2023 left behind many films that deserve more love or attention. From Monster to Silent Night, let’s look at 10 underappreciated films of 2023!
Well, we’ve all survived another year on this Earth somehow, with the help of many great films that carried what I consider an otherwise disappointing 2023. Hopefully the year ahead of us is better all around, but as we take one final stretch to look back on 2023, I want to highlight some films that I consider to be underappreciated. Whether they were overlooked, forgotten, or underrated, these are films that deserve more love, or at least attention, than they got.
Sadly, I wound up not having any super obscure movies to talk about this year, as none really struck enough of a chord with me to include them here. Or, if they did, they didn’t technically come out in 2023. But most of my picks still undeservedly seemed to just come and go without the staying power or widespread discussion they deserved. In the case of two movies, I liked them while a majority of people didn’t. Without further ado, let’s look at 10 underappreciated films of 2023!
I’ve repeatedly stated that I don’t usually complain about Oscar snubs, no matter what I think “deserves” to be recognized. But Monster is the film whose minimal attention, both during awards season and throughout 2023, perplexes me the most. A single mother (Saori Mugino) believes that a teacher (Eita Nagayama) is abusing her son (Sōya Kurokawa), but the situation is shown to be far more complicated as we take a Rashomon-style look at each character’s perspective to unravel the truth. Monster is a film that you need to let reveal itself to you, little by little. Every time you think you know where the story is going or what’s really driving a character, so many new questions can be raised within seconds.
When you do figure out what’s going on, you realize Monster is about the love, fear, and prejudice that often comes with childhood, and the different ways they can cause entire lives to spiral out of control. It’s almost shocking how tender, simple, and likely relatable the root of the entire situation is. All of that revolves around Kurokawa, who delivers one of the best, most vulnerable performances of the year, with director Hirokazu Kore-eda guiding him through a quiet, gentle touch that cuts straight to the heart. Monster is filled with some of the best acting, directing, pacing, and visual storytelling that I’ve seen so far this decade, so if it at all strikes your interest, I can’t recommend it enough.
2. Fair Play
Alden Ehrenreich’s most prominent role in 2023 was obviously Oppenheimer. But unless you’re a diehard Cocaine Bear fan, his best role of the year is by far Fair Play, which is an excellent, underappreciated thriller as a whole and one of the best Netflix releases of the year. An engaged couple (Ehrenreich and Phoebe Dynevor) both work at a cutthroat hedge fund firm. When Dynevor’s character is promoted while Ehrenreich’s is slowly nudged out, their relationship violently falls apart. And I mean violently. If you think a film about hedge fund employees can’t be a savage, disturbing nightmare, then Fair Play is here to prove you very, very wrong. And it’s all the better for it.
What makes Fair Play so phenomenal to me is how perfectly paced the escalation of the central conflict is. Every single bit of the slow destruction of our couple feels so natural, as much as any story I’ve seen that involves a slow-building tragedy. Both Ehrenreich and Dynevor nail their characters’ initial passionate love, building resentment, and ultimately explosive hatred, guided by writing and direction from Chloe Domont that’s nothing short of nasty. The ugly nature of jealousy, corporate corruption, gender politics, and competition all clash in a way that pulls zero punches and is made even more tragic by the genuine connection you believe these characters had at the start. If you passed it over initially, Fair Play absolutely deserves a fair shot.
The first month of each year is usually a dead zone for cinema, but 2023 had probably the most enjoyable January of recent memory. That’s partially thanks to Missing, which received praise when it came out but has since been buried under the other eleven months’ worth of releases. A spiritual sequel to 2018’s Searching, Missing is a found-footage thriller that sees a daughter (Storm Reid) investigate the mysterious disappearance of her single mother (Nia Long), uncovering many dangerous secrets as she goes down the rabbit hole. Searching is one of my favorite found-footage films of all time, so it should tell you a lot when I say that Missing lives up to that movie’s high bar.
Missing boasts some of the best film editing of the year as our main character juggles and zooms through what feels like a thousand different pieces of information at once, all of which are meticulously laid out to deceive you, toy with you through slow reveals, or make you feel like an idiot for not noticing something hidden in plain sight. The degree to which everything must have had to line up so perfectly is astounding and demands multiple viewings.
When Storm Reid is onscreen, she thrives under the weight of having nearly every scene revolve around her character. The film even has a lot to say throughits format involving how the media warps our perceptions and lets real tragedies get chewed up and spat out by onlookers. The idea of a found-footage thriller in January being this good sounds absurd, but clearly this film has the Missing ingredient … Sorry, not sorry.
4. Landscape With Invisible Hand
Even by the standards of small, independent films of its type, Landscape with Invisible Hand really passed by with basically no one talking about it. The film takes place in a future where aliens have peacefully taken over Earth and radically transformed human life. A pair of high schoolers (Asante Blackk and Kylie Rogers) concocts a scheme to make money by entertaining the aliens, but their lives become complicated when the aliens grow displeased with their work. As does the plot, which admittedly shifts focus a few too many times to make for the most coherent structure. But when every focal point is as interesting and delightfully bizarre as Landscape with Invisible Hand’s are, it’s really difficult for me to complain.
Cory Finley is one of my favorite new directors for the low-key off-kilter atmosphere and worlds he creates, and this film is no exception. But the concept still feels scarily plausible in how it portrays the decline of humanity’s agency, infrastructure, and especially culture. The parallels to real-life phenomena like gentrification and identity oppression are almost too many to count. Tiffany Haddish as the main character’s mother gives one of the year’s best comedic supporting performances, the eerie score from Michael Abels is Oscar-worthy, and the aliens are incredibly unique in their designs and behaviors. The story may be a bit fragmented, but Landscape with Invisible Hand is still a great, underappreciated science fiction film with so much to take in and stew over.
5. Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant
In Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant, directed by – you’ll never believe this – Guy Ritchie, Jake Gyllenhaal plays a sergeant in the War in Afghanistan who works with an ex-Taliban agent turned translator (Dar Salim). The two of them face the trials of war together, forming a connection as they both end up needing to come to the other’s rescue, even beyond the call of duty. The Covenant goes more or less every direction you’d expect a movie like this to go, so I can understand why it’s been largely forgotten by now. But like a lot of his films, Ritchie’s hard-hitting action, slick suspense, and great use of his actors keep you locked in.
Gyllenhaal takes the kind of bland protagonist his character could have been and digs through all of the sincerity and conflicting emotions to be found within, and Dar Salim does great work carrying the film when Gyllenhaal isn’t at the center. A lot of Guy Ritchie trademarks – namely his wise-cracking humor and tonal shifts – are heavily downplayed for a much more serious and down-to-earth film, which I think would be refreshing whether you know his work or just want a well-made, straightforward action movie that doesn’t try to go tongue-in-cheek. Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant is the definition of a “dad movie,” sure, and one with very little new to say. But as those types of films go, this one is really well put together, heartfelt, and shouldn’t be ignored.
6. Dicks: The Musical
The director of Borat made A24’s first movie musical, and it features Nathan Lane adopting two sewer babies, a sentient vagina, and Bowen Yang as God … how have more people not talked about this one? Dicks: The Musical, if you couldn’t tell by the title, is a reinterpretation of The Parent Trap, in which two businessmen (Josh Sharp and Aaron Jackson) discover they’re twins who were separated at birth and swap places with each other to reunite their divorced parents (Megan Mullally and Nathan Lane). I have no doubt that a large chunk of audiences would hate this movie. It has zero qualms about going as juvenile, randomly ridiculous, and even offensive as you can get with this premise … but that’s also what should have gotten many more people embracing it as a crazy ride where anything goes.
Dicks: The Musical is basically a parody of a movie, and a really funny one at that. Its humor ranges wildly from cleverly riffing on the source material to shock value for the sake of shock value, and it all blends together more seamlessly than you’d think. The musical numbers are legitimately really good … dare I say, more cinematically shot than some higher-profile movie musicals of the year. It’s also great to see Mullaly and Lane go totally unhinged and clearly have fun doing it. Is Dicks: The Musical some great comedic masterpiece? Absolutely not. But it clearly doesn’t care about that; it just wants to make you laugh very hard and very often. For me, it accomplished that mission, and I believe it will for many others if they give it a shot.
7. Infinity Pool
Going back to the subject of forgotten January releases, I can’t neglect to mention one of the most interestingly made films of the year, Infinity Pool. Brandon Cronenberg directs a strange, twisted thriller with hints of science fiction, in which a man (Alexander Skarsgård) vacationing on an island resort is seduced into a violent, hedonistic life by the mysterious Gabi (Mia Goth). When Infinity Pool wasplaying, it was generally liked by critics but hated by general audiences. I even remember a theater employee warning someone that other patrons weren’t happy with it. I can see why anyone wouldn’t like Infinity Pool if they didn’t know what they were getting into. While this isn’t even the weirdest or most disturbing film I saw this year – hi, Beau is Afraid – it’s still out there, as most movies made by a Cronenberg are.
I personally really enjoyed the morbid, dreamlike, trippy experience that came from Cronenberg’s filmmaking, which is complimented by the ideas it brings to the table that enable the corrupt moral bankruptcy and privilege that poison almost every character. The story isn’t as deep as it seems to think it is, but it’s still a juicy setup that’s carried out well and adds intriguing context to the distinctly uncomfortable imagery and sound. The film also continues Mia Goth’s streak of playing gloriously unhinged people, as she really steals the show here. Infinity Pool doesn’t deserve to be just an underappreciated January film. It should warrant more discussion, and hopefully it will as it’s discovered over the years.
8. Polite Society
I can’t call Polite Society an outright great movie, but there’s enough creativity and charm to this irreverent comedy to warrant more attention than it got. Directed by Mida Manzoor, the film centers around Ria Khan (Priya Kansara), an aspiring stuntwoman whose older sister Lena (Ritu Arya) becomes engaged to a lavish upperclassman. Ria’s suspicions of the groom’s family lead her and her friends to break the wedding up by whatever means necessary. Like Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant, you won’t find many surprises in this plot. What you will find is a great deal of wacky fun with a unique voice.
Polite Society isn’t an action extravaganza, but the fights that are present are a lot of fun to watch, largely due to the stunt work, campy shots and effects, and extremely eye-pleasing costumes that bring a new flavor to this type of action flick. But what anchors the investment are Kansara’s heartfelt performance and Nimra Bucha as a hilariously diabolical antagonist, whose plan is so ridiculous that you can’t help but laugh and embrace it. I never expected Polite Society to set the world on fire or anything, but I was definitely expecting a bit more love from it as the entertaining romp that it is. There’s an audience for the film, so put it on if you’re ever in the mood for a silly, breezy evening watch.
9. Silent Night
I generally agree with the mixed reception Silent Night got. But I’m including it here because I think a lot of elements within the film were underappreciated, as they were too overshadowed by what didn’t quite work. John Woo’s latest film stars Joel Kinnaman as a man whose son was killed in a passing gang fight. He’s consumed with grief and trains himself to kill everyone responsible on Christmas Eve, one year later. Listen, I went into Silent Night expecting a big, schlocky, melodramatic John Woo movie that’s carried by its action and visuals. And you know what? I got exactly what I wanted. In fact, if you’re in the mood to laugh at some excessive, beat-you-over-the-head emotional camp, I think you’ll end up having fun with a lot of the first half in particular.
And then, when the film stops trying so hard to make you feel something and just gives you the action it promises in the second half, you’ll be even more appreciative of how fantastic and white-knuckled that action is. Had this not been the year a John Wick, Mission: Impossible, and Spider-Verse movie came out, I’d probably call it the best action of 2023. Some people criticized the total lack of dialogue in the film altogether, but I was impressed by how much was still communicated without it. I don’t think it came across as forced, especially with Joel Kinnaman as the hardened lead. Silent Night is definitely a mixed bag … but its highs are so good, and its lows so entertainingly, that I still think it’s more worthwhile than a lot of reviews would have you believe.
10. Five Nights at Freddy’s
Oh boy, I saved my most contentious pick for last. I know a lot of fans of the Five Nights at Freddy’s games were won over by this cinematic adaptation, but I’m seemingly one of the very few outside that base who liked it. Josh Hutcherson plays Mike, a new nighttime security guard at Freddy Fazbear’s Pizzeria, whose animatronics come to life and run amok. Mike is also coping with the childhood abduction of his brother, which it turns out may be linked to the strange pizza place. People seem to hate both the film’s story and its lack of the games’ trademark killer animatronic horror. That second criticism doesn’t bother me because I always judge films on their stories first, and I appreciate how Five Nights at Freddy’s tries to be more about the people, with the more typical genre tropes as just a backdrop.
As for the story itself … yes, it’s definitely a stretch. But I can accept it as the kind of heightened ghost story you’d hear in an old campfire tale. Hutcherson is sympathetic as a man trapped in his traumatic past, and I really like the way the past literally starts haunting him through the animatronics, trying to take what little is left of his present. Even the uncertainties and events that don’t make logical sense are left vague enough to gel with the supernatural component, where the rules are unclear in a way that adds to the creep value. The main issue is that the film doesn’t embrace that surrealist storytelling the way it should. If the director excelled at creating ghostly worlds like Ari Aster or bridging the surreal with the personal like Mike Flanagan, Five Nights at Freddy’s could have been great without many big story changes. But enough of that potential still bleeds through to make for a cool, creepy movie that I’m glad I saw.