Top 10 Films of 2023
What follows are Nathan’s picks of the best films of 2023.
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Premise: Based on true events. J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) leads the development of the atomic bomb and is later slandered as a communist.
What Works: Biographical and historical films are a mainstay of Hollywood especially their prestige awards contenders and nearly all of those pictures are rooted in the great man view of history. Oppenheimer fits into that mold and yet subverts it. So many of these sorts of biographical films are about a guy whose determination and vision changed the world. J. Robert Oppenheimer did exactly that but the nature of his discoveries and inventions brought about the real possibility of wiping out civilization. Christopher Nolan’s film is not a hagiography and Oppenheimer offers a layered and complicated portrait of the man and the way in which he shaped his era and how the era shaped him. That idea is embedded into the very making of the film. Oppenheimer is remarkably well crafted. Nolan is a skilled filmmaker but Oppenheimer exceeds anything he’s done before in its combination of ambition and control. Despite running three hours Oppenheimer has remarkable storytelling economy. The organization and pacing are deliberate, drawing connections between the past and the present in a way that reveals larger themes of the title character’s life. Atomic imagery is found throughout the picture in ways that suggest both the microscopic and the cosmic with Oppenheimer and the events of his life linking the two together. As much as the film is about the intersection of politics and science, Oppenheimer is more fundamentally about assessing the value of an individual’s life against the scale of history and time. It’s a thoughtful and profound examination of a man’s legacy that simultaneously captures the smallness of our individual existence and the depth of our consciousness. That tension and the revelations it contains paired with the film’s considerable craftsmanship make Oppenheimer the best film of 2023.
2. Poor Things
Directed by: Yorgos Lanthimos
Premise: An infant’s brain is implanted into the body of her recently deceased mother. As her mind develops she interrogates gender roles and her mother’s background.
Why It Made the List: Barbie was the most successful film of 2023 and it was the year’s cultural touchstone. While there is a lot to admire about Barbie, it was surpassed in virtually every way by Poor Things, a fantasy dramatizing a woman coming to terms with her existence. Poor Things primarily explores the female experience but its implications reach further than that. It entertains the mind-body problem and how sexuality, gender roles, and the biological fact of our bodies shape who we are, the relationships we have, and the opportunities available to us. Poor Things reveals the pliability and possibility of life if we have the courage to indulge it. This woman’s behavior is often outrageous or unsocial but the genius of Poor Things is the way her deviant behavior exposes the irrational rules or stupid expectations that we otherwise take for granted. Poor Things is led by Emma Stone’s fearless performance. The rest of the cast is exceptional as well, namely Willem Defoe and Mark Ruffalo. The success of Poor Things is astonishing; it could easily have been ridiculous or obnoxious if not for the commitment and cohesion of everyone involved. Everything in Poor Things works in synchronicity including the actors, the cinematography, the set design, and the music. In addition to its craftsmanship, what pulls Poor Things together is its humanity. Despite how arch the movie frequently is, Poor Things is also very human. The fantasy is built on a sincere and heartfelt human center. This film is wacky and lewd but the style and humor bely compassion and intelligence.
Directed by: Cord Jefferson
Premise: Based on the novel Erasure by Percival Everett. A Black novelist (Jeffrey Wright) is frustrated with the stories of poverty and crime that define Black culture so he writes a satire that is taken literally. At the same time his mother (Leslie Uggams) struggles with dementia.
Why It Made the List: American Fiction is one of the boldest, smartest, and funniest films of 2023. It’s primarily a satirical response to bleak visions of Black life and it skewers the pornography of victimhood while also critiquing the cultural and literary establishment that acts as arbiters of good taste and high culture. This aspect of American Fiction is wickedly funny and razor sharp. The satire is paired with a family drama in which the author copes with his mother’s health woes and begins a promising romantic relationship. The juxtaposition of the satirical and dramatic stories offers differing perspectives of what defines or ought to define Black life in America. It also allows the filmmakers to surreptitiously present the kind of nuanced story of love and compassion and identity that its author wants to share with his audience but is prevented by the demands of the market. That is one of the extraordinary things about American Fiction. The filmmakers critique the tastemakers and the academics but they also have ire for the audience who turn exploitative stories and regressive caricatures into blockbusters and bestsellers. In short, the target is us. And yet, American Fiction is never alienating. The humor of the satire and the compassion of the family drama and the crisis of the author temper the film. Monk, played brilliantly by Jeffrey Wright, is caught in a bind of double consciousness and the exploration of that tension goes beyond satire or domestic drama. American Fiction reveals the capacity of storytelling to define our sense of possibility.
4. Past Lives
Directed by: Celine Song
Premise: Nora and Hae Sung were close friends as children in South Korea until Nora’s family emigrated to the United States. As adults, Nora and Hae Sung reconnect and try to reconcile their relationship.
Why It Made the List: Movie romances have struggled in recent years, in part because of the trivial manner in which Hollywood has dealt with love. Too often romance is presented as a game and love is a cheap MacGuffin. Past Lives deals with love in a mature way. Reworking the love triangle cliché, filmmaker Celine Song designs something much more subtle and complicated. Past Lives is about the depth of human relationships and how timing can shape our connections and choices. What’s at stake isn’t really romantic love but rather the possibilities of different life paths and the profound connections between people that may exist outside of a romantic relationship. Past Lives never spells any of this out but it’s readily evident in the way the filmmakers use framing to reveal the subtext of scenes. The performances of Past Lives are keyed into the movie’s tone. The three lead characters are full of anxiety but everything is appropriately understated with the tension lingering in the pauses and beneath the dialogue. This is also an example of using large temporal gaps effectively. The narrative jumps forward in time in ways that place disparate events next to one another, carrying forward the emotional baggage of these people’s past relationships while telling the story succinctly and efficiently. This is an excellent example of accomplishing more with less. Past Lives gets beyond the romantic formulas and digs into the real and complicated nature of love and relationships without resorting to melodrama. Past Lives offers new possibilities of what cinema romance can be.
Directed by: Zachary Wigon
Premise: The scion of a business empire (Christopher Abbott) attempts to end his relationship with a dominatrix (Margaret Qualley). A game of manipulation ensues between them.
Why It Made the List: Films don’t have to go big to be great works of cinema. Sometimes the most interesting films are confined to a single location with a few actors and that limitation can force the filmmakers to explore the creative possibilities. Such is the case with Sanctuary in which an evening between a dominatrix and her sub becomes a complex power struggle that has all sorts of implications, some of them expressions of economics and social class and others primal inferences about relationships between men and women. The conflict between these two people isn’t just a matter of simple hierarchical power; their relationship is really one of codependence with each person assuming a dominant or subordinate position—or dominating from a subordinate position in some cases—because these characters need each other. Sanctuary dramatizes the layers of this relationship in a way that is eminently watchable and continually surprising. That’s partly due to the sharp writing and game performances by Christopher Abbott and Margaret Qualley. Sanctuary plays like a dance number with the actors allowing each other to lead the scene as appropriate while drawing out the subtext. The shifts in tone and power are embedded into the filmmaking especially the use of color and the framing and blocking of the action. Sanctuary may not suggest equality in a bland, human resources approved fashion but it does act out truths about human relationships in ways that possesses sexiness and humanity and even a romantic sweetness. It’s a fascinating film that is intellectually stimulating and extremely entertaining.
Directed by: Alexander Payne
Premise: Set in 1970, a prep school student (Dominic Sessa), a cantankerous humanities instructor (Paul Giamatti), and a grieving school cook (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) spend the holidays together.
Why It Made the List: The Holdovers is a funny movie but one that has us laughing through our tears. Holiday-set pictures tend to be schmaltzy and lay on the emotional appeals very thick. The Holdovers does not do that and yet it is far more affecting than most holiday-themed pictures. It vacillates between comedy and drama and the two qualities support one another. This is a story about loneliness and connection; the three lead characters are adrift at the time of year when everyone and everything points toward returning home. These three people don’t have a home to return to and The Holdovers invokes the melancholy and isolation that so many people experience during the holiday season and presents it in a visceral way. The snowy landscape and the empty hallways are baren and chilly but later scenes warm up through subtle changes to the lighting and color scheme, giving The Holdovers a sense of emotional movement from one end to the other. The central performances have a similar trajectory. Paul Giamatti gives one of his best performances as an intensely intellectual humanities instructor who is great with books but not so good with people. He gets many of the film’s best lines and Giamatti nails the delivery. Dominic Sessa plays a student who has been left behind for the holidays and Sessa brings depth to the teenage angst while Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s cook possesses a quiet dignity as she struggles with grief. Watching these three characters come together is heartwarming but in a way that feels authentic and earned.
Directed by: Takashi Yamazaki
Premise: A remake of the original 1954 film. At the end of World War II, a Japanese pilot (Ryunosuke Kamiki) returns home feeling disgraced. After rebuilding his life, Japan is attacked by the giant radioactive monster known as Godzilla.
Why It Made the List: Just shy of the seventieth anniversary of the original Godzilla, filmmaker Takashi Yamazaki reimagined the legendary monster movie in a way that exceeded all expectations. Godzilla originated as a metaphor of Japan’s guilt and trauma over World War II and Godzilla Minus One is grounded in that concept. We’ve seen so many remakes and soft reboots over the years and Godzilla Minus One is a prime example of how to revisit familiar material. The new movie honors the past while deepening the themes. The music makes effective use of the themes established by Akira Ifukube for the original Godzilla and the story returns to the original picture’s themes of trauma, making Godzilla scary in a way that the monster hasn’t been in decades. The story centers on a former kamikaze pilot who did not fulfill his duty and it is a testament to the success of Godzilla Minus One that it could pass as a satisfying postwar drama without the radioactive monster. The human drama is that involving and the characters are that empathetic. This is still a Godzilla film and Minus One has the requisite kaiju thrills. But those thrills are tempered by an understanding of the human cost of the devastation on screen. That distinguishes Godzilla Minus One from other kaiju and spectacle films. A lot of action and sci-fi movies extol the virtues of self-sacrifice and make a show of mass destruction. Godzilla Minus One is ultimately a life affirming picture about survival and leading a worthwhile life and it does so without feeling hokey or forced.
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Premise: Based on true events documented in the book by David Grann. In 1920s Oklahoma, Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) is employed by his uncle William Hale (Robert De Niro) who works closely with the Osage people as they are murdered in the midst of an oil boom.
Why It Made the List: Martin Scorsese is widely recognized as one of the great filmmakers and so it’s easy to take for granted the incredible streak of feature films he’s directed in the late period of his career including Hugo, The Wolf of Wall Street, Silence, The Irishman, and now Killers of the Flower Moon. Scorsese’s 2023 effort is among his best dramatic features and one of his most ambitious. The criminal conspiracy is handled deftly and in spite of its length, Killers of the Flower Moon is lean storytelling while allowing for a great deal of texture and period detail.Killers of the Flower Moon is a complex tragedy of a man increasingly entangled in a criminal scheme and the people he hurts in the process. The filmmakers and the actors do not play these murderers as mustache twirling villains. The performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro are so chilling precisely because these men and their criminal plots are so dumb and banal. Through them, Killers of the Flower Moon makes its audience see racism and genocide not as a malevolent other but as a familiar neighbor. Lily Gladstone’s performance is a showcase in subtlety. She doesn’t emote in an ostentatious way but the details of Gladstone’s performance betray heartbreak and dignity. The historical context and the triangular relationship between the three leads elevates Killers of the Flower Moon above an average crime drama or a period piece. It reveals the humanity of this unfortunate history in a way that makes it relevant to the present.
Directed by: Chad Stahelski
Premise: John Wick (Keanu Reeves) hunts the leadership of the Table, the organization that oversees the assassination industry. In response, The Table empowers The Marquis (Bill Skarsgård) to stop Wick.
Why It Made the List: For about a decade we’ve been treated to a renaissance in action filmmaking which was kicked off by the release of the original John Wick. Each subsequent installment in this series has elevated the craftsmanship and expanded the scope. John Wick: Chapter 4 brings that trajectory to a crescendo. It combines the darkness and grittiness of the original film with the more colorful style of the second and third pictures, merging those qualities in an extraordinary show of action moviemaking infused with pathos. John Wick is a man trapped in a cycle of violence; he wants to get out of a life of death but he keeps drifting back into his old patterns. After two sequels that strung together run-and-shoot scenarios, John Wick: Chapter 4 finally breaks that cycle. The character faces the destruction he has wrought and sets on a path to regain the peace that was taken from him in the opening of the original picture. Along the way the filmmakers concoct some extraordinary action set pieces and the last forty minutes rank among the best moviemaking in the action genre. But the fights and shootouts of John Wick: Chapter 4 convey character and possess dramatic impact that elevates this picture above just another gun movie. This is extraordinary filmmaking that sits alongside Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and The Bourne Ultimatum and 2008’s Rambo among the great concluding chapters to an action movie series. Hopefully the John Wick filmmakers learned from those pictures and leave well enough alone.
Directed by: Kelly Fremon Craig
Premise: An adaptation of the book by Judy Blume. Eleven year old Margaret (Abby Ryder Fortson) and her family move from New York City to the New Jersey suburbs. She makes new friends and experiences anxiety about adolescence and religion.
Why It Made the List: It’s easy to miss what is so exceptional about Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Coming of age tales are nothing new and many of the core elements of Judy Blume’s story have been replicated in countless films and books and television shows. The difference is in the details. A lot of these stories have tended to be superficial with their emphasis on boys and social status and complicated friendships. All of that’s in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret but the film has a soulfulness absent in similar stories. Religious questions occur alongside the preteen drama and together they make for a story of a girl figuring out what kind of person she’s going to be. The filmmakers avoid easy answers and the picture does not idealize childhood nor are the characters precocious. Margaret, played terrifically by Abby Ryder Fortson, is authentically eleven years old; allowing Margaret and her friends to be kids—not some Hollywood version of youth—makes this film authentic and truthful. The major innovation of this adaptation is the way it brings forward Margaret’s mother, played by Rachel McAdams. Just as it doesn’t idealize childhood, this film does not idealize parenthood either. The parallels between mother and daughter bring the characters and the story together. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is not cynical but it is honest. That honesty is exactly why Blume’s book has been so beloved for so long and that’s reflected in the care with which this movie has been made.
What follows are films that were either runners up to the Top 10 list or other pictures that came out in 2023 that are worth mentioning.
After the Bite – A thoughtful documentary about our relationship with nature via the aftermath of a fatal shark attack in Massachusetts.
Anatomy of a Fall – This courtroom drama had a lot going on just underneath its surface conveyed through smart storytelling and exceptional performances.
The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster – A fun riff on Frankenstein.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe – An impressive gay romance and coming of age story.
Barbie – Greta Gerwig’s film was the most popular film of 2023. It’s a flawed film but there is a lot to admire about it including the humor, the production design, and Ryan Gosling’s performance.
The Covenant – This Afghanistan war drama was a bit of wish fulfillment but it was tense and gripping with interesting characters.
Creed III – Michael B. Jordan’s directorial debut was a well made addition to the series that finally broke away from transposing elements from the Rocky films.
Dream Scenario – An underappreciated film featuring a unique blend of fantasy and comedy that left us with a lot to think about afterward.
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves – Some of the most fun at the movies in 2023.
Golda – A drama of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir leading her country through the Yom Kippur War. Discussing this film is somewhat fraught in the present political climate but evaluating the film on its merits, Golda is a thoughtful and well-made drama about political leadership.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 – This presumably final chapter solidified Guardians of the Galaxy as the best series within the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
A Haunting in Venice – The best film in Kenneth Branagh’s Hercule Poirot trilogy.
How to Blow Up a Pipeline – A tense political thriller.
The Iron Claw – Set in the professional wrestling scene in the late 1970s, The Iron Claw mixed the grittiness of a sports film with a sense of pathos and tragedy.
Joy Ride – This one-crazy-weekend road trip was one of the funniest films of 2023.
The Mission – The life and untimely death of John Chau made for a thought-provoking look at the ethics of missionary work.
Rye Lane – A very satisfying love story elevated by its performances and cinematic style.
Skinamarink – Not a movie for everyone but Skinamarink is the ultimate example of doing more with less.
Talk to Me – One of the scariest horror films of 2023 and one of the most fun.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem – An anarchic romp that had a genuinely adolescent feel for its teenage mutant characters.
When Evil Lurks – This especially bleak horror picture mixed a contagion thriller with a demonic possession film in a distressing tale of people confronting the existence of evil.
Good Buzz List
These are films that were released in 2023 and have strong word of mouth, and in some cases award nominations, but Nathan was unable to see them in time for the year end summary.
All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt – An arthouse film about a Black woman growing up in Mississippi. The film was praised by several critics groups including the Sundance Film Festival and the Independent Spirit Awards. First time feature filmmaker Raven Jackson was hailed as a promising director.
American Symphony – A documentary about music composer Jon Batiste who writes a symphony while his partner, author Suleika Jaouad, discovers she has cancer. American Symphony was recognized at numerous film festivals and was praised for its music.
BlackBerry – A fictionalized drama about the creation of the BlackBerry mobile phone device. The film got very positive reviews and the Toronto International Film Festival listed BlackBerry among Canada’s top ten films of 2023.
How to Have Sex – This coming-of-age tale won the Un Certain Regard prize at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival and it was nominated for Outstanding British Film of the Year at the BAFTA Awards. Actress Mia McKenna-Bruce’s performance was acclaimed at several award ceremonies.
Saint Omer – A French film about a Senegalese immigrant on trial for infanticide. Saint Omer was released in the United States in early 2023 and it won the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival.
Society of the Snow – Directed by J.A. Bayona, Society of the Snow dramatized the plight of a rugby team whose plane crashed in the Andes mountain range in 1972. The film was recognized by numerous critics groups and actor Matías Recalt was singled out for praise.
The Teacher’s Lounge – A German film about a teacher who attempts to solve a series of thefts at her school. The film was won Outstanding Feature Film at the German Film Awards and it was nominated for the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film.
To Kill a Tiger – A documentary about a family in India searching for justice after their daughter was sexually assaulted. The Canadian Screen Awards named To Kill a Tiger the Best Feature Length Documentary and it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
Zone of Interest – A widely praised Holocaust drama directed by Jonathan Glazer. The film was nominated for several Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay and won the Grand Prix award at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival.
This is a list of some of the great performances in 2023 although not all of them were in great movies.
Air – Matt Damon’s passionate performance carried this movie. Chris Messina was deliciously mean in a supporting role as Michael Jordan’s agent David Falk.
American Fiction – Jeffrey Wright was great in this satire.
Anatomy of a Fall – Sandra Hüller was quite good in the role of a woman charged with murder as was Milo Machado Graner as her son.
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret – Altogether a terrific cast with critical contributions by Abby Ryder Fortson, Rachel McAdams, and Kathy Bates.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe – The love story worked because of the performances by Max Pelayo and Reese Gonzales in the title roles and the film achieved extra depth through the contributions of Veronica Falcón, Eugenio Derbez, Eva Longoria, and Kevin Alejandro as their parents.
Barbie – The performances by Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling were essential to the success of this film.
Beau is Afraid – Not a successful picture but Joaquin Phoenix committed to a demanding role.
The Color Purple – The musical adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel had a strong overall cast including Fantasia Barrino, Danielle Brooks, Taraji P. Henson, and Colman Domingo.
Dream Scenario – Nicolas Cage gave one of the best performances of his career in this surreal black comedy.
Eileen – Anne Hathaway and Thomasin McKenzie crackled in this noir thriller.
Ferrari – Adam Driver and Penélope Cruz inhabited a convincingly tempestuous marriage as Enzo and Laura Ferrari.
A Good Person – Florence Pugh’s performance was underappreciated.
Golda – Helen Mirren was convincing as former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, bringing a mix of toughness and vulnerability to the role.
Gran Turismo – David Harbour was a lot of fun to watch as the cantankerous racing coach.
The Holdovers – Paul Giamatti, Dominic Sessa, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph were excellent in this film.
How to Blow Up a Pipeline – The whole cast was impressive, with everyone creating distinct characters.
The Iron Claw – Zac Efron was a revelation in this movie as Kevin Von Erich. Jeremy Allen White and Harris Dickinson were also impressive as Kerry and David Von Erich, respectively, and Holt McCallany was fearsome as their father Fritz.
Joy Ride – Sabrina Wu, Stephanie Hsu, Ashley Park, and Sherry Cola were very funny and game for the film’s outrageousness.
Killers of the Flower Moon – Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, and Lily Gladstone were excellent in this period crime drama.
The Machine – One of the pleasant surprises of 2023 was comedian Bert Kreischer playing a fictionalized version of himself alongside Mark Hamill as his father. Iva Babic was also very funny while also demonstrating action movie bona fides.
Maestro – Carey Mulligan’s performance as Felicia Montealegre was the highlight of this film.
Master Gardener –Joel Edgerton and Quintessa Swindell had a simmering danger about their characters in Paul Schrader’s film.
Mending the Line – Brian Cox, Wes Studi, and Sinqua Walls gave nuanced portraits of masculinity in this PTSD drama.
Napoleon – Joaquin Phoenix had the title role but Vanessa Kirby gave the outstanding performance.
Nyad – Annette Bening and Jodie Foster were a great on-screen pair as competitive swimmer Diana Nyad and her friend and coach Bonnie Stoll, respectively.
Oppenheimer – Cillian Murphy was perfectly cast in the title role and Robert Downey Jr. reminded everyone of how good an actor he is while Emily Blunt and Florence Pugh turned their characters into more than just love interests.
Passages – Franz Rogowski threw himself into a challenging role and committed to a difficult character.
Past Lives – The performances by Greta Lee and Teo Yoo and John Magaro were delicate and layered, revealing so much with so little.
Poor Things – Emma Stone was fearless and the movie largely hinges on her performance. Mark Ruffalo and Willem Dafoe were also critical to the movie’s success and delivered the witty dialogue very well.
Pricilla – Cailee Spaeny and Jacob Elordi transformed into Pricilla and Elvis Presley.
Reality – Sydney Sweeney impressed as former American intelligence specialist Reality Winner.
Rustin – Colman Domingo starred Bayard Rustin, the architect of the 1963 March on Washington.
Rye Lane – This romance succeeded in large part due to the performances by David Jonsson and Vivian Oparah.
Sanctuary – Christopher Abbott and Margaret Qualley were well paired as the scion of a business empire and a dominatrix.
Sound of Freedom – Bill Camp impressed in a supporting role.
Theater Camp – The whole cast was stellar with standout performances by Molly Gordon, Ben Platt, Ayo Edebiri, and Jimmy Tatro.
Bottom 10 Films of 2023
Directed by: Robert Rodriguez
Premise: A police detective (Ben Affleck) investigates a hypnotist (William Fichtner) at the center of a string of bank robberies and discovers that this man might have knowledge of the detective’s missing daughter.
Why It Made the List: When moviegoers put themselves through the trouble and expense of going to the theater we ought to be able to expect a certain amount of competence. This is doubly true of movies made by experienced filmmakers with a cast of recognizable actors. That’s precisely what is so galling about Hypnotic. This picture was produced by people with decades of moviemaking experience and yet it is utterly incompetent in even the most basic elements of filmmaking. It’s an ugly movie with every shot looking as though it was siphoned through an Instagram filter. The action sequences lack any visual excitement or cohesion. The normally impressive cast, including Ben Affleck, William Fichtner, and Alice Braga, phone in their performances. The plot is a disaster that doesn’t even make internal sense. This is an example of filmmakers trying to outsmart the audience and making something really stupid instead. It is as though a direct to video action picture from the 1990s somehow ended up at the local theater but it’s worse than that. This is lazy craftsmanship from people who ought to know better and that makes Hypnotic the worst film of 2023.
Directed by: Dexter Fletcher
Premise: A recently single man (Chris Evans) falls in love with a mysterious woman (Ana de Armas) who is new to his rural town. He travels to Europe to surprise her on a work trip only to discover she is a CIA agent.
Why It Made the List: Ghosted occupies a limbo between parody and straightforward action filmmaking but it doesn’t work as either. The love story is never convincing and the action has no tension or stakes. The filmmakers grasp for humor and thrills but they never commit to anything. It’s as though no one involved actually wanted to make this movie. Ghosted’s jaded self-awareness betrays its maker’s knowledge that their movie is slop. Instead of making a better film they turn up the sarcasm and hope we’ll all mistake laziness for irony.
Directed by: Scott Waugh
Premise: The team of mercenaries pursue a terrorist who has come into possession of nuclear weapons.
Why It Made the List: The Expendables series has historically underdelivered but in its fourth iteration the filmmakers lose sight of the gimmick that made this series interesting in the first place. What began as a throwback to action pictures of the 1980s and 90s is now just a generic slog. This film brings together Jason Statham and Iko Uwais in a climactic fight scene that is so badly shot and edited that anybody could be playing those roles. That’s topped by a last-minute reveal undoing the picture’s one interesting storytelling choice.
Directed by: Chris Buck and Fawn Veerasunthorn
Premise: Set in a magical kingdom, the sorcerer king (voice of Chris Pine) hordes the wishes and dreams of his people to enrich his own power. A young woman (voice of Ariana DeBose) teams with a rogue wishing star to set the people’s hopes free.
Why It Made the List: Wish was released to coincide with the Walt Disney Company’s centennial but instead of a victory lap for the studio Wish is the apotheosis of everything wrong with Disney’s film and television efforts. The company has spent about a decade stoking the audience’s nostalgia by creating inferior versions of beloved properties. Wish plays like a cheap, direct-to-video knockoff of their classic productions. It’s a corporate demo reel passing as a motion picture and the film’s lazy cynicism places Wish among the worst of Disney’s animated features.
5. Three Way Tie: Shazam! Fury of the Gods / Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom / Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania
Directed by: David F. Sandberg / James Wan / Peyton Reed
Premise: Sequels in each of their respective franchises.
Why It Made the List: 2023 may be the year the superheroes died. These movies have dominated the box office and the culture for over a decade and a half. It was inevitable that the genre would fade at some point but the failure of so many 2023 releases isn’t just a matter of changing tastes. Coasting on their previous successes, Marvel and DC got lazy and churned out mediocre films with incoherent stories and sloppy visual effects. These superhero films are the essence of corporate largess, pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into attempts to turn lead into gold.
Directed by: Tom Harper
Premise: Rachel Stone (Gal Gadot) is part of an ultra-clandestine organization of rogue superspies known as The Charter. Stone uncovers a plot by a terrorist group to steal a powerful computer hacking program.
Why It Made the List: Heart of Stone attempts to launch an action movie franchise without any of the qualities that would make viewers want to keep watching. The few interesting characters are squandered and the plot is a checklist of cyberthriller clichés. Heart of Stone is also a particularly pernicious example of how action filmmaking has normalized terrorism. There’s nothing differentiating the heroes from the villains. Everyone in Heart of Stone is a terrorist but this movie is too dumb to recognize its own moral complications.
Directed by: Jason Moore
Premise: A wealthy couple (Jennifer Lopez and Josh Duhamel) and their families gather on an island in the Philippines for a destination wedding. When pirates storm the wedding and take hostages it’s up to the couple to save the day.
Why It Made the List: Shotgun Wedding was a disaster even by the meager standards of a Jennifer Lopez wedding movie. This is a comedy about a wedding party held captive at gun point but the filmmakers never make it funny or create tension. The villains want the father of the bride to pay a ransom and he refuses only because if he did pay it the movie would be over. Jennifer Lopez and Josh Duhamel have no romantic chemistry and both the bride and groom are dumb and self-centered.
Directed by: Emerald Fennell
Premise: A working class Oxford freshman (Barry Keoghan) befriends a wealthy popular student (Jacob Elordi). He accompanies his aristocratic friend to the family castle for school break where he meets the wealthy family.
Why It Made the List: Saltburn plays as though its makers saw 2019’s Parasite and completely misunderstood it. The movie is positioned as a satire but that would require it to have a point of view. The filmmakers have nothing to say. Saltburn acknowledges economic inequality and elite decadence but the parts don’t fit together. The outrageous content is a distraction from the vacuity at the film’s center. It contains nothing truly dangerous or meaningfully transgressive. Saltburn is a desperate attempt to shock the audience and it’s too dumb to be subversive.
9. Love Again
Directed by: Jim Strouse
Premise: A woman (Priyanka Chopra Jonas) who lost her fiancé to a car accident starts sending texts to his cell phone not realizing the number has been reassigned to a journalist’s (Sam Heughan) work phone. He tracks her down and the two of them fall in love.
Why It Made the List: Genre movies, and especially romantic comedies, tend to adhere to a familiar narrative structure but even allowing for that, Love Again is less a story than a checklist of clichés. No one acts like a recognizable human being; their behavior is contorted to fit the preexisting requirements of the formula and the results are continually stupid and cringe inducing. Celine Dion is here playing herself and Dion’s presence reveals the artificiality of the film itself. Love Again isn’t really a movie but a commercial for Dion’s music.
10. Fool’s Paradise
Directed by: Charlie Day
Premise: An idiot (Charlie Day) accidentally becomes a celebrity and drifts through Hollywood, gaining and losing fame.
Why It Made the List: Hollywood loves making movies about itself but the industry is rarely any good at it. Fool’s Paradise is an attempt to make a Charlie Chaplin film by way of Bowfinger and Being There and the movie is a disaster. One cameo follows another in a farce that has less insight into the entertainment industry than an episode of Entourage and Fool’s Paradise feels like it’s of a different filmmaking era. This alleged comedy is not funny at all and its shrill tone is frequently repellent.
Trends of 2023
Stories about the Female Experience
A number of movies of 2023 centered women’s perspectives especially through coming of age stories.
How to Have Sex
Quite a few sports related movies were released in 2023. Basketball was a popular topic although plenty of other sports were represented as well.
80 for Brady
The Boys in the Boat
The Deepest Breath
The First Slam Dunk
Next Goal Wins
A number of action films were released in 2023, many of them throwbacks to the shoot-’em-up films of the 1980s.
Blood and Gold
2023 included a number of impressive horror films that showcased a variety of tones and subject matter.
Among the many horror films of 2023 were quite a few movies about demonic possession.
Mediocre Franchise Films
For at least a decade Hollywood has been all in on creating new franchises or rebooting old ones. That strategy fell on its face in 2023 with many of these films expense flops.
Quite a few films centered their stories around office work. Quite a few dramatized bringing a product to market.
Dicks: The Musical
The year included the release of several GLBTQ themed stories and many of them got beyond the victim narratives and stereotypes to provide stories of characters with complex identities.
All of Us Strangers