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The Top 20 Films of 2023 (#20 – 11)

January 22, 2024 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
The Iron Claw - Zac Efron - Still Image Credit: A24 Films

The Top 20 Films of 2023 (#20 – 11)

Welcome, one and all, to the start of my Movies Year in Review for 2022! I’m your host Jeremy Thomas, and today we’re moving on from the worst films of the past 12 months in order to examine the best. 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!

Last week I kicked off my movies year in review with the worst of the year, and this week we’re concluding with the best. This past year saw some seismic changes in the industry; Marvel Studios was knocked down a peg as it stumbled and inflated budgets due to the pandemic left many blockbusters stumbling at the finish line, while the SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes came in just as things were settling down. Despite those speed bumps, it was actually a pretty decent year for film as we had great movies across genres and regardless of how big or small the budget was. There were certainly some films that surprised me in a big way by making their way into the top 20 (and some that landed right as expected), so let’s not tarry any further and jump in to the bottom half of the best.

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

#20: Cassandro

Image Credit: Amazon Prime Video

The world of professional wrestling had a strong showing on the big screen in 2023, with two stellar films on the business making their way to audiences last year. The first of those presented the story of Saúl Armendáriz, the luchador known as Cassandro. Mainstream audiences tend to know wrestling as the stars of WWE and other major American companies but as all we wrestling fans will happily explain, there’s a whole world of wrestling to discover and Roger Ross Williams’ drama tells the story of the barrier-breaking exotico with a light touch, providing a feel-good counterpoint to the more tragic way that the industry is typically portrayed in film dramas.

Williams was well-acquainted with Saúl’s story, having directed a 2016 documentary short about him, and it’s not a surprise that he was able to bring a nuanced exploration of the wrestler to narrative form. Williams finds an effective balance between Saúl’s personal life and his professional rise as Cassandro, all centered around a knockout performance by Gael Garcia Bernal as the titular character. Bernal gives a performance that ranks among the best of his career and has ample support from a cast that includes Raúl Castillo, Roberta Colindrez, Perla De La Rosa, and Bad Bunny.

One of the most impressive aspects of what Williams done here is the way that he’s able to streamline Saúl’s story without going too far in breaking with the facts. There are timeline shifts and composite characters of course as best fits the story, but it feels very largely authentic to Armendáriz’s life. It does hit some of the typical tropes of a sports biopic, but it supersedes those and excels as an intimate look at a queer story set within the larger-than-life world of wrestling, and one that I wish had received much more attention than it did.

#19: Alice, Darling

Image Credit: Lionsgate

Lionsgate made a mistake when it tried to market Alice, Darling as a psychological thriller. I get why they chose to do that, to be fair; it’s a harrowing film that deals with the topic of emotional domestic abuse and selling it as a thriller gets eyes on the product while still letting people know that this the kind of film that they should prepare themselves for. The issue is, it’s not a thriller — at least, not in any traditional fashion. Mary Nighy crafted a drama that takes a natural, grounded and authentic approach to emotionally abusive relationships. The film centers itself on Anna Kendrick’s stunningly good performance as the titular Alice, finding an emotional anchor in the character’s relationship with her two best friends Tess (Kaniehtiio Horn) and Sophie (Wunmi Mosaku).

The film follows Alice as she goes on a trip with Tess and Sophie under her controlling partner’s nose, which leads to an intervention of sorts. This allows Kendrick to play a character she doesn’t often play, and the results are phenomenal. Kendrick has always been a great actor, but Alice is her best performance yet; she digs into dark places and portrays Alice’s trauma not only in habits and big moments, but in what she doesn’t do. And while their characters are a bit less well-rounded, Horn and Mosaku are also quite wonderful as Tess and Sophie.

Any complaints that can be had about Nighy’s film are minor at worst; it could have used another 10 minutes or so to further deepen its characters and provide a stronger connection to a subplot about a missing local girl. But that’s very nitpicky because the film fully accomplishes what it sets out to do. It’s not particularly interested in moments of suspense (though some moments are very tense in a quiet way); instead, it sinks itself into the depths of relationship trauma and seeks to come up for air. With Kendrick providing the compelling center, Nighy makes quite a mark in her feature directorial debut and instantly added herself to my list of directors to watch.

#18: Past Lives

Image Credit: A24 Films

When most cinephiles think of A24, they think of the studio’s particular brand of horror: the A24 behind movies like Hereditary, The Lighthouse, X, and Under the Skin. While the studio is still producing great horror (more on that in a moment), the indie studio has been producing more than horror for a long time and the perception has been changing as of late — most notably following Everything Everywhere All At Once. Past Lives is another that should start drawing the non-horror crowd to the studio. This Korean American take on the romantic drama does just about everything right, and while its quieter tone may not appeal to everyone it’s a deeply engaging exploration of themes around the immigrant experience in a fashion not often touched on.

It’s wild to me that this is a directorial debut, because Celine Song approaches the film with remarkable maturity and restraint as a filmmaker. Song based the story of a Nora (Greta Lee), a woman who emigrates to Canada from Korea and reconnects with childhood crush Hae Sung (Tae Yoo) years later, on events in her own life and that’s evident in the realistic touches to what she puts on film. Through the relationships that Nora has with Hae and with her husband Arthur (John Magaro), Song does a wonderful job of speaking about what it means to leave a country for another as well as the complex nature of relationships in general. It’s a rare film that can say this much without being preachy or on the nose about it.

There’s a lot to praise here beyond just Song’s work, but first and foremost is Greta Lee’s performance as Nora. Lee has a delicate role as the center of the film and of a sort-of love triangle, and she makes it look easy. As a character, it would be easy for some viewers to make snap judgments about Nora, but Lee never allows those judgments to carry weight. And her chemistry with Yoo and Magaro, both of whom are doing fine work as well, comes across very naturally. This is a quiet film, and it might not be the choice for when you’re looking for something a bit more pulse-pounding, but it’s a top-notch romantic drama that hits right in the bittersweet spot of the heart.

#17: Evil Dead Rise

Image Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

While there was an unfortunate amount of horror on my Worst Of list, the genre also makes a strong showing on the positive side as well. There’s a common wisdom that the horror genre finds its peak during turbulent times, and that’s certainly held true for the last several years. Evil Dead Rise may not have anything deep to say about the terrifying reality of the modern era, but it does happen to be the most maliciously fun scary movie of the year. Lee Cronin’s soft reboot takes the grisly nature of the underrated 2013 reboot and invests it with a bit more of the original movies’ dark humor, then moves the whole thing into an urban high rise to maximize the bloody fun.

It’s not as easy to put together a horror film as some people think; to make one that really takes hold of people, you have to balance the need for scares (and/or bloody fun) with the depth to make us care about the characters. Cronin accomplishes that with the family at the core of this story — Beth (Lily Sullivan), her sister Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland) and Ellie’s three kids. He doesn’t turn this into a character study, but there’s just enough to the characters that the cast can dig in and bring something for us to latch onto.

And while Sutherland has the least to do as Ellie, she gets to make up for that once she gets possessed and becomes the face of the antagonist. Sutherland gives a vicious glee to her Deadite portrayal and provides Cronin with plenty to work with, most notably during an inspired sequence through the perspective of the apartment’s peephole. Sullivan also gets into her role as a scream queen and as the film descends into bloody chaos, Cronin gets brutal but never forgets that audience like to have fun with these movies. Along the way he does a few creative interpretations of classic Evil Dead scenes (the possession scene is a delight) and makes a strong case that there’s plenty of demonic life left in this franchise.,

#16: Barbie

Image Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

It was nearly impossible to engage with movies this year and not talk about Barbie at some point. The biggest hit of the year was a cultural behemoth and dominated the entertainment conversation during a tumultuous period for Hollywood in the midst of the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Greta Gerwig’s film became a reference point for just about any conversation you wanted to have about the movie industry in 2023 whether the strikes, the theatrical vs. streaming debate, studios vs. indie film, and pretty much every hot-button issue in or out of film. The level of conversation that it inspired threatened to lead to a point where the film itself would become less important than what it represented.

All of that belied the fact that at its core, Barbie is a damned fine movie. You can look at it from just about every level and find exceptional filmmaking. Gerwig’s script is subversive and has fun with the brand that it’s being adapted from, levying a few zingers at the doll (and its brand) but still staying reverent overall to what she represents. It straddles the line between the blockbuster formula and experimentation, but most importantly it never forgets that it’s a comedy with a lot of heart and based on a property that, for all its flaws, means a lot to multiple generations of fans. The performances are great, not only by Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling (perfectly cast) but also America Ferrera and Ariana Greenblatt, with some laugh-out-loud supporting work from Simu Liu, Michael Cera and the rest of the cast.

This is the biggest film that Gerwig has ever made by a very wide margin. The technical merits are picture perfect from the production design to the costuming, the cinematography — I can understand if this film didn’t connect with people, but there isn’t an aspect of the production elements that go wrong. Look, I absolutely get if Barbie isn’t a movie that appeals to someone or if the hype proved unfounded for them but take all the hubbub away and you have at its core one of the best blockbusters of the year.

#15: Talk To Me

Image Credit: A24 Films

Talk To Me is more the kind of film that most people associate A24 with, and I mean that in the best possible way. The debut film from YouTube stars Danny and Michael Philippou became the buzzy horror flick of the year early on when it debuted internationally at the Sundance Film Festival and only picked up steam after screenings at SXSW and Fantasia. By the time it arrived in theaters in August anticipation was high, and it did not disappoint. The Philippous delivered a tense, frenetic film with a new take on the classic ghost story, centering around a mysterious hand that allows a group of teens to possess them for a sort of high — which of course goes horribly wrong.

The brothers’ script can be read a lot of ways, all of them potent; you could read the film as a metaphor for party drug addiction, social media or a number of other things, and you would have a strong argument in each case. What makes Talk To Me’s story so effective is that even if you aren’t looking for a deeper message, it simply works as an effective horror flick. Sophie Wilde, Alexandra Jensen, Zoe Terakes and Joe Bird in particular do great work among the young cast, with Miranda Otto showing up to add a little bit of gravitas when needed.

The biggest strengths though come in the technical aspects, which are where the film truly takes off. The practical effects work is top notch and one scene involving a possession that goes horribly wrong is among the most stressful horror scenes of the year, amplified by a sound design that gets you in a death grip and won’t let go. While the ending may be a bit divisive, it thoroughly worked for me and the film sets the stage for what’s hopefully plenty more good things to come from all involved, both in front of and behind the camera.

#14: The Holdovers

Image Credit: Focus Features

I may not love all of Alexander Payne’s films, but I’ll always check out what he has to offer. Sure, Downsizing was not a great film by any stretch of the definition and I didn’t particularly love About Schmidt, but it’s hard not to be taken in by the charms of Election, Sideways, and The Descendants. Upon learning that Payne was reuniting with Paul Giamatti for The Holdovers, I was instantly excited to see what they were going to bring. They didn’t disappoint, delivering a film that is a very typical Payne movie but done in exquisite form.

As far as the cast goes, The Holdovers relies on its three primary stars to carry the bulk of the dramatic weight. That’s no shade to the rest of the cast who are all quite good, but the trio of Giamatti, Dominic Sessa and Da’Vine Joy Randolph make this a wonderful little dramedy. Set in 1970 at a private school over the holidays, Payne is able to dive into his favorite themes of loneliness and grief as the trio try to heal from the wounds life has inflicted upon them while stuck at the school. Giamatti gets to do what he does best as the grumpy rules stickler of a professor with a heart, opening up inch by inch to Sessa’s troubled student with the help of Randolph’s head cook.

Each of these characters has their own trauma to unpack, and Payne is able to approach it in a fashion that is alternatingly hilarious and heartbreaking. Payne gives the movie an authentic 1970s style right down to the film credits and populates it with a wonderful soundtrack. This is the kind of movie you turn on for a comfort watch when you want to acknowledge your sadness but also laugh, and most importantly realize that you’re not alone. Payne provides a hefty amount of emotional balm through this broken trio and their connection, making it an excellent choice as holiday movie staple for the years to come.

#13: Bottoms

Image Credit: ORION Pictures

I may not care much for some of the Fight Club fanbase (i.e. those that fundamentally misunderstand the film’s points), but the movie itself still holds up nicely. However, I have never once thought, “Hey, you know what would be fun? Make Fight Club a queer teen romcom set in a high school.” And yet, somehow it works. At its core, Bottoms is a pretty traditional teen sex comedy in which two bullied kids want to hook up with the cheerleaders and set up their own fight club in order to do so. If someone had told me that was a rejected early pitch for American Pie, I would not have all been surprised.

What did surprise me was how goddamn funny the result is. Emma Seligman’s flick follows the tropes of the high school sex comedy pretty closely but modernizes those tropes in a way that doesn’t ever seem like pandering. It doesn’t hurt that Rachel Sennott Ayo Edebiri are comedy gold here as our two lesbian losers; they’ve both had a fantastic couple of years and their work as PJ and Josie are instant hits.

Seligman is able to walk a tightrope behind the camera between being relevant to current teens and being nostalgic enough with the high school tropes to appeal to older audiences. The R rating frees her up to cut loose, and that leads to some hilarious bits of violence both in the fight club and without. It would have been very easy to get too offensive or play it too safe, but she walks the line right in between. As always, it has to be said that comedy is extremely subjective and certainly won’t appeal to everyone, but it’s hard to see an argue that this isn’t one of the funniest movies of 2023.

#12: Suzume

Image Credit: Crunchyroll

I know a lot of people who have a hard time getting into anime, and Suzume may not be their entry point. Makoto Shinkai’s latest animated coming of age fantasy doesn’t necessarily have the accessibility of the bigger Studio Ghibli hits, for example, and it is arguably a minor step down from Shinkai’s Your Name. That’s a very high bar though, and if you’re not grading it on that impossible curve this is an absolute delight of a movie. There’s a lot going on with the narrative as our titular teenager finds herself on a quest to stop supernatural earthquakes that are ravaging Japan with the help of a mysterious stranger and an animated cat statue, but if you can get into all of that then it becomes a blast of a film that manages to get quite emotional at times.

Suzume contains all of Shinkai’s hallmarks — the natural disaster themes, the romance, the fantastical elements — and puts it all into a sort of buddy comedy road trip. And as weird as that all sounds, it fits like a glove. It seems almost superfluous to mention the gorgeous animation considering that’s pretty much a given, but Shinkai’s team does a such wonderful job of bringing his ideas to life that it has to be called out.

Shinkai strikes the right balance of comedy, romance, tragedy and action here and the voice cast is entirely on point whether you’re watching the dub or subtitles. It’s yet another best of the year candidate from the Japanese filmmaker and makes me excited to see what we’ll next get from him a few years down the line.

#11: The Iron Claw

Image Credit: A24 Films

Where Cassandro provides a more uplifting look at a true story in the world of professional wrestling, The Iron Claw goes the other way. Anyone who knows anything about the Von Erich family would give that statement a “No duh”; there isn’t a lot of feel-good in that family’s history, and it would feel drastically false if someone tried to make that sort of a story from their lives. Sean Durkin lays out an emotionally devastating rendition of the doomed wrestling family, but it’s to his credit that the film never seems to wallow in that misery.

Of course, we who are wrestling fans have a number of gripes about how the story is told. It leaves one of the brothers out and streamlines the others’ stories somewhat, and while they’re all for entirely understandable reasons from a narrative perspective, it’s a tough pill to swallow. And there is that one performance that is jarringly off if you’re a wrestling fan. But outside of these issues, there isn’t a flaw to be found here. Durkin’s script effectively brings the wrestling world of the era to the big screen, punctuated by powerful performances from Zac Efron, Jeremy Allen White and Holt McCallany in particular, but the rest of the cast as well.

It’s in hitting that balance between tragedy and drama that Durkin makes his film shine. As much as you don’t want to paper over the family’s tragedies, you also don’t want to submerge the audience in nothing but pain. He does that through the relationships between the brothers and that of Efron’s Kevin Von Erich with his wife Pam (played by Lily Collins in one of a number of career-best performances this cast delivers). The Iron Claw isn’t the easiest watch of the year to be sure, but it’s one of the most rewarding from a pure filmmaking standpoint.


And that will do it for part one! Join me once again later this week as we conclude the Year in Review with the top ten. Until later this week, don’t forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at! JT out.