Friday, December 15, 2023

The year’s best movies: 2023 edition

 Here’s an invitation: I invite you to celebrate some of the year's best big-screen achievements (according to me) while encouraging you to make your own lists. 
 Yes, it was a good year — albeit one that closed with an ample supply of weirdness. Films such as Poor Things and Dream Scenario helped pave a weird path out of 2023. 
 I suppose I'm obligated to remind you that there were major duds, The Marvels being one of themRemember My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3? I Hope not.
  One oddity I’d like to mention: Director Ari Aster's Beau is Afraid isn't on my list, but deserves a look. 
   I still don't know, as I said in my review, whether to consider Aster's movie a fragmented work of genius or an incoherent oddity. I do know that Aster's artistic ambition is large enough to stock several movies and amid three hours worth of drama and comedy, you'll find some extraordinary work. When the year-end frenzy winds down, I plan to watch it again.
   What about Barbie? I was a little surprised that Time opted for Taylor Swift over Barbie as person of the year. I wonder whether the editors toyed with the idea. Barbie became a mega-hit and probably will win a best-picture nod come Oscar time. 
   Whatever you think of it, Barbie can be acknowledged as the unquestionable big-screen phenomenon of the year. As for my list, I passed on the swell Mattel icon, preferring 
movies that affected me more -- for what they had to say or the skill with which they said it or both.  
    Of course, lists are also -- and maybe mostly -- a reflection of personal, and hopefully well-informed, taste. Otherwise, why bother?
      My list:

1. Oppenheimer
Director Christopher Nolan shined light on the leadership Robert Oppenheimer brought to the development of the atom bomb. Cillian Murphy’s performance as Oppenheimer was one of the year’s best and Robert Downey Jr. revitalized his acting career — at least for me — with a memorable portrayal of Lewis Strauss, head of The Atomic Energy Commission. The result: a morally challenging work that was nuanced and absorbing. One of the year’s few three-hour movies that justified its length.

2. Anatomy of a Fall

French director Justine Triet embeds the story of a marriage in a complex courtroom drama that unfolds when a wife (Sandra Huller) is accused of murdering her husband. The couple's 11-year-old son (Milo Machado Graner) assumes an increasingly important role as the trial develops. Triet bases her work on complex characters that can't be shoved into typical pigeon holes.

3. Past Lives

All of our lives are full of what-ifs. Who among us hasn't tried to imagine the life we might have lived had we taken this or that chance? Director Celine Song's movie focuses on two characters (Greta Lee and Teo Yoo). The pair reunites years after making a powerful childhood connection in South Koran. Soon after the two met, Lee's character moved to the US. Later, she married a writer (John Magaro). A delicate and haunting movie that understands the sadness bred by roads not taken and reminds us that no matter how much we wish it weren’t so, we only can live one life at a time.

4. A Thousand and One

Teyana Taylor gives a mesmerizing performance as a tough woman in an even tougher world. A.V. Rockwell directs a story about a woman who recuses her young son from foster care. Nothing sappy tarnishes the tale Rockwell unveils. We find lives full of hardships, setbacks, and small triumphs. Flawed characters cling to their humanity as the movie moves toward a shocking end-of-picture reveal. 

5. Poor Things

Director Yorgos Lanthimos embraces full-on weirdness in this visually lavish story about a woman who grows to maturity. No ordinary woman, Bella Baxter (Emma Stone) was created when a surgeon (Willem Dafoe) removed the brain from the fetus of a woman who committed suicide by jumping off a bridge and, then, transplanted the fetus brain into late woman's body -- before it went cold, of course. Mark Ruffalo and Ramy Youssef add strong support as Lanthimos wrestles the late Alasdair Gray's 1992 novel into a bizarre cornucopia from which a coming-of-age tale topples. Lanthimos invites the eye to search every corner of every image.

6. American Fiction

Jeffrey Wright stars as Thelonious "Monk" Ellison, a Black novelist who resists writing the kind of fiction that might be dubbed “street” savvy. Basing his movie on a novel by Percival Everett, director Cord Jefferson examines an increasingly contemporary issue, the blurring of the line separating common sense from absurdity. Jefferson tempers satire about identity with genuine humanity in a movie featuring fine supporting performances from Erika Alexander, as a potential love interest for Monk, and Issa Rae, as a best-selling young author whose work Monk abhors. 

7.  The Zone of Interest

A chilling adaptation of a novel by the late Martin Amis. Adaptation? Well, sort of. Director Jonathan Glazer charts his own course as he immerses us in life inside the home of Auschwitz's commandant (Christian Friedel). Sandra Huller plays the commandant's wife in a film that traps us in a world where the value of everything feels tainted by Nazi perversity.  Fully committed to a gripping style, The Zone of Interest proves unforgettable. It’s a movie haunted by what we know but don’t see — and that which many of the movie’s characters refuse to see.

8. One Fine Morning

A great example of what might be called "the cinema of ordinary life." French director Mia Hansen-Love introduces us to a widow and single mother (Lea Seydoux) who works as a translator. Seydoux's character  must deal with her daughter (Camille Leban Martins) and a father (Pascal Greggory) who's losing himself to dementia. A romance with a married man (Melvil Poupaud) doesn't help simplify her life. A complicated story unfolds in a clear-headed fashion. Thank heavens for movies in which the characters are recognizably human.

9.  May December

I had mixed feelings about director Todd Haynes' look at a husband and wife twenty years after their marriage began. The twist, he (Charles Melton) was 13 and she (Julianne Moore) was 36 when their sexual relationship became a tabloid sensation. The story acquires a mind-bending dimension when an actress (Natalie Portman) arrives to study the couple in advance of playing Moore's character in an upcoming film. Absorbing, quietly challenging, funny, and sometimes frustrating, May December is on my list because I talked about it a lot and it stayed with me.

10. John Wick: Chapter 4

This two-hour and 49-minute onslaught of action turned excess into virtue. Director Chad Stahelski offered so many dizzying set pieces that we're almost overwhelmed. A fight on the steps leading to Paris's Sacre Coeur is worth the price of admission alone and Keanu Reeves and cohorts do what's needed. I'm not sure I'd want to see another John Wick movie, but I'm sure as hell glad I saw this over-the-top display of action and skillfully choreographed mayhem.

Honorable mentions: Bottoms, Menus-Plaisirs les Troisgros, The Taste of Things,  and Concrete Utopia

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you thank you thank you! This is my favorite post of every year.