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Best First-Time Watches of 2023

December 27, 2023
Hunter Friesen
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With at least one new movie being released every weekend, it can sometimes be a challenge to visit some of the films of yesteryear. But you need to look back in order to appreciate the present and make way for the future. Just as there are way too many films to see in one year, there are infinitely more from the past just waiting for you to discover them.

Being a cinephile is a marathon, not a sprint. It may take decades for you to finally catch something that’s been calling your name. Fortunately for me, the ten movies listed here no longer live in the realm of my neverending watchlist. So, before this introduction becomes a marathon, let’s let the reel unfold on the best pre-2023 films I saw this year.

Honorable Mentions

  • The Dirty Dozen (1967)

  • Doctor Zhivago (1965)

  • The Cremator (1969)

  • Radio Days (1987)

  • In the Mood for Love (2000)

10. Giant (1956)

The title kind of speaks for itself when it comes to the scope and scales. Director George Stevens tells a grand tale of change within America, as some of the "old ways" die out, with newer, and mostly better, ways taking their place. Of course, many of these new liberal ways could easily be characterized as conservative today.

But you can only judge a film through the era it was made in, and this one certainly expands upon the mammoth productions of the Golden Age. 201 minutes may not exactly fly by, but there is always a certain sense of awe at what is being accomplished on a technical level.

9. King Kong (1933)

It’s always been quite apparent that I have a soft spot for long movies, but watching this original version did make me question why Peter Jackson decided to elongate it to 187 minutes for his 2005 remake. Here Kong fights a T-Rex, a giant snake, and a pterodactyl within the span of fifteen minutes, and is then climbing the Empire State Building shortly after. All of it wraps up in about half the time Jackson needed. Talk about efficiency!

There’s an added charm to the horribly outdated handling of the love plot between Ann and Jack. “But Jack, you hate women!” is a line that will live with me forever. Co-writer / co-director Merian C. Cooper made the ultimate B-picture before they were a thing, and it’s still just as much fun ninety years later.

8. Z (1969)

Cost-Gavras’ political thriller is incredibly fun, authentic, theatrical, and damning. It’s one of those movies that gives you a headache just trying to imagine how Gavras and his team were able to weave it all into one coherent narrative. Scenes crash on top of each other at a moment's notice, with new angles and conspiracies recontextualizing everything you’ve seen before. It’s not just a film of its time, it’s a film for every time as it examines the struggle for power and resistance.

7. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Very few people had to clear a higher bar than Steven Spielberg did with his follow-up to Jaws. The iconic director maintained a mixture of wonder and terror in his expertly crafted imagery. It’s also a celebration of the mysterious, the unexplained, and the infinite possibilities that lie beyond our understanding. And as per usual, John Williams’ terrific score and groundbreaking special effects maintain this as a must-see on the big screen. 

6. Son of Saul (2015)

While Jonathan Glazer refused to enter the grounds for his Holocaust movie The Zone of Interest, writer/director László Nemes forces us to experience at all times. The stark and minimalistic approach enhances the emotional resonance within his story, one that never allows for a moment of levity or hope. It focuses on a single man's fight for survival at whatever cost, offering an honest on-the-ground experience of this dark chapter. I can easily see why Terrence Malick chose to cast Géza Röhrig to play Jesus in his new film (whenever it comes out). He has a tortured look about him, with a little bit of humanity to keep him mortal.

5. A Man For All Seasons (1966)

Unsung screenwriting titan Robert Bolt began his film career with Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, and The Man For All Seasons (which he adapted from his own play). It’s a shame that he mostly stuck to the stage throughout the rest of his working days, as his output on those three epic works far transcends the limitations one would expect from that time period.

There are so many stinging lines here, the majority of them expertly delivered by Paul Scofield. He’s a man dealing with his conscience in a time and place where uninterrupted servitude was expected, with Robert Shaw’s boisterous King Henry VIII being someone you don’t want to make an enemy of. Many will call it stiff and a product of its time, but it still packs an everlasting punch about doing what’s right in the face of evil.

4. The Sting (1973)

The Sting is high-class entertainment about low-class grifters. There’s always something so satisfying about a plan coming together, especially when it’s led by an A-list cast and crew such as this. Director George Roy Hill keeps everything on its toes, recreating the sleaziness of the streets while also never losing sight of its light-hearted charm. David S. Ward’s script is always one step ahead of you, but it never makes you lose sight of everything falling into place. Of course, it’s impossible to take your eyes off the screen when you’ve got Paul Newman and Robert Redford strutting around at the height of their power.

3. Magic Mike XXL (2015)

XXL is significantly better than the Steven Soderbergh-directed original because (a) it doesn't take itself too seriously, and (b) takes place in more locations, which allows for the use of unique physical spaces to enhance the dance choreography. Who would have thought a tool shed would be the site for one of the most eye-grabbing dance scenes?

It’s also one of the only “bro” movies that isn’t toxic about its masculinity or makes you cringe as they try to subvert. It’s just a couple of bros touring around as they dance and make people feel empowered. If only the trilogy capper from this year maintained those ideals…

2. Yi Yi (2000)

One of the most remarkable things about Yi Yi is its ability to capture the complexity of human relationships in a subtle and nuanced way. It doesn’t rely on grand gestures or dramatic plot twists to convey its message, but rather, it portrays the everyday moments and conversations that make up our lives. It’s incredibly rich in its cinematography and themes, and will surely require a rewatch (or two). I have a feeling that Yang will become one of my favorite filmmakers the longer I sit with his films.

1. Brief Encounter (1945)

This 1945 romance is another example to prove my point of David Lean being one of, if not the, greatest director ever (even though that's not an unpopular opinion). No matter if it's an 86-minute 4:3 romantic drama or a 218-minute 70mm epic, everything Lean touches is elevated. Every image is beautiful in its literal and metaphorical form, every moment feels essential, and every idea feels like it was brought into the world with ease. I've got seven more films to go in my David Lean miniseries, and I'm sure he'll become one of my most beloved filmmakers by the end of it.

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