Friday, February 23, 2024

A Year in Review: The Top Ten Films I watched in 2023

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2023 was a hell of a year for movies. Whether it was Barbenheimer or my Spooky Season marathon, where I watched over thirty-one horror movies in October, the movies were back. Like every year, I sat and tried to do the impossible task of narrowing down the hundreds of movies I saw into a meager “Top 10”. But this year, doing so felt so arbitrary and myopic.

So, after discussing with my editor, I decided to list the top ten movies I watched in 2023, not just movies that came out in 2023. It is a more accurate representation of the cinematic landscape and makes the competition more stiff. Now Oppenheimer must hold its own against Night of the Demon or possibly The Phantom Carriage and lose. Barbie may reign supreme in 2023, but how does it stack up against Slumber Party Massacre II or The Heroic Trio?

Spoilers: none of those movies made my top ten. But rest assured, their omission does not mean they are not worthy. In typical Sherman fashion, the list is less a ranking and more a numbered list. The order is alphabetical, except for the number one slot.

2023 top ten
After a long night, Johnny (James Mason) sees Kathleen (Kathleen Ryan).

10. Odd Man Out (1947) Dir. Carol Reed:

One of the strangest things about the reputation for Carol Reed’s masterpiece Odd Man Out is that it’s apolitical. I can understand this misapprehension because so much of what is considered political in mainstream art is tied up in leftist or alt-right ideology. But what Reed and writers R.C. Schiff and F.L. Green explore instead is something much more nuanced and complex: what a revolution looks like on the ground level.

The other strange thing is how it drifts so seamlessly from almost documentary to surreal. A noir in the truest sense, a a man trapped by his decisions and obsessions, set in Northern Ireland, Odd Man Out is about how an IRA heist goes wrong with Johnny (James Mason) accidentally killing a cop. What follows is Mason’s Johnny’s descent into purgatory as he wanders the Irish streets looking for sanctuary. Far from being apolitical, Reed and the script explore what an occupation and a resistance against that occupation look like from a door-to-door aspect, with many of Johnny’s friends treating him worse than the strangers he meets.

In cameraman Rober Krasker’s hands, the shadows of Belfast close around Johnny as he stumbles from place to place in search of his beloved Katherine. By the end, Odd Man Out transcends into a tragic romance. Deftly exploring religion, violence, and a host of other issues connected to resistance, Reed and Krasker delve into the human condition and all the little ways that make us walking contradictions. If you’re one of those people who only know Carol Reed for The Third Man, Odd Man Out shows that his greatness is bigger than a singular film.

2023 top ten
Professor Bernard Quatermass (Andrew Kier) sits with Sladden (Duncan Lamont), a drill operator, as Colonel Breen (Julian Glover) looks on from behind.

9. QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (1967) Dir. Roy Ward Baker:

Two names dominated my 2023: Nigel Kneale and Hammer Studios. The two came together in Roy Ward Baker’s 1967 Quatermass and the Pit, a rare sojourn into sci-fi for Hammer Studio and the third in a series of films. Thought-provoking with a sense of eerie fun, Quatermass and the Pit is a movie I saw and was never quite able to get out of my mind. 

Written by Kneale and based on the BBC miniseries of the same name, also by Kneale, Quatermass and the Pit mixes campy fun with thought-provoking sci-fi. Professor Bernard Quatermass, Andrew Kier is like a prototype of the Doctor if he were human: compassionate, intensely curious, but decisive when needed. He and Doctor Roney (James Donald) unravel a mystery involving a strange object buried underneath the London Underground.

Blending sci-fiction and folk-legend Kneale’s script with Baker’s efficient direction and Arthur Grant’s camera, Quatermass and the Pit begins with curiosity and ends with a bone-chilling philosophical and theological realization as the truth about humanity and even the Devil comes to light. No less than John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper have cited Kneale as an influence on their work, and it’s impossible not to watch Quatermass and the Pit and not see its fingerprints on the science fiction that came after.

2023 top ten
Noriko (Minami Hamabe) sees the terror of Godzilla first-hand.

8. Godzilla Minus One (2023) Dir. Takashi Yamazaki:

Godzilla movies can be divided into two categories: 1. Godzilla is a monster/guardian/lovable scamp. 2. Godzilla is an avatar, less a character and more a representation of something. Both 2016’s Shin Godzilla and the recent Godzilla Minus One, Toho Studios, seem to be bringing Godzilla back to the second category. Indeed, there’s a lot of narrative rhyming between Takashi Yamazaki’s Godzilla and Ishiro Honda’s.

Yamazaki’s script explores nationalism, trauma, the fallout, literally and figuratively, from the bomb, and a nation of people struggling to rebuild and reconnect with their humanity. Godzilla Minus One found its way to moving me to tears as it showed people overcoming their indoctrination to defeat Godzilla while wrestling with the weight of their own sins, real and imagined. The human drama of Yamazaki’s Godzilla is heartwrenching as it deals with topics so heady it’s miraculous the movie never feels corny or trite.

Kozo Shibasaki’s deft lens renders the scale and destruction in a breathtaking and visceral way. Taking more than a couple of cues from Jaws, Yamazaki crafts a blockbuster that looks better than anything we’ve put out and at a fraction of the cost. It was an oft-repeated joke, but it has the benefit of being true Godzilla Minus. One pairs well with the other Atomic blockbuster, Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer.

2023 top 10
Ghost Shark can be anywhere.

7. Ghost Shark (2013) Dir. Griff Furst:

Griff Furst’s 2013 Ghost Shark feels like someone made a Shaw Brothers movie basic cable. The best worst movie I saw last year, and it’s not even close. It is a film in which every decision is wrong; miraculously, it is devoid of a single moment that works. It’s a goddamn treasure.

The made-for-Syfy movie was co-written by Furst, Eric Forsberg, and Paul A. Birkett. Having three writers goes a long way to explaining how Ghost Shark feels like a series of scenes with zero tonal connection. The story, by the way, is about the ghost of a poached shark haunting a small New England seaside town. It is a summary that only begs more questions. If you wish answers to these questions, look for them within yourself; go to your god or your guru. Because you sure as hell won’t find them in Ghost Shark.

There’s a glorious moment when a character drinks Ghost Shark; what transpires exemplifies the magic of cinema. Another scene that comes close is when a gang of kids inexplicably become antagonistic towards our heroes. The result had me out of my chair and on the floor wheezing. Furst’s Ghost Shark feels like a cinematic descendant of Ed Wood-and I mean that with love.

2023 top 10
The daring band of adventurers left to right: Xenk (Rege-Jean Page), Holga (Michelle Rodriguez), Doric (Sophia Lillis), and Simon (Justice Smith).

6. Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves (2023) Dir. Jonathan Goldstein & John Francis Daley:

Some movies are so re-watchable it’s a miracle we find time to watch other movies. In 2023, one of those movies was Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves. From the minds of Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, D&D has a goofy charm and a deft sincerity to it that took everyone, even the game’s die-hard fans, by pleasant surprise. Especially considering the duo is credited for the story of The Flash, the polar opposite of D&D in every way.

Led by a cast with some of the best on-screen chemistry we saw on the big screen this year, D&D felt like watching old friends play out a campaign. Serious enough to work but not so serious that Goldstein and Daley didn’t find time to have fun. Whether it’s Michele Rodreiguez’s Holga’s alley fight scene or Sophia Lillis’s Doric shape-shifting chase through a castle, Goldstein and Dale kept the action sprightly and unpredictable. In an age of blockbusters where all action scenes look alike, D&D felt alive and fresh simply because they didn’t always move like we expected them to.

But more importantly, it’s the sense of play that Goldstein and Daley imbue in every frame. Whether it was practical or CGI, the effects in D&D added character to the world. Barry Peterson’s camera added a visual flair, making every scene feel fresh without being distracting or overly polished. Peterson’s frames were filled with imagination and a breathing world too busy to stand still.

2023 top 10
Ernest Dickerson’s lens is what makes Def by Temptation its haunting potency.

5. Def by Temptation (1990) Dir. James Bond III:

It still staggers me how little-known Def by Temptation, the one and only directorial effort by James Bond III, continues to be. Bond’s script about faith and black masculinity haunts the memory as Ernest Dickerosn’s imagery borders on poetic visual prose. It rivals Kasi Lemmons’s 1997 Eve’s Bayou as one of the few American films deserving of the adjective Bergman-esque.

Kadeem Hardison’s turn as K and Cynthia Bond as The Temptress give two of the most fascinating performances of the film, and I’m willing to say of the year 1990. Def by Temptation is a brash and ambitious movie that grabs you by the lapel and drags you along with it. A fight for a young man’s soul Bond’s Joel, about to graduate seminary, feels epic yet Bond and Dickerson tether it to an urban setting and toss in a few digs at the true cost of Reganomics.

Intensely sensual and slyly homoerotic, Def by Temptation is a vivid fable-istic tale of good vs evil. Bond is able to craft a singular vision that’s a shame we never saw more of. One could argue the 90s was a renaissance for Black films, with Def by Temptation being an early high watermark of the decade.

2023 top 10
PJ (Rachel Sennott) and Josie (Ayo Ediribi) plot how to get laid.

4. Bottoms (2023) Dir. Emma Seligman:

I saw a lot of movies in 2023, but there weren’t many I saw more than once in the theatres. But Bottoms was an exception. A blood-splattered, horned-up ode to bad behavior with a side of teen movie parodies, Bottoms is a movie that refuses to be restrained by anything as banal as good taste or narrative logic.

Emma Segliman’s sophomore effort is unabashedly Queer as well as an announcement of a generational talent. Seligman, who co-wrote the script with star Rachel Sennott, has a barbed sense of humor and is unafraid of having her characters and audiences sit in awkward, taboo moments. Yet, underneath all the gleeful vulgarity is a tenderness, a beating heart rife with gore and sexually explicit dialogue giving Clerks a run for its money, that belies Seligman’s highwire act of satire and genuine emotion.

Co-star Ayo Edebiri, who plays the laconic, rambling, sad-sack Josie, is the perfect foil to Sennott’s scheming femme-choad PJ. Had Bottoms gone the meta-route, as far too many movies do nowadays, it likely would have failed. But by committing to its Looney Tunes world, where hormones and schemes even the most desperate Pick-up Artist wouldn’t enact, Bottoms finds a way of getting us on its side.

2023 top 10
Sandra (Sandra Huller) is on trial for the death of her husband, though at times it feels like she’s being tried for her thoughts and feelings towards him.

3. Anatomy of a Fall (2023) Dir. Justine Triet:

No joke, there was a moment in Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall that had me almost lunging out of my chair to strangle a character onscreen. A vigorously thought provoking movie about truth and a damning indictment of the Swedish justice system. Triet dissects a marriage and digs through the messy intimacy of how two people co-exist and sacrifice for love. Oh, and then, while she’s doing all this, there’s a very real possibility that Sandra (Sandra Huller) may have killed her husband Samuel (Samuel Theis).

Triet and co-writer Arthur Harari craft a movie that is brutally honest that it’s impossible to know the real truth. Not since Akira Kurosawa’s Rashamon have I seen a movie so deftly explore the uncomfortable subjectivity of objectivity. Huller’s Sandra is a complex and intelligent performance that rivets because it dares you not to like her. A woman filled with as much love as she is with irate indignation for the sacrifices she’s had to make.

On top of everything else, she and Arthur had a non-traditional marriage, allowing Triet and Harari to explore the ways traditional society casts a dubious eye on relationships that do not conform to their liking. Anatomy of a Fall is a movie about everything while also being about a very specific thing. I didn’t think we made movies like this anymore, and I’m so happy to be wrong. Also, the poor doggy deserves better!

2023 top 10
Molly (Donna Wilkes) gets shooting tips from Kit Carson (Roy Calhoun).

2. Angel (1984) Dir. Robert Vincent O’Neil:

On paper, and by its marketing, everything about Robert Vincent O’Neil’s 1984 gem reads like a cheap, seedy exploitation. A movie about an underage sex worker and her found family trying to solve the mystery of a serial killer targeting sex workers should not be this achingly tender and oddly tasteful. But one of the film’s countless joys is O’Neil’s strident humanism.

Donna Wilkes plays “Angel”, a fifteen-year-old (Wilkes herself was twenty-four) honor-roll student and sex worker. Orphaned, she lives by herself in a building owned by a cantankerous lesbian, Solly (Susan Tyrrell), with a trans-woman Mae (Dick Shawn) and a trick-shooting street performer Kit Carson (Rory Calhoun), as her parental figures. O’Neil and Wilkes don’t make Angel wise beyond her years, hueing true to her being a scared kid desperately trying to stay afloat. Co-written by Joseph Michael Cala, the script seeks not to stereotype but to show us the humans underneath.

Even the kills are handled in ways that show remarkable empathy, with John Diehl’s nameless killer shown with little sympathy, even rarer than Shawn’s humanistic and loving portrayal as a trans-woman. Shot by Andrew Davis, who would go on to direct films such as Under Seige and The Fugutive, Angel captures Los Angeles and Hollywood Boulevard at a specific moment. Far from showing us the palm-frond-lined streets, Davis and O’Neil show us the underbelly of the city. Drenched in neon lights and heat-baked sidewalks, Angel lovingly shows the other side of Los Angeles that is all too typically ignored or exploited.

2023 top 10
Martin Scorsese and Rodrigo Prieto’s camera take Lily Gladstone’s already stellar performance to another level.

1. Killers of the Flower Moon (2023) Dir. Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese is the best working director in America today, full stop. So when I say that Killers of the Flower Moon is the best movie that a white guy could make, I’m also saying the only way this movie could be better would be if there were an Osage or Indigenous directorial voice behind the camera. That fact that there isn’t bothers Scorsese as well, or else the movie would not be as heartbreaking and unerringly honest in its depiction of the true colonial West.

Killers of the Flower Moon also contains the best performance of the year by Lilly Gladstone, which only adds to Scorsese’s accomplishment. Gladstone is a generational talent who has rarely been given the opportunity to shine. In Scorsese’s hands, her regality as an actor is finally laid bare on a sweeping and teeming canvas of characters and the jaw-dropping banality of evil.

Shot by Rodrigo Pietro, who also shot last summer’s Barbie, Killers of the Flower Moon is teeming with life. Scorsese and Pietro make us feel the colonization of the Osage Reservation as well as the budding town of Fairfax, Oklahoma, slowly coming into bloom, its roots steeped in indigenous murders and seething hatred. And then there’s that ending. Nothing has stayed with me quite like the way Scorsese reckons with his role and the role of film in culture, a blistering critique on biopics and of the true-crime trend sweeping the country. It is a masterpiece so towering it casts a shadow over everything else that came out in 2023; nothing came close.

Images courtesy of General Film Distributors, 20th Century Fox, Toho, Syfy, Paramount Pictures, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures, Troma Entertainment, Le Pacte, New World Pictures, and Apple Original Films

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Author

  • Jeremiah

    Jeremiah lives in Los Angeles and divides his time between living in a movie theatre and writing mysteries. There might also be some ghostbusting being performed in his spare time.

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