Friday, January 5, 2024

Notes on Film: Favorite Film Discoveries of 2023

 by Anthony King

A fine year at the movies.

As we celebrate another trip around that big ball of flaming gas in space it's time to write my favorite column of the year. Last week I shared my ten favorite new releases of 2023, a first for me. And while it was a fun exercise, it only proved to me my cinematic love is best spent watching older movies. As I always do, I have one caveat that defines my discoveries list: a film only qualifies if it was released before the year 2000. Granted, Sexy Beast (2000) isn't a new, or even recent, movie, but these are my rules. Maybe next year I'll move the cutoff year up five years. Until then, those 24-year-old movies don't count!

I watched a total of 551 movies last year. Of those, 394 were first-time viewings, and 270 were films released before the year 2000. I enjoyed (gave a heart on Letterboxd) 237 of those movies, or 87.7%, which means I watched lots of good movies in 2023. Enough math! As always, it was a near-impossible task to narrow this list to 10, and it was readjusted for the final time just before I sat down to start writing. Films that just missed cut include John Woo's Bullet in the Head (1990), Bruce Beresford's Tender Mercies (1983), and Kinji Fukasaku's Yakuza Graveyard (1976).

10. A Better Tomorrow II (1987, dir. John Woo)
Maybe you were flabbergasted to have just read Bullet in the Head missed the cut. Well, it's because Mr. Woo already makes two appearances on the final list and I thought I should at least attempt to spread the love. A Better Tomorrow II is a rare case where the sequel is as good as if not better than the original film. As much as I love A Better Tomorrow (1986), its successor ups the ante and adds in a little more humor. Don't get me wrong, though: this isn't a comedy. It's an over-the-top John Woo shoot-em-up if there ever was one. Chow Yun-fat returns in the sequel as his character from the first film's twin brother and teams up with Ti Lung, Dean Shek, and Kenneth Tsang for a mission of revenge. Bullets fly, bodies pile high, Chow Yun-fat inhales flames from a lighter, and a bloody good time is had by all.

9. The Sunday Woman (1975, dir. Luigi Comencini)
Charm is the name of the game in this Italian murder mystery. Marcello Mastroianni, Jacqueline Bisset, and Jean-Louis Trintignant star in this red herring-filled dark romance where the plot sometimes becomes as twisted as the roads of Turin. Many times I find myself checking out from a convoluted story but The Sunday Woman is a stunning film, from the cast of beautiful Italian (and French) people to the picturesque setting in the Piedmont region of Italy. It's that beauty that keeps me thinking of this film.

8. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962, dir. John Ford)
We love a title that doesn't bury the lede. I love James Stewart westerns because he's not the stereotypical cowboy in my opinion. He's raw and vulnerable and wears his heart on his sleeve. While he plays a badass in many of these roles, it's usually a facade, masking a broken man with real human feelings. This is opposed to other stereotypical cowboys like Randolph Scott, Gary Cooper, or, Stewart's co-star here, John Wayne. This is a perfect match in my opinion. Wayne takes it upon himself to become Stewart's protector/trainer. The story unfolds in flashback after Stewart arrives in town for the funeral of his old friend played by Wayne. This is one of the most touching stories of friendship I've ever seen. The mystery surrounding who, in fact, shot Liberty Valance takes a back seat to a wonderful display of male friendship. While Wayne always seemed like a man's man who never displayed emotion, many times his male screen partners were able to bring out a vulnerability not often seen from the Duke. Stewart wrings Wayne out like a sponge, and it's a beautiful display.

7. Warriors Two (1978, dir. Sammo Hung)
Speaking of male friendship, another genre of film where vulnerability is hardly ever shown is the kung fu movie. Cassanova Wang vows revenge after his mother is killed. Leung Kar-yan trains him in the ancient style of Wing Chun, and along with Sammo Hung, they take on the bad guys. The most remarkable thing about Warriors Two is the fact Sammo and his crew learned the Wing Chun, an all but extinct style of kung fu that had never been put on film before. Most of Sammo's films boast incredible fight choreography, but this one has a sort of balletic beauty that becomes hypnotic to watch. The final showdown is one of the most enthralling and pulse-pounding sequences I've ever seen.

6. Two Rode Together (1961, dir. John Ford)
If I'm going to have two John Woo movies on this list, I might as well have two John Ford movies. Two Rode Together is higher than Liberty Valance not because it's a better movie, per se, but because I enjoyed it a little more, and as much as I loved the relationship between Stewart and Wayne, I LOVE the relationship between Stewart and Richard Widmark here. Stewart has the cush job of being sheriff of a small town whose old friend played by Widmark, a Lt. in the cavalry, rides into town. The two are tasked with bringing home a group of settlers who were captured years ago by a Comanche tribe. Sort of a cross between Ford's The Searchers (1956), and John Farrow's Hondo (1953), it's an Odd Couple situation between Stewart and Widmark which supplies plenty of laughs, yet keeps the tension ratcheted to near-unbearable heights as the peace treaty between the Native Americans and white settlers begins to unravel.

5. The Minus Man (1999, dir. Hampton Francher)
This is the true hidden gem on my list. I've never heard anyone talk about this movie, yet it seems like plenty of people have seen it. Owen Wilson stars as a quiet stranger who's just moved to a small town. He rents a room in the house of Brian Cox and Mercedes Ruehl, develops a cute romantic relationship with Janeane Garofalo, and leads a nice little life. We've got a Dexter situation, though, and the people that have come to love Wilson are in denial. I love Wilson in this sort of role. He's very much Owen Wilson – cute, charming, friends with everyone – but he's able to portray something that is never put into action. It's all in his mannerisms. It's in his eyes. It proved to me that Owen Wilson, an actor I like, is a really fucking great artist.

4. The Boys in the Band (1970, dir. William Friedkin)
It only seems right to have a Friedkin movie on this list, and if you read my piece about it earlier this year, you know this became a very personal favorite of mine. As much as I love Friedkin, The Boys in the Band is more about Mart Crowley's script than Friedkin's direction. This is one of those types of movies where the slow build of dread seems so out of place but also seems like such an honest part of life for these men. This is long before AIDS had a name or before the epidemic of the '80s, yet it also seems like a precursor to what lies ahead. The anger inside all of these men is a result of the world surrounding them and Crowley is able to put into words what these men feel. Friedkin and this phenomenal cast, then, put animated life into those words, and the result is one of the most emotional experiences I've ever had watching a movie.

3. Fighting Back (1982, dir. Lewis Teague)
I'm still slapping myself for not including this in my 52/82 column. But thanks to an Arrow Blu-ray release last year, I finally got to see Tom Skerritt in Philadelphia fighting back. I have a running private Letterboxd list every year of discoveries. Whenever I watch something that could end up in the final 10 I toss it on the list. In December I then start going through the list of around 50 movies to first eliminate anything that I'd forgotten about, and then I give a quick ranking. Every couple days I'd go back to the list, make any movements if needed, and go about my day. Most of the time my top five was unchanging. Except for Fighting Back. On December 1st it was in the 10th spot. But the more I thought about it the more I began to really love it. I love that it's a Philly movie. I love that it's a neighborhood movie. I love that it has several morals. I love that Yaphet Kotto is the godhead. I love that the ending is painfully and perfectly ambiguous. I love that the Letterboxd description is, “An Italian deli owner forms a vigilante group to rid his Philadelphia neighborhood of street punks,” is exactly what this movie is, except that this movie is so much more than that there aren't words to explain it.

2. The Hunt for Red October (1990, dir. John McTiernan)
I started reading Tom Clancy's novel on January 21 of last year, finished it on February 3, and watched McTiernan's movie the following day. It was a perfect two weeks. I remember this being the second movie of one of the double features we used to watch at my grandma's. Several times I'd watch the movie from the bedroom directly across from the tv, but in this case I remember being bored to tears and falling asleep. Now that I'm in my 40s with children I figured I'd better watch The Hunt for Red October because it seemed like a Dad Movie. And what a Dad Movie it is! I knew I would love it because I love every Clancy novel I read, but I wasn't expecting to have my mind blown by McTiernan directing the ever loving SHIT out of the movie. Every 10 minutes I was doing the Antonio Banderas from Assassins gif. I'd just read the novel. I knew exactly what was going to happen. Yet during the game of submarine chicken (of which, again, I knew the outcome) I was like, “Holy shit what's gonna happen!?!?” It's a perfect movie.

1. Hard Boiled (1992, dir. John Woo)
How about a John Woo/Chow Yun-fat bookend for this year's discoveries list? You've heard of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost? Screw that. It's Chow Yun-fat, Tony Leung, and Anthony Wong now. Can I get an amen? I watched 12 John Woo films in 2023. One was terrible (the American remake of his original Once a Thief), while the rest were, at the very least, extremely good. This is not breaking news to anyone who's seen it, but Hard Boiled rises above them all. Something that Hong Kong crime movies have managed to do throughout the years is keep the aesthetic of the '80s crime movie. It's not just about neon lights and wet streets. It's an attitude. By 1992 American crime movies started to lose that. Yet even in movies like John Woo's Manhunt (2017) or Johnnie To's The Mission (1999) that aesthetic remains. Hard Boiled takes that aesthetic, reduces it down to its absolute essence, and puts it on film for the world to inject into its veins. It's big and fast and it never lets up even at just over two hours. I watched it on January 7th and I knew as soon as it ended I would be writing about it as my number one favorite film discovery of 2023.


  1. The fact that Hard Boiled never got a proper collector's edition blu-ray is a crime

  2. Isn't it great when you can get lost in story? That is getting more challenging for me as life becomes increasingly demanding, so I truly welcome those moments when it happens.

    Hard Boiled has been a Junesploitation candidate for around five years now. I have watched The Killer and Face/Off in that context, so it seems appropriate to save Hard Boiled for a June viewing. With the acquisition of several Hong Kong titles over the past year, however, there is more competition for a slot than ever.