Friday, January 5, 2024

The Signal Watch Presents: Top Movies of 2023

It's always hard to structure this particular post.  

It's not like you should care about what I liked or didn't like, and certainly the people who made these movies shouldn't care.  And, in fact, some of them are probably dead, and I don't need ghosts holding a grudge if I dump on their movie.

So, let's do what we did last year and start with the disappointments and then get to the good stuff.  

Now, I don't talk about every movie I saw.  We're not going to talk about how It's a Wonderful Life is a fantastic movie, for example.  We're limiting this to stuff we saw for the first time this year.

Full caveats:  This is just my personal opinion on what I managed to watch in 2023.  It's also very true that I didn't see that many new releases this year, including many popular favorites.  I discuss what I meant to see, but didn't yet get to see, in this post.  

On with the show.

Did Not Like

So, this is a smattering of the movies I particularly did not care for in 2023.  I disliked other movies, too.  And you're welcome to check out every blog post on 172 movies if you want, but these are the ones I did not care for.  Some have podcasts, if you want to hear me really complain for a solid hour or more.

Black Adam

Special recognition for the movie that killed the DCEU while also showing how not to handle movie marketing.

Sure, the DCEU wasn't healthy already, but having Dwayne Johnson insert himself personally into a comic book universe - thinking "star power" is what DC was lacking - and then being the face of one of the dumbest movies in a series of very dumb movies was quite the way to devalue the brand of DC and Dwayne Johnson.  

Somewhere in the script, there's a good Black Adam/ JSA movie, but this wasn't it.  It was entirely too much and not enough at the same time, substituting FX and set pieces for character, stakes and logic.  Plus, a "hero" who just murders people left and right.  

Ant-Man & The Wasp: Quantumania

How do you take the scrappy, likeable underdog sub-franchise of the MCU and turn it into something to hate-watch?  You dump the core premise, beloved supporting cast and the one thing the hero does to great effect (growing and shrinking in our world), and throw it out the window for a gooey FX mess with no ties to anything anyone cares about.  You bring in Michelle Pfeiffer and give her nothing to do.

This movie managed to establish our new Big Bad for Marvel while also making him seem small and unimportant, complicating everything to come after.  It also sidelined one of the titular heroes, giving her about five lines, and gave the audience zero reason to care about any of the new characters, while also trying to be parts of Star Wars.  Utter waste of talent and money.

Maybe try not making a 2 hour Rick and Morty episode, and remember that the thing people come for is not the universe building, it's individual stories.


Everything wrong with 90's neo-noir in a singular package.  Hilarious.

Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles

A weird attempt at a return to glory by folks who forgot how this works, it's a watered down version of the original with low/ no stakes, and no real reason for existing other than to see if there's still money to be squeezed out of the original.

Bad, Cheap Film Category

The Dog Who Saved Halloween

There's a shocking amount of this level of stuff, where formerly recognizable actors go to collect a paycheck between gigs at Cons.  The basic gist is "it can be stupid, it's for kids".  Likely shot inside of two weeks.  Starring Kevin James' brother.

Birdemic III: Sea Eagle

The most recent Birdemic film is a last gasp by director James Nguyen to reclaim his legacy from the era of Birdemic.  Somehow, this one is even more off the rails than prior films, but in a third go, the charm of "what is happening?" is replaced with "oh no, it's happening... again."  Featuring longer takes and a somehow more incoherent story than ever before.

Christmas in Hollywood

This is my runner-up for worst movie of the year, but you can't do that, because no one involved was really trying or invested.  It was never intended to be good, just to be content for sale to China.

Special Mention:  Genie

I disliked this movie, but Jamie *hated* this movie.  And that was good for some laughs for me.  I don't even know if I'd put this on my personal rage list, but Jamie's irritation was enough to give it a spot.

Worst Movie of the Year: Candy Cane Lane

This movie clearly cost money, had A-List and B-List talent, had a decent director, and was still everything to dislike about "movies" in 2023.  The lead, Eddie Murphy, generates one laugh and is otherwise just a human-shaped object to follow through the movie.  It relies entirely on ideas from other movies with the "best decorated house obsession" that Hollywood has fixated on for two decades, but which isn't a real-life thing.  Plus, it clearly hates Christmas as much as any other Hollywood movie struggling with the fact that Christmas is really just sitting around eating and drinking and exchanging gifts and maybe less exciting when you're a grown-assed adult.

It has some unique and new things, and - visually - they look nice, but story-wise and script-wise, the movie is just a punchlist of chores for our lead.  There's absolutely no charm to the movie, and no one understood "less is more" when it came to the comedy.  So its just riff after riff on the same dumb stuff, killing any actual jokes.  But everyone gets a half-baked arc, and none of it works.

I'm just kind of exhausted that Amazon spent this much money and spent so little time doing anything but putting "content" out there, knowing all they really needed was a click, so why try?  At least everyone likely got paid.  But it's this cynical, driven by accountants filmmaking that is going to mark this decade, and its responsible for at least half of what ended up on this list.  And, honestly, several movies that didn't make the list, but which didn't feel quite as much like a cheese grater across my skin.

Did Like

This is just a smattering of movies worth mentioning as "hey, I dug that" which I watched in 2023.  

Best Noir

Leave Her to Heaven

A bonafide noir classic, beautifully shot in full technicolor with a career-defining performance from Gene Tierney, who otherwise already has 2-3 other movies you could point to for same.  Dark as pitch, it's better than the 1000 movies that try to catch this same fire.

Hangover Square

I'd never heard of this one, and it's a period movie released in the mid-40's, so some might not consider it noir, but I'm counting it based on style and substance.  Plus the impeccable casting of Laird Cregar Linda Darnell and George Sanders.  One of the best finale sequences of anything I saw in 2023.

Best Horror

Exorcist III

When your horror-fiend pals keep mentioning a film casually, it's worth looking into.  Exorcist III is a worthy heir to the original, and a textbook for filmmakers on how to build tension.  I think maybe I appreciated the film more than I found it frightening, but it really works.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Well, this little indie film is maybe one of the most commonly discussed movies of the 20th Century, and that's not a mistake.  I was shocked by how good this movie was when I finally saw it - from concept to tone to escalation of the premise in scene over scene.  

Best Action/ Adventure/ Superhero

The Raid: Redemption

This one is well known among action aficionados, and with good reason.  It's a terrific movie that plays across genres, from super-high-octane actioner to noir to melodrama.  Amazing film well worth your time.

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

Deep character work of the first film continues here, using the universal feeling of one's isolation in the universe to project across the multiverse and tell a weirdly relatable story about a guy who can't fit in, even with himself.  Of the many multi-verse stories hitting this decade, this one is the best for superheroes, and the second best overall.  And I didn't even get into the remarkable design work.

Best Drama/ Melodrama/ Dramedy

Chungking Express

A rich, deep-dive take on obsession and messy romance in off-kilter situations.  Wonderfully acted, and beautifully crafted.  This one had a reputation it surpassed, in my opinion.

The Holdovers

I just talked about this one, but I suspect this one will become a low-key Christmas classic for some folks.  And I sincerely hope seeing it ignites a memory for some people of what film and television can do if we're not focused on actuaries approving what media can work or algorithms dictating characters and story.  

My Neighbor Totoro

Obviously a modern classic, and with good reason.  I laughed.  I cried.  I saw spirit monsters in the sky.  What a remarkable film.  

Doc:  Harlan County USA

I am sure this thing landed like a bomb when it was released, but about fifty years on, it's now also a time capsule of America.  As good an argument for examining labor in the US as any you're likely to see, beautifully capturing a moment and humanity that feels as relevant today as when it came out.

Special Mention:  Barbie

Can we even discuss 2023 without talking about Barbie?  I have no idea how this movie will age, but this surreal movie captured something of the moment and cultural conversation, exploded any and all expectations of what Mattel would let a filmmaker do with their most valuable asset, and accidentally set off a tidal wave of discussion of film on a level that I haven't seen in years.

With stunning performances from an army of actors, razor sharp dialog and design and cinematography that was all infinitely better than expected - I just want to go to the folks who approved and financed this movie and kiss them on both cheeks.  And then do same for everyone who made it happen.  

And, before me wrap up, just a list of movies I liked that could have also been named:

Rio Bravo
Asteroid City
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3
Watch on the Rhine
Ball of Fire
Marvels, The

My Personal Favorite: Godzilla Minus One

The meme of the year was "how often do men think about The Roman Empire?" (a lot, actually), and I can say that of the movies I've seen this year, Godzilla Minus One stayed with me more than I ever expected and became my new Roman Empire.  Between the overall arc for the characters and the not-too-subtle messaging about what makes a good fight (plus teamwork) and I was reeled in.  I saw this twice in the theater, and - time willing - I'd happily go back again.  

I did see the movie twice in the theater:
When I first saw the trailers for this movie, I was hopeful.  It looked like it was trying to do something that completely made sense and which Godzilla movies strayed from over and over after the success of 1954's Gojira - and that's make the humans the center of the story.  And, like that movie, this one managed to find core characters with a story that was compelling.  However, I'd argue that this one made our heroes much more sympathetic, and that who you pulled for from the first moment you met each of them.  

I also listed Shin Godzilla as a favorite movie for my 2017 picks, so it's apparently something I'm inclined to like.  Give me a gigantic, walking metaphor monster, and I'm keen to give your movie a shot, I suppose.   And, at my core, Shin Godzilla (to an extent), and this movie in particular, were a reminder that there are not ideas that must be handled a certain way - there's execution of an idea and doing the most possible with that idea.  

That said, Godzilla Minus One doesn't necessarily do anything remarkably new within the scope of cinema, but it does something new within this type of film, and what it does, it does very, very well.  There are many lessons employed from the last fifty years of filmmaking to get us there, with narrative economy, choreographing tension, and managing beats.  And, yes, you will be able to guess some of what is going to happen - but that's also the nature of being a mature film-goer - knowing that it's often far more about how those moments are crafted, and if the film succeeds in a satisfying or surprising way far more than it's about sheer novelty.  

Anyway, I've already written plenty on this movie - twice.  But it was the movie I did not know I needed when I went to go see it, and it far exceeded even my high hopes when I walked into the theater.  Give it a chance sometime.


Paul Toohey said...

I never think about the Roman Empire...maybe I'm broken...

I still never saw Shin Godzilla after that projection issue at Alamo when we went. Maybe I should check it out. I saw the trailer for Kong x Godzilla last night, and boy does the CGI in that look SUPER crappy, especially after how amazing Godzilla looks in Minus One.

I watched D.A.R.Y.L. this week, and, it was directed by Simon Wincer who also directed Crocodile Dundee in L.A.

The League said...

I think the important thing is that he was given money to put his name on Crocodile Dundee in LA and maybe paid off some bills.

Stuart said...

I was *so sure* Across the Spider-Verse would be my runaway favorite of the year, but then Godzilla Minus One showed up right at the end and I can't decide between the two. I'm always happy to see a new convert to the cult of Exorcist III appreciation.

The League said...

I listen sometimes! Loved Exorcist III. Yeah, I loved Across the Spider-Verse, and will be curious how it all measures up with the next installment. I loved it, but I think it's been no secret how G-1 rocked my socks off.