by Jacob Thomas Jones
It’s not always clear what’s going to work and what won’t; even movies like Barbie or Oppenheimer are not guaranteed to succeed narratively, regardless of the stars or the craftspeople attached to them, even though those elements can give someone a pretty good idea of where things are heading. Still, there was always a chance – slim to none though it may have been – that either one or both of those movies would fail; fortunately, neither was expected to. But that’s not always the case. Every year contains surprise films, whether they take the form of things we simply hadn’t heard about in the year’s earlier months that are later revealed, or their marketing campaigns did little to generate excitement leading up to their release (in some cases, those campaigns actually got people less excited). These surprises can come in the form of narrative ingenuity, stellar-but-underseen craftwork that may have otherwise gone unsung, or just how many times the rug can be pulled out from under us. In any case, we certainly didn’t expect these films to be as good as they turned out to be. Here are our picks for the Top 10 Most Surprising Movies of 2023.
10. Dream Scenario
The Nicolas Cage renaissance continues to hold strong yields, from Pig to Butcher’s Crossing, but nowhere has that yield produced stranger or more darkly funny results than in A24’s bewildering mind experiment Dream Scenario. Featuring Cage as a somewhat rudimentary family man and tenured professor who begins appearing in everyone else’s dreams, the film could have been a simple dark comedy about what that might look like; leave it to A24 to add another layer about anonymity, fame, consequences, and viral sensationalism’s unintended effects. The idea of Dream Scenario being a good movie is not what makes it surprising – it’s all the bizarre turns the movie takes within the dream sequences that do the trick here, and when Cage is placed in these bizarre scenarios, he’s more than up to the task of doing the funniest thing possible in each one.
9. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem
TMNT movies of late have not had a terribly great run of success, so when it turned out Seth Rogan and company had developed an animated film featuring everyone’s favorite renaissance ninjas, it seemed promising, but somehow destined to be underwhelming, a kids movie with little to offer anyone else. It turns out, however, that no one need have been concerned, because Mutant Mayhem is as fun a Ninja Turtles movie as there’s been in decades. Following in the footsteps of the Spider-Verse films in utilizing both 2D and 3D animation to craft the look of the movie, the originality pops off the screen, and the voice acting is as good as one of these films has ever had. Casting actual teenagers to voice these turtles was not only the right call but lent a realism to their dialogue and interactions that would have been sorely missing from an older voice cast. The look of the film itself also manages to set itself apart from other animated films (including those aforementioned) just enough that it feels like its own thing, a city where everyone looks disgusting above ground while the real wonder is underneath. Even with some decent trailers, no one expected to have this much fun with a new TMNT run, and it’s more clear than ever that the team behind this one understands and values the I.P. properly.
Who knew that the writer of Malignant not only had one of the year’s best camp horror scripts under their belt, but one of the funniest movies of the year would be coming out in January? A typical dumping ground for studios, starting the year off with M3GAN wasn’t only a bold move, it was the right one. The film is dripping with camp so much that it coats the screen, and with some unexpectedly heart-touching moments, it manages to elevate itself beyond other doll-murderer counterparts to become something of its own beast. Everyone is in on the joke here, and if it wasn’t the chase through the woods to get a bully run over by oncoming traffic after biting his ear off cluing you into that fact, Amie Donald’s stellar performance as the body of the titular doll doing TikTok dances in the hallway before brutally stabbing a toy executive will.
7. Joy Ride
Raunch comedy is difficult to pull off in 2023; how do you do gross-out, sexual, or dirty comedy without getting too crass or making the jokes too obvious, thus ruining them all in the marketing? Well, if your answer is to get four women together as your main ensemble to make Joy Ride, you know exactly what you’re doing. While it isn’t the funniest movie of the year full-stop (that should probably go to Bottoms), it certainly has more gags, and most of them work pretty well due to the excellent chemistry of our four lead characters. Its plotting is a bit par-for-the-course, and there’s few narrative surprises in store, but when your performers are this fearless and the jokes are this good, surprises aren’t really necessary.
The John Wick films have left a set of action movies in their wake longer than the trail of bodies Wick leaves in one of his own stories, and yet, the new blood continues to surprise, none more so this year than Sisu. After an ex-soldier discovers gold in the Lapland wilderness during the final days of WWII, he must battle a force of Nazis led by an SS officer on a scorched earth retreat in order to survive and take his findings into the country. What follows is a brutal series of encounters across miles of terrain, and while the overall film does feature some slower moments, watching Jorma Tommila’s titular character slowly decimate an entire Nazi battalion is just as satisfying as it could ever be (some of the kills in this thing are insanely creative).
A pseudo-sequel to Searching that also appears one of our later lists, Missing stars Storm Reid as a young girl whose mother fails to return from a trip to Colombia. The digital screen tech universe of films, from Unfriended to Host, is typically filled with fare from and for the horror genre, but both Missing and its predecessor make a sincere and compelling case for it also occupying the thriller space. While this one isn’t quite as tightly wound as Searching, it’s a more-than-worthy follow-up, and demonstrates in no uncertain terms that Storm Reid still has a wealth of talent to explore.
4. The Covenant
There weren’t a ton of surprises in 2023, so the fact that this is yet another entry that appears on a later list shouldn’t really come as one either. Suffice it to say, Guy Ritchie’s straightforward retelling of a soldier’s rescue from Afghanistan, only to turn around and have to ex-fil the man who got him out, was one of the year’s most pleasant surprises – not in its sensationalism, but precisely because it avoids sensationalism in favor of a grounded approach. There’s no frills, no grander reach by the film’s script, no need to force a point out of something that may have had none; it’s simply a story of real, human courage, and duty borne of conviction.
3. Godzilla Minus One
If you saw the trailer when it was first released, you knew Godzilla Minus One was bound to be a special kind of Godzilla movie, but even up to the moment it opened in theaters, no one was prepared for just how special it would turn out to be. A fantastically-told story which puts Godzilla in his proper place as the living embodiment of nuclear horror, Minus One somehow manages to not only wow the audience in its spectacle but actually gets them to care about the human characters trying to survive the Kaiju’s relentless assault on Japan. Writer, director, and VFX artist Takashi Yamazaki created something here that is not only likely to stand the test of time but is already touted by many as the best Godzilla movie ever made. Japanese cinema was thoroughly alive in 2023, from Kore-eda’s Monster to Wim Wender’s Perfect Days and so much in between, but no film was a greater surprise from the island than that which brought the king of the titans to new heights.
This one will come up again in a later list, so I won’t spend too much time on it here, but suffice it to say, this movie was not supposed to be as fun as it turned out to be. I mean, who in the world thought that one of the fake trailers from Grindhouse could be turned into not only a good movie in its own right, but one of the best horror films of the entire year? An old-school B-movie slasher in the vein of Scream (sans the meta commentary on movies themselves), Eli Roth’s Thanksgiving has plenty of delicious kills, colorful characters, and narrative tension to chew on, even if you figure out the killer’s identity early on. Horrors like this aren’t about who gets killed, they’re about how they get killed, and for all the narrative lacks in elevating the film, its incredibly creative murders more than make up for. If you’re a horror fan, give this one a shot.
1. Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves
You know what really doesn’t succeed in theaters and has such a disastrous track record that the first narratively successful adaptation in recent memory isn’t even a direct adaptation of any one property? Game movies. Movies based on games (video games especially) are generally not a good prospect to gamble on for studios. So when a new Dungeons & Dragons movie was unveiled, with a set of trailers that made it look like one of the year’s most aggressively mediocre high-budget films and a release date that didn’t exactly inspire confidence, I was ready to write it off the second I saw it. Boy, how surprised I was when it turned out that not only was Honor Among Thieves competently made and well-crafted, it was actually one of the most fun (and surprisingly funny) movies released in theaters through the calendar year. It doesn’t just understand what makes the game of D&D so appealing to so many people; it actively feeds into the idea, and Chris Pine as the lead of this merry tribe pulling off what’s ultimately a long-form heist was a perfect bit of casting. Sure, some of the visual effects could have been a bit better, and the villain really isn’t anything to write home about, but I’ve seen MCU films with those issues that aren’t nearly as fun as this one. Perhaps it’s time for a rewatch.
And those are our picks for the Top 10 Most Surprising Movies of 2023! What were some films that surprised you this year? Any we left off the list that you wanna give a shout to? Let us know in the comments section below, and thanks for reading!
- The Friendly Film Fan