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Monday, January 29, 2024

The Best Films of 2023

Martin Scorsese, left, Lily Gladstone, and Robert DeNiro all received Oscar
nods for Killers of the Flower Moon. Some say Leo DiCaprio, right, was snubbed.
It's been a while since I've posted here, and it feels good to be back, even if only for a brief visit. I didn't write about movies last year because I simply missed too many of them to make a credible commentator on what was worth viewing and why.

But, fortunately, this year is different; though I still missed some important films (I've listed those at the end of this post), I find that I saw enough of the Academy's Best Picture contenders to be in a position to make an informed review. So, here goes.

A lot of people would say the race for Best Picture this year is a tight one, and I would agree. My own list has no single outstanding #1, and no 2023 release I've seen thus far has achieved the level required to get my highest rating of four stars. (That's not unusual - to give four stars, I have to believe the film was nearly perfect.) But four pictures this year got three-and-a-half stars from me, and that ain't bad. Plus, it's always possible I'll catch one later that meets the test. But, for now, here are my top picks, along with a few quibbles, of course ...
  • Killers of the Flower Moon - Marginally my choice for #1, this film has been criticized by some for being too long. That's hogwash! A film can be too long at ten minutes (if it stinks), or not long enough at three hours. In my theatrical viewing of this near-masterpiece, the time flew by, as a nuanced and complex story was told extremely well. The acting is superb - even incorporating spoken Osage dialogue by the three leads, all of whom learned the language for their parts - and the visuals are riveting. An unnecessary and distracting cameo by director Martin Scorsese right near the end dimmed it slightly for me. But Lily Gladstone is so subtly brilliant as the hub around which this wheel revolves, if she doesn't get the Oscar for female lead, I'll be shocked. Pee first, then see it. (image at top of this post)
  • Anatomy of a Fall - A truly original thriller/mystery organized around a family that shares three languages (German, French, and English), with a brilliant performance by its female lead, Sandra Huller, who has been rightly nominated for an Oscar. I've seen zillions of foreign films, but never one that handles the multiplicity of languages in an international family so fluidly and poignantly. The French/German couple speaks English at home as a compromise - to me, this says a great deal about our changing world and, in the context of the film, about their troubled marriage. (image at bottom of this post)
  • Gael Garcia Bernal is brilliant in Cassandro.
    Cassandro
     - This may be the best recent movie you've heard nothing about, but don't dismiss it. Mexican star Gael Garcia Bernal masterfully portrays the real-life, gender-bending Mexican wrestler Cassandro, who turned his disadvantage into success in the ring as an "exotico." I'm straight, white, American and male, and don't care much for wrestling - but I absolutely loved this touching, hilarious, and life-affirming film about a gay Mexican wrestler.
  • The Holdovers - No surprise here, it's gotten plenty of attention, all of it well deserved. At first, I was reluctant to praise this film too much, because I myself lived in a similar setting (a New England prep school) for four years, and would have a natural bias to enjoy the story - but it seems audiences and critics everywhere agree that it's first-rate, especially due to superb acting by its trio of stars: Paul Giamatti (always terrific), Da'Vine Joy Randolph in a breakout performance that earned an Oscar nod, and Dominic Sessa in a terrific debut. (see image above at left)
    American Fiction features an all-star cast of black actors, led
    by Jeffrey Wright, a past Tony, Emmy, and Golden Globe winner.
  • American Fiction - Satire is so tricky. I liked this picture a lot, and probably would have rated it higher if it wasn't so stuffed with clich├ęs. Or maybe they were put their intentionally as part of the joke? So, for example, when Jeffrey Wright's upper-middle-class black character (in a perfect performance that should win him a statuette) gets passed by while trying to hail a cab, exactly at the moment when he tells someone on his phone that he doesn't believe race matters, it seemed just too on the nose. Otherwise, though, the film is as entertaining as it is thought-provoking, with some nifty plot twists and a highly original script, drawn from the 2001 novel by an outstanding writer, Percival Everett.
  • Asteroid City
     - Based on the tiny sample of people I know who go to the movies, Wes Anderson's pictures tend to be polarizing. That is, they either love them or hate them. This one I loved. It's predictably very quirky, stuffed with great actors, and its scenic design is both wildly colorful and just plain wild. A work of art, not to everyone's taste, but extremely well done. And it's got Scarlett Johansson. Need I say more?
  • Dumb Money - This film features an outstanding Paul Dano as the basement-dwelling nerd who catapulted Game Stop into a Wall Street phenomenon through an options trading short squeeze. And, yes, I did find myself confusing it at times with 2015's The Big Short. What distinguishes Dumb Money is the excellent ensemble acting that supports Dano's awesome performance, and the spate of relatable characters they portray as they get swept up in the Game Stop drama. Despite the geeky subject matter, it is actually a hugely entertaining movie about something we all know quite well: Money.
  • The elephant in the room is Oppenheimer. It got how many Oscar nominations? My favorite number: 13. OK, so it's a really big Hollywood-style film with massive production values, with a pretty interesting story, and the acting in it is really very good - especially the lead, Cillian Murphy, and supporting actor Robert Downey, Jr. (actually, my favorite in it was Florence Pugh, even when dressed). But it's just so darn bombastic! (Pun acknowledged.) It hits a very high dramatic note right at the start - and then it stays there, for three hours. For all that effort, it could have been better, my friends.
  • Barbie
     - Ah, the feminist political football that is 2023's highest-grossing film! If only everybody would settle down and just accept Barbie for what it is - a fun, Boomer-esque, merch-hawking popcorn movie about dolls and humans. Where's the harm in not being the perfect statement for our time? I wore pink pants, popped the collar on my polo shirt, and enjoyed the spectacle. And then pretty much forgot about the whole thing.
  • Past Lives
     - Not terrible for a directorial debut, but my clear candidate for the year's most overrated film. What got me was how the story revolves around a presumably irresistible young woman who I found utterly unappealing. I don't mean this by her appearance - no shaming going on here - I mean her personality was simply terrible. So the whole thing fell apart. And it really felt like a first-time script (which it is): awkward, self-indulgent, unrealistic. Sorry, just not worthy of all the hype. 
And there you have it - a highly opinionated take on ten of the top films of 2023. Others I plan to see include The Zone of Interest, MaestroThe Boy and the Heron, 20 Days in Mariupol, and Society of the Snow. Notably not on my list to be seen is Poor Things, due to my dislike for Emma Stone's acting and my doubts about having the stomach for another Yorgos Lanthimos grossout. I do hope you will forgive me. And please do go out and support your local movie theater. Enjoy!

Samuel Theis and Sandra Huller star in Anatomy of a Fall, an intriguing international
mystery that could win a statuette for the German actress.