Reviewed: My fave five films of 2023

Let’s take a look at last year’s highlights, including a radioactive dinosaur, 280 Spider-Men, and a vengeful cancer patient. But which adventure was my favourite?

6 min readJan 7, 2024

5. Godzilla Minus One

This is Hollywood-ing harder than Hollywood itself.

I haven’t seen a BIG film as thrilling as this in a while! Excellent escapism! So much destruction! Godzilla is cute — and ANGRY! There are likeable characters! Clear stakes! An engaging plot! WOW! You’ve probably seen it said elsewhere online, but it’s true: this is Hollywood-ing harder than Hollywood itself. Many big budget blockbusters from the US now spend hundreds of millions more on weirdly glossy, overblown visuals and, ultimately, hollow action. Without people to invest in and relate to, why should we care whether or not Godzilla trashes the place?

Koichi (Ryunosuke Kamiki) and Noriko (Minami Hamabe) provide the human element, with delicate lives and brilliantly woven stories. Having survived war — and been nuked — Japan is in the most vulnerable position; the very last thing they want to happen is for a giant mutated dinosaur to rise up out of the ocean and lay ruin to everything they’ve rebuilt so far. This isn’t expressed to us by way of an info dump, but shown, through stunning performances. The arrival of Godzilla means something. It has impact. And, coupled with a stunning score by Naoki Satō, it’s damn scary.

4. Saw X

The story is taken seriously. The terror is palpable. And Clouser’s score is brutal.

Set between Saw I and II, Saw X follows John as he jets off to Mexico for an experimental kind of cancer treatment in a last ditch effort to change the course of his terminal diagnosis. Naturally — it turns out to be a scam. As our beloved Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) says: “That’s what I call epic bad luck.” Everyone involved gets their comeuppance via some of the scrappiest and most brutal torture devices we’ve seen so far. What’s more, Amanda’s back in the frame (Shawnee Smith), helping Jigsaw setup this improvisational slew of carnage.

In the presence of a cartoonishly evil victim — Cecilia (Synnøve Macody Lund) — Jigsaw is embraced as the protagonist. Call me old fashioned, but I preferred it when he was a deranged, self-absorbed maniac. He’s not a vigilante in the same vein as Showtime’s Dexter. But, X is still the best entry since VI in 2009. The story is taken seriously. The terror is palpable. And Clouser’s score is brutal. I knew we were in for a treat as soon as I heard that Kevin Greutert was back in the director’s chair (he edited Saw I-V and directed VI-VII). The trailer revealed too much of the story for my liking, but it worked out well — we’re getting Saw XI in 2024.

3. Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse

It looks spectacular, but the screenplay, voice acting, and score impressed me most of all.

I worried this sequel would disempower Miles, mostly because it features not just five Spider-Man variants, but 280 of them. Thankfully, the whole damn thing remains so character-driven that, at its core, ut remains Miles’ story. Co-directors Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, and Justin Thompson, have talked about Across The Spider-Verse being a direct response to fans of the franchise who were opposed to the character since his comic-book introduction back in 2011. You can see this plainly reflected in Oscar Isaac’s performance as Spider-Man 2099, who’s obsessed with “canon events” and in-universe rules about who, where, and what Spider-Man can be.

It’s steeped in story! This is what the genre’s for: putting uncanny superheroes in thrilling scenarios that jeopardise their personal lives in unimaginable ways. It looks stunning, of course, but the screenplay, voice acting, and score impressed me most of all. Some excellent twisty turns too, got me all tingly! Just make sure you’ve got the volume settings down to a tee — or at least have it loud — as this quickly grew notoriety for being played in local cinemas with all the wrong settings. As a result, moviegoers complained that they couldn’t understand the dialogue. And you won’t want to miss a thing.

2. Past Lives

Confronts the unknowable so subtly and skillfully that it lingers long after the credits.

I caught this at the Berlinale film festival before it received a wider release — which means I couldn’t resist seeing it twice. And it hurts just as much the second time. This is such a beautiful and patient film, bold enough to grapple with the complex contradictions and “what ifs” that come with growing up. Here, Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) are grappling with their choices — and the choices made for them as children — by looking backwards and forwards, juggling identity, ambitions, and the concept of fate. They were once young lovers, but life’s not been on their side.

It’s refreshing to see characters try, as we might, to defuse tension with open communication. For instance, when these old flames finally meet again, Nora has a husband. He’s not cast as the bad guy (which his character admits as a possibility); instead, he helps his wife work through her feelings. In doing so, we see why they’re such a good fit. Yet, the past still lurks. Much of this is relatable and sometimes even amusing without necessarily being put to words. Director Celine Song confronts the unknowable so subtly and skillfully that this lingers long after the credits.

1. The Holdovers

Sincere, hilarious, and had me on the brink of tears.

I’ve heard that some have assumed this film was made in the 80s (or they’ve been misled into believing it). I can see why. It has the feel of a classic. I reckon, it’ll outlive many of the films released this year — even this decade. The characters are so well founded that, no matter which way they pull the story, everything rings true. Paul Giamatti plays a curmudgeonly history teacher at a New England boarding school, forced to chaperone the Christmas holiday holdovers. These include Dominic Sessa in his debut role — kind-hearted but troublesome Angus — and grieving lunch lady Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph).

Just as this unlikely trio stumbles into friendship, this film excels in unfurling a powerful combination of emotions from its audience: laughter, nostalgia, and bittersweet sadness. The Holdovers had me chuckling and near the brink of tears. You’ll have to ask director Alexander Payne how he manages that particular juggling act, without undercutting the bite of his drama — I have no idea. But I do recall older movies being slightly more adept in merging and melding genre types in order to generate something new. Hopefully, as Disney and the like suffer more big-budget bombs, we’ll see a resurgence in films like this; at human-scale.

Godzilla Minus One (2023)

Honorable mentions:

  • Cat Person — Charts the perils of modern dating with honesty and humour. Very MESSY.
  • Seneca — It’s a bit like if someone rebooted Blackadder with Richard Wilson in the titular role.
  • Blackberry — An engaging, sharp-witted delve into the company’s history. I’m so team keyboard it hurts!!
  • Asteroid City — Stays on target, despite many little asides. Ever-so quirky! But also profound.

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