2023 was best described as an unpredictable year, where a lot of things have changed. Superhero cinemas declined in quality with the notable exceptions of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. Big-budget franchise sequels like Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny and Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One didn’t do as well as expected at the box office.
The year also saw the highly-anticipated return of several acclaimed auteurs like Greta Gerwig (Barbie), Martin Scorsese (Killers of the Flower Moon) and David Fincher (The Killer). These movies would have been a shoo-in in my year-end Top 10 Best Movies of 2023 list but strangely after watching them, the results weren’t as great as the hype led me to believe.
So, after spending a longer time than usual to compile the list, here are my picks for the Top 10 Best Movies of 2023 instead.
How do you make a fascinating movie about a pair of basketball shoes? Star and director Ben Affleck score a winner here in Air, thanks to his engaging direction while making the best use of Alex Convery’s witty screenplay. The movie is backed by great performances, notably Matt Damon as the determined Nike executive Sonny Vaccaro and Chris Messina as Michael Jordan’s acid-tongued agent, David Falk. (Read my full review here)
It’s Groundhog Day meets Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in Nik Amir Mustapha’s sci-fi romance drama, Imaginur. The movie may have been treading familiar grounds but kudos to Nik Amir Mustapha for his subtle exploration of existential crisis, human memories and lost love. The movie gets an extra boost from Beto Kusyairy and Diana Danielle in one of their career-best performances as Zuhal and Nur. (Read my full review here)
8. John Wick: Chapter 4
So, how do you top a movie one after another and so on? Four movies in, Chad Stahelski still has what it takes to keep the John Wick franchise revving with enough energy and creativity. And guess what, he goes all out by giving us nearly 3 hours’ worth of action-packed mayhem and visceral thrills — the Osaka Continental gunfight and nunchaku sequence, the one-take Dragon’s breath ammo shootout and the climactic 222-step of Rue Foyatier against an army of assassins, just to name a few. The added newcomers to the franchise help too, particularly the cool introduction of Donnie Yen as the blind assassin Caine. (Read my full review here)
7. Concrete Utopia
Co-writer and director Um Tae-Hwa took the otherwise familiar disaster genre in Concrete Utopia and turned it inside out as he delves deeper into the thought-provoking theme of flawed human nature. The first half’s satirical black-comedy route explored the surviving residents of the Hwang Gung apartment complex as they set their own rules and managed the crisis like one big family. Then comes the tonal shift in the second half as it skilfully morphed into a psychological thriller territory with dark secrets and a gradual sense of despair engulfing the rest of the movie. The movie is also blessed with excellent performances including Park Seo-Joon, Park Bo-Young and the scene-stealing Lee Byung-Hun as the mysterious loner, Kim Yeong-Tak.
6. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse
The 2018 animated feature of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse has set the bar high that it would be an uphill task for the follow-up to top, let alone match the superior first movie. Amazingly (no pun intended), the directing trio — Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers and Justin K. Thompson — expertly takes the already-established multiverse concept of the first movie and adds a compelling character arc surrounding Miles Morales/Spider-Man’s predicament as he enters adulthood and dealing with more responsibilities. The sequel has also evolved with more dramatic stakes while the cel-shaded, comic book-style animation remains as visually stunning as ever. (Read my full review here)
5. Anatomy of a Fall
The Palme d’Or-winning Anatomy of a Fall has the storytelling hook of a riveting psychological thriller: A man (Samuel Theis’ Samuel Maleski) is found dead on the snow with a pool of blood on the back of his head. It all happened at the mountain chalet up in the Alps. Was his death an accident, a suicide or worst-case scenario, a planned murder? The prime suspects could be the man’s novelist-wife, Sandra (Sandra Hüller) and their visually impaired young son, Daniel (Milo Machado Graner). Co-writer and director Justine Triet isn’t merely interested in examining the murder of Samuel Maleski as the movie equally dissects the anatomy of the troubled marriage between Sandra and Samuel. The result is a complex character study within its thriller and courtroom drama trappings. It’s dense and cerebral but it’s absorbing enough to keep me intrigued until the end, thanks to Triet’s mostly taut direction, coupled with first-rate performances led by German actress Sandra Hüller.
4. Fair Play
Writer-director Chloe Domont, who made her feature-length debut, gamely deconstructs the familiar erotic thriller craze of the ’80s and ’90s in Netflix’s Fair Play. Here, she delves deeper into the gender and power dynamics between the career-minded young couple played by Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich as Emily and Luke in one of their best performances to date. The movie also benefits from the Wall Street and Disclosure-style corporate thriller, exploring the dog-eat-dog world of the hedge fund industry and toxic workplace culture. And interestingly, the intriguing exploration of the male fragility. (Read my full review here)
Christopher Nolan’s fascinating take on the theoretical physicist and “the father of the atomic bomb” J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy in his career-best performance so far) forgoes the traditional biographical-drama route. Nolan, who also wrote the screenplay, is more interested in exploring the inner psyche of his titular character and paces his three-hour epic like a psychological horror-thriller. His signature non-linear narrative and clever use of colour and monochrome visual palettes made the otherwise dialogue-heavy film an engaging cinematic experience. And not to forget, shooting the film with IMAX cameras brings a level of immersion (the pivotal Trinity nuclear test comes to mind). (Read my full review here)
2. The Holdovers
The Holdovers marks a return to form for Alexander Payne, his first movie in six years since the ambitious but protracted Downsizing. Working from David Hemingson’s screenplay, which revolves around the three primary characters including a cantankerous classics professor (Paul Giamatti), a disgruntled student (newcomer Dominic Sessa) and a grieving cafeteria manager (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) forced to spend time together in the New England boarding school of Barton Academy during a two-week Christmas break, allows Payne to explore the dysfunctional makeshift family dynamics in an all-encompassing manner. Relatable themes covering loneliness to resentment, personal demons and coming-of-age angles are subtly incorporated without succumbing to a saccharine melodrama. There’s a distinct lived-in quality within Payne’s direction while bringing a sense of warmth and poignancy to his movie. All three actors excel in their award-worthy performances.
1. Beau Is Afraid
Ari Aster’s third movie, Beau Is Afraid isn’t the traditional horror genre seen in Hereditary and Midsommar. But more of a genre-bending dark comedy with surrealist horror, marking a radical departure for the acclaimed auteur. It’s like a fever dream surrounding the titular anxiety-prone, middle-aged man-child played by Joaquin Phoenix. He certainly gives his all in one of the most outlandish performances of his career. Aster’s anything-goes direction hits hard as he takes us on Beau’s 3-hour stranger-than-fiction odyssey of fear, trauma and Mommy Dearest-like issues (Patti LuPone nails the grievous mother role as Mona). The bonkers nature of the movie allows Aster to give us some of the most shocking moments ever seen in 2023. From the bathtub and running naked scenes to the strangely whimsical animation-style montage and the you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it attic scene, Beau Is Afraid may have been divisive for (most) people. But I admire Aster’s daring touch that reflects the crazy and erratic world we live in today.