By George Bate & Josh Reilly B.
From epic biopics to glitzy blockbusters, 2023 had something for every flavor of film fanatic. And now, with the year at an end, we’re taking a look back at the year’s best films. Of note, this list only includes films that received a theatrical and/or digital release in 2023. This means that films screened at festivals yet to have a release to the public are not considered for inclusion. Below are The HoloFiles’ Top 10 Movies of 2023 (and 5 honorable mentions).
Sharper, an original Apple TV+ and A24 film, went perplexingly overlooked this year. Andor director Benjamin Caron helms this psychological thriller with a steady grasp on an impressive ensemble cast and a winding script with all sorts of twists and turns. The unpredictability gets a little out of hand with a somewhat messy conclusion, but there’s plenty to appreciate about this flick.
Fair Play is a razor-sharp psychological drama that fuses contemporary gender commentary with 90s erotic thriller sensibilities. Anchored by a tight and enthralling screenplay, director Chloe Domont, in her directorial debut, crafts a film with twists and turns that intricately examines the fragmentation of a relationship. This wouldn’t work without a pair of suiting performances and, thankfully, Fair Play excels in this regard with stellar turns from Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich. A third act that loses momentum, becomes too predictable, and stutters to a somewhat flat ending slightly dampens upon the proceedings, but, without a doubt, Fair Play is a must-watch.
The Blackening is a hilarious, crowd-pleasing horror comedy that takes Scream, sprinkles in some Agatha Christie influences, and mixes it up with Get Out. A fresh and kinetic ensemble deliver a variety of (mostly) effective jokes, many of which are cleverly self-aware and tie into fun cultural commentary. The film excels more so as a comedy than a horror film, although its filmmakers clearly have an appreciation for slashers and Black contributions to horror cinema. Sharp writing and loads of laughs make The Blackening an outrageously entertaining cinematic experience.
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse
Breaking the boundaries of what cinema can entail and the emotions it can evoke, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is a stunning achievement. Every frame is meticulously constructed with such beautiful attention to detail, variety in animation style and color, and a deep-rooted appreciation for everything that is Spider-Man. Easter eggs, cameos, and references feature frequently in this cinematic experience that is any Spider-Man fan’s greatest dreams come true. Beyond visual spectacle, however, is a warm and profoundly emotional story about growing up and feeling like ‘The Other’ with a fascinating philosophical question at its core. Disjointed plotting and an unusually abrupt ending mean Across the Spider-Verse falls short in some ways and may be best evaluated when its sequel Beyond the Spider-Verse hits theaters. Miles Morales, Spider-Man 2099, and Spider-Punk are standouts in an ensemble of Spider-People, collectively delivering an adventure that is as impressive as it is ambitious and as endearing as it is relatable.
John Wick: Chapter 4
John Wick: Chapter 4 is a globe-trotting, breathtaking 169 minutes of meticulously constructed action sequences that make it one of the best action movies of the 21st century. A streamlined narrative approach discrepant from the more convoluted storytelling of the previous two films, in addition to some subtle and intelligent world-building, means Chapter 4 returns to the blissful simplicity of the franchise’s first installment, while simultaneously becoming bigger and more sprawling than ever. Keanu Reeves is characteristically charismatic, silent, and dedicated to his craft as the titular assassin, while Donnie Yen and Scott Adkins shine in supporting roles. Although it may overstay its welcome for some, John Wick: Chapter 4 is an undoubted achievement of the action genre and one that demands viewing.
This Palme’d’Or winner trades the classic structure of an Agatha Christie whodunit in favor of a more intimate and cerebral murder mystery. With a script characterized by continuous twists and turns, the film excels as it plays with audience expectations, capitalizes on uncertainty, and has one constantly guessing about the lead character’s guilt. Director and co-writer Justine Triet’s film lacks novelty and bears more than a few resemblances to the HBO mini-series The Staircase, and yet it is still undoubtedly engrossing as both a mystery and an examination of an intimate relationship. Anchored by an authentic and engrossing performance by Sandra Hüller, Anatomy of a Fall is a captivating, albeit conventional, movie.
Dream Scenario sees Nicolas Cage at his best – playing an oddball character at the intersection of hilarious and horrifying. This A24 film tells the story of a man becoming a viral sensation in the most bizarre of ways, while commenting on cancel culture and the perils of fast fame. Cage is the obvious standout of the film, pulling everything together with his performance in a way that elevates the story and takes it to a whole different level. With a unique concept delivered in a sharp, tonally varied script, Dream Scenario proves to be one of the best films of the year – and far more akin to a dream than a nightmare.
8. God Is a Bullet
At a startling 24% on Rotten Tomatoes, God Is a Bullet is probably this list’s most unconventional inclusion, but it is worthy nonetheless. God Is a Bullet comes from writer/director Nick Cassavetes and stars Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as a detective who infiltrates a Satanic cult to save his kidnapped daughter. Cassavaetes’ film is unrelenting and brutal, one that even the most steadfast moviegoers will wish to turn away from at times. The real star of the film is Maika Monroe (It Follows, Watcher) as a woman who escaped the cult and has teamed up with Coster-Waldau’s detective to help find his daughter. God Is a Bullet will certainly not be to everyone’s liking and yet, for us, few movies were as intense and as emotionally affecting in 2023.
7. Leave the World Behind
Leave the World Behind shares more than a few elements with M. Night Shyamalan’s Knock at the Cabin, which was also released this year. But, while Shyamalan’s film certainly has suspense and intrigue in spades, apocalyptic terror is better explored in Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail’s film for Netflix. As the lead family in Leave the World Behind struggle to comprehend a series of perplexing events occurring around them, the audience is taken on a journey filled to the brim with mystery and thrill. Questions are posed and left unanswered for large chunks of the film, which renders the film excitingly unpredictable from moment to moment. It all makes for a thrilling film, one that is best enjoyed if all spoilers are avoided ahead of time.
6. May December
May December is a remarkable psychological drama that intriguingly explores complex themes of childhood sexual trauma and the validity of adapting true stories into movies with both emotional and narrative depth. While Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore deliver solid performances, it’s Charles Melton that stands out in one of the year’s best performances as a man who began a sexual relationship with an older woman when he was just 13. Unfortunately, the film falls short of its potential with an ending that lacks any resolution nor imbues any sense of purpose. The questions posed and explored in Todd Haynes’ film are endlessly intriguing, although the lack of answers to these questions proves frustrating. Nonetheless, May December is an accomplished film and the best of Todd Haynes’ filmography to date.
5. Gran Turismo
Easily the year’s most unexpected hit is Gran Turismo. Standing apart from the wealth of mediocre video game adaptations, this Neill Blomkamp film came along to deliver a thrilling character drama with high emotional stakes and stunning race sequences. The film adapts an incredible, almost unbelievable true story, that will likely prove inspiring and endearing to all. In some ways, Gran Turismo is to 2023 what Top Gun: Maverick was to 2022. Neither film does anything particularly novel, and yet the heart they exhibit and the adrenaline they elicit are undeniable.
Deftly exploring race, family dynamics, grief, and more in a thematically complex film, writer/director Cord Jefferson adapts Percival Everett’s Erasure novel about a struggling Black author who finds unexpected success when he writes a stereotypically Black novel. Intelligent and philosophically rich, but also unreservedly hilarious, American Fiction is the rare film that will make you think deeply and laugh wholeheartedly.
Godzilla Minus One is a masterfully crafted kaiju / monster film. White impressing beyond belief with the horror and scale of its action and destruction, Takashi Yamazaki’s film hits unexpected heights with the emotionality and intimacy it evokes. In addition to deftly exploring a host of wartime themes and metaphors, incredible emotional depth is found in the Ryunosuke Kamiki’s central character Shikishima and the relationship he has with his found family. Sluggish first act pacing only mildly detracts from what is one of the year’s best films.
The Holdovers is the rare feature that excels to perfection with both humor and heart. Although not particularly novel in any way, Alexander Payne’s latest film sees the director return to form with an undeniably feel-good holiday tale. Paul Giamatti takes the lead as a grumpy teacher with far more inner depth than initially apparent, while Da’Vine Joy Randolph excels as a grieving mother and young Dominic Sessa impresses at the heart of the film. Whether it is because of its extraordinary charm or instantly quotable lines, The Holdovers has quickly become a holiday classic.
Although 2023 has been a strong year for movies, Christopher Nolan’s latest is easily the year’s cream of the crop. Christopher Nolan manages to tell an epic biopic, juggling complicated existential and philosophical questions, without it ever becoming unwieldy or unapproachable. Cillian Murphy delivers a superbly understated performance as the titular scientist, while Robert Downey Jr. gives a career best turn as a duplicitous politician. Nolan intelligently structures Oppenheimer into three clear acts, seamlessly transitioning his film from biopic to examination of a historical event to a courtroom drama. On top of everything, Oppenheimer is immensely rewatchable, endlessly compelling, far more emotional than most of Nolan’s efforts, and, ultimately, the clear winner of 2023.
Thank you so much for following our coverage of film and television in 2023! Stay tuned for more reviews and coverage in 2024!