Phones Off, Lamps On! Our 20 favorite cinema-going experiences of 2023

Elvis (Jacob Elordi) and Priscilla (Cailee Spaeny) settle in for On the Waterfront (1954). 
Elvis (Jacob Elordi) and Priscilla (Cailee Spaeny) settle in for On the Waterfront (1954). 

As our new showtimes feature goes wide, the Letterboxd crew share our favorite 2023 cinema experiences—from a no-seats Stop Making Sense dance party to a raucous Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging rep screening to a near-religious John Wick 4 multiplex return. 


Our crew’s end-of-year look-back for 2023 is all in celebration of cinema. The long, slow return to theaters post-Covid has been far longer and much slower than hoped. Even in a year of Barbie, Taylor and Beyoncé, it’s still been a tough road convincing folks to make theater-going part of their regular circuit again. IndieWire reports that only one mega-budget film ($200-million-plus)—James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3—has turned a profit. At the other end of the bottom line, independent films like Erica Tremblay’s Fancy Dance, which stars the already award-winning and likely Oscar-contender Lily Gladstone, have struggled to even get distribution.

With half the year interrupted by the necessary guild strikes in search of fair contracts, it’s an eye-opening confirmation of just how important stars are to their films’ box-office prospects and an undeniable sign of actors’ significant value beyond the film shoot itself. We still need celebrities to get us in the doors, it seems. And although streaming services can (and do) increase their prices and add in-stream advertisements at-will, movie theaters rely on butts-in-seats to keep the bulbs on, which limits ticket-price hikes.

Doing our bit, we’ve brought showtimes to Letterboxd, covering as many cinemas as possible in (so far) the UK & Ireland, US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. We’ll keep improving and expanding this feature over the coming months and years. And our “Twelve Days of Cinemas” video series on Instagram and TikTok features filmmakers we’ve met during 2023 shouting out their favorite movie theaters. Here’s day one, with George Clooney, Laura Linney, Molly Manning Walker and more:

Mixing with a crowd is still a health risk for many. Going to the cinema is a circumstantial privilege, too. But we really, really love movie theaters in all their luminance (the stronger the lamp, the better). Multiplex or art house, at the mall or in a converted hall, at festivals and repertory screenings, we cherish the sacred places that feed our big-screen appetites. And so do you! Whether at a heightened Saltburn showing or a M3GAN screening or a Millennium Actress repertory event, it’s just so great with a crowd. (Although it’s apparent that other folks’ movie etiquette still needs some work. Leave Miyazaki alone!)

And now, twenty of our crew’s best cinema experiences in 2023. Phones off, lamps on!

John Wick: Chapter 4

Written by Shay Hatten and Michael Finch. Directed by Chad Stahelski. / Watched by Mitchell Beaupre at Cinemark Christiana.

As an immunocompromised person, packed movie houses during the Covid era have typically felt like too big a risk for the reward. However, the ache for those hallowed grounds that have given me so much joy over the decades became too much to bear this year, so I fixed a high-quality mask on and made my way for a quiet, early-morning matinée. My first time in a theater since the appropriately titled Ben Affleck vehicle The Way Back in March 2020 couldn’t be for any old thing, though. I had to go big, and so I did with Chad Stahelski and Keanu Reeves’s bone-crunching blockbuster John Wick: Chapter 4.

The lads must have known it was a landmark event for me, as they kept me fed from moment one, when the crunch of Wick’s knuckles on a grimy punching bag practically shattered the cinema’s sound system. After numerous exhilarating sequences like the Arc de Triomphe car battle and those mind-blowing bird’s-eye long takes, as Wick sat down on those stairs and the end credits started rolling, there was only one thought coursing through my brain: ‘Yeah, I’m thinking I’m back.

Little Girl Blue

Written and directed by Mona Achache. / Watched by Karl von Randow at Backlot (65 seats) during the 50th Telluride Film Festival.

The 50th Telluride Film Festival was my first film festival outside of New Zealand, my first time away from the US coasts, and my first time living at 8,500 feet. I was out of breath and emotional for a week, like living permanently on a plane; watching films back to back with only a tenuous connection to any time zone. I queued for an hour and a half for Little Girl Blue, after missing out on a seat for Saltburn. I was number two in the line; I made friends with number one and we sat together to watch.

Little Girl Blue is, as the kids and I say, a vibe: a dream about the making of a sort-of documentary. Marion Cotillard, the actress who will play the mother, meets Mona, the real-life daughter; Cotillard tries on clothes, a wig, props, and lip-syncs to recordings as she becomes Carole. Their factory space transforms into incongruously adjacent sets, decorated with Carole’s artifacts; we move through them from scene to scene as easily as we move through the generations of mothers and daughters as history repeats itself. Emerging into daylight, I’m still stunned by this unexpected gem, with barely time to collect myself before the next screening.

La Haine

Written and directed by Mathieu Kassovitz. / Watched by Jack Moulton at Vidiots.

This year, I finally got to see one of my own four faves in the cinema. It was one of my countless viewings of Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine, a film that has grown more and more relevant since its release in 1995. I also had the pleasure of introducing it to my Best in Show besties Brian Formo and Mia Lee Vicino. We admit it, we had full intention of hijacking The Cinegogue-hosted screening at Vidiots in Eagle Rock, California on behalf of Letterboxd. But work-orientated habits aside, the opportunity to see a film I knew by heart with a crowd reacting to its shocks and jocks felt like I was watching it for the first time again. Where else can you get so hyped for a 30-year-old black-and-white French film that you impulse buy a La Haine T-shirt? The experience was a potent reminder for me to take advantage of the repertory theaters in this city as well as the open-minded curiosity of my local cinephile chums. The world is ours!

All of Us Strangers

Written and directed by Andrew Haigh. / Watched by Katie Rife at AMC Newcity, Chicago.

Earlier this year, a friend of mine died. This particular friend was also a cinephile type, so—combined with my habit of avoiding real feelings by feeling things at the movies—continuing to attend screenings during the heavy days that followed seemed like the appropriate thing to do. What I wasn’t prepared for was walking into Andrew Haigh’s new film a week after hearing the news. All of Us Strangers is about a lonely man living in a London tower block who longs for connection. While searching for it, he pierces the membrane between life and death, upending time and space with the power of love. It’s beautiful, and so, so sad. I’ve cried at movies before, but never like this: this movie ripped my heart out, then gently tucked it back into my chest, until I was snotty-nosed bawling in a multiplex. It hurt, but it also really helped.

The Boy and the Heron

Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki. / Watched by Alicia Haddick at TOHO Cinemas Nijo, Kyoto, Japan.

Although things did inevitably shift upon the The Boy and the Heron’s international release, there was a unique air of mystery surrounding Hayao Miyazaki’s latest film leading into its Japanese release. Most notably, what was it even about? Studio Ghibli made the unprecedented decision to release The Boy and the Heron with zero promotional material: no trailers, no cast, no synopsis, even, beyond a sketched poster of a bird.

A new film from Studio Ghibli, and from a director with a stubborn refusal to retire, is worthy of celebration—yet this seemed bold, almost foolish. It was successful, though, and I’m so glad they did it. It transformed the picture into a magical, mysterious event, where not a single person in my sold-out 9am IMAX screening had any idea what to expect as the lights dimmed. When writing about movies as a job, you can’t help but know almost everything about a film before you’ve even seen it. Being forced into blind expectation at the deft touch of a once-in-a-century talent reflecting on his life is an experience I could never forget.

Barbie

Written by Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig. Directed by Greta Gerwig. / Watched by Sophie Shin at Varsity Cinemas, Toronto.

It’s impossible to think about 2023 and movies without immediately thinking about July 21—a day destined for the history books thanks to the releases of Oppenheimer and Barbie. The pre-release anticipation was unlike anything we’d seen before, with marketing teams operating at full throttle. Admittedly, I succumbed wholeheartedly to the hype. I too wanted to make this day an event, so a month ahead of its release, I orchestrated a massive group chat with anyone who had shared their excitement for seeing Barbie with me.

The result? A lovely Barbie-themed rooftop party, where we adorned ourselves in the finest Barbie and Ken attire, sported pink sunglasses and indulged in copious amounts of pink sangria. Our whimsical procession down the street to Varsity Cinemas culminated in us occupying not one but two entire rows of the theater. Yes, we were definitely an exuberant bunch (blame it on the pink sangria), but the beauty of that screening lay in the fact that every person in that packed cinema shared that same energy. We laughed, we cried, we sang along to ‘Push’ and we had a heckin’ good time at the movies.

Distant Voices, Still Lives

Written and directed by Terence Davies. / Watched by John Forde at The Garden Cinema, London.

As the world returned, joyfully, to cinemas in 2023, it’s perhaps fitting that the year’s biggest hits—Barbie and Oppenheimer—each pondered the fragility of human life and the inevitability of death. British filmmaker (and Letterboxd favorite) Terence Davies, who died in October aged 77, understood this better than anyone, pouring joy and exquisite sadness into his films.

In tribute to Davies, London’s Garden Cinema rescreened Distant Voices, Still Lives, a stunning memory piece based on his working-class childhood. Deliberately slow-paced and celestially lit, Davies’s loving depictions of his mother and sisters are punctuated by terrifying memories of his abusive father (brilliantly played by Pete Postlethwaite). Sitting in the dark with strangers, relaxing into the film’s plaintive rhythms, filled me with sadness for the projects Davies never finished and gratitude for the beautiful work that lives on after him. I’m sure he would have wanted it that way.

Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging

Written by Gurinder Chadha, Paul Mayeda Berges, Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi. Directed by Gurinder Chadha. / Watched by Ella Kemp at BFI Southbank.

When British filmmaker Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham) tweeted that her 2008 film Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging would screen on 35mm in the biggest screen at the BFI Southbank, I thought it was a joke—I bought a ticket because I had nothing else to do that day, not realizing how cathartic and deeply joyous the experience would be. Hundreds of adult-teenage-girls (selling out the screen) laughed at the exact same moments I did (approximately four seconds before every joke dropped, because the script is now part of our DNA), clutching our chests remembering how enormous the world felt fifteen years ago.

And still does. My friend and Letterboxd colleague Iana Murray was also there on the day, writing in her review: “It’s such a joy to watch this in a room full of women who grew up feeling seen by this film! we’re all georgia <3”. My favorite part of her review is the comments section, in which our bestie Ayo Edebiri admits her jealousy of our day. Feelings travel. Ayo, we’ll screen it for you anytime.

The Innocents

Written by Truman Capote and William Archibald. Directed by Jack Clayton. / Watched by Aaron Yap at The Civic Theatre, Auckland, New Zealand.

A movie screening to an empty theater is never good for business, nor for morale. We generally view the experience as a warmly communal one, where we take pleasure in laughing, cheering and gasping in ecstatic unison. However, there’s also something to be said of being in a sparsely populated theater with an audience quiet as a church mouse, hypnotized in reverence.

A ghostly post-lockdown session of The Empty Man was one of my most memorable in recent years—strangely intimate, personal, out-of-body—and I found myself similarly levitating through a 4K restoration of Jack Clayton’s gothic spooker The Innocents at this year’s Whānau Mārama New Zealand International Film Festival. The lush, art deco surroundings that house the massive screen of the Civic was the ideal setting to vanish into Freddie Francis’s flawlessly composed Cinemascope frames, while the eerie stillness of the small, silent audience heightened the experience of getting gently unnerved by this masterful film.

Puss in Boots: The Last Wish

Written by Tommy Swerdlow, Etan Cohen, Paul Fisher and Tom Wheeler. Directed by Joel Crawford. / Watched by Noreen Plabutong at Alamo Drafthouse Lower Manhattan.

Who would have thought that a Shrek spin-off sequel could be anyone’s best theatrical experience in 2023? Certainly not me, or the group of unaware friends that I went to see Puss in Boots: The Last Wish with on a Saturday night. A bunch of middle schoolers were also there, for what looked like a birthday outing. They whispered and giggled loudly throughout the movie, fuelling the joyous energy in a room full of stoic parents and young adults like me and my friends.

In the end, nearly all of us were fighting back tears or openly crying. It’s rare to find a film that’s so full of heart and makes everyone collectively feel like they could get up and hug one another. And it’s a testament to Puss in Boots that a little cricket imbued with Jimmy Stewart’s spirit (aka Jiminy Stewart) could make me and my friends promptly lose our shit like we were back in middle school. Is this growing up or feeling young again?

Five Nights at Freddy’s

Written by Tyler MacIntyre, Seth Cuddeback, Chris Lee Hill, Emma Tammi and Scott Cawthon. Directed by Emma Tammi. / Watched by Slim at AMC Cherry Hill.

Movie night with my son seeing Five Nights at Freddy’s; does it get any better? I’ve been hearing him talk about the games for years, but he was always too scared to play them. He gave me the lore lowdown on the entire drive up and the entire drive back. Core memory stuff, right there. We saw this with an amped fan base, and it sounded like they all loved it, too. Random quotes had people losing their minds. That’s usually my cue to lean over to my son and have him whisper an explainer. And also steal some nachos. How about AMC Stubs A-List letting me zip past the 25 people in line to get snacks? Are we in heaven? Leaving the theater together and chatting away about what we watched; [Adam Sandler voice] dis is how we win.

Next Goal Wins

Written and directed by Taika Waititi (Te-Whānau-ā-Apanui). / Watched by Leo Koziol at Princess of Wales Theatre, Toronto during TIFF.

This year, I had a dream that I was at one of the biggest film festivals in the world, and everyone was unreservedly applauding a big Polynesian Samoan sports comedy. They were cheering on an Oscar-winning Māori filmmaker, as a big Samoan bus sat parked on the street outside. Billboards for the film lined three blocks around the theater, and the star of the film was a trans, Samoan actress playing a real life trans, Samoan soccer star who was there in real life.

Except it wasn’t a dream, and I was at the Toronto International Film Festival for the world premiere of Taika Waititi’s Next Goal Wins. There was a Native blessing, a standing ovation, and we even got official Next Goal Wins coconut-milk ice creams after. Critics (and US box office) may have been less kind to Waititi’s latest film, but I don’t care one bit. As a lifelong champion of Polynesian and Māori cinema, being at this premiere and feeling the love for Taika’s storytelling was a dream come true. I can die now. Thank you. Kia ora.

Beau Is Afraid

Written and directed by Ari Aster. / Watched by Dominic Corry at The Capitol Cinema, Auckland.

Aided by a ridiculously generous pour of red wine from a friend working at the refreshment stand, I willingly threw myself at the mercy of what in advance appeared to be Aster’s magnum opus, highly intrigued and yes, slightly afraid, by what he might offer up. The first 45 minutes or so of Beau Is Afraid were an absolute hoot, taking place in a hilariously heightened take on the near-future urban hellholes that used to show up in movies like RoboCop and Predator II.

I was so tickled by the extremities of this opening that I was excited to go wherever else Aster wanted to take me. I felt completely in his hands, very well-primed for the anxiety-embracing adventures to follow. I’m not sure I would’ve been so open to the film’s multiplicity of delights if I weren’t in a theater, where my darkened solitude seemed to increasingly align with Aster’s skewered vision. The sheer unpredictability of the film never wavered, and it was invigorating. The second glass of wine helped, too.

Twilight 

Written by Melissa Rosenberg. Directed by Catherine Hardwicke. / Watched by Annie Lyons at Los Feliz 3.

In our 2022 Letterboxd year-end feature, Mia Lee Vicino shared that her cinema wish for 2023 was the health of independent theaters, speculating, “This industry can be saved purely off the backs of nostalgia-fueled Twilight screenings.” After last-minute attending a fifteenth anniversary screening, I simply must rally around her vision. Sunny Los Angeles be damned, the November skies put on their best Forks, Washington, impression for a costume-filled “rainy Twi-night” with director Catherine Hardwicke in attendance, multiple apples and ketchup bottles, a sparkly Edward and baseball caps galore.

Nearly every line got a joyous reaction from our assembled coven; as Ava Petrille puts it, the theater “was going ‘WOOOOO!’ and clapping every five minutes”. Somewhere between Carlisle getting the most uproarious entrance applause and ‘Flightless Bird, American Mouth’, I achieved the last step in the “somewhat shame-inducing middle school obsession” to “ha ha so bad, it’s good” to “wait… so good, it’s good” cycle. Let’s make these an annual thing, yeah?

BlackBerry

Written and directed by Matt Johnson. / Watched by Iana Murray at Glasgow Film Theatre.

BlackBerry, Matt Johnson’s hilarious rags-to-riches-to-rags tech tale, was the biggest surprise of the year, for me. It lures you in with its pluckiness, but there’s also a real undercurrent of pathos that speaks to the speed of tech. Today’s innovation is tomorrow’s relic, soon to be replaced by something newer and shinier—but the relics aren’t treasured, only discarded.

I saw this at the Glasgow Film Festival, followed by a Q&A with writer-director Johnson. The most Glaswegian man I have ever heard asked a very long-winded question, and you could really feel the tension in the room. Any awkwardness instantly evaporated when all Johnson could say in reply was: “I’m sorry, but I didn’t understand a word you just said.” I usually find myself squirming in my seat at Q&As but I found this one to be genuinely fun and insightful. That can only happen in Glasgow.

The Wedding Singer and Music and Lyrics

Written by Tim Herlihy, directed by Frank Coraci; written and directed by Marc Lawrence. / Watched by Mia Lee Vicino at New Beverly Cinema on 35mm.

The New Beverly Cinema is one of my most sacred places of refuge in Los Angeles. Owned by Quentin Tarantino, the single-screen wonder’s amenities include movies always played on film, two-dollar Martinelli’s Apple Juice and no line for the women’s restroom. Except, of course, on February 10th, when they screened a Drew Barrymore double feature of The Wedding Singer and Music and Lyrics.

The former is my best friend Jocey’s long-time favorite romantic comedy (she’s drawn to Adam Sandler’s goofball charm), while the latter is mine (I gravitate towards my first movie crush Hugh Grant’s pelvic-heavy dance moves, which Letterboxd member Becca—who was also at the theater—shouts out in her review: “Hugh’s hip thrusts are incredible”). As such, the night felt specially programmed for us two (and Becca). “Watching this on a 35mm print in a sold out New Beverly crowd had me going ‘These people are beautiful!’ and ‘This is in the spirit of Howard Hawks!!!’” Jocey writes about Music and Lyrics. “I believe in the rom com!” Same, girl. New Bev, please program Down with Love next.

Chungking Express

Written and directed by Wong Kar-wai. / Watched by George Fenwick at The Prince Charles Cinema in London.

London in a heat wave can sometimes be hideous, with overwhelming humidity and ancient brickwork conspiring to roast any living thing that dares to go outside. But more often than not, a hot day in London unfolds like a dream. One Sunday this summer, after noticing just how many people were putting Chungking Express in their four faves, I pitched a plan to my friend Jordan: we were to swim at the Hampstead Heath ponds in the afternoon, drift leisurely into Soho and eat bibimbap, then watch Wong Kar-wai’s masterpiece at the legendary Prince Charles Cinema—undoubtedly the best place in London to watch cult classics and crowd favorites.

So that’s exactly what we did. As we watched those restless, lovelorn souls fall in and out of love in another humid metropolis, I felt like I knew the answer to their troubles: spend the day exactly as I just had. (Hat tip, too, to the midwinter power of the multiplex. I saw M3GAN at a London shopping-mall cinema during which I realized the facility where Allison Williams’ character worked, and where M3GAN herself later guillotined two workers, was filmed at none other than AUT University in Auckland, NZ, where I studied journalism. A decade on and many Letterboxd four faves in, I must thank M3GAN—and Vue Islington—for two things: firstly, for slaying, and secondly, for reminding me to stop and smell the roses.)

No Hard Feelings

Written by Gene Stupnitsky and John Phillips. Directed by Gene Stupnitsky. / Watched by Rafa Sales Ross at VUE Aberdeen.

Since my beloved local independent cinema Filmhouse shut its doors at the end of 2022, my only two options in the small Scottish city I live in are commercial cinemas. This means I have watched more blockbusters in the theater in 2023 than in any other year of my adult life, popping up to screenings just for the sake of going to the movies. One such outing resulted in watching No Hard Feelings on a Thursday matinée. As I entered the room, I saw a large group of older ladies sitting together in one row and giggling away at the trailers. I’m in for a treat, I thought—and, boy, was I right. As soon as JLaw emerged from the ocean butt-naked, one of the ladies exclaimed to the absolute delight of her friends: “Look at that, girls! I thought Hollywood didn’t make ’em natural anymore!” God bless matinées.

Stop Making Sense

Directed by Jonathan Demme. / Watched by Gemma Gracewood at Scotiabank IMAX, Toronto and The Hollywood, Avondale, New Zealand.

Moments after interviewing the members of Talking Heads at TIFF with my colleague Ella, we found ourselves at the Scotiabank IMAX world premiere of A24’s stellar restoration of the best concert film ever made, sat mere feet from the band and their friend Spike Lee (who helmed the Stop Making Sense post-screening Q&A). A ticketless woman who had blagged her way in on a lie and a prayer dropped her bags next to me and ran to the aisle where she danced nonstop for the next 88 minutes. Casual queen!

I have somehow only ever seen this film in theaters—I treated my stepson to a BAM 30th-anniversary viewing in Brooklyn when he was ten years old—and it’s always a sublime experience. But my favorite of them all was a sold-out Friday screening that Letterboxd presented in our hometown just last month. The Hollywood, a beloved repertory picture house and live concert venue, did double-duty by removing their downstairs seats for a dance party for the ages. The cinema played our Talking Heads four-favorites video in the pre-show, prompting loud whoops from the crowd with every pick (we made it to the big screen, Mum!). My seven-year-old, following in his big brother’s dance steps, twirled and swooned to ‘Heaven’. We were pure beings, just being.

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