2023 on the big screen

A roundup of some of the highlights of the year in film

By Zach Hagadone
Reader Staff

Even if my only job at the Reader was to watch movies and TV series, there would be no way to catch them all. I only saw about 20 of the more than 1,000 films released in 2023 — at least according to IMdb.com — but, as the film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes tells me, a good proportion of them were among the best of the year.

One of the highlights included M3GAN, a techno-horror movie about an artificially intelligent doll that goes murderously haywire as it tries to “protect” the real-life little girl it has been programmed to serve as a companion. 

That premise might sound threadbare, but dark ruminations on the role of hyper-aware technology are vital right now, and M3GAN had the bonus of featuring stellar performances and an utterly convincing antagonist.

I also managed to see John Wick: Chapter 4, though only because my wife has a medium-sized obsession with the series and its title character, played by Keeanu Reeves. The setup is straightforward: an assassin lays waste to an ever-expanding circle of bad guys who have done him dirty on every level — including killing his beloved dog. It’s a smorgasbord of glorious fight and chase scenes, with Reeves doing what he does best (and it’s not necessarily dialogue).

Among my favorite experiences at the theater in 2023 were with my kids. The first came in March, when we took in Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, which as I wrote in a review in the spring, was one of the purest, goofiest, slap-happiest swords-and-sorcery adventure flicks I’ve seen this side of the late-1980s.

My 11-year-old son and I had an equally enjoyable time in the summer watching Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. The (supposed) final installment in the decades-long Indiana Jones franchise with Harrison Ford at its center, the Dial of Destiny puts the titular bad-boy archaeologist in some of his strangest scenarios to date, literally. 

As for further family viewing, we also caught The Super Mario Bros. Movie, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, Spiderman: Across the Spider-Verse and Haunted Mansion.

Of those, Super Mario Bros. fell the most flat with us. It turns out that no amount of animated kiddie-pop song-and-dance can cover up for the fact that a full film about a really old Nintendo game just doesn’t have much mental caloric content. 

The third installment of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies also didn’t land too well (at least with my young viewers), who were put off (as was I) by the uncharacteristically grumpy mood of the film and often alarming forays into disturbing images of animal abuse. We’re no prudes, but very little of the humor, vim and heart — especially of the first film — were to be had in the 2023 iteration. Even the soundtrack eschewed the pop-rock bangers of the ’70s and ’80s for a more angsty, even dour selection of grungy and borderline emo ’90s tunes.

Haunted Mansion was so-so — not unlike the thin source material, stemming from a pretty lackluster ride at Disneyland, so Spiderman: Across the Spider-Verse therefore represented the biggest hit among my focus group, with its dimension hopping action and host of endearing protagonists. 

Now, here comes my big confession: I didn’t get a chance to see Barbie. My wife and kids did, and all thought it was great, which based on what I’ve been able to absorb from other reviews and cultural reactions tells me that it probably was/still is great. If Ben Shapiro hated it and my kids liked it, I know where I’m probably going to stand, too.

Napoleon. Courtesy photo.

I don’t just watch movies with my kids, though, so I saw a handful of other flicks that stood out to me during the year. Among them was Asteroid City, from auteur Wes Anderson, which I am sad to report I found far too twee to fully recommend.

But, because you can’t mention Barbie without bringing up Oppenheimer, I will note that I did see the latter. I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting of it, and I’m still not sure what I eventually gleaned from the experience. I will jump on the bandwagon and say Cillian Murphy should and probably will get an Oscar for his performance as the eponymous scientist, often described as the “father of the atomic bomb.” His masterful capturing of the deep complexity of both the times and the man who helped animate them is going to go down as one of the great roles in film history. And much of the same can be said for Robert Downey Jr., whose turn as the conniving antagonist is clearly his best work since Chaplin in 1992.

I also deeply admired Joaquin Phoenix in his role as another figure of world-historical importance in Napoleon and, when you think

El Conde airs on Netflix. Courtesy photo.

about it, both Oppenheimer and Napoleon had a more-than-passing resemblance. Both central characters were as profoundly flawed as they were brilliant, both found themselves (or thrust themselves) in the midst of radically transformative time periods and both of their legacies are fraught, to say the least. Heroes or villains? It depends on who you ask; but, again, there’s going to be a Murphy-Phoenix faceoff at the Academy Awards.

While I had great appreciation for both those big-budget, blockbuster spectacles, I have to submit that my favorite film of the year focused on a character from history was El Conde (“The Count”), the Chilean Spanish-language comedy horror movie that imagines the late-dictator Augusto Pinochet as a centuries-old vampire whose vileness is only rivaled by the bloodsuckers in his own household. 

There were other movies in 2023 that caught my eye, including the guilty pleasures of Renfield, starring a particularly unhinged Nicolas Cage; The Meg 2: The Trench, with Jason Statham doing battle with a series of prehistoric megalodon sharks; and The Pope’s Exorcist, a pretty darn good horror-drama/conspiracy film starring Russell Crowe. Get out the popcorn for those ones. 

All in all, it was a helluva year at the movies, and here’s wishing for continued happy viewing in 2024.

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