Once December becomes visible around the bend, a lot of us start to look back at our last trip around the sun with nostalgia and curiosity. ‘Tis the season of the “Best Of” list, when critics’ faves appear online, and art and culture junkies dive into the year-end tradition of probing, dissecting, and cataloguing the best things they watched over the last twelve months… myself included.
In presenting the best French films of 2023, I’ll clarify that this list only includes French films that have been released in the U.S. to date. Some great French movies from this year are still only available in France, or in limited release, or are set for release after the publication of this piece, but before the end of the year. France’s selection for the Oscars’ best international film, The Taste of Things, starring Juliette Binoche, will have a mid-December Oscar-qualifying run before its 2024 release. The all-star The Three Musketeers: d’Artagnan premieres in early December, and the brilliant François Ozon’s hilarious #MeToo screwball comedy The Crime is Mine arrives on Christmas Day. As a Virginia Woolf devotee, I’m particularly intrigued by the documentary by trans activist and first-time director Paul B. Preciado’s Orlando: My Political Biography (currently in limited release), which explores gender fluidity through the lens of Woolf’s groundbreaking 1928 novel, Orlando: A Biography, whose protagonist changes gender partway through. Sally Potter’s 1992 film adaptation stars Tilda Swinton and this new film, with its glamorous array of modern-day Orlandos, seems a fascinating next step in exploring the complexities of the novel’s themes, which are particularly relevant in our current political and cultural moment. But there are several fantastic French movies from this year that Americans can watch right now.
The Best French Films of 2023
Anatomy of a Fall, directed by Justine Triet
Triet’s sly, slippery Palme d’Or winner is a murder mystery and courtroom drama: When celebrated novelist Sandra Voyter’s (Sandra Hüller) husband Samuel (Samuel Theis) is found dead outside their home in the French Alps, having possibly been hit with a heavy object before falling from the attic window, Sandra becomes the prime suspect. But the film is also the story of a marriage. During a long, highly publicized trial, the couple’s personal life is front and center. Sandra cheated—with men and women. Samuel, also a writer, resented his wife’s success and harbored guilt and self-recrimination over an accident that left their young son Daniel (Milo Machado-Graner) nearly blind, while Samuel was supposed to be watching him. The judge, public, film audience, and, most heartbreakingly, their son take in the evidence, trying to sort out if she killed him or not. Along the way, we learn that truth is as slippery as a fish in your hands. The film refuses to offer easy answers, and its drama—in the marriage and courtroom—is completely captivating. So much so that both Hüller and Machado-Graner are generating a lot of buzz ahead of Oscar nominations in January.
Preorder Anatomy of a Fall on Amazon Prime.
Close, directed by Lukas Dhont
In the film that won the 2022 Grand Prix at Cannes, 13-year-old best friends Léo (Eden Dambrine) and Rémi (Gustav De Waele) spend their summer days riding bikes and roaming fields of flowers. At night they sleep side by side, limbs entwined. The dreamy cinematography captures this idyllic moment before the boys return to school and a preteen mean girl asks the fateful question: Are you two together? Léo shuts her down, but the damage is done, those few words stripping the friendship of its innocence and leaving the boys self-conscious and changed. Léo tries on a more obviously masculine persona, takes up soccer, spends time with other friends, while Rémi reels, hurt and unclear on how to move forward. Something happens that abruptly turns Close into a different kind of film. The twist is brutal and jarring, but the perfection of the film’s first act and its profound dive into the emotional depths of this childhood bond is rare and profound.
Full Time, directed by Éric Gravel
Julie, played by the always-enchanting Laure Calamy (Call My Agent, The Origin of Evil) in a César-nominated performance, never stops moving in this story of a suburban single mom juggling two kids and a full-time job as the head chambermaid in a five-star Parisian hotel during a transportation strike. The plot of Full Time might sound like a day in the life of every parent you know, but Calamy, Gravel, and the gorgeous cinematography by Victor Seguin keep us right up against Julie as she jumps out of bed, leaps through subway doors, sneaks out at lunchtime for a job interview, and stresses out about keeping all the balls in the air. The result is an intimate tale of one woman’s struggle that plays like a thriller as gripping as North by Northwest, Run Lola Run, or The Wages of Fear.
The Innocent, directed by Louis Garrel
Written, directed, and starring the charismatic—and ubiquitous—Garrel (The Dreamers, Forever Young, The Three Musketeers – part 1: D’Artagnon), this thrilling, moving, and ridiculously likeable film was nominated for 11 Césars, including Best Film. The Innocent is a unique blend of comedy, thriller, love story, mother-son saga, and last-big-heist flick. This touching tale of a man blowing up his life to overcome his grief stars Garrel as Abel, a young widower who hits the roof when his mom (Anouk Grinberg) announces she’s marrying a prison inmate (Roschdy Zem). He starts tailing the guy (once he’s out of jail) and ultimately gets sucked into what seems like a simple scheme to help out his new stepfather and make some quick cash. But helping bad guys steal stuff is never as simple as it seems, and Abel and his best friend Clémence (the wondrous Noémie Merlant, who won the César for best supporting actress for the role) wind up on the wild ride Abel needs to shake himself out of his grumpy, humdrum routine.
Other People’s Children, directed by Rebecca Zlotowski
This smart, hard-hitting film looks and feels a lot like a romantic comedy, but it’s not, really. Rachel (César-winning actress Virginie Effira) falls hard for her new beau Ali (Roschdy Zem)—but she falls even harder for his four-year-old daughter, Leila (Callie Ferreira-Goncalves). In Zlotowski’s (An Easy Girl) first openly autobiographical film, Other People’s Children, the director pulls from her own experience as a woman in her 40s who feels a sudden pull to have children as her biological window closes. Her protagonist learns that sometimes instead, you wind up with your boyfriend’s adorable kid who already has a mom. Or no kid at all. Rachel’s story packs an emotional wallop no matter what kind of relationship you have to other people’s children and reminds us that there are many possible fulfilling paths in life. Rachel is a self-assured woman capable of creating her own happiness and we root for her to find it, whether or not it involves a husband, kids, and a white picket fence.
One Fine Morning, directed by Mia Hansen-Løve
Superstar/Bond girl Léa Seydoux is more beautiful (and soulful) than ever as the distinctly un-Bondian Sandra, a young, widowed mother who falls in love with an old friend while her father is suffering from a neurodegenerative disorder. Watching a world of emotions play out over the bare, naked face of this down-to-earth version of Seydoux is a beautiful thing. One moment she’s crumbling, devastated at the mention of her father’s name, the next the flush of new love brings a rush of color to her cheeks as she’s seated alone on a train. It’s coincidental that love creeps up on Sandra just as she is struggling with her aging father, but the relationship becomes the balm she needs. The delicate balance of Sandra’s strength and vulnerability in One Fine Morning is a wonder to behold.
The Night of the 12th, directed by Dominik Moll
A young woman is burned to death in a suburb of Grenoble at the foot of the French Alps. The brutality of the crime inflames the rage and determination in the cops assigned to the case: Johan (Bastien Bouillon), the serious, young department chief; and his seasoned older partner, Marceau (Bouli Lanners), who’s prone to a range of loud emotions. From early on, this murder has the detectives banging their heads against the proverbial wall as they haul in a parade of suspects, any of whom could have done it, without enough evidence to arrest anyone. The Night of the 12th, which was nominated for 10 César Awards and took home six, including Best Film, frustrates viewer expectations. It offers the twists and turns of a typical police procedural, only to force us down a tortuous rabbit hole leading only to the harsh conclusion that male violence against women is a plague with no end in sight.
Rise, directed by Cédric Klapisch
Marion Barbeau, prima ballerina at the Paris opera, makes her acting debut as Elise, a ballet dancer who injures herself and is told she’ll never dance again. Unwilling to curl up into a ball and cry for her lost vocation, she jumps into life, trying to find something else that might incite her passion. While assisting a chef at an artist retreat, she has the opportunity to work out with a modern dance troupe and grows in unexpected ways. She also gets life advice from a quirky cast of characters that includes the adorable PT who has a crush on her (François Civil), the choreographer Hofesh Shechter (playing himself), and the flighty retreat director (Muriel Robin). She even stumbles into a little romance. While the narrative of coming back to life following a lifechanging event is familiar and somewhat predictable, writer/director Klapisch’s (L’Auberge Espanole, Russian Dolls) knack for character development and dialogue, and his visible passion for dance, bring real magic to the screen. Rise was nominated for five César awards.
Scarlet, directed by Pietro Marcello
Sometimes a movie is a tiny, perfect gem you’d like to slip into your pocket to touch every once in a while like a magic talisman. Scarlet is that kind of movie. While it takes place in a French village at the end of World War II, it doesn’t feel like a period piece as much as a fable. When Raphaël (Raphaël Thiéry), a gentle giant with a smashed face and massive woodworking hands, returns from war, he learns that his wife has died and left him with a daughter, Juliette. He raises his little girl with the help of a local woman (Noémie Lvovsky) who knows magic and herbs. It makes sense that Juliette grows up a nonconformist who sings and plays the piano beautifully. The local kids call her a witch. There is an actual local witch (Yolande Moreau)—also the town drunk—who makes predictions about Juliette’s future. The film is episodic and odd. Lyrical father and daughter moments are so lovingly suffused with light and tenderness, you’ll need to catch your breath. What there is of a story rambles aimlessly along with just enough more serious signposts to provide narrative scaffolding. When an early airplane drops from the sky, with Louis Garrel at its helm, just waiting to fall in love with a country girl who sings like an angel, you’re not really surprised.
The Worst Ones, directed by Lise Akoka and Romane Geret
Everyone loves movies about making movies. The Worst Ones one ups the ante by casting local kids from a working-class town in Northern France to star in a movie about a director casting local kids from a working-class town in Northern France. Akoka and Geret, who both worked in casting prior to turning to directing, auditioned 800 children in towns in the area before finding their stars. One of them, Mallory Wanecque, who plays the soulful Lily, was nominated for the César for Most Promising Actress. The movie is about the ethics of street casting. It’s also about these complex characters—both the filmmakers and the local kids—who have a lot to learn from each other. The alchemy of these characters, themes, and faces meshed with a smart, startling script spark some serious magic. It’s perfect. No wonder the little movie that could took everyone by surprise by nabbing the Un Certain Regard award at Cannes.