Phoenix's Top 10 Films of 2023 So Far
By Phoenix Clouden
Half of 2023 has come and gone, and it’s time to look at the films that have stood head and shoulders above the rest. It’s going to be a long year, and the best is almost certainly yet to come, so don’t be surprised when most of these don’t stick around in my top 10 by year’s end. No one is able to see everything so I’m sure some gems have slipped past me. However, of the films I’ve been able to catch, these 10 are the best the top half of the year has had to offer.
10. Creed III
Michael B. Jordan’s directorial debut was a decidedly successful one, as he skillfully took over the reins of the Rocky franchise with the latest installment in the story of Adonis Creed. This time, Creed’s battling a demon from his past: muscular ex-con Damien Anderson. Jordan’s film takes a slightly different approach than previous entries. In this sequel, Creed has retired and is looking to be more of a promoter until Damien comes back into his life. The more we learn about his past and connection to Creed, the clearer his obsession becomes. The desire to keep the film short works against it somewhat, especially when it comes to the final fight scene, but the way these two titans clash to air out all the traumas of their past was a fitting sight to behold. Creed III is a worthy addition to this boxing franchise that I hope continues for years to come.
9. A Thousand and One
A Thousand and One, a film by another debut director in A.V. Rockwell, was not remotely on my radar but managed to knock it out of the park regardless. It stars superstar singer-turned-actress Teyana Taylor in a very personal and dramatic role as a mother fighting for a life with her son. This small independent film begins in the late 80s and continues through the 90s as it follows a family trying to stay strong and stick together despite their difficult circumstances. Teyana Taylor is an absolute tour de force in this film as we see her go from hustler to provider to everything in between throughout this film. It’s one of those performances that should elevate her status moving forward and place her firmly in the spotlight. She’s not alone either, as both her co-stars William Catlett and Josiah Cross give wonderfully authentic performances that feel truly tender and lived in. This is one of the quiet sleepers of the year that I hope will build in acclaim and passion in the months to come.
We’ve covered two films from newbie directors, so it’s only fitting that we transition to a film from one of the best directors currently working. Wes Anderson is back to deliver his signature style in a massive ensemble piece (another signature of his) about science, aliens, the creation of a play, the consumption of art, or something in between. The film's true intention is honestly anyone’s guess as Wes delivers one of his vaguest but also one of his most entertaining films yet. With the help of Jason Schwartzmann, Tom Hanks, Scarlett Johansson, Jeffrey Wright, Tilda Swinton, Bryan Cranston, and more, Anderson’s delightful comedy hits all the right notes as these actors try to understand the story while they’re telling it. It’s a fascinating display of Wes’s craftsmanship in both crafting a world that simultaneously doesn’t feel real and doesn’t need to. Asteroid City features 3 layers of storytelling that somehow coherently manage to amalgamate in a satisfying way. It’s a maddening film, and perhaps unnecessarily complicated as well, but it is nonetheless so very entertaining.
I may be alone on this one, but the latest installment in the Ant-Man franchise was one of the best films the MCU has produced in a while. This kickoff to Phase 5 was just what the MCU needed to go back in the right direction. This story has a completely different tone from the previous Ant-Man movies, which I think is more than deserved. A character can’t go through what Scott Lang did in the last two Avengers movies and go back to being a petty thief dealing with small underworld criminals. Now, for some people, that was precisely what made Ant-Man work for them, but I’m not as adverse to change, especially when you have the game-changing and fiercely intense villain Kang. Plus, the stakes are much higher and carry implications that will reverberate through this phase and beyond. Yet despite the increased stakes and often terrifying villain, Ant-Man: Quantumania still manages to keep things light and funny most of the time without being overbearing. It’s honestly the first MCU film to make me excited for what’s coming next since Spider-Man: No Way Home, and if I’m alone on that hill, so be it.
6. Scream VI
Horror sequels generally have a less than stellar track record, as they tend to rehash the original and lack any sort of bite. Seeing as this is the 6th installment of a horror franchise, you’d expect it to be another lazy, poorly-written excuse for a horror film. But that certainly isn’t the case here. Director duo Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett have managed to breathe new life into this franchise with lovable new characters, interesting new situations, and a Ghostface mystery that keeps you guessing right up until the end. The best part is that instead of focusing the story solely on the mystery of the killer, they allow us to spend much-needed time with our cast. They’ve bonded together after the events of the last film and moved to a new city together. This change of scenery couldn’t have been a better idea, as it allows for some fun new locations and creative shots we couldn’t have achieved in Woodsboro. Melissa Barrera and Jenna Ortega’s chemistry as sisters is extremely believable and provides satisfying payoffs in this film’s climax. For a franchise that some may say has gone on for too long, it’s nice to see that Scream films can still kill it and be a thoroughly rewarding time.
This small-scale indie flick has a lot of heart and a powerful message. Adapted from the book by Andreas Malm, director Daniel Goldhaber infuses this story with non-linear storytelling, sharp editing, and a tense score that keeps the stakes intense from beginning to end. The film is also shot in this wide camera style that gives the appearance of documentary footage, making it look as if each actor is doing a reenactment of a real event. This puts the audience in the driver’s seat alongside the characters as they embark on a mission with the highest of consequences for the sake of their planet and their future. This film is a call to action, a warning, and one of the most powerful films of the year.
It’s fitting to transition from an intense real-world drama to an intense hyper-realized world class action film. The (hopefully) final chapter of the John Wick series is without a doubt one of the best action films ever made. The stunt work takes an enormous step up from the first three to deliver spectacle and wonder in both the stylized action and the shot composition, creating one of the most marvelous collections of action sequences the world has ever seen. Keanu Reeves returns as the jilted, formerly retired assassin, this time being hunted by the new Marquis of the High Table and an old friend who might be John’s equal in the blind assassin Caine (Donnie Yen). This film is just pure entertainment, from high-adrenaline car chases to shootouts in neon lit nightclubs to sword fights in Tokyo. John Wick: Chapter 4 delivers the goods in a globe-trotting, high-octane, thrill ride of a film that serves as the perfect conclusion to this franchise.
3. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3
Speaking of final films, James Gunn’s final installment in the Guardians franchise (and his final movie for the MCU in general as he moves on to head the studio for DC) was highly anticipated by many, even by those who had gotten sick of the franchise by this point. We’ve had 9 years to fall in love with these delightful idiots, so even for those whose standards for the MCU had lowered, a solid ending was more than expected. And boy, what a great send-off it was. After having several MCU entries that dealt with multiverses, incursions, and universe altering stakes, it was nice to finally get a film about a group of friends just trying to save the life of their other friend. With it comes the full backstory of how Rocket Raccoon came to be, the experiments done by the High Evolutionary, and where the Guardians as a team go from here. It was an emotional farewell that celebrated our own camaraderie with these characters while also being a timely message about cohabitation with nature, animals, and our fellow man. This film managed to close out a wonderful trilogy and provide a breath of fresh air to the MCU. Now we’ll all just hold our collective breath to see if they can maintain this momentum without the services of Gunn or the Guardians as we move forward.
When the directors were asked if there would be more Miles Morales Spider-Verse movies after the completion of their trilogy, they said, “We don’t know…we’re exhausted.” And it’s easy to see why. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is not only able to surpass the greatness of its first film, but also that of almost every comic book film in recent memory. It ups the ante on animation and delivers some of the most impressive visuals I’ve ever seen, whether it’s making each universe unique in color pattern and design or giving each character their own artistic style. But not only does this film look gorgeous, but it also tells a compelling story about what it means to carry the mantle and what sacrifices should be made. Miles’s adventure this time takes him on a quest of self-discovery, as he wonders whether he’s capable of truly living up to the responsibility his power has granted him. Along the way, we meet a whole host of interesting Spider-people, like the happy go-lucky Pravitr Prabakhar of Mumbattan and the anarchic, ever-inconsistent Spider-Punk Hobie Brown. The cast of characters are all fascinating and impressively voice cast. The adventure is largely satisfying and ends on somewhat of a cliffhanger, leaving us desperate to know what happens next. This film is once again enhanced by a stellar soundtrack, this time curated by superstar Metro Boomin. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is another knockout for Sony Pictures Animation and a triumph for animation as a medium of powerful storytelling. I can’t wait to see how the final film will change the game once again.
Debut directors have had a fantastic year so far, but none more so than Celine Song. Her feature debut Past Lives might be the most emotionally devastating movie of the year as it explores the concept of love, fate, and the paths our lives lead us on. In it, we are privy to a 20-year relationship that could have been more but never was. It asks all the important questions while knowing there are no easy answers. Greta Lee’s Nora and Teo Yoo’s Hae Sung were childhood sweethearts, but too young to know or understand how to express their feelings for each other. When Nora immigrates to the US, she falls for and eventually marries Jewish writer Arthur (John Magaro). Some years later, Hae Sung comes to the states to meet Nora in person for the first time since they were kids. Each scene with these characters is thick with tension and heartache as the loss they have due to the life they’ve chosen is painfully clear to both characters. They are both stuck between wondering whether their lives would be better off together and being afraid of ruining the lives they currently have. These moments tug at your heartstrings, as you yourself battle with the romanticism of going for it all versus the reality of risking it all for chance and will eventually find yourself as torn as our characters are. Set to a fitting piano score, brought to life by a brilliant screenplay, and illustrated with sumptuous cinematography, Past Lives will shatter you into a million pieces and leave its themes reverberating in your mind long after the credits roll. Though I’m not sure what films are left to come, it’s hard to imagine many topping the brilliant feat that is Past Lives.