2023 is one-third over, and so before Cannes begins and especially before the summer months bring their usual empty-gas-tank feeling, it’s time for HE’s list of the year’s finest and fullest films so far — The Covenant, Air, Close, Beau Is Afraid, The Lost King, Magic Mike’s Last Dance, Palm Trees and Power Lines and The Son.

Yes, I’ve chosen only eight — four or five that really make the grade and three or four that deserve to be called respectably sturdy.

The overall tally could actually be nine if I include Paul Schrader‘s reasonably decent Master Gardener, which I saw last September during the ’22 New York Film Festival. (I’ll post my review sometime before the end of next week.)

1. I’m surprised to be saying that HE’s choice for the most engaging film of 2023 is Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant (MGM, 4.21), especially given my consistent, less-than-adoring opinion of Ritchie over the last 20-odd years, and especially given his descent into the slick hack realm after Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (’98). Here’s my Covenant review, posted only a couple of weeks ago.

2. My second favorite is Ben Affleck‘s Air (Amazon), which I reviewed on 3.22.23. Okay, I should’ve given it an 8 grade rather than an 8.5 or 9. I re-watched it a second time in a local theatre and was still satisfied. I’m planning to watch it again tonight with subtitles.

3. In my mind Lukas Dhont‘s Close, a masterfully finessed adolescent love tragedy, is a 2022 film, as I first saw it a year ago at the Cannes Film Festival. I reviewed it on 5.27.22. It technically opened on 1.27.23.

4. I caught Ari Aster‘s Beau Is Afraid (A24) on 4.12.23, and I came away convinced that it’s a loopy knockout — one of the most refreshingly surreal and Fellini-esque crazy films that anyone’s seen this century. I understand why some might hate the fact that Beau doesn’t reassure or fill in the gaps and motivations or explain itself much, but it’s definitely a serving of a goblet of fine madness. HE’s review ran on 4.12.23.

5. Stephen FrearsThe Lost King (IFC, 3.24) was, for me, a delightful surprise, given the 78% Rotten Tomatoes score. It made me feel engaged, moderately aroused and well taken care of. My review ran on 3.24.23.

6. Steven Soderbergh‘s Magic Mike’s Last Dance felt like another welcome surprise. My review hit on 2.12.23.

7. Jamie Dack‘s Palm Trees and Power Lines is one of bravest, chilliest and most carefully rendered sexual horror films I’ve ever seen. Not an easy sit but coldly riveting, especially during the second half. I first saw it in January ’22 under the aegis of that year’s Sundance Film Festival. HE’s review appeared on 3.2.23.

8. Florian Zeller‘s The Son (Sony Pictures Classics, 1.20.23) didn’t exactly knock me out or rattle my soul, and it certainly has a problematic ending, or so I decided as I was driving home. Directed and co-written by Zeller with Christopher Hampton. Hugh Jackman‘s brief scene with his cold bastard of a dad, played by Anthony Hopkins, is the standout. Laura Dern, Vanessa Kirby, Zen McGrath, Hugh Quarshie.