Best of 2023: Jeff Ames’ Top Entertainment Picks

Cillian Murphy in Oppenheimer
Photo Credit: Universal Pictures

I’m not alone when I say 2023 was underwhelming for pop culture. Aside from the momentum hype behind Barbenheimer, there weren’t too many enormous milestones for cinema geeks like me to gush over.

That’s not to say the year was a complete loss. In fact, I’ve managed to round up a handful of my favorite movies, CDs, books, and TV picks I enjoyed over the last 12 months, some of which are rather awesome. Read on to find out which releases made the cut!

Favorite Movies

Oppenheimer, The Holdovers, John Wick: Chapter 4, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, Godzilla Minus One, Dungeons & Dragons, Creed III, Killers of the Flower Moon

Out of everything I saw this year, these are the films I’m most likely to return to repeatedly. After so many big-budget duds, it’s nice to see character studies take center stage once more—and yes, John Wick is most definitely a character study.

Oppenheimer stands out the most due to Christopher Nolan’s brilliant writing and direction—if he doesn’t win the Oscar, then that awards show is a complete farce—and Cillian Murphy’s mesmerizing performance. Somehow, the famed director of The Dark Knight crafted a compelling, 3-hour, R-rated biography that earned nearly a billion dollars at the worldwide box office—that’s insane and also a testament to Nolan’s unique connection with audiences. I can’t remember if I did a ranking of Nolan’s pics, including Oppenheimer, but it easily stands as one of his best. I can’t wait to see what he does for an encore.

Alexander Payne’s brilliant comedy/drama The Holdovers is coming in at a close second, which I assume will become a holiday classic in the years to come. Performances from Paul Giamatti, Dominic Sessa, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph are phenomenal. At the same time, Payne’s screenplay offers a sharp examination of broken people from different lives, discovering commonalities that result in emotional healing. This is the kind of big-screen character study I live for—a slice-of-life dramedy about love, hope, and healing.

In terms of blockbusters, I couldn’t get enough of Across the Spider-Verse—easily the best-animated film I saw all year—Godzilla Minus One, the underrated Dungeons & Dragons, and Michael B. Jordan’s phenomenal Creed III. All four have or will play on a loop in the Ames household for years to come.

Rounding out my favorites is Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, a phenomenal tale about dumb people doing dumb things for money. I saw a nine o’clock showing for this one and was hooked from start to finish, enamored by Scorsese’s solid direction and strong performances from the all-star cast.

Other fun flicks this year include Adam Sandler’s Leo, Ben Affleck’s Air, The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, Zack Snyder’s Rebel Moon, and the musical The Color Purple. None of these offerings really blew me away, but they are certainly worth a look.

Favorite TV

Reacher Season 2, Blue Eye Samurai

Admittedly, I’m not the most avid TV watcher. After Game of Thrones so memorably botched its landing—and after those awful Marvel/Star Wars shows—I drifted away from the boob tube and dove harder into older cinematic offerings—Red Heat, folks, is amazing!

Still, a few close friends convinced me to watch Blue Eye Samurai and I’m glad I tuned in. Everything about Netflix’s animated adventure worked for me, from the incredible animation to the stellar voice work, unique characters, and fascinating plot. Sure, it had more animated dongs than it probably needed, and the gore was a tad much at times, but I honestly couldn’t look away and ended up binging the entire series in less than a week. Mizu (voiced by Maya Erskine) is an unforgettable lead, and Abidjan Fowler (Kenneth Branagh) is already one of the most memorable villains ever created. I remain convinced that no story requires 40+ hours to tell, but as far as TV goes, Blue Eye Samurai is all aces.

I’m also in the midst of Reacher Season 2, which is a lot stronger than Season 1. I still think they weigh down Alan Ritchson’s hulking Jack Reacher with too many companions—he’s a lone warrior in the books—but showrunner Nick Santora ensures the big guy enjoys the season’s best moments. Also, the supporting cast is really good. Maria Sten is solid as Neagly on this go-round. The actress has more to work with here, quickly making her a well-rounded, kick-ass teammate. Serinda Swan offers great support as well, and it’s always fun to see Robert Patrick snarling his way through a villain role. As stated, I haven’t finished Season 2 yet, but I’m already itching for a third.

Favorite Books

Surely You Can’t Be Serious: The True Story of Airplane!, Blood, Sweat & Chrome: The Wild and True Story of Mad Max Fury Road, Caddyshack, Jimmy Stewart, Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, and The Devil’s Candy: The Anatomy of a Hollywood Fiasco

At the beginning of 2023, my goal was to read/listen to as many books about Hollywood as my eyes/ears would permit. Thankfully, there are a ton out there to choose from that offer juicy details regarding our favorite films, actors, and directors. Many of these are older titles, but each offers a fascinating peak behind the scenes and sheds light on the brilliant minds behind classics like Airplane!, Psycho, Caddyshack, and Mad Max: Fury Road.

Even Jimmy Stewart by Michael Munn provided unique insights into one of our most beloved stars—the man stood up to “Bugsy” Siegel for cripe’s sake! Devil’s Candy chronicles the making of Brian De Palma’s famous misfire, Bonfire of the Vanities, and explains how a film with good intentions can spiral wildly out of control. Caddyshack by Chris Nashawaty, is a breezy, easy-to-read account of Harold Ramis’ iconic, albeit drug-fueled production; The Making of Psycho dives into Hitchcock’s mind, while Surely You Can’t Be Serious is a fun look at the story behind the greatest comedy ever made.

Still, all pale in comparison to Blood, Sweat & Chrome. I had no idea how tumultuous Fury Road’s production was until I read Kyle Buchanan’s absorbing book. It changed my perspective of Fury Road—in a good way—and helped me better appreciate a film I already loved.

Favorite Music

Hook – The Ultimate Edition: Expanded & Remastered Limited Edition (3-CD Set), Sneakers: Expanded & Remastered Limited Edition (2-CD Set), The Mask of Zorro: Expanded & Remastered Limited Edition (2-Cd Set), The Lost World: Jurassic Park – Remastered & Expanded, Nobody’s Fool: Limited Edition, Battle Beyond the Stars (2CD – Expanded), Solo: A Star Wars Story (2CD – Deluxe Edition)

It was a banger year for James Horner and John Williams fans, courtesy of La La Land Record and Intrada. Early on, I finally secured the expanded score for The Lost World: Jurassic Park (La La Land), a phenomenal score to an otherwise mediocre movie featuring some of Williams’ most exciting action cues. Intrada then spoiled me with a release of Horner’s Deadly Blessing (and already has an expanded issue of Something Wicked This Way Comes on the docket), Windtalkers, and Humanoids From the Deep. At the same time, La La Land treated fans to expanded scores for Sneakers (a personal favorite), Gorky Park and The Mask of Zorro.

Still, the Holy Grail of film music has always been John Williams’ complete score for Hook, and the 3-CD set doesn’t disappoint. The release features the music as Williams intended for the film (in proper sequence, no less) and sweetens the pot with unused tracks and alternate cues. If that weren’t enough, album producer Mike Matessino assembled a collection of unused songs by Leslie Bricusse intended for Hook when it was initially designed as a musical. The songs are all scored to Williams’ iconic themes, which is a fascinating treat for film score lovers. I’m glad they ditched the musical numbers, as Williams’ score remains powerful on its own. Still, Hook will always come with a curious question mark—would it have worked better/worse as a musical?

Between these releases, Intrada slipped in a CD version of John Powell’s terrific score for Solo: A Star Wars Story, along with a 2CD release of Jerry Goldsmith’s MacArthur. For kicks, I also snagged Howard Shore’s Nobody’s Fool, which quickly became a household staple—it’s fun to hear the veteran composer play around with themes he would later use in Lord of the Rings.

Oh, and another great release from Intrada? The Rock (2CD-Expanded) by Nick Glennie-Smith, Hans Zimmer, and Harry Gregson-Williams.

Need more? Head over to Varese Sarabande and pick up a copy of Randy Newman’s Pleasantville (Original Motion Picture Score – Deluxe Edition CD) or Quartet Records’ expanded releases of Horner’s Dad, Michael Kamen’s Venom, or Williams’ Heidi.

It was a GREAT year for film music fans, folks. And now I have no money.

Favorite Video Games

Star Wars Jedi: Survivor, RoboCop, Spider-Man 2

I should retitle this category as Games I Played since I only had time to tackle four or five games throughout the year. Mostly, I went back and played the first three Far Cry games for the first time, then jumped into Jedi: Survivor, which I enjoyed, even if it became redundant towards the end. Then I downshifted to RoboCop — which was a fun if clunky experience — and am currently in the middle of the phenomenal Spider-Man 2. I also introduced my daughter to The Last of Us Parts 1 & 2. So, it’s not like I’m not gaming, but there’s only so much time in the week, folks!

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