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The best movies of 2023: Finding bright spots, from ‘Air’ to ‘Maestro,’ in another rough year for Hollywood

Analysis by Brian Lowry, CNN

(CNN) — Critics tend to accentuate the positive in year-end lists, but cheerleading aside, 2023 wasn’t a great year for mainstream movies, either creatively or commercially.

Although streaming services helped finance plenty of marquee films, several of the eagerly anticipated titles fell short of expectations, while others (most notably “Killers of the Flower Moon”) didn’t know when to end – more of a problem in theaters, admittedly, than at home, where viewers can slice, dice and pause to their hearts’ content.

Simply put, Hollywood still hasn’t found a sweet spot between art and commerce, prestige movies and those with broad appeal – a longstanding problem made worse, perhaps, by the priorities of streaming services, which can hide commercial failures and bask in the glow of awards and critical acclaim.

Of course, the entertainment industry can’t live by awards alone, and there were disquieting commercial trends, including the near-across-the-board box-office decline of superhero movies, until recently a wildly reliable genre. That sudden swoon has fueled a sense movie-going hasn’t fully recovered from the one-two punch of the pandemic and streaming, and might never do so.

On the plus side, the films that did stand out represent an eclectic roster in terms of subject matter and genres (with some conscience effort to reflect that range), even if some might not have made this list – which takes the liberty of a few combination entries – in a year with more clear-cut choices.

Here, then, in alphabetical order (with streaming options noted where available):

Air (Amazon Prime Video): Director Ben Affleck’s fact-based story of how Nike landed Michael Jordan is a testament to recognizing greatness, with terrific performances by Matt Damon and Viola Davis. Most of all, though, it’s a lot of fun, an attribute that felt too rare in this year’s movie lineup.

American Fiction’: Writer-director Cord Jefferson makes an impressive debut in this smart and insightful adaptation of a novel about a writer/literature professor (Jeffrey Wright) who impulsively writes a joke book mocking “Black trauma porn,” only to see it become a hit with the White intelligentsia.

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (Max): Coming-of-age movies might be abundant, but this version of Judy Blume’s book underscores how hard they are to do this well, with Abby Ryder Fortson as the young girl dealing with a new school, new friends and very familiar problems.

‘The Color Purple’: Bringing the musical to the screen while preserving the power of Alice Walker’s decades-spanning story of heartbreak and resilience, director Blitz Bazawule created a terrific showcase for his cast while opening up the musical numbers and choreography in the best of ways.

Elemental (Disney+): In a very rough year for Disney, this Pixar animated romance bucked that trend, not only exploring how people from disparate backgrounds (in this case, literally fire and water) can overcome their differences, but overcoming a disappointing opening to prove that word of mouth can still create an organic theatrical hit, as quaint and dated as that idea might sound.

The Holdovers (Peacock, December 29): Reuniting director Alexander Payne with his “Sideways” star Paul Giamatti, this comedy-drama about misfits left behind at a New England prep school in 1970 – and the unlikely bonds they form over a few weeks – shined with wit, warmth and heart, with a hard-to-top supporting performance by Da’Vine Joy Randolph as a grieving mother whose son died in Vietnam.

Leave the World Behind (Netflix): One of the year’s most thought-provoking films, writer-director Sam Esmail’s apocalyptic thriller features Julia Roberts and Mahershala Ali as strangers thrown together by a series of confounding events as society begins crumbling around them, in a movie that eclipsed “Don’t Look Up,” the last Netflix film to elicit a similar response.

Maestro (Netflix): Bradley Cooper continued the conversation he started about art and the price of loving artists in this biography of conductor Leonard Bernstein, with Cooper’s brilliant lead performance matched by Carey Mulligan’s as his wife Felicia, whose loyalty and patience Bernstein tested time and again.

‘Oppenheimer’/’Barbie’ (Max): Here at least as much for what they meant to the movie business as their individual merits, “Barbie” cleverly answered the question of how you make a Barbie movie for the 21st century (having Margot Robbie helps), while “Oppenheimer” deserves credit for taking a serious, brainy subject and making it seem Imax-worthy. If only director Christopher Nolan tightened up the first and third hours a bit around the splendid one in the middle.

‘Past Lives’/’Monster’: Either of these films – from South Korea and Japan, respectively – could have earned a spot on this list, but they really belong in tandem as separate snapshots of the power of youthful infatuation. A small gem, “Past Lives” explored that through two people (Greta Lee, Teo Yoo) reconnecting after being separated as children, while “Monster” filtered its tale about two young boys and one’s concerned single mom (Sakura Ando) through shifting perspectives, in a film from director Hirokazu Kore-eda that owes a conscious debt to Akira Kurosawa’s classic “Rashomon.”

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