As we slide into the end of 2023 and I put the finishing touches on this list, let me spill the tea—trying to piece together the movie vibes of the year was like trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube blindfolded. Maybe 2023 just wanted to be the ultimate plot twist with stories going in all directions. Hollywood was doing its thing, but we’re wrapping up with only half the movies of 2019 (and 70% of that year’s cash grab).
And check it, all that noise about superhero burnout? Well, turns out they were flexing some serious muscles. The Barbenheimer buzz made it seem like movies were on every street corner, but 2023 was also doing a disappearing act—movie joints closing, big shots delaying their blockbuster moves, and writers and actors trading red carpets for picket lines instead of pimping their flicks. There was a vibe of excitement about movies, but also a touch of legit dread, and as many unexpected delights as there were overhyped letdowns. You know, the rollercoaster of the best times and the “are you kidding me?” times.
The latter was encapsulated by the ever increasing “superhero fatigue” chatter, as Marvel and DC threw one blockbuster after another into the box office blender, and let’s just say the results left a decidedly rancid taste in the mouth.
Now, when it comes to what was actually flickering on the screen, a few trends jumped out. Evil got boring, wives took the spotlight, and let’s just say, there were more penises than a stand-up comedy show. Biopics went off the beaten path, brand ads were playing hide and seek in plain sight, and love stories with an age twist were doing their thing.
Didn’t catch every flick this year—my bad to the ones I missed. But the ones I did catch? Emotions were all over the place. Like they say, “heartbreak feels good in a place like this.” Heck, I even caught some genuine excitement for the art form. Cheers to that!
Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One
Tom Cruise, the dude who’d probably juggle flaming chainsaws if it meant giving us a good time, hits peak wildness in the seventh round of the always kick-ass “Mission: Impossible” flicks. Picture this: he’s sprinting, freefalling, racing, and even rocking a horse like he’s auditioning for the action Olympics. Oh, and did I mention he’s doing all this while handcuffed to the frazzled Hayley Atwell, the fresh face in the franchise? Shoutout to the puppet master Christopher McQuarrie pulling the strings on this insanity.
Alexander Payne’s comedy-drama at a boys’ boarding school is like a warm asbestos blanket—cozy on the surface but sneakily toxic. Paul Giamatti, a unique acting force, plays a history teacher stuck in the past. Da’Vine Joy Randolph, the stellar cook, is stuck in grief, and Dominic Sessa is the troubled teen barreling toward an uncertain future. The film’s low-key vibe, rocking a ’70s aesthetic, is all about those quiet moments, just like Giamatti’s character clinging to yesteryear. Even nods to the Vietnam War feel like retro references. Despite the time warp, Payne’s magic lies in showcasing growth through human flaws, making this one of his top films.
The Boy and the Heron
Hayao Miyazaki works his magic again, stuffing a movie about a hidden kingdom of quirky, hungry bird people with a mix of mourning, self-doubt, resentment, and hope. Sure, “The Boy and the Heron” throws in World War II Japan, a pregnant aunt-stepmom combo, a grumpy man/heron, and an ocean-dominated dreamland where cute spirits prep for life in our reality. But what really grabs you in Miyazaki’s latest epic (please, not his last) is how the magical stuff is an emotional rollercoaster for 12-year-old Mahito. His granduncle, a wizard in his own right, checked out from reality to create this enchanting but shaky alternate world, and he needs someone “free of malice” to take charge. This film is all about embracing loss while recognizing you’re part of this world, with all its cracks and potential.
So, Hollywood’s no stranger to turning wild true tales into blockbuster gold, right? But hold onto your hats, ’cause director Elizabeth Banks and the dynamic duo producers Chris Miller and Phil Lord are taking “Cocaine Bear” on a joyride, giving it the full B-movie treatment it absolutely deserves.
These maestros of madness are diving into the absurd so hard; they might just have birthed a whole new horror genre with this one.
In Yorgos Lanthimos’ mind-bending sci-fi comedy, experimental scientist Willem Dafoe pulls a mad scientist move, resurrecting Emma Stone in a way that’s not your typical snooze-fest. It’s like a fantastical rollercoaster exploring the quirky corners of society.
Picture a modern-day “Edward Scissorhands,” but Emma Stone’s Bella Baxter is a wild mix of physical and emotional. She’s like a giant babydoll stumbling through the world with wide-eyed awe, soaking up the wonders and horrors like a kid in a candy store. And let me tell you, every second is a pure delight. Enter Mark Ruffalo, playing a cocky lover way out of his league with the newbie Bella. The dance sequence between them is just one of the film’s many highlights. Buckle up for this wild ride.
Killers of the Flower Moon
Witnessing Lily Gladstone’s performance in Martin Scorsese’s ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ is like rediscovering a forgotten strand of history that’s slipped through the cracks until now. Scorsese crafts a poignant, poetic adaptation of David Grann’s book, unraveling the grim saga of how a bunch of greedy dudes systematically targeted and murdered Osage Nation members in 1920s Oklahoma. Playing Mollie Burkhart, a wealthy Osage woman witnessing her family’s gradual demise, Gladstone becomes the face of countless stories brushed aside in modern America. While Scorsese’s epic boasts bigger names like Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro, it’s Gladstone’s Mollie who’s the beating heart of the film, and Scorsese knows it.
Society of the Snow
“Society of the Snow” is a Spanish gem already gunning for that Oscar nod in the Best International Feature category. The captain of this cinematic ship is no stranger to survival dramas, having rocked our world back in 2012 with ‘The Impossible,’ a jaw-dropping portrayal of the 2004 Indonesian tsunami. Now, fasten your seatbelts because this new adventure kicks off when a Montevideo to Santiago flight, carrying a rugby team and more, oops-a-daisy crashes into the mountains of Western Argentina.
Our director, Bayona, isn’t just playing around. He not only nails the crash sequence but dives deep into the perils faced by the survivors. Mixing on-location realness with studio magic, Bayona crafts a motion picture masterpiece that keeps you on the edge of your seat for a whopping 140+ minutes.
Kore-eda Hirokazu throws us into a web of intricacy and complexity in this family drama tackling bullying, homophobia, dysfunctional families, blind respect for flawed authority, and the dark side of social media rumors—all colliding to birth a monstrous tale of wrongness.
Unlike many, “Monster” doesn’t hinge on grand tragedy or aim to teach through the worst-case scenario. Instead, it dives deep into empathy without pandering, allowing for confusion and moral missteps that elevate it above the preachy pitfalls of typical social-issues films. Kore-eda is in top form, delivering one of 2023’s standout films—an intricate and revealing drama that spotlights the blind spots in our understanding of human behavior and empathy.
Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” is a cinematic giant, towering over 99.9% of the competition in both form and moral complexity. This three-hour biopic is a gripping conversation-driven narrative that unfolds like a thriller, with an eerie undercurrent of horror. Nolan’s exploration of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s character is a multi-layered exploration of ambition, ingenuity, regret, honor, and treachery. The performances, led by Cillian Murphy and Robert Downey, Jr., are career highlights, and the supporting cast—Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Florence Pugh, and Benny Safdie—deliver superb turns. From the halls of the University of California, Berkeley, to the desert landscapes of Los Alamos (home to the Trinity test), to a tense private interrogation room, Nolan’s historical drama is a breathtaking and exhilarating portrait of the father of the modern age.
Joint winners: Godzilla Minus One & Past Lives
As I racked my brains trying to determine my favorite movie of the year based on the shortlisting of two very different films, I just couldn’t decide which one had stirred my senses, penetrated my heart, and activated my ID in the most profound fashion. In the end, my conclusion was that both ‘Godzilla Minus One’ & ‘Past Lives’ deserved to sit on the throne—together.
For nearly seven decades, Godzilla, the OG of action movies, has been smashing cities and duking it out with monsters worldwide. Enter the latest Japanese creation, “Godzilla Minus One,” hailed as one of the greatest in the giant lizard’s legacy. In a rare feat, it’s not just a critical darling but also a box office triumph—a lesson Hollywood is already making note of. Crafted on a shockingly meager $15 million budget, with a straightforward plot and an unexpectedly complex, humane hero, this back-to-basics approach is making waves just as Hollywood’s superhero extravaganzas are losing steam.
Set in the aftermath of World War II, during a period when Japan lacked any self-defense force or armaments, the film delves into a hypothetical scenario: What if Godzilla struck Japan when it was completely disarmed? Without revealing too much, let’s just say this isn’t your run-of-the-mill monster flick. While Godzilla himself is both awe-inspiring and terrifying (thanks to stellar visual effects), the narrative delves into themes of post-traumatic devastation and the enduring, multi-generational horrors of the world’s first nuclear war. It’s a gripping, intense, horrifying, and heartfelt exploration of survivor’s guilt and trauma that mirrors the towering action sequences, leaving me teary-eyed by the conclusion. This is a ground breaking triumph that redefines the landscape of not just Japanese cinema, but world cinema as a whole.
Celine Song’s debut feature “Past Lives” is decidedly different beast from “Godzilla Minus One”, but it is equally powerful, albeit in a far more understated way. It created a mad buzz at Sundance with its romantic drama that spans decades and continents. This poignant and graceful narrative dives into the journeys of immigration and aging, focusing on the tale of two old friends, possibly lovers—Nora and Hae Sung. Beginning as childhood pals in Seoul, they are separated when Nora’s family relocates to Canada. “Past Lives” then beautifully traces their initially hesitant and later wholehearted reunion, reconciling the realities of their adult selves with nostalgically remembered youth.
“Past Lives” stands as more than just a film; it is a masterful exploration of the human experience, inviting viewers to reflect on their own journeys of transformation and the intricacies of the relationships that shape us. In its patient unraveling, the movie becomes a celebration of the timeless aspects of humanity and the ever-evolving nature of the human heart.
In a realm where the majority of media resorts to exaggeration to convey even a sliver of meaning, the pieces that skillfully direct our focus inward with profound and purposeful narratives stand out as truly commendable. I really can’t overstate how special “Past Lives” is.