At the beginning of this year, I made three main resolutions for 2023: quit Twitter, read one new book every month, and watch one new movie every week. Results varied. I dutifully deleted the Twitter app from my phone on January 1st and saw immediate benefits in productivity and mood—for a few weeks, until other apps took its place. Reading one book each month proved a little challenging. I was consistent for the first few months, then fell behind, then tried to catch up, and then realized it was starting to feel like a chore, so I gave myself permission to lapse. I ended up starting ten books and finishing seven over the course of the year, and I’m going into 2024 with a sizeable stack of unreads that I will non-committally work my way through without putting any pressure on myself. On the other hand, my resolution to watch one movie per week went way better than I expected. I ended up watching 57 movies this year that I hadn’t seen before. Some were new releases I caught in theaters, others were old things I felt I’d missed out on and needed to see. They’re not all classics, or even that good, but I enjoyed most of them.
I’ve put together a top ten list, in no particular order. The definition of this list is loose. I’m not claiming that these are definitely better films than the other 47; it’s more like these are the ten that I either loved the most or felt deserved some recognition. Anyway, here’s the list. Beware spoilers.
The Banshees of Inisherin (2022)
I started the year by catching up on a few of the nominees for Best Picture, and The Banshees of Inisherin was my favorite of those. It’s the exact sort of movie I tend to enjoy: the characters and setting are interesting, the acting is good, and the plot is (on some level) meaningless, Director Martin McDonagh’s brand of dark comedy works really well for me here. One has to be careful to avoid looking performatively edgy by saying “I liked this movie for the shock factor,” so I’ll try to sidestep that by saying I liked this movie because of how ridiculous the shock factor is. This movie tells you that Brendan Gleeson is planning to cut off his own finger, and then you say “That would be kind of insane, don’t you think,” and it sort of agrees, “Yeah, that would be dumb.” And then Brendan Gleeson cuts off his finger, and you look at the movie in disgust, and the movie looks right back at you and says, “What else were you expecting?”
I don’t know how much I have to say about Nope other than that it’s really, really good. I’m not a horror movie scholar by any stretch, but I think anyone who is avoiding this film on account of it being technically a horror movie is missing out on something great. While it has lots in common with horror movies, it seems much more like a sci-fi mystery presented in the style of horror. It almost feels as though someone took a script that could have been an all-time great episode of Doctor Who and adapted it for the big screen (I promise I mean that as a compliment).
2 Fast 2 Furious (2003)
One of the highlights of this year for me was watching every feature-length movie in the Fast & Furious franchise in time to see Fast X when it came out. There is a lot to be said about this series, and I may even decide to write more about it someday. For now I want to point out that a lot has changed over the last two decades of this franchise’s complicated history, and I think the public consciousness has forgotten that the first few of these movies absolutely rock, completely unironically. People disagree on where the series took its turn—some might say the decline began as early as The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, before the series had been reduced to typical big-budget action junk food, but after it started becoming hard to take anything seriously.
2 Fast 2 Furious, however, deserves so much more love. The first entry in the franchise should also get some credit for being great, but the sequel is, for me, the peak of the series. It copies the formula from the original and keeps Paul Walker, but sets aside Vin Diesel and benefits greatly from a change of scenery. Abandoning LA for an opportunity to indulge in the beachfront lifestyle and high-octane nightlife of Miami was a great move—hmm, I wonder if any other franchises could pull that off? 2 Fast introduces Tyrese and Ludacris to the cast, both of whom become fixtures in the later films and whose characters I claim are the only consistently enjoyable elements of the series. Devon Aoki and Eva Mendes also deserve a shout-out for being just as fun to watch even though they don’t become core members of Dom’s Family. The rest of the series sort of shrugs at the viewer and says, “Yeah, of course these movies are tedious and bad. They’re formulaic action movies, what did you expect?” But at the end of the day, 2 Fast makes a strong case that a movie which is shallow and formulaic can be really fun!
Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)
Somehow, before this year, I had seen Kill Bill: Vol. 2 but never Kill Bill: Vol. 1. I had a whole afternoon to myself alone in my parents’ house with a nice big TV, so I decided, what the heck, I’ll watch them both back-to-back. Best idea I had all year. In contrast with 2 Fast, Kill Bill is a tropey action movie while also being thought-provoking and while Uma Thurman gives one of the best performances I think I’ll ever see, period. (And, of course, the tropiness is deliberate homage to kung-fu movies, so no complaints from me.) The depths of Kill Bill have been explored by much more qualified people than myself, so I won’t try to give my own interpretation here. My point is just that watching these movies, especially as a double-feature, was a throughly rewarding experience—not just “fun” or “cool set pieces” or “great acting” or “dramatic” but all of those things at once.
The French Dispatch (2021)
Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox is one of my favorite movies ever. I also liked Isle of Dogs and Moonrise Kingdom but until this year I hadn’t seen most of his other films. I decided to fix that, first by watching The Grand Budapest Hotel. I thought it was a good movie, but I didn’t love it as much as I thought I would. I thought that maybe I’d outgrown the (now TikTok famous) Wes Anderson quirky aesthetic, or that it works better in the stop-motion style and doesn’t come across as well in live action. The French Dispatch completely changed my mind. The eccentric style worked for me, and I liked the anthology format a lot. My favorite story was The Concrete Masterpiece, with Benicio del Toro, Léa Seydoux, Adrien Brody, and Tilda Swinton. The movie is also wonderfully short. I really appreciate a story that can get you in and out of the door without dilly-dallying and still give you time to find it meaningful; The French Dispatch manages to tell three great stories in a row and keep its overall runtime at 108 minutes.
When Harry Met Sally… (1989)
It felt culturally important to me, a young New York transplant, that I watch this someday. I’ve seen and enjoyed a handful of the big rom-coms everyone’s heard of, and I think I figured When Harry Met Sally… was just about as good as any of them. I certainly wasn’t expecting it to completely blow the rest of them out of the water. I think some rom-com-heads would call this a hot take, probably because they think it’s overrated, but I can’t stress enough how much more I liked it as a film than so many other romantic comedies I like. I also maybe have some hot takes about the standards to which we hold rom-coms in terms of depicting realistic relationships, which I’ll save for another time. Anyway, this movie tells a really funny and cute love story that’s stuck with me ever since I saw it.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
I knew I’d want to see Across the Spider-Verse in theaters when it came out this year, so I made sure to finally see Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse beforehand. I’ve definitely caught the superhero fatigue that’s been going around lately, but Spider-Verse is such a refreshing take on the genre that it doesn’t matter that I’m bored of it. I’m really late to the party on commenting on the visual style of this film, but, damn. Into the Spider-Verse is an insanely cool movie to watch and feels exactly how you’d want a comic book movie to feel. The sequel was also spectacular and probably one of the best things I’ve seen in a theater in a while.
Uncut Gems (2019)
At this point you might be reading this and thinking I’ve transmogrified into a tedious film bro with posters of Kill Bill and Uncut Gems on my bedroom wall. No posters yet, but the jury’s still out on whether I’ve become douchier this year. Anyway, I liked Uncut Gems. The reason it’s on this list is because of how impressive I found its ability to cultivate tension throughout the entire story. This movie stressed me out so much that I had to sort of watch it in my peripheral vision while reminding myself it’s not real. It’s not just the driving conflict of the movie that’s so anxiety-inducing. The movie goes out of its way to deny the viewer even momentary comfort by making every scene cringeworthy, such as when Adam Sandler’s character has to shimmy past a row of parents at his daughter’s school play, or when he gets in a fight with The Weeknd in the middle of a nightclub. And I won’t spoil the ending here, but let’s just say that I have a deep appreciation for that kind of end to a story.
I’ve always been curious about Face/Off but didn’t know much about it beyond the most basic premise. If you don’t already know, the selling point of this movie is that Nicolas Cage is a terrorist and John Travolta is an FBI agent and for convoluted reasons they swap faces. I was expecting it to be kind of bad but in a fun way, and was pleasantly surprised that it was actually pretty solid. I’ll admit that it’s not on this list for being a better movie than the rest, but I really wanted to talk about it. It’s amazing how much actually happens in the movie; it sets up a massive terror threat as the central conflict early on and then the terror threat is thwarted before you’re halfway done, and then a million other things also happen. But the other things are cohesive, they tell a good story, and they contribute to some really interesting overall themes.
At its core it’s a cops-versus-terrorists action drama with guns and explosions, but the gimmick lends itself to unique storytelling opportunities. In particular, when Sean Archer (originally Travolta, then Cage) is stuck in a black site prison with no allies who know he’s not really Castor Troy (Cage, then Travolta), you realize that this protagonist truly has nothing left to lose. He becomes a profoundly desperate character unlike any other I can think of. Which only makes it more moving when, through sheer determination, and maybe also the power of love, he manages to claw his way to victory and get his old life back. And I haven’t even mentioned how good Travolta and Cage’s performances are. Watching Cage play Archer trapped in Troy’s body while earnestly pretending to be Troy and seeing each layer of this complicated character come across on screen is so cool.
Jackie Brown (1997)
I was making my way through some Tarantino movies and getting ready to watch Once Upon a Time in Hollywood when I made a last-minute decision to see Jackie Brown, a movie I’d basically never heard of before, instead. This movie is so good and I’m not sure why I don’t hear about it as often as Tarantino’s better-known work. One reason might be that it’s in some ways less original than his other movies. Either way, this was such an interesting watch. It invites comparison to The Sting and other heist movies in the way that it keeps the audience largely clued in to the main character’s plans while at the same time withholding some key pieces of information in service of building tension and paying off a twist. But the setting and characters are refreshingly different from other heist or crime movies. Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) is basically a normal person who has to use her ingenuity to get herself out of a jam. She does it with such infectious confidence that I spent most of the movie just trusting that she knew what she was doing even if I didn’t.
It reminded me a lot of Better Call Saul, to the point that I googled “Vince Gilligan Jackie Brown” to see if he’d ever cited it as an inspiration. Sure enough, Gilligan says he’s watched it a dozen times. Now that I’ve seen the similarity, I want more of this genre: not jobs being pulled off by professional criminals, but ordinary people, backed into a corner, willing to break a few laws and use their heads to come out on top.
If you want to see the rest of the list from the past year you can check out my letterboxd diary. I welcome any recommendations based on this list, but I’m also more than willing to try new things that maybe don’t fit in with this list as much. And, yes, I plan to continue watching one movie a week in 2024. It’s become a key part of my weekly routine and I’ve really enjoyed it, so I think I’ll keep it up. ◼