For every big-budget movie that gets hyped to the hilt, there are numerous smaller-scale films that, however worthy they may be, end up underseen and overlooked.
Below is a list of a few creatively crafted, emotionally satisfying, intellectually stimulating films that many viewers may have missed in 2023.
Filmmaker Babak Jalali (“Radio Dreams”) again embraces Bay Area immigrant populations in this deadpan gem centering on a young Afghan refugee. Protagonist Donya (Anaita Wali Zada) lives in Fremont, California, in a building filled with fellow Afghans, and works in nearby San Francisco at a fortune-cookie factory. Desperate for connection, she places a personal message inside a fortune cookie and finds herself on an unexpected journey. With his adroit steerage, relevant themes and ability to make the mundane fabulous, Jalali has created not just one of the year’s best small films, but one of the year’s best films, period. Unique supporting characters include a solitary auto mechanic played by Jeremy Allen White. (Available on Amazon Prime, Vudu)
A young mother struggling to keep her family together amid a system that seems stacked against her makes for a riveting protagonist in Savanah Leaf’s feature debut. Rapper Tia Nomore plays Gia, an East Bay woman with two kids in foster care and a third child on the way. As she deals with the demands of the courts to gain full access to her children, Gia worries that the system will take away her new baby as well. Leaf adeptly combines social realism and intimate storytelling, and Nomore hits no false notes. This film puts to shame society’s disparaging perceptions of moms with kids in foster care. (Available on Fubo, Apple TV+)
Set in Thatcher-era England, Georgia Oakley’s directorial feature debut follows a young lesbian gym teacher (Rosy McEwen, excellent) who lives two lives: one closeted and one open. Feeling forced to hide her true feelings in order to remain employed and accepted in the mainstream world, she tells a lie that hurts a student. Emotionally truthful throughout, the film is a small-scale but compelling period drama about the ugliness and consequences of homophobia. (Available on Hulu, Apple TV+)
The Blue Caftan
This Moroccan drama centers on a long-married couple (Lubna Azabal, Saleh Bakri) who own a caftan store. The husband feels drawn to the young male apprentice they’ve brought aboard. On paper, that may sound like silly melodrama, but filmmaker Maryam Touzani fills the picture with emotional resonance and visual splendor, with enticing, absorbing results. This is a moving tale about devotion, acceptance and beautifully crafted clothing. (Available on Apple TV+)
A Thousand and One
Filmmaker A.W. Rockwell depicts the hopes and sacrifices of Black mothers in this intimate drama set in a changing New York City during the Giuliani and Bloomberg mayoral years. The drama follows a mother-son relationship over more than a decade, beginning when protagonist Inez (Teyana Taylor) kidnaps young Terry from foster care. She struggles to build a life for herself and the boy, but social realities threaten their bond. Love exists, but it may not be enough, and Rockwell and the excellent Taylor allow us to deeply feel the shakiness of the foundations the characters dwell on. (Available on Amazon Prime)
Director Celine Song’s feature debut is higher profile than other fare on this list, but its affecting character dynamics and universal humanity make it a must-see for wider audiences. Greta Lee plays Nora, a Korea-born writer now married and living in North America. A visit from her childhood pal sets off an explosion of memories and feelings. Song reveals a knack for focusing the camera on her actors’ faces and reaping emotional truth. She’s made a sparkling movie about memory, identity and connection. (Available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV+, Google Play, Vudu)
This distinctively crafted documentary presents, and sometimes restages, the story of Tunisian woman Olfa Hamroun and her four daughters, two of whom were radicalized and left the family. Via interviews with actual family members and performance by actresses playing the missing daughters, director Kaouther Ben Hania presents a complex and immersing picture of sisterly camaraderie, mother-daughter connections, and heartbreaking choices. (Available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV+, Google Play, Vudu)
Shocked after discovering that her recently deceased husband had a longtime lover in France, a Muslim British widow embarks on what becomes a self-discovery journey in filmmaker Aleem Khan’s movingly humane story of grief, cultural divides, and common humanity. Joanna Scanlan received a British Academy Film and Television Award for her rivetingly textured lead performance. (Available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV+, Google Play, Vudu)
Yet another love triangle story that does something satisfying with that scenario, Ira Sachs’ latest relationship story involves a gay couple whose marriage goes off the rails when one of the men begins an affair with a young woman. International stars Franz Rogowski, Ben Whishaw, and Adele Exarchopoulos play the primary roles in this entertaining indie. (Available on Mubi, Apple TV+, Google Play, Vudu)
Tori and Lokita
Belgian filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne continue to make realistic dramas about marginalized people, and as this newest such drama demonstrates, their work remains compelling and relevant. The title characters are African immigrants posing as siblings and experiencing exploitation and harassment as they navigate treacherous situations. It’s a bleak but captivating little thriller. (Available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV+, Vudu)