2023’s Best Movies

Written by Benjamin Wiebe

As we say goodbye to 2023, I want to reflect on one of the good things about this year: the quality of released films. 2023 was an interesting year at the cinemas — western blockbusters failed to capture the audience far more than ever before. Whether it was The Flash (2023), Transformers: Rise of the Beasts (2023), The Marvels (2023), or even Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part 1 (2023), most audiences seemed to leave these franchises behind in favour of Barbie (2023), Oppenheimer (2023), The Killers of the Flower Moon (2023) or Napoleon (2023). Marvel seems to be taking in far less of the box office, with only one major hit this year: Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3 (2023). As a whole, audiences seem to be going to the cinemas even less than years prior, which could be a consequence of rising living costs and the prevalence of streaming services.

Like many others, there were a lot of films I didn’t catch this year, many of which I wish I had seen and would have likely made this list if I did. In no particular order, here are some of my favourite movies of 2023.

  1. John Wick Chapter 4 (2023)

John Wick Chapter 4 was one of, if not the most, anticipated movies of the year for me. I got into the series in 2019 with the theatrical release of John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum (2019)—what a title! I had extremely high expectations for Chapter 4. For a series that started as a simple exercise in revenge, each film has continued to up the ante, bringing more to the table and crafting ultimate action movie extravaganzas. Even the first film, best described as “You Killed My Puppy, Prepare to Die,” is dripping in atmosphere and establishes a criminal underworld as sophisticated as the Golden Era James Bond. Every verbal exchange is simultaneously ‘not’ about murder, and yet only about murder. It is subtlety performed without subtlety, and I adore it. After the first film, everything goes bananas. The action becomes even bigger, the world-building goes international, and, of course, Laurence Fishburne shows up as the Bowery King to deliver some meaty lines. While the first film is a perfect, simple stand-alone action flick, the sequels all mesh together to create one story of a man trying to escape hell, only to fall even deeper into it as he tries.

Chapter 4 is the culmination of the story that started in John Wick Chapter 2 (2017), and it is a grand proclamation of what director Chad Stahelski has learned over the last ten years of directing these films. The story is much more focused than in previous sequels, calling back to that first film. The action set pieces are mazes, as they were in Chapter 2, and the camera moves as dynamically as possible to sell the action. And, as with Parabellum, when the action starts building, it doesn’t come crashing down. I adore John Wick Chapter 4—the music, the action, the lighting, and the production—these technical elements are blindingly gorgeous, making for an engrossing, maximalist film. And yet, its story is so much calmer than before. It manages to be an earned finale for John, as his mission against the High Table comes to a close in an epic, 1v1 shootout with flintlock pistols at dawn in France. It’s reflective and purposeful—perhaps Keanu Reeves’s best work in the series as the titular character. The supporting cast is truly phenomenal, whether it’s Donnie Yen as the blind mercenary Caine, Bill Skarsgård as the French villain Marquis, or Shamier Anderson as the nameless tracker. Following the passing of Lance Reddick, who plays Charon across all four films, this film felt even more emotionally charged than its predecessors.

  1. The Killer (2023)

Any year with a new David Fincher movie is a good year. I love David Fincher’s movies. Fincher’s perfectionism and precision have a psychological impact on the viewer. Zodiac (2008), Fight Club (1999), The Social Network (2010), Se7en (1995)—these are but a few of the films Fincher has made, and yet, even from that first film, Se7en, that need for precision is ominously present. Every film by Fincher feels uniquely lived in. The worlds are often grotesque, as if the undertones of violence corrupt the very world these stories inhabit. Even Fincher’s most modern-looking film, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), manages to capture that deeper violence through set design; the look of modernity hides the Nazism that never left after World War II. Simply put, every Fincher film is creepy… and The Killer (2023) undercuts this in a fascinating way.

The Killer is a drama about the world’s worst hitman, stuck on a revenge mission looking for the people responsible for his hospitalized wife. The Killer (2023) might seem similar to films like John Wick or Jason Bourne; an action thriller with the protagonist hunted by larger powers. Yet, The Killer (2023) goes out of its way not to be that type of movie. There are moments of violence and action that are some of the hardest-hitting of the year, but these aren’t the draw of the movie. The draw is in the downtime, when we are waiting and anticipating the violence to light up the screen. The world is tense in a deeply lonely way. Everything is too clean, too isolated, and too automated to feel human. The killer is just a cog in a machine—someone who can be replaced at a moment’s notice by powers much larger than himself, and we become more and more aware of it as the film progresses. It’s a movie that captures the energy of the Hitman series better than anything else and captures the anxieties of the gig economy just as efficiently. The Killer (2023) is a gripping thriller with a beautiful score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross that is worth your time.

  1. Barbie

Of all the movies on this list, Barbie may need the least introduction. As the movie of the summer, it seemed everyone wanted to dance the night away with it. What director/co-writer Greta Gerwig managed to do with Barbie is nothing short of magnificent. Gerwig crafted a movie about existentialism and the search for identity, all while wrapping it in Barbie clothes. Unlike The Lego Movie (2014) or Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves (2023), Barbie isn’t a great brand movie because it captures the brand feeling. Rather, in a similar vein to Toy Story (1995), Barbie leans into real, midlife crises to create a story aimed more at adults than kids.

Barbie is far more than just a movie about Barbie dolls; it has so many layers to its story that it would be impossible to cover all of them. It’s the inverted Garden of Eden, it’s feminism 101, it’s Ken finding himself, and it’s about reconciling with the process of aging and growing away from what our identity used to be. On top of all that, it features some of the greatest comedic sequences of the year—Ryan Gosling is a comedic gem—and its production design brilliantly leans into the faux nature of plastic toys.

  1. Oppenheimer

Oppenheimer is the latest film by Christopher Nolan, whose previous works include The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005-2012), Interstellar (2014), and Inception (2010). Nolan’s work has largely been within the science fiction genre, making the prospect of him tackling the story of Robert J. Oppenheimer in a three-hour legal drama biopic particularly intriguing. Additionally, Nolan’s love of the IMAX format led to the promotion of the film as the blockbuster of the summer, with its release date on July 21, 2023. Oppenheimer isn’t a typical blockbuster—it’s essentially just people talking in rooms, in argumentative bursts as we follow the hearings of Oppenheimer and Straus, two prominent scientists turned politicians during and after the Second World War. Yet, for a film about legal hearings, Oppenheimer is one of the most exhilarating films of the year.

The editing of Oppenheimer is, without a doubt, the best of the year (from the films I have seen). One hundred eighty minutes pass by in a blink as each timeline of the film intertwines and coalesces into its breathtaking finale. The powerhouse of dramatic performances from the entire cast—whether it’s Cillian Murphy as Oppenheimer, Robert Downey Jr. as Lewis Strauss, Matt Damon as Leslie Groves, Florence Pugh as Jean Tatlock, or Kenneth Branagh as Niels Bohr—the entire cast is stacked and delivers magnetic performances. The gorgeous visuals and terrific sound design make the atomic bomb terrifying for an audience that didn’t live through the Cold War, demanding viewing for its interrogation of the architect of the bomb.

  1. Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning

Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part One is the most timely release of the year. As our world grapples with the forces of machine learning and perceived artificial intelligence, amidst workers’ strikes fighting to protect their jobs and human likeness, Tom Cruise and director/writer Christopher McQuarrie have created a movie where Tom Cruise races against AI and its disciples in the pursuit of killing the AI god. Mission Impossible may be another blockbuster of the summer, but its commitment to real stunts, big visuals, and Dutch angles makes for a gripping thriller that your dad would want to watch. Tom Cruise parachutes off a mountain, using a motorcycle to land on a runaway train; conversations are shot with so many Dutch angles; the sentient AI and its disciple, Gabriel, are viciously malevolent; and of course, Pom Klementieff is great as the evil henchwoman who rarely speaks. Also, the fan edits of Shea Whigham’s character, Briggs, making it seem like his obsession with Ethan Hunt is romantic, are hilarious and worth watching.

  1. Godzilla Minus One

Godzilla Minus One is the first of two foreign films on this list, and their similarities extend beyond just their themes. Both films explore themes of reconciling loss and finding identity through encounters with alien creatures intent on destroying life. In Godzilla Minus One, that creature is Godzilla, a kaiju with which Western audiences are quite familiar. What made Godzilla Minus One special to me was its focus on human characters, particularly Shikushima, the protagonist grappling with his fear of dying in war, the consequences of going AWOL, and returning to a Japan devastated by World War II.

Despite its modest budget of 15 million USD, Godzilla Minus One stands out as a major blockbuster, where the financial constraints likely necessitated a more human-focused story. Nevertheless, it delivers several massive sequences featuring Godzilla. The finale, set in the ocean, showcases truly flawless visual effects and computer-generated imagery. The film is a testament to the human spirit and our capacity to achieve greatness against overwhelming odds, made all the more remarkable by the fact that it was produced by a team that overcame numerous challenges to create a true Godzilla movie for 15 million USD.

  1. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, the sequel to the phenomenal Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018), picks up a year after the first film. It follows Miles Morales as he struggles to balance his role as New York’s sole Spider-Man (in his timeline) with the responsibilities of a high school senior preparing for college. Being Spider-Man isn’t just an academic obstacle for Miles—it’s also causing rifts in his relationships with both his parents. Miles isn’t alone in his struggle; Spider-Woman Gwen Stacy, from another dimension, is grappling with being New York’s most wanted, hunted by her father without his knowledge. When a mission to stop The Vulture from another dimension goes awry, Gwen finds herself joining the Spider Society—a group of dimension-hopping Spider-People dedicated to maintaining the canon. Miles and Gwen’s paths intersect when a common enemy, The Spot, reveals his newfound ability to travel between dimensions.

Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse, though only the first of two parts, succeeds in telling a fulfilling story over two and a half exhilarating hours by focusing on Miles and Gwen as distinct protagonists. The film’s inventive and stunning artistic direction ensures it stands out visually from any other movie in the 21st century. This is complemented by Daniel Pemberton’s hypnotic score, featuring distinct leitmotifs that symbolize the characters and harmonize to enrich the film musically.

  1. The Boy and the Heron

The Boy and The Heron, the second foreign film on this list, delves into themes of grief and finding a way forward. Its alternate title, How Do You Live?, encapsulates its exploration of living for others in the face of fleeting time. Director Hayao Miyazaki, known for Spirited Away (2001), Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), and Princess Mononoke (1997), returned from retirement to create another animated masterpiece dense with meaning. While its plot may be complex, its emotional resonance is undeniable. The story follows Mohito, a twelve-year-old boy adjusting to life in a new town with his father and stepmother after his mother’s death in a fire. The Boy and The Heron, reminiscent of Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), focuses on Mohito’s journey of acceptance and discovering beauty in life after death. Joe Hisaishi’s score is outstanding, and the film is well-served whether viewed with English subtitles or through its English dubbed version, featuring a stellar cast including Dave Bautista, Robert Pattinson, Florence Pugh, and Christian Bale.

  1. The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes emerged as another blockbuster hit in 2023. Distinguishing itself from other three-hour blockbusters this year, it committed to expansive sets and large-scale action sequences. We’re taken back to Panem 65 years before the original Hunger Games movie to witness Coriolanus Snow’s transformation from a poor, orphaned schoolboy to a leading politician in Panem. This film weaves together romance, violence, politics, and intrigue into one comprehensive package. Its thematic depth, addressing global issues, refreshes the young adult dystopia genre, which had become stale with simplistic love triangles. The film’s exceptional production design, captured beautifully by cinematographer Jo Willems, enables each cast member to truly stand out. Performances by Viola Davis, Peter Dinklage, and Jason Schwartzman are fully committed, enhancing their supporting roles. Tom Blythe is remarkable as Coriolanus, exuding charisma and sophistication to the extent that one almost forgets they are witnessing the rise of the Hunger Games trilogy’s antagonist. Rachel Ziegler shines as Lucy Gray Baird, reminding us who the true protagonist is. Her portrayal is compelling and nuanced, offering a perfect counterpart to Coriolanus in the three-part morality tale known as The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.

  1. Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour

I must confess that Taylor Swift’s making one of the best ‘movies’ of 2023 was not something I had anticipated. Although I’ve always appreciated her music, I’ve never deeply engaged in the fan theories about her next moves, whether predicting the timing and content of the next Taylor’s Version re-release or tracking her concert setlists. Despite my desire to experience the Eras tour live, largely for the live music, my financial limitations prevented me from pursuing tickets to her global performances. I had nearly given up hope of seeing the tour unless an Alberta leg was added.

Thus, I was pleasantly surprised to learn about a professional recording of the concert coming to movie theatres—a version of the concert offering high-quality audio and visuals. Despite being aware of Swift’s previous tour recordings, such as the Folklore Long Pond Sessions (2020), the cinema release was unexpected. Securing my ticket on the day of the announcement, I eagerly anticipated the tour experience Swift had crafted.

The Eras Tour film quickly became one of my favourite movies of the year and my top theatrical experience, largely due to the communal atmosphere of watching a concert among fans united by a common enthusiasm. There’s a transcendent energy to the concert, a spiritual and communal experience as Taylor Swift’s ballads weave a tapestry of shared meaning. Technically, the film excels in several areas: the professional audio quality offers an unparalleled musical experience, the choreography and production design distinctively capture each album’s essence, and the seamless editing across three nights of shooting is remarkable. I highly recommend this film to any Taylor Swift fan.

Conclusion

Although 2023 might not be a year I look back on with great fondness overall, it was an exceptional year for movies, music, and video games. While I missed some smaller films, the blockbusters of 2023 were impressive. I encourage everyone to explore these films and share your own lists of the year’s best, fostering conversations that celebrate the work of countless talented artists worldwide. Here’s looking forward to what 2024 brings!

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