The Beauty is Gone – How American Beauty Went From Oscar Champ to Forgotten in 25 Years

There’s one thing that is interesting about the growing list of Oscar winners over it’s 96 year history.  That thing is how each year’s selection of winner becomes a bit of a time capsule of their era in film.  Of course there are some winners that do remain timeless and feel just as fresh and entertaining today as they were when they first premiered in theaters, such as Casablanca (1943), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), or both The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974).  But then there are some winners that don’t quite translate as well over the years as the tastes of movie audiences change.  For some of them, historical context is necessary towards understanding why this particular film rose to the top of the Oscar field.  Some are just due to studio politics, such as the dated and cliché The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) beating out the timeless High Noon (1952).  But other times a winner is just the product of it’s era and just doesn’t translate well over time.  It doesn’t always mean that the movie is bad, but it is clear that some movies age poorly.  By all accounts How Green Was My Valley (1941) is a charming little family drama, but the only thing we seem to know about it today is that it’s the movie that beat Citizen Kane (1941) for Best Picture.  For their time, honoring these kinds of movies would’ve made sense, because they reflected the mood of Academy voter, who have more than not favored the more uplifting film.  But, there are times when you see the Academy choose a winner that feels like a breakthrough film at the time which unfortunately over the years begins to look more and more like an out of touch exercise with hindsight.  And I don’t think that I have ever seen a Best Picture winner fall of the pedestal harder than the 1999 champion American Beauty.   25 years ago, American Beauty looked like it was going to be the herald for a new era in cinema.  Nowadays, it comes across as naïve and pandering, and even more surprisingly, almost completely forgotten.

I remember the way that Hollywood fawned over this film when it first came out.  This was going to be the movie that shaped a new era in Hollywood with it’s tackling of then taboo subjects of suburban malaise, teenage sexuality, and homophobia.  It also had a high pedigree of talent behind it.  With the backing of Hollywood rising star Dreamworks and it’s trio of super producers Katzenberg, Geffen and Spielberg, this movie was design from the get go to dazzle the Academy.  West End stage director Sam Mendes was called upon to make his big screen debut after dazzling the theater world with his acclaimed re-imagining of Cabaret for both London and Broadway.  Veteran cinematographer Conrad Hall (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) was hired to shoot the picture and Thomas Newman was given the duties of scoring the film, and in each case they were breaking the mold of a Hollywood prestige picture.  Then there was the cast, which included established stars like Kevin Spacey and Annette Benning as well as young newcomers like Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, and Mena Suvari.  And it was all centered around a screenplay from longtime sitcom writer Alan Ball that Spielberg was said to have fallen in love with immediately.  Overall, this was a movie that came together with all the right ingredients at the right time, which is the case with most movies that end up collecting multiple awards.  But for it’s time, this movie was believed to be something else entirely.  Understanding the context of it’s release, American Beauty was coming out at the tail end of the 1990’s, which at that time had seen high budget period dramas dominate at the Oscars, including Braveheart (1995), The English Patient (1996), and Titanic (1997).  The year prior, the very safe pick of Shakespeare in Love (1998) had upset Saving Private Ryan (1998), so the Academy was beginning to be criticized for being out of touch, which may have been what prompted the turn that benefitted American Beauty in the eyes of Academy voters.  And boy did it, as it not only took home Best Picture, but it was one Best Actress award short of completing the Oscar Hat Trick, which is winning the top five awards (Screenplay, Actor, Actress, Director, Picture), a feat only three films have ever achieved (1934’s It Happened One Night, 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs).

So what was it about the film that cast this spell on the Academy.  The movie looks at the lives of two suburban families going through various crises.  The Burnhams are a nuclear American family on the verge of implosion after years of sexual frustration on the part of the depressed patriarch Lester (Kevin Spacey).  Living next door are the Fitts family, which is lorded over by a disciplinarian and homophobic father named Frank (Chris Cooper) who clashes constantly with his artistically inclined son Ricky (Wes Bentley).  Both in many ways represented the ideals of the nuclear American family that so many in conservative media like to push forward, and this movie takes a sledgehammer to that image and exposes all the cracks underneath.  Lester is depressed by his lack of urgency over his life, and then is “awoken” after being aroused by his daughter’s “sexy” best friend.  From that moment, he disrupts all of the routines that have governed his life and begins to do things his way, much to the chagrin of his career driven wife (Annette Benning), whose got her own subversive issues going on.  And of course the kids are going through their own hormonal awakening throughout the movie.  And then there is the Colonel, whose external homophobia we learn is a mask for his own self-hatred.  It’s in general a critique of the societal masks that we impose on ourselves to function in a modern society, and the movie examines if those masks themselves are part of the problem we face everyday.  After a long line of safe, studio driven fare, I can see how the Academy believed that American Beauty was this subversive gem that would start a new era of filmmaking in Hollywood.  In some ways it kind of did, but not in a way that would put American Beauty as the touchstone film that they thought it would be.  In general, 1999 was a year full of movies that would shake up Hollywood, and some have held up much better over time than American Beauty did like Fight Club (1999), The Matrix (1999), Magnolia (1999) and The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999).  Those films continue to inspire filmmakers to this day, but I can’t think of any other movie that strived to be the next American Beauty.

So, why is it that 25 years later American Beauty has fallen off people’s radar despite being such a big winner at the Oscars.  It’s been out of print as a physical media release for nearly a decade now, and you’d have to dig pretty deep to find it on streaming (currently it’s on Paramount+ along with most Dreamworks catalog titles).  I think the primary reason that people no longer talk about this movie these days is pretty obvious, so I’ll just get to the elephant in the room.  The depiction of Lester Burnham in the movie seems to diminish the pedophiliac nature of his character.  He is the main protagonist of the story (the whole thing is framed through his post-death narration) so we are observing the movie through his perspective.  And Lester’s main motivation is that he wants to have sex with an underage girl.  25 years later this element of the character cannot in any way be justified.  Now truth be told, he doesn’t go through with it, but the movie does comes as close to the edge as it can with the subject matter and at the same time, this sexual drive is seen as a positive thing for his character development because it’s what pulls Lester out of his mid-life funk and let’s him feel alive again.  The implications of that are just icky in today’s culture, especially in a #MeToo world.  But if it was just the character development in the movie, maybe you could just dismiss it as out of touch for it’s time.  Unfortunately, we have learned of Kevin Spacey’s real life sex crimes, and it make the character of Lester Burnham almost unbearable to watch now.  Unlike Lester, we know Spacey actually went through with his molestation of underage victims, by his own admission.  It’s a disgraceful revelation that in many ways has clouded the reputation of American Beauty more than anything else.  With things hitting pretty close to real life, I wonder if Alan Ball has any regrets in letting his main character be let off the hook for almost committing statutory rape.  I get that exposing the cracks underneath polite American society was the aim, but some things need to be called out as unacceptable and this movie just seemed to forget that.

Before the exposure of Kevin Spacey as a perverted monster, American Beauty faced another backlash over the years since it’s release, and that was the perception that it was a pretentious movie.  American Beauty rides that fine line between the naturalistic and heightened sense of reality.  While the movie is grounded in a contemporary (for it’s time) American setting, the film also takes several turns into flights of fantasy, mainly as a way of looking into the minds of the characters.  We especially see this with the moments that Lester lusts after the character Angela (Mena Suvari), with deep red roses being a heavy metaphoric presence.  Sure, those moments are beautifully shot by the late Conrad Hall, but in the end they are more style over substance given how heavy handed these moments are.  Still, those are the moments that helped to sell the movie and remain the most memorable to this day, so that’s a credit to the craft of the movie.  Where most of the pretention lies is with the dialogue found in Alan Ball’s script.  Originally, American Beauty was originally conceived as a stage play, and that helps to make the heightened dialogue feel more within context.  The characters in this movie do not talk like real human beings, but more like they are characters within a play whom the actors must imbue with heightened emotions.  For the most part, the lines that are supposed to be profound just become annoyingly cloy.  This is especially true with the character of Ricky, whose artistic sensibilities come across as particularly hollow.  The notorious trash bag scene over time has become the poster child moment of this movie’s pretentious reputation.  What was supposed to sound deep and poetic in it’s day now in today’s eyes just looks like a privileged white boy’s low effort attempt at filmmaking.  There are stronger moments in the movie that do still work, like the escalating tension of the dinner scene where Lester throws the plate of asparagus at the wall, but for the most part you can tell a lot of this script would’ve hit a bit harder if performed on a stage, instead of being awkwardly translated for the screen.

There is one thing about the movie that I do think has subtly worked it’s way through the culture at large since it’s premiere.  The character of Lester Burnham in many ways started the trend of “difficult men” on both the small and little screen in the 20 years since it’s release.  This is particularly the case on television, where you see characters like Tony Soprano and Walter White emerge in pop culture in the 2000’s and beyond.  While Lester Burnham was not the first of these kinds of characters (a main protagonist that is interesting to dissect while at the same time hard to sympathize), he certainly helped to popularize the type.  As problematic as Lester is, his character evolution is in itself an interesting catalyst in examining the subversive fractures of American society, particularly when it comes to masculinity.  You see many more characters of this kind post-American Beauty than before, which in the 80’s and 90’s leading up to it kind of presented a more idealized portrayal of the modern American male.  Lester Burnham was a deeply flawed individual, but that ascension of his own worst instincts bubbling to the surface made him a far more interesting character as a result, and it changed the perception of what constituted a portrayal of masculinity in movies thereafter.  But, at the same time, the movie does have it’s own dated portrayals of masculine/feminine dynamic that haven’t aged very well either.  What is surprising is that Alan Ball, who is a queer writer himself, seems to perpetuate the antiquated idea of deep in the closet resentment being the driving force behind homophobia.  We learn that Colonel Fitts’ virulent homophobia is it’s own mask for his own closeted feelings, but this feels like a story element that minimalizes the horrific nature of violence towards the gay community.  Yes, there are cases where homophobes have been exposed as having secret gay affairs, but for the most part violence committed against the gay community has just been the result of pure bigotry.  To pin internalized homophobia around Colonel Fitts’ motivations is a very reductive approach to a very serious problem that still affects the queer community in American society today.  I feel that with hindsight, this is a part of Alan Ball’s script that likely would be much more nuanced today.

The movie primarily has the problem of just being too tied in with it’s era.  It is a very Clinton-era movie, made back in a time when the worst that this country was going through was the scandalous thought of an American president being unfaithful to his wife.  In some ways, I kind of see what may have inspired this movie to begin with.  American Beauty definitely feels like a cry out into the dark abyss of modern American malaise.  It was a post-Cold War world where we as a society were growing comfortable with the idea of being the world’s sole super power.  American Beauty was very much a wake up call to remind us Americans that society is not as candy colored as it seems.  America is a complex society of many divisions, and trying to mask over that with an unrealistic picture of polite, suburban values is doing more harm than good.  Now, the delivery of that message in American Beauty is undermined by it’s own pretentions, but the underlying idea behind it is still sound.  One thing that I think unravels the movie as a whole from achieving it’s goal is the way that it handles the ending.  Spoiler Warning, but the movie closes with the murder of Lester Burnham.  The death has been telegraphed throughout the movie, as Lester is speaking in narration beyond the grave (an inspiration from the classic Sunset Boulevard).  What I think would have made the movie much more of a masterpiece is if it left the identity of the murderer ambiguous.  We see fully who pulled the trigger on Lester (Colonel Fitts) and it kind of robs the movie of it’s most profound moment.  There are several culprits who may have wanted Lester dead by the end, and the mystery it left behind would’ve been a great thing to leave the audience with.  This moment would’ve felt even more poignant years after, because in the context of the movie, Lester’s murder is the catalyst for destroying any remaining perception of the perfect American idealized world left in the lives of these characters.  Honestly, there’s a story to be told about what happened to all these characters afterward, because just like the families in the movie, America itself was on the verge of it’s own traumatic upheaval.  American Beauty was the first Best Picture winner of the new millennium, and in the 25 years since America has seen the 9/11 attacks, decades of war, economic upheaval, a rise in Fascism, and a crippling pandemic.  American Beauty warns us of how we grow too complacent sometimes, and the years since have only reinforced how much we take for granted with our own comfort.

American Beauty unfortunately is undermined with it’s own dated sense of values from the time it was first written and filmed.  The world has changed considerably in the last 25 years, and a pretentious examination of suburban malaise just doesn’t have the sting that it used to.  The fall from grace that Kevin Spacey has gone through hasn’t helped either.  Still, there are many things about American Beauty that still hold up very well.  One is Annette Benning’s incredible performance as Carolyn Burnham.  Her career obsessed matriarch driven to the extreme to uphold her place in society is still a potent character portrayal.  The scene where she has an emotional breakdown after having a terrible Open House showing for her clients, with the backlighting of the closed blinds perfectly captured by Conrad Hall’s camera, is a definite highlight of the movie.  And unlike Spacey, her career is still in top form as Ms. Benning has just been nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars again for the movie Nyad (2023); he fifth overall.  Sam Mendes, who is only one of three directors to ever win for a debut film, has only gotten better in the last 25 years as a filmmaker.  His follow-up to American Beauty was in my opinion his masterpiece with the amazing Road to Perdition (2002), and he’s made many other astonishing films such as Skyfall (2012) and 1917 (2019) since then.  Conrad Hall would sadly deliver his swan song with Road to Perdition as he passed away before it’s release, and he won a posthumous Oscar for his work.  Both that and American Beauty represented a fantastic late career resurgence for one of the master cameramen of Hollywood.  And Alan Ball’s sensationalized style of writing would find a better place back on television with hit shows like Six Feet Under and True Blood.  For the movie American Beauty, it remains a film today that’s both infuriating for it’s pretentiousness but admirable for it’s artistry.  Given the crazy quarter century that’s we’ve been through, I honestly think it would be interested to revisit this kind of story.  Perhaps Alan Ball and Sam Mendes should consider a stage version like it was originally was supposed to be, but with a more contemporary context, especially when addressing Lester Burnham’s problematic underage lust.  It is fascinating how in 25 years, this movie went from the peak of Hollywood glory to a cinematic footnote.  It’s both deserving of scorn, but also much more interesting than that.  At the very least, it’s worthy of a re-watch.  Times change, but cinema is forever, and this may be a plastic bag caught in the wind of a movie, but that in a way is it’s own beautiful little time capsule.

Focus on a Franchise – DC Extended Universe (DCEU): Part One

Roll back the clock to the mid 2000’s and the cinematic landscape was very different for movies based on comic books.  DC was still trying to find it’s footing again after the disastrous implosion of their Batman franchise with Batman & Robin (1997) while at the same time Marvel had their many characters scattered around Hollywood at multiple studios.  Then in 2005, Christopher Nolan launched onto the scene with his grounded re-imagining of the Batman character with Batman Begins.  The movie was both a financial success as well as a critical darling, which made Hollywood realize that comic book movies could be so much more than just standard popcorn entertainment.  Which then led to the year 2008, which was a touchstone year for the genre as a whole because it not only saw the premiere of Nolan’s monumental second film in what would be his Dark Knight trilogy, the iconic The Dark Knight, but it was also the year that Marvel premiered Iron Man, the first film in the ambitiously planned Marvel Cinematic Universe.  While Christopher Nolan’s trilogy was winning praise from audiences and critics alike, Marvel was also gaining attention for their attempt at a connected universe through multiple franchises centered around their different characters, and with the acquisition of Marvel by Disney, the comic book giant now had a home base to put that plan together without too much intereference.  This plan culminated in the team up film called The Avengers (2012), which broke multiple box office records, including those set by The Dark Knight.  Hollywood had now seen the concept of a cinematic universe work on a massive scale and many of the studios were eager to repeat the magic that Marvel had managed to conjure up.  It would seem that DC would be in the best position to match what Marvel had achieved, given that they had their own stable of iconic super heroes and were also riding on the high of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy at the time.

But, as many would find out, it was almost impossible to repeat the same formula as effectively as Marvel had been doing.  Even as many of the studios were trying to form their own cinematic universes, Marvel continued to build with every new phase.  Universal failed in spectacular fashion with their “Dark Universe” based on their stable of movie monsters.  Sony, clinging heavily to their rights to the Spider-Man franchise, have put out numerous failed projects centered around as many superfluous characters in the Spider-Man orbit as they can, with only the Venom films being mildly successful.  But no other studio tried harder to compete with the likes of Marvel than their rival DC.  Under the corporate umbrella of Warner Brothers, the DC Comics Studio was given a significant spotlight in the wake of the success of the MCU.  The pressure was on to have the DC characters to have a cinematic universe of their own that would be on par with Marvel.  But the question remained, who would be the one to lead the charge.  At Marvel, the reigns of the cinematic universe were not held by one film director, but rather by the head of Marvel Studios Kevin Feige, who delineated with his inner circle what stories would be told and how all those story thread would be woven into a larger story.  Who would be DC’s Feige then?  After completing his trilogy with The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Christopher Nolan was ready to move on and work on other projects he was interested in like Interstellar (2014) and Dunkirk (2017).  DC and Warner Brothers instead turned to another one of their rising star filmmakers to help set the tone for their planned universe.  That filmmaker was Zack Snyder, who just a few years prior made a statement for himself with faithful adaptations of graphic novels such as 300 (2007) and Watchmen (2009).  With Marvel leaning more into the colorful and comedic, it was decided that DC would lean more into the dark and dramatic in order to differentiate their universe, which Snyder was a good match for.  And so, the beginning of the DC Extended Universe was set.  But, as we would see, Cinematic Universes don’t always go as planned.


Directed by Zack Snyder

There are many factors that went into making the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) the runaway hit that it was, but one of the undeniable factors of it’s success would be the solid foundation it was built upon with the success of it’s first film, Iron Man.  Had that movie not worked, it would have poured water on the whole plan moving forward.  So, a lot was resting on the results the movie that would launch the DC Extended Universe (DCEU).  It’s only logical that the starting point for this multi-year, multi-film plan would have to involve the most iconic super hero in the entire DC stable; Superman.  Superman of course already had a strong cinematic background before, with the classic Richard Donner directed/ Christopher Reeve starring 1978 original being seen as the film that launched this genre in the first place.  But, after the disaster that was Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987), the “man of steel” had been on a lengthy hiatus on the big screen.  The well-intentioned but ultimately dull Superman Returns (2006) likewise cast doubts on Superman’s box office viability.  But, his story does offer a great starting point to launch a cinematic universe, given that Superman is the world’s most recognizable super hero.  What DC wanted to do this time was to ground Superman in the same way that Christopher Nolan had with Batman.  Zack Snyder could certainly bring that grittier style that was needed, but is that a good fit for the character of Superman?  There are a lot of questionable choices made in Man of Steel, chief among them would be what was seen as gratuitous violence that felt out of character for Superman.  The film was controversial for it’s time given that the resulting fight between Superman and the villainous General Zod leaves the city of Metropolis in a smoky ruin, with uncomfortable echoes of the devastation of 9/11.  Also, Superman ends up stopping Zod by killing him, which according to comic book lore is very much the antithesis of Superman’s pure hearted character.  To many people, Snyder’s approach to the character seemed to more self-serving of the director’s style and less in line with who Superman should be.  But, the movie still managed to succeed at the box office, no doubt riding the crest of the wave made by the success of The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises a year prior.  The movie also won praise for it’s casting of Henry Cavill as Superman, who most considered to be a strong choice, along with the casting of Michael Shannon as Zod.  But, the true test of the longevity of the DCEU would depend on what Snyder would do next as a follow-up.


Directed by Zack Snyder

Despite there being mixed opinions about the Man of Steel’s treatment of the Superman mythos, people were still thrilled to find out that the next film in the DCEU would see Superman going head to head with the Dark Knight himself in his next film.  Not only that, but this would be the clearest indication yet that were on our way to seeing the first true assembling of the Justice League on the big screen.  Plus, we would be getting our first post-Dark Knight version of the Batman, which it turns out would be heavily influenced by the famous Frank Miller run of the character in the comic books.  There were a lot of naysayers at the time when it was announced that Ben Affleck would be playing the caped crusader, but as it turns out, it would be the best choice Zack Snyder made for the whole movie.  While Snyder had the ingredients to make one of the most iconic comic book movies of all time, he sadly didn’t have a compelling story to center his movie on.  The key problem with BvS is that the whole plot to get his super heroes to fight one another is convoluted and non-sensical.  All of the story problems that plagued Man of Steel are amplified here, and the biggest problem of them all is the horrible mismanagement of the character Lex Luthor.  Luthor is one of DC’s most iconic villains, and most well known as Superman’s arch-nemesis.  Here he is played by Jesse Eisenberg who from the get go you can tell was horribly miscast.  His personality type is not at all like the cool, calculating super genius of the comic books, and it almost seems like Eisenberg’s direction with the character was to make him closer to the Joker with his out of place manic outbursts.  You can also see the flaw in DC being too heavy-handed with their expanded universe plans, as too much of the movie feels like a set up for future movies, especially in a painfully mediocre sequence where we see our first glimpses of Ezra Miller’s Flash, Ray Fisher’s Cyborg, and Jason Mamoa’s Aquaman.  At least Wonder Woman does get something to do in this movie, as the heroine (played by Gal Gadot) joins the other two heroes in the final battle; and I won’t lie, the money shot of DC’s holy trinity of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman all standing together on the battlefield is pretty incedible.  Sadly, all the other potential is wasted as Snyder’s style over substance tendencies undermine any connection we have with the characters.  That’s why there was significant doubt about the future of the DCEU moving forward after this, as the movie was critically panned across the board.  It also didn’t help that Marvel released Captain America: Civil War (2016) a few short months after, showing the same concept of super heroes battling each other, but done much better.


Directed by David Ayer

If the heroes weren’t going to save the DCEU from floundering, than how about the villains.  Before the Justice League assembled on the big screen, we were presented with this team up of villains from across the whole DC rogues gallery.   The concept of the Suicide Squad from the comics is that when the government deems a situation too dangerous to risk the lives of their strongest heroes, they send in a team of criminals who lives they don’t mind sacrificing for the sake of the greater good.  It’s a fun concept that offers DC a chance to make use of the deeper bench of their collection of characters, many of whom would be making their big screen debuts.  This also being the first film in the DCEU not helmed by Zack Snyder also offered people the chance to see what a different directorial vision would look like in this cinematic universe.  David Ayer, who previously won acclaim for the films End of Watch (2012) and Fury (2014) seemed like a good choice, as his style matched the grittier tone that DC wanted to continue, but was different enough from Zack Snyder to show more diversity of vision within the cinematic universe.  Again, like the movies that came before, DC had done a good job with their casting.  Will Smith gave a devilishly charismatic portrayal to the sharp-shotting Deadshot.  Margot Robbie seemed to have been born to play Harley Quinn.  And perhaps the most outstanding casting choice of them all, and the sole actress from this era to outlive the DCEU in this role, Viola Davis as the ruthless Amanda Waller, the squad’s agency handler.  But, not everything seemed to work out as planned; the common refrain of the DCEU thus far.  While the movie does work better than the Zack Snyder films in general, it also is frustratingly all over the place in tone.  Apparently during post-production, David Ayer had the film taken away from him and re-edited by the studio to give it a more comedic tone.  This was due in part because of the competition with Marvel, which had achieved enormous success with the mix of humor and action in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014).  It’s sadly ironic that years later, DC would tap James Gunn himself to direct the Suicide Squad sequel instead of David Ayer, who to this day insists on having his original cut see the light of day.  This was yet another example of DC’s inability to adequately build a cinematic universe, mainly due to them continually playing catch-up to Marvel.


Directed by Patty Jenkins

Three movies in, and the DCEU’s future was on shaky ground.  Their movies were performing well at the box office, but critically they were far behind where Marvel was.  And there seemed to be a lot of doubt whether their next film could pull them out of the slump, given that it centered on a heroine that up to now had never carried a film on her own before.  Wonder Woman carried a lot of uncertainties, given that no super hero movie before had centered on a female super hero, nor had been directed by a woman.  And Patty Jenkins, the director, had never attempted a film on this scale before, with her only film prior being the small independent flick Monster (2003).  And yet, with all of those factors weighing against it, Wonder Woman defied all expectations and became a critical and commercial success.  Many people point to this as the film that saved the DCEU (at least for a while) and it’s clear to see why.  For one thing, it is the first DCEU with a consistent tone and a cohesive story.  Set during WWI, it finds the Amazonian princess Diana brought into the human world in a quest to stop all wars by defeating the God of War, Ares.  Accompanied by her human guide Steve Trevor (a perfectly cast Chris Pine) we see Diana grow into the hero that we know as Wonder Woman, which Gal Gadot brings so much charm into, and that proves to be the key to the film’s success.  For the first time in the DCEU, we finally see a hero take action and use their powers in an unselfish way.  Patty Jenkins apparently fought to keep the No Man’s Land sequence in the film against the wishes of DC and Warner Brothers, and it’s wonderful that she did, because that’s the part of the movie where we see the super hero become who she was destined to be.  That’s what the DCEU had been missing before; the reminder that these heroes are larger than life and worth being inspired by.  It also helps that Patty Jenkins seems to have that reverence for the character as well, in a way that never feels artificial and surface level like it does with Zack Snyder.  And it also not only marks the first time that DC not only matched Marvel in their quality, but in some ways even surpasses them.  It would be two more years before Marvel had it’s own female led super hero movie with Captain Marvel (2019), so DC can proudly claim that they were the first to reach that benchmark.  Thankfully, it was also a benchmark that finally was worthy of the character and fulfilled the long awaited promise of seeing Wonder Woman brought to cinematic life.


Directed by Zack Snyder and Joss Whedon

But, just as quickly as Wonder Woman was able to put the DCEU on the right track, the Justice League pretty much immediately derailed it once again.  This film is notoriously known as one of the most troubled productions in movie history, and all of that misfortune is clear to see in the theatrical cut that we saw in the Fall of 2017.  Still reeling from the inability to compete with Marvel year after year, Justice League went through numerous rewrites and reshoots throughout it’s production, with DC constantly second-guessing itself.  Originally planned as a two part event, DC decided to take the full four hours of content that Zack Snyder had assembled in his cut, and demanded it be whittled down into a theater friendly two hour cut.  Unfortunately, a family tragedy prevented Snyder from being available to restructure the film according to those new demands in order to meet the deadline, so it was decided to give the film over to someone else.  That someone would be Joss Whedon, the man who delivered a monster hit for Marvel with The Avengers.  If he could assemble the Avengers successfully on screen, surely he’d do the same with the Justice League, right?  It turns out Whedon’s magic touch couldn’t save the sinking ship of the Justice League; if anything he made things worse.  Costly re-shoots didn’t give any added coherence to the story, but instead only added awkwardly shoe-horned jokes into the mix.  And in the years since, stories have come out about how bad of an experience the re-shoots were for the actors involved.  Ray Fisher and Gal Gadot pointed out the abusive and belittling behavior Whedon directed toward them on set, with Fisher pointing out how his Cyborg character (who was the main focus of Snyder’s cut) seemed to be diminished in the story completely in what seemed like retaliation from Whedon.  Joss Whedon’s reputation has never recovered from this disastrous production, and DC and Warner Brother’s bad decisions on this film would have a ripple effect across the remainder of the DCEU, particularly with fans.  I didn’t even get to the other problems with the movie, from Henry Cavill’s awful CGI upper lip to the bad animation of the villainous Steppenwolf.  Snyder still received sole directorial credit, but it’s unfair to call this his movie as it is more DC’s and Joss Whedon’s mess.  Of course, Zack Snyder would have his final word in the end, but that will have to wait for Part Two.

AQUAMAN (2018)

Directed by James Wan

If you were to make a guess as to which DC super hero would emerge as the box office champion in the DCEU from the outset, I don’t think anyone would’ve picked Aquaman.  But that’s exactly what happened.  Aquaman was the only DCEU film to ever cross the billion dollar mark at the worldwide box office, which was a welcome result for DC and Warner Brothers after they saw Justice League flame out the year before.  One thing that probably helped Aquaman get to a billion dollars was because it came out in the year that you could say was the peak of the super hero genre; 2018.  This was the same year that saw the record breaking success of Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War from Marvel.  But it wasn’t just Marvel Studios making a killing.  Sony was also making a killing with their Spider-Man villain spin-off Venom, starring Tom Hardy, as well as their critically acclaimed animated film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.  It was just the best time possible to have a super hero movie in theaters, and Aquaman was in the right place at the right time.  It also helped that Jason Mamoa was a genuine magnetic star who was more than capable of carrying a movie like this on his huge shoulders.  The film was definitely a big departure for director James Wan, who was better known up to this point for his work in horror, being the architect of the Saw and Conjuring franchises.  In my own personal opinion, I felt that Wan’s vision was a little scattershot in bringing the world of Aquaman to life, as the story feels overstuffed with too many elements.  It’s like Wan thought he was only ever going to get one shot at making an Aquaman movie, so he was determined to put it all into this movie.  There’s one too many villains in this film, with Aquaman battling both of his comic book nemeses, Oceanmaster and Black Manta.  The finale is also a CGI overload that is often hard to follow.  But, I know my opinions are in the minority as audiences still ate this movie up, and helped to elevate Aquaman into the upper tier of cinematic super heroes.  It also helped to secure the survival of the DCEU for a bit longer, especially in the wake of Marvel hitting it’s own mighty crescendo.

SHAZAM (2019)

Directed by David F. Sandberg

If I were to select a film out of the DCEU that would be my own personal favorite, it would be Shazam.  I think that this is the movie where DC finally hit the right note with their cinematic universe.  The movie was grounded yet still magical, funny without feeling forced, and more than anything represented what a DC film could be without living in the shadow of the Marvel.  This was what the DCEU should have been from the beginning.  It doesn’t hit you over the head with the heavy metaphors and symbolism of Zack Snyder’s films, nor has the awkwardly laid in humor of what Joss Whedon brought to Justice League.  It’s just a charming story told with enough visual imagination to make it feel like a true comic book come to life. The character of Shazam was always going to be a tricky one to pull off, so it mattered a lot in how they would cast the character, in both forms.  Teenage actor Asher Angel brings enough likable charm to the role of Billy Batson, and even manages to do well in the dramatic moments as he frantically tries to discover who he is after being orphaned as a child.  When he transforms into the super being Shazam, Zachary Levi takes over and does a magnificent job of portraying a teenager in a grown man’s body, with often hilarious results.  Helping to bridge the performance between the two actors in the role is the perfect chemistry both have with the character Freddy Freeman (played with perfect comedic chops by Jack Dylan Grazer).  What especially helps this movie to soar unlike so many of the other DCEU films is that it doesn’t feel as labored as the others.  This movie seemed to be detached just a bit more from the DCEU master plan, so it was able to stand out more and be it’s own thing, which helps the movie as a whole to feel more like a complete vision rather than just a cog in the machine.  This is what also helped Wonder Woman to stand out too, with the greater vision of the cinematic universe not getting in the way of telling a stand alone story.  The fact that they could do this with a character as obscure in the DC pantheon as Shazam just goes to show that when done correctly, any super hero can work on the big screen.  You just need to combine comic book action with a compelling story, especially one that’s an inspiring coming of age narrative like in this film.  At this point in time, it also looked like DC was set to compete with Marvel on relatively strong common ground in terms of tone and story.  But, the turn of the decade would bring it’s own challenges.


Directed by Cathy Yan

The mouthful that is this movie’s title gives you a bit of an indication of the whirlwind of mayhem that this movie ultimately ended up being.  It follows up the events of David Ayer’s Suicide Squad, but also goes out of it’s way to indicate that this is very much not a sequel.  The movie was mainly produced to be a showcase for Margot Robbie in the role that turned her into a star.  Most people just refer to this as the Harley Quinn movie, and that’s an apt description.  She is undeniably the centerpiece of the movie, with the titular super girl team being the background players.  Margot Robbie makes the most of this film, as she is a hilarious delight playing Harley Quinn in all of her madcap madness.  Of all of the DCEU films, this is the one that is undeniably a comedy first and foremost; with the Deadpool films being the closest spiritual inspirations to this movie in the genre.  Unfortunately, this tone made the movie receive a mixed reception from fans who were not fully on board with this kind of cartoonish shift in tone for the DCEU.  It was also the first DCEU film released theatrically with an R-Rating, which also was a major shift in strategy for DC.  If you take it on it’s own outside of it’s place in the DCEU, this movie is a fun subversion of the super hero genre, with Margot Robbie’s game comedic chops delivering a lot of laughs along the way.  But, this was at a point when the DC fandom itself was greatly fractured, with the “Release the Snyder Cut” movement hitting it’s highest point and Zack Snyder stans angrily rejecting the sillier tone that this movie was starting to put forward.  Sadly, a lot of factors worked against Birds of Prey’s favor, especially the looming disaster that was the Covid-19 pandemic that ultimately cut it’s time at the box office short.  Of all the official DCEU films, this is the one that most people forget about, and it’s too bad because on it’s own it’s a funny little film with a hilarious performance by Margot Robbie as Harley.  I would like to think that the confidence she built as a comedic performer in this film and the Suicide Squad movies would eventually help her deliver the iconic work she did in Barbie (2023) a few short but arduous years later.

At this point, we break this overview of the DCEU into separate halves.  These first few years show DC struggling to find their way into getting a cinematic universe to gel together on the big screen with a lot of bad choices in the beginning leading to some gradual successes.  The second half of this retrospective, which I will get to later this year, will show how the DCEU inevitably came apart in a post-pandemic world, leading to what now will be a complete overhaul and reboot.  You may wonder why I didn’t include the Oscar-winning Joker (2019) starring Joaquin Phoenix in my retrospective.  This is because DC themselves have classified that particular film as an “else-worlds” story disconnected from their cinematic universe storyline; so it doesn’t count as an official DCEU film.  The same will still apply to the Matt Reeves directed The Batman (2022), which opened alongside the second half of movies in the DCEU slate.  What is definitely clear from the overview of movies in this article is that DC was consistently running from behind in the race against Marvel, and they never quite caught up to their rival.  Though there were certainly bright spots with Wonder WomanAquaman, and Shazam, the fact that the build-up and failed execution of a Justice League movie clouded so much of their reputation just showed that the DCEU was always doomed to fail.  More than anything, it was  the mess that was the Justice League movie that dragged everything down with it.  But it can also be said that the lackluster results of Man of Steel may have caused the ripple effects of failure from the very outset.  The Hall of Justice could never stand on a faulty foundation.  Even with all that, the DCEU still gave us some individually strong movies that are still worthwhile to watch on their own.  This, as I’ll point out in Part Two, is even true of some of the movies in the back half of the DCEU, even if they failed to deliver at the box office.  I will always be entertained by the charming innocence of Shazam, and the inspiring heroism displayed in Wonder Woman.  The latter’s No Man’s Land sequence I would argue stands up as one of the greatest scenes ever in a super hero movie, right alongside iconic moments like the train fight in Spider-Man 2 (2004) or the Airport fight scene from Marvel’s Civil War.  The story of the DCEU still has more stories to tell, but from these first eight films, the definite impression left behind is one of valiant efforts made to work with a flawed plan that was never going to pan out like it was intended to.

Making Movies Fresh – Modern Film Discourse and the Flaw With Rotten Tomatoes

Looking at the state of film criticism in our social media driven world, I feel like there has developed a disconnect over what people actually think a film critique really is.  In the last few years, film discourse has very much opened up to allow more voices into the conversation, with social media amplifying opinions across the spectrum.  This democratization of film criticism, which has allowed fans and casual viewers to have a voice that reflects back towards Hollywood, has certainly helped to change things for the good in the industry.  Instead of having the trades and large media conglomerates dominate the discourse around film, groups that otherwise never had a voice before with regards to media are able to deliver their own takes about Hollywood that break through the wall of insider talk.  Minority groups can voice their criticism about representation in various forms of media, and their critiques can now lead to a new re-examination on Hollywood’s part in order to rectify that disparity.  But, there is a downside to the increased input of the casual film criticism out there in the media, and it has had it’s own negative effect on not just the media, but the culture as well.   Part of the problem is that we’ve reduced film criticism down to a mathematical formula, which itself is a reductive action done to what should be a personal experience.  And it’s a problem that Hollywood has only themselves to blame, because they have put too much stock into scoring their outputs in a way that is more friendly to their data driven work flow.  While it may help to cover their bottom line by getting quantifiable numbers to base their actions on, it also belittles the art of filmmaking itself as everything becomes standardized.

Of course, the current media trend that I am talking about is a thing called Critic’s scores.  These are accumulated numbers based on published film reviews that are put together to create an average percentage that quantifies a movie’s overall score.  There are numerous sites that offer this kind of ranking, but the most well known of these is a site called was started in 1998 by a group of undergraduates from the University of California, Berkeley.  The site was simply a statistics site that used movie reviews as the catalyst.  Interest in the site grew over time, and they eventually were bought by larger media conglomerates; first IGN in 2004, then to Flixster in 2010, and then finally by movie ticket retailer Fandango in 2016, who have been running it ever since.  Rotten Tomatoes gained their notoriety through their distinguishable ratings system, which much like a school grading system offered up a pass or fail metric to base a movie’s reception on; only by their branding based on tomatoes, movies either fell into fresh or rotten categories.  Anything above 60%, and the movie would be fresh.  Anything below that, and it would be rotten.  A few years in, once Rotten Tomatoes gained more notoriety, they began to give movies a certified fresh ranking, meaning that the movie statistically could never fall out of fresh territory based on the ratio of the number of reviews and their aggregate score.  With certification like this, Rotten Tomatoes scores became marks of quality for films, and film companies began to use their Tomatoes score as part of their marketing.  If Rotten Tomatoes deems it fresh, then you will hear of it.  Other sites like IMDb and Metacritic also have developed their own ratings systems that in some way or another grab the attention of movie executives.

While seeing how well a movie performs on Rotten Tomatoes can be informative, the statistical aspect of their ratings system can also be misleading.  Film criticisms are often multifaceted and nuanced, and it can’t just be summed up in binary fresh or rotten ranking.  Sometimes, critics find themselves in the middle, neither loving nor hating a movie, but find the good and the bad in movies that are often hard to fully sum up.  Sometimes, critics even change their mind about a film after a sitting on it for a while, giving it a re-consideration after a second or third viewing.  But that kind of nuance is just not acceptable in a business that requires immediate feedback.  While Hollywood is able to get a quantifiable score out of places like Rotten Tomatoes, they are also getting a snapshot of that movie’s response.  And sometimes, that can actually have a negative effect on itself.  Something of that order happened happened to Disney with two of their films this last summer.  Disney decided to gamble big on the releases of Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (2023) and Pixar’s Elemental (2023) by having them premiere at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival.  The reception from the festival was tepid to say the least, and it resulted in both of the films sitting with Rotten scores on for almost a month before their wide releases based on the few, high brow reviewers who saw it at Cannes.  This had a negative effect on both film’s box office, as they performed well below their expected openings.  But, over time, Dial of Destiny and Elemental did pull themselves out of the Rotten territory and ultimately ended up fresh at 70% and 76% respectively, with Elemental even earning a very late Certified badge.  The movies’ overall response in the end turned positive, but the damage had already been done by those low numbers and both movies struggled at the box office.

We are at a point where audiences are very well aware of the Fresh vs. Rotten metric, and it’s affecting their choices in what movies they go out to see.  This is largely due to the fact that movie tickets today are quite expensive and the customer is very discerning about what they want to spend their money on.  The Rotten Tomatoes score has become a powerful metric within the film business because it’s an easy to understand rating that all audience can look towards.  Much like all consumer ratings out there, people just want to look at the score and determine if it’s worth it to them to invest in it.  This is nothing new for film criticism.  For most people, when they look at a movie review, they don’t want to waste time reading through the critic’s every well thought out analysis; they just want to see the score.  That score of course varies from critic to critic.  Critics either use a letter grade, or a star rating, or in my case on this blog a number grade.  Some critics even just uses a simple binary rating system in the positive or negative.  It’s all based on how the critic wishes to quantify their overall response in a simple way to sum it up for the reader.  This of course is what fuels the scores of sites like Rotten Tomatoes, which takes those scores and creates an aggregate number.  But there is a flaw in the way this score is put together.  Quantifying a review in many ways is subjective.  There are plenty of film critics out there who don’t even give a score.  How does Rotten Tomatoes take their critiques into account.  At this point, we see where the binary system becomes a bit flawed, as a review that sounds negative in certain areas and positive in others without giving out a score messes with the algorithm of the site’s metric.  As a result, a guess is made as to where the movie falls, and that can have an effect on the overall score of a movie.  This of course becomes even more of an issue because these are numbers that matter a lot right now to Hollywood and has an influence on how they market a film as well as how what they greenlight in the first place.

Published film critics’ scores being aggregated into a number is one thing that becomes a problem when that number doesn’t reflect nuance.  It’s also another thing when there is also a user rating in play.  Rotten Tomatoes and other sites do offer a secondary number based on input from their own users, which on it’s own is a worthwhile service that allows the casual user to have a say as well.  The unfortunate thing about user ratings is how open they sometimes are, which can sometimes lead to abuses of the ranking system.  There is this practice that has arisen on places like Rotten Tomatoes called “review bombing,” which is where a coordinated effort is made to load a bunch of negative reviews all at once onto a websites user rating in order to purposely drive the overall score down.  Most often, this is done with the purpose of damaging the public perception of a movie, which the organized group can point to as proof of their own slanted opinion.  You definitely see the effect of this with movies that have very polarized critics’ and users’ scores on Rotten Tomatoes, such as Captain Marvel (2019), Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) and The Little Mermaid (2023).  What makes review-bombing a suspicious activity is that it usually happens before a movie comes out, as most of the user reviews seem to have been purposely negative without even having the context of seeing the movie.  As observed, the most often reason for these review bombs happen is because a group is attacking a film for it’s content rather than artistic merit, such as if it is focuses on a marginalized group or contains a message that they object to.  The intent of the review bombing is to get Hollywood’s attention and make them believe that these often small minority opinions are much bigger than they really are and try to force the industry to conform to their own narrow-minded worldview.  It may be dishonest, but it has had an effect before.  I would argue that Lucasfilm took the review bombing of The Last Jedi too seriously and it caused them to do too much over-correction which resulted in the mess that was Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019).  Rotten Tomatoes even recognized the damaging effects of these trolling review bombs and they changed their metric to only reflect certified user reviews.  Sadly, we are in a place where valid criticism and baseless trolling get mixed together, and it unfortunately becomes even harder to allow genuine non-professional voices into the mix without having to gatekeep free speech.

So, how do we look at fair film criticism in this kind of environment where opinions are too often hard to take seriously.  I try to look at what I value in film criticism.  When I was developing into a burgeoning cinephile in my formative years, I took the opinions of film critics seriously.  My childhood overlapped with the rise of film criticism as entertainment, as part of my weekly routine was to watch Siskel & Ebert’s syndicated review show on TV.  Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert may have unfortunately also contributed to the reductive binary rating metric that place like Rotten Tomatoes emulate; famously popularizing the thumbs up or thumbs down rating on their show.  Truth be told, that’s what made their show a draw for me as a young film lover, as I eagerly wanted to see which way the thumbs would fall for each movie on their show.  But having gone back to look at some of their old reviews on YouTube, another thing occurred to me about what they brought to their show; something that I probably didn’t rightfully appreciate as a teenager.  Their reviews were simply not just about the binary thumbs rating; it was about how they expressed their thoughts about the movie.  That was the key to their success as film critics.  They could articulate why a movie was good or bad.  That’s the art of criticism that you just can’t put into a numeric score.  Film criticism is about engaging with a work of art, and stating what effect it had on you.  That’s what makes being a film critic worthwhile; it’s a art form within itself inspired by the response that we have to any type of media.  Some can deliver a succinct opinion within a strongly worded paragraph while others can spin a thesis’ worth of thoughts across multiple pages, and any one of these criticisms can be just as valid whether positive or negative because it is genuinely coming from an honest place.  It’s that kind of personal touch that in more and more ways is getting buried down in the discourse of film criticism as movie ratings are becoming more of an impersonal metric.

As it has become increasingly clear over time, the perceptions of Hollywood’s highs and lows are becoming increasingly manipulated into becoming part of larger narratives about culture and the arts.  People want to draw their own conclusions about Hollywood and they use simplified metrics like those found on review sites like Rotten Tomatoes to define their narrative.  People attacking Hollywood for going “woke” for instance cite user ratings from Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb as proof of Hollywood being out of touch with the audience, though as I stated before those ratings can be heavily manipulated.  At the same time, certified ratings can also be skewed in favor of a positive response for a movie.  Sony Pictures got caught red handed with having a fake film reviewer submit positive reviews of their movies, and this may have juiced the numbers for some of their films on these ratings sites.  As we’ve seen, systems that can be easily manipulated should not have this kind of influence over an industry, and yet they are increasingly getting the notice of Hollywood who desperately want to use that Fresh rating in their marketing.  Those abusing the privilege of contributing to a film’s overall ranking are doing so with the intent of manipulating Hollywood, and that could lead to some dangerous consequences, like the silencing of disenfranchised groups who don’t have the same obsessive drive as internet trolls to hijack the narrative.  In the end, though site like Rotten Tomatoes have an immediate impact on a movie, it at the same time is not a long term one.  You’d be surprised how many movies receive a Rotten rating on and then years later develop into cult classics.  I can think of a dozen movies even in the last year which I think were rated too low or too high for my opinion.  A movie I liked, Shazam: Fury of the Gods (2023), received a rotten 53% from critics, which shows that I fell outside the majority consensus on that movie.  But at the same time, it doesn’t motivate me to change my opinion either.  Those critics ratings on Rotten Tomatoes or any other site are not a monolith, and if you disagree with the overall ratings, that’s fine.  Movies are a subjective art and we should all like what we like and not feel pressured to accept the “narrative.”

And while I do point out a lot of the flaws of the Rotten Tomato critical metric, there are some positive things that the site has done for movies in general that are worth celebrating.  The site does spotlight movies that otherwise would’ve gone unseen and it does function as a genuine entertainment new site, though one that is imbedded with the industry itself.  The same goes for IMDb, which is an invaluable resource for film information of all kinds.  People just need to look beyond the surface level of those Fresh or Rotten ratings and they’ll see the added worth of the sites they visit.  That’s something that is true about all film criticism in general.  Don’t just skip ahead to the final rating; read through and engage with the opinion that the film critic presented to you.  You may not agree with it, nor should you be obligated to, but taking into consideration the arguments made by a critic will allow you the view to have more nuanced reactions of your own.  When visiting Rotten Tomatoes, look through the blurbs of each critics reviews; you’ll find that sometimes there’s a caveat to a positive review or a silver lining to a negative one.  Maybe use those blurbs to seek a link to the original review itself if you are compelled to read more.  Some movies generate some very clear cut, one-sided opinions, but you’ll find a lot of other movies that often leave people conflicted.  One thing that I do like about the Certified Fresh label given to movies on Rotten Tomatoes is that they are often almost always won by small movies that normally would go unseen by mass audiences.  If the Rotten Tomatoes metric carries that much weight in the industry, it’s best that movies that should be spotlighted are the ones that receive the best responses with critics, and they are able to float to the top thanks to Rotten Tomatoes Certified label.  That’s ultimately what we want as film critics, to help get something that meant a lot to us seen that otherwise would be ignored.  We use our voices to articulate the love we have for film, and some of us do so in writing.  That’s why I created this blog site.  You may not agree with every opinion I have to say here, but I tell you that every word I write is my own and I am happy that it inspires any engagement from any of you, even if it’s in conflict with my opinion.  While Rotten Tomatoes and other sites like it are valuable as an aggregate collector of film critiques, just know that movies are more than just Fresh or Rotten; they are experiences that defy being just a number.

Top Ten Movies of 2023

The year that shook up Hollywood has come to a close, and the movies that defined it were certainly a far different band than usual.  The year of 2023 will probably be less remembered for it’s movies and more for the behind the scenes drama that played out for all of us to see.  The labor strikes that brought the industry to a halt were undoubtedly the defining moment of the year, with Hollywood having to confront the realities of it’s future, with the creatives asserting their concern over the disproportionate wealth distribution based on the profits made from streaming as well as the threat of AI taking over the work done by real people in the cinematic arts.  The studios dragged their feet on the negotiations, and the results of that refusal to meet the reasonable demands of the guilds will ripple through the industry for years to come.  As a result, the usually jam packed late season Awards push feels a bit lighter this year than in the past, as many films got pushed back into the next couple years in order to fill that void created by the strikes.  Even still, a lot of movies still managed to make it to the theaters, and overall box office was up compared to last year (though still lagging behind the pre-pandemic numbers).  A large part of that was due to some unexpected hits, like the unusually high response to video game movies like The Super Mario Bros Movie and Five Nights at Freddy’s and of course the whole “Barbenheimer” movement.  This year also showed us that once dominant box office brands like Marvel, Fast And the Furious, and Transformers are not so quite as resilient as we thought.  To mark the start of 2024 at the movies, it is time to close the door on the year before as I share my picks for the Top Ten movies of the year, as well as my bottom Five.  This was a difficult year to be honest, as I did have a good sampling of movies to choose from, but there wasn’t that one that rose above all instantly like I had seen in past years.  The race to number one for this year was honestly a photo finish, as a couple films made solid arguments to be up there.  But, I have compiled my final numbers based on some last minute re-watches.

Before I make my countdown of the Top Ten, here are a few movies that nearly made my list, and I strongly recommend that you see them too because they are all worth watching: American Fiction, Air, All of Us Strangers, Creed III, Dumb Money, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, A Haunting in Venice, The Iron Claw, Killers of the Flower Moon, John Wick Chapter 4, The Little Mermaid (2023), The Marvels, Priscilla, Shazam: Fury of the Gods, Showing Up, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, and Wonka.  So, with all that, let’s take a look at my picks for the Top Ten Movies of 2023.



Directed by Ava DuVernay

It’s a very difficult trick to turn an essay into a drama.  But Ava DuVernay managed to make that work in her new feature adapted from the book “Caste:  The Origin of Our Discontents” by journalist and author Isabel Wilkerson.  Part biography, part video essay, DuVernay’s wide-reaching film is a captivating exploration of the roots of everything from racially motivated murders, to the rise of fascism, to the class divisions that still exist today in places like India.  DuVernary has a strong background in documentary filmmaking, with her Oscar-nominated 13th (2016) standing out as a great example of a non-fiction film that had the immediate visceral impact of a narrative film.  Here she does the opposite just as effectively, showing a dramatization of real peoples lives all weaving together to feel as informative and provocative as a documentary would.  The movie takes us through the steps of building a thesis and finding the facts to support that argument, and does so in a grounded and un-sensationalized way that you really feel like you are on this road of discovery with the author herself, piecing the truth together with her.  Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor gives a fantastic performance as Isabel Wilkerson, perfectly conveying her curiosity and intelligence on screen.  Ava DuVernay also does an incredible job of weaving together multiple vignettes of all the historical evidence that Isabel uncovers along the way, with strong attention to period detail from multiple time periods and varying cultures.  I was lucky to have caught this on a brief awards qualification run here in Los Angeles before it goes nationwide in a couple weeks.  For someone like me interested in history and the dots that are connected with the present that help us to understand the issues of our time a lot better, this movie was an eye opening experience.  It is also a strong reminder of how good Ava DuVernay is at making thought provoking cinema, with this being her strongest and most original effort yet.



Directed by Matt Johnson

One of the most unusual film trends of the last year was the surprisingly robust number of movies based on the history of corporate brands or products.  There was the movie Air, which showed how Nike landed Michael Jordan and changed the history of sportswear.  Apple released the movie Tetris, which showed how the game of falling blocks was able to escape the clutches of the Soviet Union.  And Flaming Hot, showed how a janitor was able to introduce the most popular flavor of Cheetos to the world.  While each one had their own interesting story to tell, the all still had one thing in common; it all lead to a happy outcome.  But there was one movie based on the history of a product that worked a little differently and in the end tells a much more compelling story.  Blackberry of course shows the history of the rise of the famous handheld device that at one time was the most widely used electronic accessory in the world.  But what makes the movie Blackberry so great is that it also shows the flip side of that story, chronicling the inevitable downfall of the corporation that was ahead of the curve until it wasn’t.  The standout in this movie is Glenn Howerton of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia fame, playing one of the most explosive corporate sharks ever on screen.  His magnificently unhinged performance is dynamite in this film, and much of the thrill of this movie is seeing just how far off the deep end he will go.  His volcanic performance is perfectly balanced off of Jay Baruchel’s understated performance as the mechanical genius who built the original device, but lacked the foresight to help him pivot when the market shifted.  It’s nice to see success stories play out on film, but it’s also fascinating to watch a company implode and fall off based on a series of terrible decisions.  The movie as directed by Matt Johnson, who also plays a key supporting role in the film, does a fantastic job of showing each and every bad choice that these corporate figures made, and it’s a captivating and often funny fall from grace, especially going in with the hindsight of where Blackberry ultimately ended up.  And in a year where these corporate brand stories wanted us to feel inspired by the adversity of their success, it was nice to see Blackberry remind us that corporate failure is another story worth telling, and in many ways is a far more honest look at the way the world works.



Directed by Greta Gerwig

The movie that saved the Summer 2023 box office, along with a certain 3 hour drama based on a nuclear physicist.  We are going to be studying the peculiar phenomenon that was “Barbenheimer” for years to come, but regardless of how unexpected the moment was, there was one thing that certainly played a part in making the unlikely double feature as big a deal as it was; both movies were very good.  In fact, they were among the years best, and were deserving of their box office riches.  The biggest movie of them all, Barbie, could be considered yet another brand based movie to go along with the others that I mentioned, but it’s different because this was wasn’t a movie about the history of the doll.  Director and co-writer Greta Gerwig used the iconography of the Barbie doll line to tell a much different kind of story.  Through this high-concept fantasy story where Barbie journeys from Barbieland into the real world, Greta crafts this surprisingly nuanced exploration of themes about feminism, patriarchy, the corporatization of gender ideals, and identity itself.  And she does so with an incredible sense of humor along the way.  I absolutely love the way that Greta and her co-writer and real life partner Noah Baumbach dissect the “battle of the sexes” attitude that prevails through much of our culture and explains how Barbie herself has played a factor in it, while at the same time having fun with the whole Barbie “pink-colored” iconography.  Margot Robbie really shines as “stereotypical” Barbie, with a surprisingly heartfelt character exploration along the way.  She is also matched perfectly with Ryan Gosling’s hilarious take on Ken, easily the funniest performance of the year.  Ken’s show-stopping musical number may be the best single cinematic sequence of 2023.  And what I also love is that this movie really silenced the annoying “go woke, go broke” chorus, as this undeniably “woke” movie ended up being the biggest moneymaker of the year.  And for that alone, Barbie  is a genuine winner.  Greta Gerwig, with only her third feature as a director, made history this year, and did so without compromising her voice or her courage to speak her mind.  And the fact that she made it so much fun along the way shows that she will be a filmmaking force to reckon with.  And that’s good Kenough.



Directed by Bradley Cooper

Perhaps the most Oscar-baity of all the movies on this list, this sumptuous biopic of famed composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein is nevertheless a magnificent cinematic experience.  The movie has been in the works for over a decade, initially started as a directorial vehicle for Martin Scorsese, then passed along for time to Steven Spielberg, before eventually being picked up and completed under the direction of Bradley Cooper, who also plays Bernstein in the film (Spielberg and Scorsese still contributed as producers).  Working behind the camera for the second time after 2018’s A Star is BornMaestro is Cooper’s more audacious effort as a filmmaker, showing him taking more creative chances and playing around with form to create a truly dynamic portrayal of his subject’s life.  The movie is beautifully shot, almost re-creating with perfect detail the look of the kinds of movies that would have been made during the time periods in which the movie takes place.  The movie showcases 3 different time periods in Bernstein’s life and they all feel like time capsules of cinematic style; the formative years of the 1950’s in beautiful black and white, the transformative 1970’s in a muted color palette, and the twilight 1980’s in bold, primary colors.  Bradley’s performance as Bernstein may take some getting used to, because it’s definitely a more caricatured part for him, but he does a fine job of creating Bernstein as this creative force on screen.  The highlight of the film, however, is Carey Mulligan in the role of his wife, Felicia, in yet another performance that shows everyone just how transformative Mulligan can be in any role, proving she is one of the best of her generation.  Seeing where she takes this character in the movie is profound and at times heartbreaking, and she commands every moment.  I also love that Bradley Cooper forgoes any original musical score, and instead uses Bernstein’s own music to carry the film.  I saw this movie at the newly remodeled Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, and the acoustics of that storied venue made the music used in the movie all the more magnificent.  Hopefully people are able to get that same feeling on their own home system, as this Netflix made film is not widely screened in theaters.  It may be old fashioned in an Oscar bait kind of way, but it is the best kind of Oscar bait as well.



Directed by Wes Anderson

Wes Anderson is, and continues to be an uncompromising filmmaker.  His films have become increasingly stylized with an aesthetic that can definitely be said is all his own.  But, this kind of artistic styling also makes him an acquired taste for many audiences.  Thankfully, I enjoy most of his work, though my opinion of his films varies more so on the strength of his storytelling than his visual flair, which I like consistently in every film.  I’m very happy to say that Asteroid City is one of his best narrative films in years on top of being one of his most visually inventive.  The movie has this Inception like structure where the narrative plays out for us in different layers of reality.  We see the story of a quiet desert town that has a peculiar encounter with extra-terrestrial life, which Anderson casts in a bright, colorful, almost story book like palette.  And then we see that the whole thing is a stage show, which it’s own creation is being dramatized through a TV recreation.  This Russian doll style of layered storytelling makes for a compelling experience and it’s one of Anderson’s richest films to date because of that; almost like he’s dissecting the very art of storytelling itself and examining how experiences in life find their way into art.  All the while, Anderson makes the whole thing charming and more importantly hilarious along the way, in his typical dry sort of way.  He brings back a lot of his frequent stable of actors (though noticeably absent one Bill Murray), and he even perfectly incorporates some first timers into his weird little world, like Tom Hanks, Maya Hawke, and Matt Dillon.  And of course as typical with the best of Wes Anderson movies, the best entertainment to be found is seeing all the little details that he throws into the backgrounds of each scene; some of which may take extra viewings to catch.  It’s refreshing to see Wes Anderson still finding new interesting ways to tell his stories, while at the same time maintaining his unique visual style.



Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

Like I said in my preview of the Fall 2023 movies, the arrival of a new film from Yorgos Lanthimos can often be a flip of the coin depending how you respond to it.  For me personally, I have experienced both extremes.  I have found myself hating one of his films (The Lobster) as well as loving one of his films (The Favourite).  Thankfully with his newest film Poor Things, I found myself in the latter camp.  Yorgos created what might be very well the most unique movie of the year.  Honestly, I don’t think there has been any movie that looks like this one, or is even thematically like this one.  It really is in a class of it’s own.  Yorgos re-teams with his Favourite leading lady Emma Stone and creates this wonderfully quirky spin on Frankenstein with a visual flair that defies explanation.  Stone is remarkable as a new brain in a woman’s body experiencing life anew, and creating chaotic results in her wake.  One of the things that I think has really helped Yorgos Lanthimos as a filmmaker has been teaming up with screenwriter Tony McNamara, whose writing style meshes with Yorgos’ visual style perfectly.  McNamara, who also wrote The Favourite as well as the Hulu series The Great, just has this way of making shocking and vulgar statements in his script sound as classy as an English garden party, and there are some laugh out loud whoppers that come out the mouth of Emma Stone in this movie.  I was worried about the odd visual style of the movie, thinking it looked a little too close to terrible AI generated art, but seeing it in context makes it all feel more appropriate for the movie.  The art direction is meant to have this dream like quality, like how a child would perceive the world they have barely begun to experience.  Yorgos’ trademark fish eye wide angles also perfectly encapsulates the weirdness of the visuals.  The whole thing has a very Kubrickian sense of detachment that really helps to spotlight the world-building.  Couple this with Emma Stone’s fearless work as well as some wonderfully goofy supporting performances from Mark Ruffalo and Willem Dafoe, and you’ve got another winner for the increasingly interesting Yorgos Lanthimos.



Directed by Jonathan Glazer

In stark contrast with the flights of fantasy of some of the other movies I’ve spotlighted on this list, this newest film from Jonathan Glazer (Under the Skin) is shockingly earthbound in a way that will haunt you long after.  The movie shows us the day to day life of a family in an observational kind of way.  Only this family happens to be that of the commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp, Rudolph Hoss (played in the movie by Christian Friedel).  We experience the lives of the people living near the worst horrors of the Holocaust, and the most shocking thing about the movie is how closed off their world is from the one we know is just over the walls.  We see the Hoss family having normal family dinners, walking through their garden, or playing in their pool.  What Jonathan Glazer brilliantly showcases in his film is the banality of evil that the Nazis were capable off.  We know what is going on beyond the walls, but the movie never shows us, completely staying within the bubble that the Hoss family has created for itself.  Their world is quiet and calm, but you get this un-ceasing sense of the horrors that go unseen.  Smoke is constantly rising over the horizon; there are faint gunshot blasts in the distance; every morning the gardeners blow ash off of the flower beds; and then there is the unsettling faint roar of a furnace chimney that can be heard constantly throughout the film.  It’s amazing how Glazer is able to convey the horrors of the Holocaust without us seeing it.  It’s a bold artistic statement that really speaks to us in the present day, as so many of us willfully close off ourselves to crimes against humanity even though we know it’s still happening.  Glazer uncomfortably reminds us that it’s all too easy to pretend that these things aren’t happening, even when it’s literally right next door.  The movie is masterfully crafted, especially with it’s sound design, and features unsettlingly real performances, with a special shoutout to Sandra Huller who plays Commandant Hoss’ wife, who was also great this year in the Palm d’Or winning Anatomy of a Fall.  The Zone of Interest is an unsettling experience, but one that is essential to understanding the depths of evil that any human being is capable of.



Directed by Emerald Fennell

With her sophomore film, Emerald Fennell has crafted one of the most twisted movies in recent memory, and it’s a theatrical experience that I certainly will never forget.  Initially, Emerald lulls the viewer into believing that the movie she is making will be a satire about the idle rich who make up what remains of the British aristocracy, as a commoner named Oliver Quick (an unforgettable Barry Keoghan) is brought into their good graces.  And then, Emerald turns the movie on it’s head and it becomes something else completely.  Honestly, this movie goes into some wild left turns, and I admired the audacity of Emerald Fennell for taking this movie into places that I feel most other filmmakers would’ve been too scared to go.  Just when you think the movie has reached the limit of good taste, Fennell will leap across that line and relish the chaos that comes after.  What really helps this movie from going too far off the deep end is the stellar performance of Barry Keoghan, who is proving to be one of the most interesting, and as this movie proves, one the bravest actors out there.  He creates this fascinating character in Oliver Quick who becomes this vampiric presence in the halls of the titular manor house, Saltburn; bringing a whole new understanding to the rebellious phrase “eating the rich.”  The actors playing the naïvely rich Catton family are uniformly perfect, with Rosamund Pike and Richard E. Grant being especially memorable as these upper class twits who nail every line of Fennell’s wonderfully playful script.  The movie is also a visual wonder, shot in the claustrophobic Academy aspect ratio of 1.33:1 (which has surprisingly made a comeback in recent years), giving each frame this almost portrait like quality.  I definitely understand that this is going to be a movie that will divide audiences, with a lot of people likely turned off by the gross excesses Emerald Fennell throws at us.  But for me, it was an experience that I was on board for.  Watching this movie with an audience also enhanced my experience, especially when it gets to the most shocking moments.  I’m certainly intrigued to see what other twisted tales Emerald Fennell will be spinning in her next film, because this was definitely something of a second feature.



Directed by Christopher Nolan

Yes, no shock that a Christopher Nolan movie would make my end of the year Top Ten, given that he shows up here so frequently.  The other half of the “Barbenheimer” phenomenon, Nolan’s epic biopic of the “Father of the Atom Bomb” is also one of the unlikeliest box office successes in recent memory.  A three hour long, R-rated biopic about J. Robert Oppenheimer was not something that you would instantly say would be a near billion dollar grossing movie at the worldwide box office, but that’s the miracle that was pulled off this summer; with a little boost from Barbie.  This is the highest grossing movie of Christopher Nolan’s storied career not connected to Batman, and it shows that Nolan can indeed deliver box office success purely on his name alone.  This now puts him in the same league of the likes of Spielberg, Tarantino, and Scorsese, and that’s a good club to be in.  As a film, Oppenheimer may be in fact the most purely impressive directorial effort of the year.  Nolan uses every trick he has learned up to this point to create a vast epic that honestly shouldn’t have worked as well as it does.  We don’t just merely get the story of the creation of the atomic bomb itself, which does make for a harrowing middle section.  Nolan creates this complex narrative structure that plays around with his favorite narrative tool (time) and intertwines Oppenheimer’s greatest achievement with the ups and downs of his life before and after.  Carried by a stellar lead performance by Nolan’s favorite actor Cillian Murphy and supported by a mind-blowing all-star cast and Ludwig Goransson’s fluctuating heartbeat of a music score, the movie never lags in all of it’s 3 hour run time.  I remember writing a lukewarm review back in July, stating that I would need to simmer a bit longer on the movie to fully appreciate, including getting a second or third view.  That second view, which thankfully was still in IMAX, made the difference, and it probably was because I wasn’t sitting too close to the screen this time around.  I now consider this to be in the league with Nolan’s best movies, including Dunkirk (2017) and Inception (2010).  Especially on the technical merits alone, this is Christopher Nolan at his finest and possibly the movie that finally earns him the long overdue Oscar.

And finally my number one movie of 2023 is…..



Directed by Alexander Payne

Quite the change in pace from Oppenheimer and Saltburn.  It was honestly a close three way race for the top this year, but ultimately I was warmed over by the cozy charm of Alexander Payne’s latest.  The director behind About SchmidtSideways, and The Descendants makes a triumphant return to form with this easy going comedy about a couple of lovable losers who are stuck with other over the holiday season.  What I think this movie has above all the others on this list for the year is what I think is the year’s best screenplay, a feature writing debut for longtime TV writer David Hemingston.  On top of being a great comedic script with some of the year’s best one liners, it also has some of the best character driven moments of the year, which makes the talented cast really shine.  Paul Giamatti gives a career best performance as the cranky history teacher Paul Hunham, which is saying quite a lot given his remarkable career.  He is also perfectly matched with newcomer Dominic Sessa as the troublesome student he has to share his lonely days with at a snowed-in private New England boarding school.  And they are of course accompanied by a heartbreaking performance by Da’Vine Joy Randolph as a grieving school cook in what I think is the odd on favorite performance to win Best Supporting Actress at this year’s Oscars.  But this movie is special specifically because of the care Alexander Payne put into his direction.  This movie is not just a throwback to it’s time period; Payne even made it to look like a film of it’s time period.  You could swear you were watching a long lost classic of the 1970’s if it weren’t for the contemporary actors in it.  From the way that Payne blocks his shots, to the soft dissolves in his scene transitions, to even the subtle hint of dust and scratches on the film stock (which is remarkable for a digitally shot film).  Given that the film takes place during Christmas time, I can definitely see this becoming a Holiday classic over time.  But it earns my top spot for this year because of all the movies that I saw this year, this had the best re-watch value, with Oppenheimer obviously being the closest match.  I just love a movie that I know right away I will be seeing again and again for years to come.

And now that we’ve gone through the best of the year, it’s time to go through the worst.  Here are my bottom five Worst Movies of 2023.

5. FIVE NIGHTS AT FREDDYS – While the video game that this movie is based on has some genuine value as a horror experience, none of that managed to translate over into film.  This adaptation is a bland and ultimately non-scary experience that just looks goofy adapted to live action.  I didn’t find the animatronic characters frightening and the jump scares were too telegraphed to be effective.  Plus the twist ending is one you could see coming miles away.  Sadly, because this movie was a huge box office success, we are doomed to endure a bunch of sequels in it’s wake.

4. THE FLASH – This was overall a bad year for comic book movies in general, with only the Guardians of the Galaxy and Miles Morales defying the downward trend.  As bad as Marvel’s box office results were, they were nothing compared to DC’s historically bad run.  But, even though all their movies flopped, it didn’t mean the movies themselves were garbage; except one.  The Flash was the poster child for everyting wrong with the DC Universe, with a muddled adventure into the multiverse that makes Marvel’s looks coherent by comparison.  All of the off screen troubles of star Ezra Miller were no help to this movie, but even divorced from that, they were still bad and at times unwatchable as the titular hero.  Michael Keaton’s return as Batman was welcome, but ultimately wasted.  And then there was the messy CGI multiverse finale that did not sit well with me over time, and it just felt unethical in the long run considering it’s low bar pandering and questionable use of deceased actors.  It’s the kind of movie that definitely justified the end of the DC Snyderverse.

3. REBEL MOON: PART ONE – A CHILD OF FIRE – Speaking of Zack Snyder, here we have his lame attempt at launching a brand new franchise of his own.  At times, Snyder can create a neat looking visual, but he has just gotten worse as a storyteller over time.  Rebel Moon is pretty much exactly the same as every other space opera you’ve seen before, and almost a borderline plagiarize of Star Wars at times.  Even the die hard Snyder stans are having a hard time warming up to this film, because it just has nothing to latch onto.  Snyder has in many ways overcome Michael Bay as the most style over substance filmmaker in Hollywood, and this is the clearest example of his shortcomings as a filmmaker.  I don’t see how Part Two, which premieres in the Spring is going to improve on any of this.  I hate the worldbuilding.  I hate the characters.  I just wonder if Netflix feels that they got their money’s worth.

2. EXPEND4BLES – Why anyone thought this was a good franchise to dust off is beyond me.  All of the charm of the Sylvester Stallone led team up of classic action movie stars is gone.  In fact, of the main set of all stars, only Stallone returns here.  Schwarzenegger having the good sense to say no is not something I’d think would have happened, but there you go.  Jason Statham is clearly in paycheck mode, and somehow this movie thought adding Megan Fox to the team was exactly what the franchise needed in order spice up the box office, which by the way hit a new franchise low.  Very likely this will be the end of this franchise, which had it’s promise in the early run, but very much well over-stayed it’s welcome.

And the worst movie of 2023 is…..

1. HYPNOTIC – Unquestionably the dumbest movie I saw all year, and a very tragic low point set by director Robert Rodriguez.  In what I assume is Rodriguez’s attempt at an Inception like plot, Hypnotic tries to make a villain (played by William Fichtner) who uses hypnotism as a weapon intimidting.  Later on, the movie takes some left turns that just become increasingly stupid, and the movie isn’t helped out at all by some of the worst CGI effects of the year.  Rodriguez likes to do a lot of his filmmaking in house at his Austin, Texas based studio, but here we see him try to pull off a little more than he can handle and it shows the limitations of his home base operation.  What’s worse is the waste of talent on screen, including Ben Affleck giving a noticeably disinterested performance and the usually reliable William Fichtner playing the lamest of movie villains.  Rodriguez can and has done better, and it’s sad to see him wasting his time on a Christopher Nolan wannabe project like this.  I’ll even take another Machete sequel over this any day.

And there you have my choices for the best movies of the year.  It was a competitive year, as I didn’t immediately have that one movie that just leapt to the front immediately like in years past, such as Jojo Rabbit in 2019 or The Fablemans from last year.  Ultimately, I’m satisfied with the placements that I made, and The Holdovers and Oppenheimer were pretty much 1a and 1b in the running.  What I found to be especially pleasing is that three of my choices this year were films directed by women; a best yet showing on my annual list.  While none of them reached the top, having three a near third of my list represented by women (Emerald Fennell, Greta Gerwig, and Ava DuVernay) is a strong sign of the growing impact that female directors are beginning to have in Hollywood.  In fact, the year’s box office crown was won for the first time ever by a female directed movie (Barbie of course) and Greta Gerwig has the distinction of being the first woman to solo direct a billion dollar grossing film.  There’s certainly a lot more ground to make up still in the gender disparity in Hollywood, but this year gave us some very important milestones that hopefully leads to some real change in the industry.  Overall, despite all of the problems that Hollywood has had in 2023, it still left us with some great and important movies.  I just hope that the ripple effects of the labor strikes don’t lead to a relatively empty 2024.  For the sake of the theatrical industry, which is still in recovery mode post-pandemic, we really need movies that really motivate audiences to go out to the cinemas.  Apart from March’s Dune: Part Two, it’s hard to see ahead to any big movies that will serve that purpose.  Hollywood’s likely going to be going through some things in 2024 as it readjusts.  Overall, I just hope that the movies we do get are worthwhile.  We may even luck out and see something out of the ordinary like Barbenheimer happen, though that’s a phenomenon that Hollywood just can’t manufacture.  In any case, let’s all have a good time at the movies in 2024.