Well, it’s been a great year for movies, though I’d still argue if one thinks it’s ever a bad year, they just haven’t looked very hard. Regardless, the continued mix of theater-going opportunities and streaming options allowed me to watch over 250 new films. Narrowing down a lot of good-to-great-to-fantastic films to merely 50 was a task unto itself, but an enjoyable one, as usual. I have so much variety here, from skillfully made spectacle films to quietly affecting, smaller movies, and everything in between. So, here is my complete list of favorites for the year 2023, with plenty of runner-ups, honorable mentions, and some special mentions as well. Reviews are linked where applicable, and availability is specified for the top ten. PLUS, as per usual, I’ve linked fun Easter Eggs in every picture you see (If the site is acting funky, “Right Click” to open it in a new tab). Enjoy!
Movies I Missed:
20 Days in Mariupol, Birth/Rebirth, The Blue Caftan, De Humani Corporis Fabrica, Dunki, Earth Mama, The Eternal Memory, Godland, King Coal, La Chimera, Our Father The Devil, Our Body, The Promised Land, Robot Dreams
1000% Me: Growing Up Mixed – Having only seen so many documentaries this year, and not too many that made a huge impact, I wanted to highlight this film. W. Kamu Bell’s wonderful hour-long documentary features mostly interviews with children who share their experiences of growing up mixed-race in the Bay Area.
Brooklyn 45/Skinamarink – Shudder either releases or distributes new horror films every week. I felt it right to note two films that left me thinking about them long after. Brooklyn 45 is a neat post-WWII film that features veterans participating in a séance that becomes all too real, with a bit of 12 Angry Men thrown in the gears for good measure. Skinamarink is not necessarily a film I really enjoyed. Still, I can’t deny the impression it made with its experimental style, as we follow two young children dealing with a supernatural intruder during one endless night.
Jawan/Pathaan – RRR topped my list last year, introducing me to Telegu cinema. This year, I caught a couple of highly enjoyable Hindi-language action films featuring global superstar Shah Rukh Khan (SRK). I haven’t seen his other film, Dunki, yet, but these two (currently streaming) movies feature ridiculous action scenes, spectacular musical numbers, a Mummy fight, a “Tiger” cameo, an ambitious approach to healthcare politics in India, and more. They’re nuts and a lot of fun.
Problemista – Delayed indefinitely due to the writer’s strike; ideally, this film finds a new release date sometime in 2024, as it’s a genuinely hysterical comedy from A24, functioning as a surrealist take on Brazil meets Swimming with Sharks for the modern art world. Star Julio Torres shows so much promise as writer and director, with Tilda Swinton delivering another gonzo and quite humorous performance. The only thing adding to this is the layer of sweetness at its core.
Return to Seoul – Davy Chou’s outstanding Korean drama was in my honorable mentions last year, but it was largely unavailable to most audiences until a third of the way into 2023. So, I figure I’ll mention how much praise I have for it again here.
Story Ave. – This always happens. There’s always at least one film featuring one of the year’s best performances in a movie that won’t earn enough attention. Story Ave is a fine coming-of-age drama featuring Luis Guzmán in a terrific supporting role, where he delivers career-best work as an MTA worker who offers help to a wayward teen.
The Venture Bros.: Radiant Is the Blood of the Baboon Heart – The Venture Bros. is one of my favorite TV shows ever, and while it may have been unceremoniously canceled, the Adult Swim animated series was able to have one last ride thanks to Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer’s efforts to deliver a feature-length film serving as a series finale. For me, a long-time fan, the results were brilliant.
The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar – Wes Anderson delivered four short films for Netflix, adapted from short stories by Roald Dahl, and it was a good time for all. Benedict Cumberbatch and Ralph Fiennes, among others, are perfectly suited for the style presented here, just as Anderson is a perfect match for Dahl.
The Zone of Interest – Perhaps the most challenging film I had to watch this year (and, at times, endure), while it may be hard for me to personally warm to Jonothan Glazer’s ultra-serious historical drama focused around a family living next to Auschwitz, I can’t deny that ten years after Under the Skin, he’s still presenting features in a manner unlike anyone else, and what he’s going after with this film certainly holds a powerful message.
Runner-Ups (Ranked 50-21):
|44. Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny
|48. Evil Dead Rise
|43. May December
|42. You Hurt My Feelings
|40. The First Slam Dunk
|39. The Iron Claw
|34. How to Blow Up a Pipeline
|38. Talk To Me
|33. All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt
|37. When Evil Lurks
|32. The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster
|36. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem
|25. Society of the Snow
|29. The Teacher’s Lounge
|24. The Creator
|23. Perfect Days
|27. Creed III
|22. The Color Purple
Honorable Mentions (Ranked 20-11):
|20. Beau Is Afraid
|15. Rye Lane
|19. Poor Things
|14. Polite Society
|18. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3
|17. The Holdovers
|12. They Cloned Tyrone
|16. Past Lives
|11. The Boy and the Heron
The Top Ten
10. Asteroid City
No one else could do this. That’s not to say other filmmakers can’t deliver similar works, but as a writer and director, Wes Anderson continues to develop and deliver films bearing his unique stamp. This time around, he moves away from his usual autumnal settings and into a retrofuturistic 1950s story (told alongside the making of this story), leading to a humorous farce where UFOs and atomic testing play as background activity for a large group of characters attending a youth astronomy convention. As one hopes, Anderson’s large ensemble cast delivers the goods, with Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks, Jeffrey Wright, Edward Norton, and many others falling into the correct rhythm to take on the ambitious screenplay. With Anderson again finding ways to use his style to open new doors for exploring various themes and techniques, the comedy is matched with some somber and reflective aspects, all while placed within a smashing-looking film. (Available on VOD/Prime Video)
Part of the joy of wanting to celebrate a debut filmmaker is appreciating the assuredness seen in their work. When I first saw American Fiction, one of my reactions was that I could watch this film forever. By that, I meant that Cord Jefferson had done such an excellent job assembling a solid ensemble and placing them within a story that reflected a certain reality that I wasn’t even too concerned with the high concept premise forming the story’s central conceit. Yes, the plight of Jeffrey Wright’s Monk Ellison dealing with the fallout of writing a book as a joke that turns into a bestseller calls for some hilarious satire that the film is more than happy to deliver on. However, I was equally wrapped up in the family drama, which serves as a clever reflection of how to portray complicated Black stories without pushing them into over-the-top directions. It is not hurting to see Wright delivering some of his best work as a performer, with a supporting cast more than willing to match his energy. Having seen the film twice so far, this is “Black” entertainment done right. (Available in Theaters)
8. The Killer
I think the key to really embracing director David Fincher’s darkly comedic assassin thriller is realizing how much of a schmuck Michael Fassbender’s hitman character is. He may buy into his own code, and all his sardonic musings heard through constant narration certainly have us believing he holds himself in high esteem. Still, given how the events of this film unfold, he’s either gotten very lucky throughout his career or is having a terrible week. Regardless, being an unreliable narrator means there’s plenty of “movie” for us to enjoy. We watch the meticulous craft that is Fincher’s attention to detail (and one can easily match up this film as a meta take on making movies), which leads us into a series of thrilling events that explore the world of this Killer and how he operates. It’s far less glamourous than what the John Wick universe presents, instead showing how cutthroat tactics make a difference in a movie, both commenting on the gig economy and showing how even a contract killer can feel as though he’s stuck in a boring office job. (Available on Netflix)
Initially premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, A Thousand and One gets credit for sticking with me the longest in 2023. It’s a story of mothers and sons, with the gentrification of New York informing some of the turns taking place. Given how the film is set during the 90s and 00s, it is certainly interesting to see how of-the-moment it all feels, but that is easily by design, speaking to the influences debut director A.V. Rockwell has in Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese. Only adding to what’s unfolding on screen are a set of performances to show adolescent Terry at different ages in his life and, more importantly, the out-of-nowhere outstanding performance by Teyana Taylor in the lead role of Inez. It’s a performance informed by the character’s strength that would no doubt earn higher plaudits if the movie had a greater reach (though others have defied those odds recently as well). Whatever the case, it’s an excellent showcase in a superb film. Plus, not for nothing, but Gary Gunn’s terrific score for this film is my favorite of the year. (Available on VOD/Prime Video)
Winner of the Palme d’Or (and the Palm Dog) at the Cannes Film Festival, here’s a movie so incredibly compelling that France decided not to submit it for the Academy Awards for whatever reason. Cinematic politics aside, Anatomy of a Fall is a wonderfully conceived film deftly directed by co-writer Justine Triet. Sandra Hüller gives one of the best performances of the year as a wife and mother pushed into an impossible scenario where she must fight for her innocence amid so much judgment from everyone around her, including her son (an outstanding Milo Machado Graner).
Wisely, the film is told from an outside perspective, with the filmmakers working on letting the viewers formalize their own opinions, with a more profound examination going toward the nature of how we perceive truths based on what we hear and how it is being told to us. It means the courtroom trial is almost beside the point. Still, it is no less stirring to watch both sides attempt to make their points, further blurring the lines of reality until a conclusion is reached. Even then, it will leave the viewer with stimulating conversations to have. (Available on VOD)
Writing these lists at the end of the year provides a good level of perspective regarding award prospects. Ultimately, it makes little difference when considering the choices for my list, but given the metrics – John Wick: Chapter 4 is one of the best-reviewed films of the year that also happens to have been a very successful blockbuster. Its technical elements are better than most films that seem to wind up with nominations by default. Yet, I don’t feel I’m about to see a Mad Max: Fury Road level of accolades coming its way. Still, it’s no matter. Much like Fury Road, this is a well-oiled machine that goes above and beyond being simply a drive-in action flick, as director Chad Stahelski and star Keanu Reeves pushed for bigger and greater levels of evolution to deliver the best entry in the series, let alone one of the best mainstream American action films this century.
Much like Wick himself, it’s all about execution. The stunts witnessed are incredible, eliciting a reaction scene after scene that can appropriately be described as awesome. Dan Laustsen’s cinematography is gorgeous, as he imbues every scene with color and makes every shot look interesting. The lengthy picture is also loaded with striking characters and exciting details to further sketch out this world. So many of the various fights and set pieces stand out, and yet it’s all balanced by a story committed to a specific thematic throughline and setting things straight for an assassin who wants to end it all. Oh, and the final third of this movie serves as a mini-remake of The Warriors, which is a great thing in and of itself. Trust me boppers, this movie rules. (Available on VOD/Starz)
Give or take the “Caligula but with stockbrokers” approach to The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese has spent so much of this period of his career putting what feels like final stamps on many of the areas that have defined his work. Hugo is a beautiful look at the birth of cinema and the continual efforts by pioneers to keep innovating. Silence is one of Scorsese’s deepest and most meditative dives into religion. The Irishman is an excellent epilogue to his work in the realm of gangster films, focusing on the tragic, lonely, and regretful results of criminal behavior. While all of these films may express conclusivity to specific themes or subject matter, it’s not as though Scorsese has lost any of his brilliant touch regarding his direction.
Killers of the Flower Moon is a film full of sorrow and tragedy concerning how Native Americans and their land was and still is corrupted by powerful white men from the outside looking to capitalize on oil and anything else that could make them rich. At the center of this true-to-life story framed as a wounding western, are three mesmerizing performances from Scorsese regulars Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro, as well as Lily Gladstone, who is on the path to breaking out as more than just an indie darling. Working with Scorsese means working with the best, so it’s no surprise that everything from the production design to the cinematography to the music by the late Robbie Robertson is top-notch. True to form, the choice to angle so much of the narrative around the evil causing so much disarray means the film invites its viewers to be more probing, and respecting them enough to know whether something is being glorified. Differentiating the movie from other Scorsese films is emphasizing the Osage people, with their presence looming over the wicked ones going after them. The director doesn’t overstep; he knows his limitations in capturing pure authenticity, and the intentions only become more evident with his all-timer of a closing epilogue. A deliberately paced epic that’s rewarding thanks to the master at the helm. (Available in Theaters/VOD)
As a massive Godzilla fan, it’s a thrill to not only see Toho delivering another exciting entry in a series that has spanned 70 years, but knowing that it far exceeds what the expectation may be for those not as inclined to see a giant Kaiju flick. Beyond the visceral thrills that involve watching a giant monster smash up Tokyo as innocent people do their best to run away in time, Godzilla Minus One settles for nothing less than excellence across the board. Writer/director/visual effects artist Takashi Yamazaki may have moved away from the skewering of modern government bureaucracy as seen in the previous (also brilliant) entry, Shin Godzilla, but this entirely standalone entry has its own ideas to work with. Setting the film in immediate post-WWII Japan is a great touch, as it allows for a very reflective tale that can provide commentary regarding a particular time while still communicating resonating themes of today. On top of that, the film angles for a more dedicated focus on character than ever before, with Japanese star Ryunosuke Kmiki delivering a terrifically haunted performance as a former kamikaze pilot in need of proving himself to push back against his own PTSD.
An appropriate amount of melodrama only adds to how exciting this is, with numerous supporting characters having you almost forget you’re watching a movie about a radioactive beast that must be dealt with. And with that in mind, Godzilla is (as one critic correctly pointed out) genuinely terrifying this time around. Not fighting other monsters or being treated as a tragic figure, Big G may still represent the fear of the bomb in the Nuclear Age (among other things), but it’s also a real mean bastard with a seemingly endless desire to destroy, and one hell of a heat ray. The various takes on Godzilla over the decades are always fascinating, and this is undoubtedly one of the deadliest, leading to multiple truly thrilling moments. On top of all this are the emotionally engaging aspects that dare to have the audience holding back tears as they watch how this plays out. Seeing this film become a word-of-mouth hit in America is delightful. Getting the same emotional highs from the multiple times I’ve seen Godzilla Minus One thus far only speaks to how assuredly this film will remain one of the best in the franchise. (Available in Theaters)
When looking back at movies that potentially define an era of cinema, it’s neat to think that it will include a three-hour epic focused on the legacy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Of course, it’s not the first time director Christopher Nolan managed to capture the zeitgeist. Even in the face of opposition that turned into “Barbenheimer,” which became one of the most positive forces of good to happen to movie theaters in a while, there was no resistance to seeing what, on paper, could sound more like homework than a huge summer blockbuster. That’s for good reason, as Oppenheimer is the best kind of spectacle. It’s a focused biopic interested in revealing insights on this specific point in history using the largest canvas possible and featuring the efforts of terrific performers. For Nolan, that means finding more innovative ways to utilize IMAX cameras and maximizing his blend of analog and digital visual effects to convey what it is for a theoretical physicist to grapple with being the “father of the atomic bomb.”
This is a wonderful showcase for control, as Nolan demonstrates so much of his abilities as a crowd-pleasing auteur who wants to also challenge his audience. It also means placing so many skilled professionals in front of and behind the camera. Technically sound, of course, this is an immaculate production from all angles. Given the ambitious approach for a film of this nature, I’d once again spotlight the editing, let alone the cinematography combined with practical production design.
Performance-wise, Cillian Murphy is able to do so much despite having internalized so much of what’s going on inside of this man’s head. Meanwhile, freed from the shackles of Marvel (not that his Tony Stark ever felt phoned-in), Robert Downey Jr. gets a chance to really dig into a role that removes his sense of vanity in favor of a different persona. And this only speaks to a few key performances in this sprawling feature. Of course, all of this is just a way of building towards a depiction of one of the most momentous events in American history, and it’s allowed for a film that has plenty to say about all of that. (Available on VOD)
It’s telling that after about 15 years (post-Iron Man) of a wave of superhero movies that only increased in amount on a yearly basis, audiences seem to be at a breaking point regarding the genre. The films are not about to go away, but would-be events are not quite the guarantee they once were in terms of box office dominance. With all of that said, 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was a wild spark of life that caught audiences off guard. What could have amounted to an enjoyable enough animated take was, instead, an ambitious display of what it looks like when filmmakers find ways to break through barriers and deliver something unique. And then they made a sequel, and it’s my favorite film of the year.
Honestly, it’s of little surprise to have heard reports regarding the extremely difficult circumstances that came with the making of this film. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse looks like a film that is impossible to make. By that, I mean the spectacular visuals on display, the sense of fluidity in a movie that must balance so many different animation styles in a constant rush of layered sequences, and telling a fully realized and more mature story on top of all that suggests a ridiculous amount of hard work. And yet, directors Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, and Justin K. Thompson led a project that truly delivers, with so much talent behind them, to hit every mark.
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is just everything to me. It’s an incredible sequel that matches, if not surpasses, the first by delving even further into the limitless possibilities that come with animation. Beyond just being an excuse to delve into comic lore and find excuses for action, there’s a nuanced story commenting on fan culture, the growth into adulthood, a continued exploration of various culture clashes, and it’s all happening through the eyes of a character who, frankly, looks like me. Bursting with life, color, and wit, Across the Spider-Verse is a boundary-defying feature that looks incredible, provides so much entertainment, and relies on proper emotional stakes, putting it toe-to-toe with whatever else I would consider the “best” of the superhero genre. It is a blast to watch, and seeing so much imagination on display shows how much fun it is to see so many do whatever a spider can and so much more. (Available on VOD/Netflix)
So ends my list of favorite films of 2023. Lots of excellent cinema out there, and whether I saw movies in the theater or at home, I once again enjoyed the variety of new releases that found their way onto my list. I hope more discover plenty of films to enjoy as well. Be sure to look at some of the other recent lists I’ve put together, including my picks for the best “New to Me” films of the year and my upcoming favorite movie scenes of 2023. Additionally, feel free to hear more of my thoughts on the year’s releases, along with many others, via the podcast I’ve co-hosted for over a decade with my pal Abe. Coming soon will also be a list of my most anticipated films of 2024. As this is just one aspect of looking back at the year of films that I quite enjoy, I look forward to another year of movie watching, with much anticipation for further ambition I’m bound to see.