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The Top 20 Films of 2023 (#10 – 1)

January 26, 2024 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
SPIDER-MAN: ACROSS THE SPIDER-VERSE Image Credit: Sony Pictures Animation

The Top 20 Films of 2023 (#10 – 1)

Welcome, one and all, to the second part of my Movies Year in Review for 2023! I’m your host Jeremy Thomas, and today we’ll concluding our look at the worst films of the past year. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You’re free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong but stating that an opinion is “wrong” is just silly. With that in mind, let’s get right into it!

On Tuesday, I kicked off my Top 20 Films of 2022 list with numbers 20 through 11. That part of the list was chock-full of wrestling dramas, horror films, and comedy. As we make our way into the Top 10, there’s still more of that to come (except wrestling dramas), but there’s also several period films, action epics, sweeping dramas and a little bit of animated excellence as well. I could keep going with the teasing, but enough of that: let’s just get to the list.

Caveat: My criteria for a film qualifying for this list is simple: if a narrative film had its domestic release this past year, either theatrically or on VOD or a major streaming service, then it was eligible. The only other caveat is that I have tried but have not seen everything that was released in 2023, especially factoring in streaming services. The films that I missed that could have likely qualified based on reputation were The Boy and the Heron, The Zone of Interest and All of Us Strangers. Other than that, I feel reasonably confident I would have seen just about every movie that would have likely made the list. For those curious, I saw a total of 218 films that were released in 2023 (up from last year’s 182).

Just Missing The Cut

Scream VI
American Fiction
No One Will Save You
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves

The First Ten

20: Cassandro
19: Alice, Darling
18: Past Lives
17: Evil Dead Rise
16: Barbie
15: Talk To Me
14: The Holdovers
13: Bottoms
12: Suzume
11: The Iron Claw

#10: When Evil Lurks

Image Credit: IFC Films/Shudder

No movie in 2023 just grabbed me by the throat and slammed me up against a wall like When Evil Lurks. Demián Rugna’s first directorial effort since 2017’s Terrified goes harder than any horror film of the year, taking absolutely no prisoners and giving none of its characters a pass. But it’s easy (by filmmaking standards) to make a movie that just revels in brutality; Rugna also makes it incredibly gripping. This film about two brothers trying to escape an outbreak of demonic possession manages to fit in some topical themes about the divide between rural populations and urban ones, not to mention the pandemic, without having to beat us over the head with it.

Perhaps the most impressive part of When Evil Lurks is that as vicious as it is, it never feels gratuitous. There’s no shortage of gore or breathtaking violence, but it’s done in way that is there only to advance the horror and never just to be gross. There are at least three jaw-dropping moments, but they work wonderfully within the context of the film to show how bleak and heartless that world is. Throw in the novel notion of how demonic possession works here and you have something that very much stands out from the boilerplate story that we often get from possession films.

But Rugna isn’t alone in delivering here; on just about every level, this hits a high bar. The cinematography is gorgeous and the performances by Ezequiel Rodriguez, Demián Salomon and Silvia Sabater sell the story perfectly. Of all the pure horror films released in 2023, this is the one that has just refused to let me go and the one I still find myself thinking about months after its release.

#9: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3

Image Credit: Marvel Studios

Look, Marvel had a bumpy ride last year; no matter what we think of the individual films, we can all agree on that. Ant-Man & The Wasp: Quantumania received a well-deserved critical drubbing, The Marvels crumbled at the box office and Secret Invasion had one of the worst finales of a television show that I can remember for a long time. But at least they can lean on the fact that the Guardians of the Galaxy trilogy ended on its highest note. Even that’s a bittersweet notion with James Gunn now off heading up DC Studios, but it doesn’t undermine the fact that Guardians Vol. 3 is one of the MCU’s top-tier movies.

Frankly, Vol. 3 is sort of the quintessential film of its subfranchise because it’s a movie I didn’t expect to be nearly as good as it was. That’s not to say that I wasn’t excited about it, but much like the first film it took my expectations and tossed them on their head. I’m not a big fan of the High Evolutionary in the comics, and he has a story that I always thought was too wild to translate well onto the big screen. But that’s been Guardians as a whole (remember the “talking raccoon and living tree” discourse before the first film?). Gunn reinvents the character but keeps the essential parts and ties him wonderfully to Rocket Raccoon’s backstory for a story that is legitimately heart wrenching and adds emotional weight to the wacky space antics. Add in the Gamora/Peter Quill stuff and you have a film that hits highs in terms of superhero excitement and in those damned feels.

It really can’t be understated how much Gunn accomplished with this franchise, and Vol. 3 is no exception; it’s funny, tragic, and ultimately serves as a fulfilling sendoff to this iteration of the Guardians. (It doesn’t hurt that it easily has the best-looking visual effects of a superhero film from the past year). In a year where Marvel was busy finding its way, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 provided an anchor that kept the MCU from going further off course than could be reversed.

#8: Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning

Image Credit: Paramount Pictures & Skydance

The Mission: Impossible franchise has had its ups and downs over the years, but much like the Fast franchise it has remarkably managed to find new life after it hit the skids early on. The Tom Cruise-led blockbusters have always been thrilling escapist fun, and Dead Reckoning (the “Part One” has been dropped from the title) is no different in that respect. With Christopher McQuarrie back to direct for the third time, we have all the big action sequences, spy antics, insane stunts, and the like that we’ve come to expect from this franchise.

What puts this over the top to make it the best in the franchise to date is the story. The M:I films have always had engaging stories, but this one hits at a new level. And it’s not even the topical story elements involving a dangerous AI known as The Entity; we’ve seen a number of AI bad guy films recently, and many of them have not been great (see Heart of Stone and Simulant making my Worst Of list this year). McQuarrie & Erik Jendresen’s script does some interesting things around The Entity, sure. But we care about the AI wackiness and Ethan Hunt going rogue (again) and all the rest because over the past several films we’ve had these characters built up to the point that we want to see them all succeed, and Dead Reckoning makes sure to treat them well while adding in the remarkable Hayley Atwell as Grace and Esai Morales as the villainous Gabriel.

Oh, also, there’s some truly ridiculous (in a good way) action here. McQuarrie has become one of the top directors at shooting action sequences — something obviously helped by the fact that he’s working with Cruise. This is the wildest entry in terms of action setpieces — a high bar when it comes to Mission: Impossible — and it all adds together to make what is very close to the best action film of 2023.

#7: Anatomy of a Fall

Image Credit: mk2 films

Not every film has to be incredibly dramatic to bring pathos. Case in point: Anatomy of a Fall. Justine Triel’s legal drama is brilliant and devastating in equal measures with how it uses the mystery of a husband’s death to explore criminal justice, complicated relationship dynamics, art, and much more. The French drama stars Sandra Hüller as a writer accused of murdering her husband, a story that could have made for a perfectly decent legal thriller but instead gets elevated by Triel into something much deeper and resonant through the focus on the relationship dynamics between the astonishingly good Hüller as Sandra, Samuel Theis as her deceased husband, and Milo Machado-Graner as their son.

There’s a lot to praise here, but I can’t state enough how good Hüller’s performance is; she takes a substantial role and adds grace, nuance, and a raw, exposed vulnerability to the character. Machado-Graner is also fantastic as the conflicted son, who must watch his mother go through a harrowing trial while trying to process his own grief at his father’s death. The supporting cast is great as well, but those two performances are among the best 2023 had to offer.

There are some truly heartbreaking moments in this film, and they’re all the better for the fact that Triel doesn’t try to milk them to a melodramatic level. There is no “You can’t handle the truth!”-style court moments or big twist reveals scored to a swelling of the music; the understated tones accentuate the intimacy of the storyline and the pain of those involved. It’s all lower key than you might expect going in and is all the better for it. I love a good legal potboiler, but this was something different and, because of Triel’s fine work, something much more affecting.

#6: Killers of the Flower Moon

Image Credit: Apple TV

Look, no matter what you might think of his opinions on superhero movies, from a filmmaking perspective it’s hard to deny that Martin Scorsese generally doesn’t miss. His track record speaks for itself, and he has a deserved spot in the conversation regarding the best directors of all time. And while it may not be quite at the top, Killers of the Flower Moon ranks among the best films of his career. This sweeping, expansive story of the callous crimes committed against the Osage Nation has deserved all the love that it’s received, putting a spotlight on a previously little-known story of America’s past.

While at first blush Flower Moon may not seem like a typical Scorsese film, it very much fits into his oeuvre. Scorsese has long told stories of crime families, political corruption and the heinous act committed upon marginalized people when those two elements come together. He captures the monstrousness of the William Hale, Ernest Burkhart, and their cohorts without dehumanizing the victims and navigates America’s abusive relationship toward Indigenous people while still remembering that it needs to be an engrossing watch. The much talked-about runtime is certainly a barrier but with Scorsese at the helm and all his collaborators doing superb work to bring the story to life, the movie never feels like a slog to get through the way that other lengthy films can.

We can talk about all the wonderful elements here that work on a technical level, but it is the performances that stand out in front of the pack. Leonardo DiCaprio fully understands the assignment here and gives us a compelling example of how to make a protagonist unlikeable and yet still captivating. Ernest is unequivocally a villain in this story, yet we watch because we want him to do the right thing even knowing that he probably won’t. And Lily Gladstone cements her place in cinematic history as Mollie, the actual hero of this film. Gladstone matches up with DiCaprio and Robert De Niro exceptionally well with a performance that, as much as I like the other nominees, will be robbed if she doesn’t win the Oscar. Killers of the Flower Moon is cinematic achievement, pure and simple.

#5: John Wick: Chapter 4

Image Credit: Lionsgate

I realize that placing John Wick: Chapter 4 over Killers of the Flower Moon and Anatomy of a Fall may be the decision I most have to defend. The latter two films are exquisite dramas with multiple award nominations to their credit, and the former is…an action film. That said, there are two things to keep in mind here. The first is that the difference in the ranking is a matter of very minor degrees; these are all 9.0/10 movies to me. The second is that to me, being the best is about judging how successful you are at your aims. A film who achieves the pinnacle of what an action film is intended to be can absolutely be better than a drama if it delivers what we want out of an action film. That’s not the most superb acting or deep, meaningful themes; that’s all valuable, but if the action doesn’t deliver it’s not a great action film.

And make no mistake: John Wick: Chapter 4 is a GREAT action film. When I first saw it upon its release, my initial comment about it was, “Your move, Every Other Action Film Set To Release In The Foreseeable Future.” And that holds entirely true now. The fourth film in the Keanu Reeves franchise ups the stakes once again with some truly inspired action scenes, most notably a top-down in a Paris house that ranks as one of the absolute best action sequences I can remember from the past several years. Shay Hatten and Michael Finch’s script expands the world of the franchise ever further, but that worldbuilding never gets in the way of the main thrust of the story. It just gives director Chad Stahelski a chance to populate the film with more badass characters such as Donnie Yen’s Caine, Hiroyuki Sanada’s Osaka Continental manager Shimazu Koji, Rina Sawayama as Koji’s daughter Akira, and of course Bill Skarsgård as the Marquis Vincent Bisset de Gramont, who is the final obstacle Wick has to fight to earn his freedom.

It all leads to a spectacular climax that ends up surprisingly emotional for a film franchise that has featured a largely stoic character fighting his way through armies and armies of assassins for four films now. The staircase sequence goes to the point where it borders on being too long but comes to an end at just the right time. And the final moments provide a fitting sendoff for the character, while still leaving plenty for the franchise to continue if the studio decides to do keep going (spoiler alert: it has). John Wick has been an incredibly fun franchise to follow over the past several years and Chapter 4 is the best it’s delivered, marking its spot as the best pure action film of 2023 and one of the top five films of the year by any measure.

#4: Poor Things

Image Credit: Searchlight Pictures

I’m not at all surprised that Yorgos Lanthimos’s Poor Things invited some very spirited — shall we say, discussion on social media upon its release. The Victorian-set fantastical dramedy is the kind of film that will find challenges flying with viewers who aren’t willing to give it a decent amount of leeway. Lanthimos has always been down for experimentation and quirky choices, but this Frankenstein-esque story amps that up something fierce. And yet, for my money it earns all its weirdness by counterbalancing it against phenomenal performances, a dark (yet ultimately hopeful) fairy tale-esque coming of age story and gorgeous production design. Based on a 1992 novel, the film allows Emma Stone to give a career-best performance as Bella, a woman who is resurrected by the Willem Dafoe’s bizarre Godwin Baxter.

When I say “career-best,” I’m not exaggerating. Stone has proven her talent many times over, but the sheer range she is able to deliver during Bella’s journey from an infant in a woman’s body into a fully matured woman is simply transformative. Stone captures so much in her movements and expressions that it’s a sheer joy to watch her progress through the film. She carries the comedy, the tragedy and the drama of the character as outlined by Tony McNamara’s script and gives Lanthimos a rock-solid foundation to build the rest of the film around. Bella’s interactions with Dafoe’s Godwin, Mark Ruffalo’s boorish Duncan, Ramy Youssef’s hapless assistant Max and Kathryn Hunter’s Madame Swiney in particular are joys to watch, allowing Bella to bounce off characters kind and cruel on her way to learning who she is in the world.

Again, I totally get why this might not work for some. It’s a whole lot, the stylistic choices (including the steampunk influences and camera choices) could read as “trying too hard,” and there are times when the themes around women’s sexuality get just a touch muddled. But only the last really counts as an objective negative and it does quickly get back on course. Poor Things is the most inventive mainstream film of the year by a wide margin, a singular viewing experience and Stone and Lanthimos’ career highs to date. And for my money, it is easily deserving of a top four placement for the year.

#3: Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

Image Credit: Sony Pictures Animation

It’s not easy for a film to be as visually exciting and emotional engaging at the same time as Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse did. I think it’s fair to say that many of us had high expectations for the sequel of Into the Spider-Verse, but that’s always by necessity going to bring some risk as well. How could the sequel top the first film when the original hit so many right notes, especially with a new directing team?

As it turns out, it tops the first handily. Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, and Justin K. Thompson took the reins from the previous directing trio (still on board as EPs) and put together a deeper story that hits all the right notes by nicely balancing between Miles Morales and Gwen Stacy. The additional perspective allows the film to get a wider look at the stakes being set out while also adding nuance to the story in terms of the opposing perspective to Miles’, but they don’t lose sight of the fact that Miles is our main protagonist. Instead, they simply make room for Gwen to stretch her legs.

Across the Spider-Verse taps into an age-old question about saving one life or saving many, but it does it in a way that feels fresh thanks to our investment in the characters and the dynamic look of the film. There is a LOT going on here, but the story stays as grounded as it can. Of course, the voice cast is fantastic with Shameik Moore, Hailee Steinfeld, Bryan Tyree Henry and Luna Lauren Vélez holding down the emotional core nicely while Oscar Isaac, Jason Schwartzman, Issa Rae, and Daniel Kaluuya make for wonderful additions. Kaluuya in particular is a delight as Spider-Punk, a character who adds a kinetic jolt to the whole thing. This is that rare film that hits all the notes: story, visuals, performance, emotion. And then throw in some geek nirvana in the references that will reward multiple viewings. I get how it won’t be everyone’s thing; it’s very fast and the flourishes will be too much for some. But on almost every objective level this is a home run.

#2: Oppenheimer

Image Credit: Universal Pictures

While Oppenheimer came out of the gate strong at the box office, it honestly took me a while to get to it. Not that I wasn’t looking forward to it; I love Christopher Nolan’s films for the most part and I had little doubt that his biopic of J. Robert Oppenheimer would be a great movie. But the length, the tone and the subject matter made it seem like the kind of movie that you have to be in a particular mood for, and its length in particular meant I had to find an appropriate time to watch. Once I finally saw it, I felt like I made the right decision in holding off as I was in the right mindset to appreciate what it brought to the table.

Oppenheimer is a stellar film that hits at all of Nolan’s favorite themes – complicated and haunted men, theoretical science, technological innovation, and the like – while also delivering a powerful story that is consistently thrilling. I could go on at length about the technical strengths of the movie from the sound editing to the effects work, the makeup, and the stunning cinematography, but those are things we’ve come to expect as standard in a Nolan film. With this film, it’s the strength of the narrative that soars. The script from Nolan serves many masters and does it well, exploring Oppenheimer’s complexities while also showing his systematic destruction by the powerful members of the country that he served. It never excuses the man, but it does contextualize him and extrapolate what it was like to be the father of the atomic bomb. The jumps back and forth in time are a bit disorienting, but that seems to be the goal and it’s always able to snap back on course.

While Nolan has always been a great director, I wouldn’t say that he’s always been an actor’s director. Sure, there are great performances in all his films, but the performances often take a backseat to the visual and audial innovations or multi-level stories. Oppenheimer joins Dunkirk as films in his resume that flip the dynamic. Yes, we have some fantastic technical work, but the performances take center stage. Cillian Murphy and Robert Downey Jr. lead an absolute murderer’s row of talent including Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Kenneth Branagh, Alden Ehrenreich, Florence Pugh, David Krumholtz, Josh Hartnett, Rami Malek, David Dastmalchian, Benny Safdie, Tom Conti, Alden Ehrenreich, Dane DeHaan – it would be multiple paragraphs just to list all the stars who knocked it out of the park here. I’ll be honest and say I don’t know if this will be a particularly rewatchable film for me, but it’s easily one of the best of the year, one of Nolan’s best films to date, and an experience not to be missed.

#1: Godzilla Minus One

Image Credit: TOHO International

Did I have “Godzilla Minus One is the best film of the year” on my 2023 bingo card? No, I most certainly did not. And honestly, I can’t imagine that many people did. I like kaiju films well enough, but I can’t say I’m a die-hard fan of them. The original Godzilla and King Kong are both great, the Legendary Monsterverse films are fun, and I do like the popcorn cheesiness of many of the other TOHO efforts, but they’re just not a subgenre that I find myself wildly looking forward to; I check them out when I have the opportunity and move on.

All that said, it’s probably not surprising to say that Godzilla Minus One blew every expectation I had away. The Takashi Yamazaki film does what many kaiju films actively choose not to do and makes us care about the human characters. We often talk about how studios always feel the need to put human characters into their big monster films, and how it never works because we don’t care about those characters; we want to see the monsters be monsters and do monster things whether that’s level a city, go on a rampage, fight each other or so on. With Minus One, Yamazaki said “Oh, you’ll get the humans — and you’ll care about them.” And against all likelihood, we do. The film takes its time to build up its heroes — Ryunosuke Kamiki’s ex-kamikaze pilot Kōichi, Minami Hamabe’s Noriko and the rest — and uses the chaos of post-war Japan to bring them together as a found family that tugs at the heartstrings.

While the humans are the unexpected component that help make Minus One great, we also have to look at the big guy himself. All due respect to Legendary, but this is easily the most impressive Godzilla on the screen yet. The visual effects teams work an absolute miracle considering how low the budget was; Godzilla looks and feels like the massive nation-level threat that he is, and the action sequences are thrilling in a way that films with ten times the budget couldn’t begin to compete with this year. This is a powerful, exciting, emotional tour de force of a movie and one that topped several exceptional films to claim its position as the best film of 2023.


And that will do it for this! Have a good one and don’t forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at! JT out.