My favorite list of the year, about my favorite films of the year. These are the films that made me laugh, made me cheer, made me just plain happy to be a cinephile.
Best Horror (standalone)
Sure, The Boogeyman was a nicely serviceable work of horror, about the level of quality we’d expect from an adaptation of a lesser Stephen King work. I was much more fond of Cobweb, a sweet little psychological horror built around a chilling abusive family dynamic.
But let’s be real here, the clear winner for this one is Talk to Me. It’s heartfelt, it’s hip, it’s novel, it’s creepy as fuck, and it’s built around the ingenious premise of demonic possession as a drug abuse metaphor. This movie was far and away better in execution than it possibly could’ve been in theory, a brilliant movie all-around.
…Sorry, what’s that? The movie is getting a sequel? Yeah, I’ll believe that when cameras start rolling. Especially since the Phillipou Brothers have bigger projects to deal with.
Best Horror (franchise)
It’s honestly impressive how M3GAN got its namesake slasher to “viral horror icon” status as quickly and completely as it did. Even more impressive how the film was so creepy, so poignant, so intelligent, and so effective overall with only a PG-13 rating.
Conversely, we’ve got A Haunting in Venice, a noble effort that was decent fun, but not enough to prove the source material an underappreciated work in the Agatha Christie canon. Five Nights at Freddy’s — a horror movie hamstrung by its PG-13 rating, unsure of how seriously the film wanted to take its own batshit premise — suffered many of the same problems to a far greater degree. At least Scream VI delivered a rock-solid and innovative entry in the long-running series, right before the studio execs in charge straight-up broke the whole goddamn franchise.
I’m giving this one to Evil Dead Rise, the entry that proved for good and all that this franchise absolutely has a life after Bruce Campbell. Through the use of harrowing psychological horror, gut-churning body horror, and the central premise of a family stuck together in isolation, this is the film that renewed and redefined the Deadites as one of modern horror’s most iconic monsters. I know we let the 2013 remake fizzle out, but we can only hope that same mistake isn’t repeated with this one.
Best Grounded Comedy
I know I went easy on Anyone But You, but meeting its own mediocre expectations is nowhere near enough to get a top spot. Joy Ride was supposed to be the raunchy feel-good movie of the year, and it did deliver a few laughs here and there. Yet it got outclassed in every way by No Hard Feelings, a film that was far and away funnier and more thoughtful than it had any right to be, while delivering the year’s most iconic nude scene in the bargain. Impressive, considering how Joy Ride featured that particular tattoo on that particular body part shot in such extreme close-up.
It seems like everyone’s giving the year-end props to No Hard Feelings, but I’d much rather go with Next Goal Wins. There was a movie that was far more progressive, more subversive, more intelligent, more heartfelt, and all-around funnier, all on a stronger and more consistent basis. I really do hope this one gets its due on home video, not nearly enough people are talking about it.
Best Fantasy Comedy
I’m on the fence about whether I should’ve chalked up Dicks: The Musical as a benign disappointment. That one is just too strange to live and too rare to die. Sorry, maybe it’s just me, but while I can appreciate a film with “love is love” and LGBTQ+ acceptance as themes, I draw a hard line at incest. I have no idea if this movie is trash or a masterpiece, but it’s certainly an interesting kind of bad at the very least. And God’s costume at the end was a bona fide masterpiece, no doubt about that.
And then we have Wonka. In retrospect, I have to wonder if maybe I was a bit too easy on this one. Yes, it’s a cute and charming little movie that’s far better than it has any right to be. But it’s still a purportedly anti-capitalist movie that portrays the system as so oppressive and crushing that only a literal demigod would have any slight chance at beating the odds. That might be more of a dealbreaker than I had thought in my initial review.
This was also the year of Barbie and Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, both of which spun ingenious, whip-smart, hilarious movies out of unlikely source material. On the one hand, Dungeons and Dragons did a fantastic job of blending together so many genres into something greater than the sum of its parts, and you know I’m a sucker for that. I might add that it didn’t prize brand loyalty to the extent that Barbie did, and its themes were far more coherent than whatever the hell “I am Kenough” is supposed to mean.
Even with all of that said, there are so many reasons why Barbie took over the world this summer. It’s empowering and timely and diabolically clever like precious few other movies we got this year. This movie got a lot more right than it got wrong, and it delivered moviegoing fun like nothing we’ve seen at the multiplexes for a long time. We’ve seen other movies like Dungeons and Dragons (it was made in the Guardians of the Galaxy template, let’s be real), but I don’t know if we’ll ever see another movie quite like Barbie.
Best Action (franchise)
We’ve got too many great entries to choose from with this one. Let’s start with knocking out Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning, Part One and Fast X on the grounds that they were both only built to be half a movie, and we can revisit them when their respective cliffhangers are sufficiently resolved. And while I have to give another shout-out to Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, the fight scenes and set pieces were nowhere near the caliber of others in this lane.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem keeps getting sadly overlooked in year-end reviews. It’s like we’ve all forgotten how much we loved the film at the time, with its beautiful animation and stellar reimagining of the franchise as a coming-of-age story. That third act is definitely a problem, though. Creed III is another awesome movie that everyone loved and immediately forgot about, but that’s gotten to be the standard with this trilogy.
The only possible choice here is John Wick: Chapter 4, the triumphant conclusion of the saga that redefined fight scenes in cinema. Yes, the Continental mini-series spinoff was a bust, calling into question whether this franchise has a future without its namesake character. For that matter, it’s still an open question as to whether anyone cares about the franchise without Keanu Reeves himself. And there’s still the possibility that the execs in charge might be stupidly desperate enough to pull some bullshit retcon and bring John Wick back from the dead.
But those are all future concerns. Right now, we’ve got a movie with more of the same ingenuity and brutality that permanently raised the standard of quality we’ve come to expect from action movies. Overlong and overstuffed as the movie is, it’s still a worthy capstone to the greatest action series in cinema history. And if that sounds like hyperbole, show me another action film series that went four straight chapters without sucking.
Best Action (standalone)
I’m putting Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre in here. Even though it was clearly meant to be the start of a franchise, the film was a box office bomb and I’m sure Guy Ritchie and Jason Statham both have other films they’d rather make. That said, while the film is hardly perfect, it’s a fast-paced and decently acted spy thriller romp more than worthy of a home video watch.
Polite Society is a tough one to gauge. As much as I like what the filmmakers were going for, it has some fatally crippling issues with the tone, themes, and plot. I had some fun watching it, but it’s still a film I respect far more than I like.
The easy choice for this one is Sisu, 90 solid minutes of killing Nazis. As aggressively simple and brutally spectacular as a land mine to the face. I’m typically more partial to the leaner and meaner film, all killer and no filler, and it doesn’t get any leaner or meaner than Sisu.
Best Superhero Film
2023 was widely regarded as a terrible year for superhero films, even though we got some real bangers, critical darlings, fan favorites, and underappreciated gems in the genre this year. Granted, this was the year of The Flash and Shazam: Fury of the Gods, but it was also the year of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. This was also the year of Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, but seriously. Considering the lame-duck status of the DCEU and the flaws of the first Aquaman movie, I maintain that the second movie is overly and unfairly maligned.
Speaking of which, Blue Beetle was quickly appraised as a boilerplate superhero origin story, though everybody loved the film for its energy and heart and Latine representation. Me, I couldn’t take the “family” themes seriously when the lead character’s family were such obnoxious assholes. Case in point: Jaime Reyes comes home with some unknown glowing object and the explicit warning not to touch it. And Jaime’s entire family — against all warnings, against all common sense, for no better reason than to tease Jaime at the potential cost of a job everyone needs him to get — opens the box and tosses the unknown object around like it’s a goddamn baseball until something horrible happens and everyone acts all shocked. For better or worse, literally everything in the movie is entirely their own damnfool fault, and they’re never made to reckon with that. After that, with the obvious exception of Jaime, every last member of this family can fuck off right to hell.
That just leaves the MCU offerings: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 and The Marvels. One of them praised as the triumphant capstone of an industry-shaking trilogy, the other one offered up as a post-strike sacrifice to the god of corporate tax write-offs. Guardians was a brilliant movie, don’t get me wrong, but it gets stuck in my craw that Rocket Raccoon spent half the movie in coma-induced flashbacks and the long-overdue arrival of Adam Warlock amounted to so little. And while the film was generally awesome, it also felt like James Gunn was trying his damnedest to cram every last little thing he could into two and a half hours before leaving for greener (and exceedingly well-fertilized, if you catch my drift) pastures at DC.
The Marvels, on the other hand, featured much better teamwork and interplay between the three leads, with a spectacular team-up conceit like nothing seen in the genre before. Guardians was smarter and more heartfelt, I’ll admit, but The Marvels was funnier and more creative while offering more fascinating implications for the greater MCU. I might add that at only 100 minutes, it was a lot easier and more fun to sit through. It really is one of the year’s most tragic injustices that this movie was done so dirty, I can only hope it goes through a massive reassessment in the next couple years.
Best Wild Ride
I promised myself I wouldn’t do this. I’ve already said as much so many times in these lists. It’s not right of me to pass any kind of judgment on a movie before its second half has been released.
But goddammit, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is just too fucking good.
What else is there to say at this point? The animation styles are ingeniously blended and immaculately realized. The filmmakers spun an F-tier Spider-Man villain into a multiversal threat. The very concept of the multiverse itself was better established and more fully realized than any other superhero franchise has ever accomplished. The stakes and the storytelling are loaded with pathos and nuance. The Easter Eggs and shoutouts are hilarious throughout.
The previous movie was damn near perfect as it was, but the second entry somehow capitalized on that and punched right through the fucking stratosphere. If the third movie is such a miracle that it keeps up the momentum and sticks the landing, we’re looking at the greatest trilogy in film history. I know that’s a big claim, but look at where Lord of the Rings, The Godfather, and How to Train Your Dragon were at their respective second entries. Now look at how their third entries ended up. Now look at where the Spider-Verse trilogy is at this second entry and tell me they can’t go even farther from here in just one movie.
And it’s just one of many surprises we can hopefully look forward to in 2024. Let’s dive on in, everyone!