you’re still hungry after watching The Taste Of Things, I highly recommend Frederick Wiseman’s behemoth documentary Menus Plaisirs – Les Troisgros. If you thought watching me program a robot was sensual, wait until you get behind the scenes of a 3 Star Michelin restaurant.