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BGN’s Picks for the Best Films of 2023

BGN’s Picks for the Best Films of 2023

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This has been quite the year for cinema, starting with critically acclaimed hits in January during Sundance all the way until awards season, which is currently in full swing. We here at Black Girl Nerds are excited to share with you some of our picks of what we consider the best films of 2023 by a select group of esteemed film critics. 

From big budget studio films to independent flicks, our team provides a short list of our favorites and why these selections have resonated with us so much this past year.

Jamie Broadnax’s Best of 2023

The Color Purple

A little over 15 years ago, I had the pleasure of seeing Fantasia Barrino perform the Broadway production of The Color Purple in New York City, so I was curious to see how she would transform this performance on the big screen, and I must say I was not disappointed. The music, the costumes, the direction and the performances were absolutely extraordinary in this film. The stand-out performers are Fantasia Barrino as Celie and Danielle Brooks and Sofia. I’ve already seen this film multiple times and love it each and every time I watch it. What really sticks with me is the fact that knowing how the story plays out, after seeing the original 1985 Steven Spielberg film, I still cried after watching Celie reuniting with Nettie after decades of being apart from her. It’s one of the most heartwarming scenes in the film. The movie took me on an emotional journey that exceeded my expectations. 

Origin 

I mentioned in my review of this film that watching Origin was an experience. I felt like I was taking a masterclass in learning how the caste system works. I’ve never read Isabel Wilkerson’s 2020 book Caste, but I felt prompted to read it immediately after watching this film — that’s how much Ava DuVernay’s film keeps you invested in the story. Aunhanue Ellis-Taylor delivers an extraordinary performance that is gut wrenching. Origin is a film that stays with you. You find yourself thinking about the storytelling aspects of this narrative and how powerful its message was, like the little Black boy who wasn’t allowed to swim in a pool with his white colleagues or the Dalit man forced to clean the sewers of his village covered in feces. It’s not easy to see these images. You are consumed with so many emotions throughout the running time of this motion picture, but it’s a film that is truly a work of art and one that is the best of this year.

American Fiction

Based on the book Erasure by Percival Everett, the Cord Jefferson film American Fiction was one of the highlights of the year for cinema. I loved the humor and satire behind this story of Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, but I appreciated how this film exposes the ugliness of capitalism and how it can corrupt a community and a culture. While Monk is being facetious with pretending to be someone he isn’t, it’s that very thing that mainstream culture likes to commodify that sometimes even artists with the best of intentions fall prey to. The movie is funny, witty, daring, and bold.  Jeffrey Wright executes a brilliant performance, and Sterling K. Brown is absolutely fantastic as a man who yearns to be loved but settles in a place of rejection. Incredible work all around with this motion picture.

Cassondra Feltus’ Best of 2023

Barbie

I’ve been a huge admirer of Margot Robbie for years. Knowing she produced Barbie and sought out Greta Gerwig makes me love her more. Gerwig and Noah Baumbach penned a brilliant, thought-provoking subversive satire that incorporated the controversial evolution of Barbie/Mattel and the bizarrely tragic history of Ken’s creation/purpose. The writer-director employed so many visual references to the influential cinema (2001: A Space Oddysey, The Wizard of Oz, etc); it’s truly a film buff’s dream viewing experience. The award-worthy film boasts a beautifully diverse and talented cast, exceptional production design, a flawless soundtrack, and gorgeous fashion. Even the marketing was top-notch; Margot’s Barbie press tour looks were seriously on another level. I could also tell from Ryan Gosling’s endless Ken-isms in interviews that this would be a hilariously unhinged performance, and that’s exactly what he delivered. 

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem

As someone who didn’t grow up as a diehard TMNT fan, I didn’t expect to love Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem as much as I did. From the intentionally imperfect animation style to the soundtrack of 1990s hip-hop throwbacks (the fighting montage set to Blackstreet’s “No Diggity” is a particular favorite), the film just oozes fun, youthful energy, especially since the four leads are the actual teenagers. Micah Abbey (Donatello), Shamon Brown Jr. (Michelangelo), Nicolas Cantu (Leonardo), and Brady Noon (Raphael) have such strong, relatable personalities that you can’t help but love them instantly. Ayo Edebiri also killed it as April O’Neil, along with the stacked cast — Jackie Chan, Ice Cube, Paul Rudd, Giancarlo Esposito, and more. Mutant Mayhem has so much heart, humor, and liveliness. And the vibes are infectious. 

Wayne Broadway’s Best of 2023

Godzilla Minus One

Well, this movie rocks. There are 170,000 words in the English language, and I feel that this combination of four best sums up late-2023’s surprise hit.

Now, I may (perhaps rightly) be accused of recency bias, but that does not detract from how good this film is. The pet project of Takashi Yamazaki and Toho Studios, Godzilla Minus One takes Godzilla back to his villainous origins; rather than being King Kong’s frenemy, Godzilla is once again an avatar of nuclear menace. But besides this, Godzilla Minus One earns points because it is a blockbuster film that refuses to condescend to its audience.

The backdrop is post-World War II Japan, and the film assumes that we’ve studied enough to understand its shorthand. There are never any clumsy lines expositing why it’s shameful that kamikaze pilot Kōichi Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki) has come back alive. We never hear awkward dialogue explaining why Cold War tensions make US military mobilization in Japan to kill Godzilla an impossibility. And, most importantly, we aren’t treated like children when it comes to character actions and motivations. This is a movie about reckoning with the past: both Japan’s and Kōichi’s. A country that previously seemed to worship so-called honorable deaths would now like a chance at life. A man whose post-traumatic stress has precluded real intimacy with his co-parent Noriko (Minami Hamabe) would like the opportunity to practice the vulnerability necessary to begin a loving relationship. 

Where Godzilla Minus One succeeds is in its fidelity — both to its source material and to human interaction. The comical moments don’t feel tired and the action doesn’t feel contrived. It is surprisingly more character-driven than action movies tend to be and makes us care deeply about these people. Recent as it may be, I am certain that this movie will stand the test of time.

Killers of the Flower Moon

When Martin Scorcese panned Marvel films specifically and superhero flicks in general as being more spectacle than art and subsequently elaborated on this by saying they were more the result of corporate calculus than any individual artist’s vision, he set himself up to answer the inevitable response: “Well, what do you do that’s so great?” 

Well, he answered.

Killers of the Flower Moon is a breathtaking piece of cinema that even ends up questioning its own validity. Its coda pokes fun at the true crime genre and its inherent voyeurism while attempting to do something more lofty itself. Does it succeed? To me, yes.

The three-hour runtime does threaten to make the series of murders less impactful, even rote at times, but the stunning cinematography, top-notch acting, and creative epilogue ameliorate this concern. This is Scorsese doing something that seems impossible for him: make crime not look like so much fun. Between Goodfellas, Casino, and The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese has an uncanny ability to make criminal excess seem like a positive. We can easily discount or forget entirely those third acts when everything falls apart because we’ve spent two-thirds of the movie cheering on these maniacs despite our reservations.

The mastery Scorsese displays here is due in large part to his ability to rein in those earlier tendencies. Mob crimes, though they certainly hurt countless innocent victims, can be rationalized as being a local occurrence: You can avoid the mob — and therefore enjoy movies about them — since your odds of being a hapless store owner kicked around for protection money or a soldier in a rival family are slim. It’s much, much harder to watch a series of murders that are largely only possible thanks to a national campaign of disenfranchisement and genocide.

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The film’s biggest misstep is that it portrays Leonardo DiCaprio’s thuggish character as too dumb to blame for his actions. Whether it was DiCaprio’s fear over playing an outright villain or the screenwriter’s need to have a protagonist we can view as tortured rather than plainly terrible, the choice to make Earnest Burkhart look like anything other than a calculated murderer was a poor one. It’s uncomfortable to watch unabashed, unglamorous evil for 180 minutes, but it can also be enlightening. But the movie’s biggest lesson is imparted in the epilogue when we learn that, essentially, the creep got away with it. 

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

I can keep this final Best Movie entry short because I likely don’t have to convey to anyone reading this site about how the biggest flaw in Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is that it wasn’t released as a double-feature length picture with the upcoming Beyond the Spider-Verse accompanying it.

You know the visuals were great; you know Shameik Moore deserves all the praise for his portrayal of Miles Morales; and you know Hailee Steinfeld shows us why she was an Academy Award-nominated actress by the age of 13 when she puts so much pathos in every line reading as Gwen Stacy. This is all common knowledge, so I’ll focus on something I brought up in my Killers review. Martin Scorsese is correct that the monetary success of the MCU does threaten to make filmmaking even more of a mechanical process, one built around audience tests rather than a filmmaker’s artistic vision. This is a dire problem.

As Scorsese says, in his mind and the minds of directors he lauds, true cinema is “about characters — the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures, the way they can hurt one another and love one another and suddenly come face to face with themselves.” Was Across the Spider-Verse the most sophisticated embodiment of this sentiment? No. Was it a much-needed attempt at one in the foundering comic-book film genre? Yes.

Miles Morales and his need to make everything right puts him at odds with the other Spider-People (and Hams) that feel similarly. He is betrayed by those closest to him, and all parties involved feel that they are doing what is best for the greater good. It may not be complexity on the level of the best literary fiction, but it made cinema-going in 2023 better by providing audiences a dazzling mix of emotions presented in a beautiful, thoughtfully made package. Across the Spider-Verse is Marvel IP, but the love in every touch makes it so much more than a “Marvel film.”

Jeanine T. Abraham’s  Best of 2023

Rye Lane

Written by Nathan Byron and Tom Melina, Rye Lane is a breath of fresh air. I don’t care much for romantic comedies, but I loved this film. The story begins when Yas (Vivian Oparah, Class) meets Dom (David Jonsson, Industry) at the opening of a mutual friend’s art gallery. The pair walk through their South London neighborhood and process recent relationship breakups together as everyday adventures unfold. It sounds simple, but within that relatable situation magic occurs, which is the brilliance of these storytellers.

Written by Nathan Byron and Tom Melia, the script is sleek, witty, and downright silly in all of the best ways. The dialogue doesn’t feel like it was written. Not everyone can write a screenplay that sounds the way people actually talk while being laugh-out-loud funny. Along with the stellar script, director Raine Allen-Miller is a gifted storyteller, and her vision brings out the absolute best film I’ve seen this year.

The acting is sublime. Oh my goodness, every single actor on screen was fascinating to watch. It was refreshing to experience a romantic comedy with the right amount of snarkiness and a special British/West Indian kind of romance. Rye Lane made me laugh and tear up as Yas and Dom won over my heart.  I was disappointed when this film ended because I wanted to spend more time with all of the characters as they move through their lives. Rye Lane won me over. Every single part of this film was magic. What a gift!

Rye Lane now streaming on Hulu.

Black Barbie: A Documentary

Heart-warming, inspiring, and clever are just a few words to describe Black Barbie: a Documentary. Written and directed by Lagueria Davis, this documentary centers the power of collaboration among women. 

When Lagueria Davis moved to Los Angeles to work in TV and film, she stayed with her aunt, Beulah Mae Mitchell (now in her 80s), amongst her impressive collection of Barbie dolls. When Davis asks her aunt why she collected Barbies, Aunt Beulah Mae tells her niece the story of her time working for Mattel working on the assembly line for the Barbie doll in the latter part of the 1950s. When co-owner and creator of Barbie, Ruth Handler, asked front-line workers how she could improve the doll, Beulah Mae Mitchell said she should create a Black Barbie doll. 

Inspired by that story, Lagueria Davis documents how Black Barbie came to be while simultaneously sharing how her aunt went from the assembly line to being the first Black person to work in the front office at Mattel. I loved this film because of its layers of activism through a child’s toy. The film shows how subtle activism, which is one of the most potent kinds of activism, can create massive change in ways not often considered radical. The stop-motion animation of the various Barbie dolls through the film’s transitions were beautiful. I had a Black Barbie as a kid. She was the first Barbie doll I ever had, and I loved that doll with all my heart.

After watching this movie, I went to eBay and bought an original Black Barbie doll. I meant to keep her in the box as a collector’s item, but she needed to get out of the box, so I took her out, got some current-day Black Barbies, and started BlackBarbieJoy, an Instagram page for my ladies. We travel together, and they bring me so much joy. As a kid who fit out, my Barbie dolls gave my imagination the opportunity to envision my future. As an adult who fits out my Barbies keep me connected to joy. Thanks, Black Barbie: A Documentary.

Black Barbie: A Documentary screened at Sundance 2023 Film Festival and has been acquired by Shondaland and Netflix.

Kokomo City

Kokomo City is a powerful documentary by D. Smith, a two-time Grammy award-nominated music industry veteran who was shunned by the music industry after her transition. She ended up without a dime to her name couch surfing, and, without funding, she got a camera and made a documentary about a group of trans sex workers.

The film is shot in black and white, and D. Smith’s talent is limitless. Kokomo City uses humor, brilliant editing, creative cinematography, and powerful storytelling by the ladies and the men who love them in the film. D. Smith does not shy away from sharing the dark areas of transphobia, particularly in Black communities. The documentary follows the stories of four sex workers, Dominique Silver, Koko Da Doll, Daniella Carter, and Liyah Mitchell, who share their experiences and survival techniques.

D. Smith exposes the raw, complex relationship dynamics between Black trans women and Black men and cisgendered straight Black women. The movie boldly confronts the audience with truths many are afraid to say. Not only does this film give voice to a community that is often silenced, it does so with dignity, respect, and ferocious humor.  The music is a perfect background performer that brings a beautiful continuity to the storytelling. Kokomo City isn’t always easy to watch. It is confrontational and makes the audience think while giving the opportunity to open the heart to empathy and compassion — documentary filmmaking at its best.

Kokomo City is pay per streaming on PrimeVideo, AppleTV+ and other streaming platforms.

Stay tuned next week for our Worst Films of 2023 list! 


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