If you sift through the cinders, there, shockingly resilient, as they have been through every dark period of the last century, are our movies. They are cultural markers that can tell us about ourselves if we listen carefully enough. They are mirrors if we can stand to look at ourselves: cruel and implacable, as only the plain and awful truth can be. It's easy to look back twenty or thirty years and track the character of the time, the fears and warnings left like time capsules buried as cultural artifacts in the sand of our diminishing options. Can we turn that intuition on ourselves? I don't know. Every generation believes they're the last is what they say, though I wonder if what this really means is that every generation comes to realize it deserves to be the last. I imagine us scrambling to slow entropy and entropy refusing to slow. I remember thinking I could make a difference, and how good that used to feel.
The world is on fire. I think you could probably blame fewer than a dozen very wealthy people for that, wealthy enough that we no longer have the ability--nor indeed the will--to stop them. As soon as you allow billionaires to exist, the Rubicon has been crossed. Game over.
So in the time we have left, and as the window for our ability to express ourselves about popular genocides in public spaces closes, we still have movies: these shadows on cave walls telling whatever will be left that we were here and that we knew. We did. We were so angry and sad, and there was nothing we could do, because the people and systems that were supposed to protect us only protected them. Now it's done.
The buzziest movies of 2023 were Greta Gerwig's dangerously facile Barbie and Christopher Nolan's remedial Oppenheimer, both machine-tooled to tweak the pleasure centres of as broad an array of their target demographics as possible and finding themselves the topics of conversations not so much divisive as tediously programmatic. I worry that cultural discourse looks like this now: skirmishes between evenly-matched featherweights; slap-fights between emaciated and untrained antagonists that ultimately seem more like staged diversions than prize matches. We are not edified arguing about whether the monologue in the one is retrograde and patronizing or if the theme of the other is the nihilistic arrogance of man in the face of the anonymous misery he enacts. We are not enriched by weeping at the recognition of unenlightened observations delivered as hambone and cheese. Masturbation doesn't result in offspring.
The best movies of 2023 are interesting because they're more than just reflections of the current state of our state. They carry in them the spark of...is it hope? Hope, or hopefulness? Is there a difference? Is the difference that one is belief and the other the expression of belief? I don't know how to parse it, but I'm holding on to both with two hands, so hard my fingernails are leaving tiny bloody crescents on my palms. I don't know how much longer I can do it.
Sixteen honourable mentions follow below. I didn't see Evil Doesn't Exist or Close Your Eyes; I suspect both will get 2024 releases. Okay, you know the drill. Let's go.
All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt; New Strains; Fremont; Joyland; Husuera: The Bone Woman; Full Time; The Unknown Country; Alice, Darling; The Taste of Things; Godland; Suitable Flesh; The Eight Mountains; The Five Devils; Seagrass; Vincent Must Die; Raging Grace
You Can Live Forever
Where the Devil Roams
Friendship and family start us off. The partnership between Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and Doug Fregin (Matthew Johnson), which forms the disintegrating moral centre of Blackberry: two nerd best friends who dream of combining a telephone with an Internet server and rapidly take over 45% of the fledgling cell-phone business in the United States with the help of evil capitalist Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton). The friendship between Jaime (Anwen O'Driscoll) and Marike (June LaPorte), navigating their mutual adolescent attraction and the oppressive Jehovah's Witness cult to which they belong in You Can Live Forever. Families ground the high-rise horrors of Evil Dead Rise and the sideshow guignol of Where the Devil Roams, while fidelity to God and country drives the doomed heroine of Reality, who tips off the media that the Russians may have had something to do with manipulating the results of recent elections. There's hope here: hope in the idea that abandoning friendships is still bad and that families, blood or relational, are still the glue holding society together, no matter how broken and perverse. I can't say that any of these films has a happy ending, per se: they feel like a drowning person reaching for the rope trailing behind the ship after falling overboard--but here we are still thrashing. Doomed, you know, but not dead yet.
Talk to Me
Family and friends, sure, but let's also talk about self-loathing in 2023. Let us go, you and I, we the patients etherized on a table bathed in flickering, silver light, peeled-back skin and muscle, sinew and artery, bone and scraped marrow. I imagine the essence of us caught in grooves and drained into the floor. When Julianne Moore's monstrous narcissist Gracie in Todd Haynes's May December protests, "I am naive, always have been," to the soap opera actor (Natalie Portman) trying to mimic her, I died a little on the inside. The level of self-deception, the lack of introspection at war with her complete self-knowledge and seething self-hate, exquisitely captures Haynes's career inquiries into identities in the process of crashing into themselves. In Talk to Me, YouTube sensations Danny and Michael Philippou explore similar themes of coming to terms with inner darkness through a series of possessions and facial obliterations: stabbing, carving, smashing, blinding at the least; the goal always seemed to be the desecration of the temple of Me. Blunt--and a lovely companion piece to David Gordon Green's The Exorcist: Believer that engages in similar Oedipal derangements while engaged in the question of reproductive choice.
Passages boasts the most fascinatingly loathsome/compulsively watchable character in a film since Mike Leigh's Naked. Franz Rogowski's Tomas, a cross between Vincents Gallo and Cassel, lays waste to everyone who wants to love him through this indescribable mixture of gluttonous hedonism and absolute insecurity-masking-as-confidence. Ben Whishaw, as he is wont to do, steals the film as one corner of the triangle Tomas creates when he cheats on his husband (Whishaw) with gorgeous schoolteacher Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos). It's maybe 2023's most infuriating watch, even if it does let the audience off the hook with a cathartic comeuppance. But while it's firing, it's nailing the evil that men do in a more visceral way than Oppenheimer's sexualization of intelligence. Tomas isn't brilliant, he's a worm insensibly insinuating itself into the soft flesh of the unfortunates falling into its radius. Afire, meanwhile, tackles self-loathing in the body of a writer--one of a couple of writers this year--who only exists to create misery he can mine for his work while just outside of frame an actual world-consuming fire rages. Atrocities we know but manage to ignore is a theme of our age of missing information, where we are so inundated with knowledge we retreat into our holes, eyes closed and ears covered. Mark Jenkin's Enys Men is the cleanest evocation of Wordsworth's "story of place" I've ever seen: a Cornish nightmare revealing a story in every landmark, every plant, every ruin, whether inside our bodies or out. It's a ghost story about our haunted planet, a cautionary tale about the impossibility of living somewhere that hasn't been fed with blood and tears. The picture takes root like the parasitic lichen at the centre of its intrigue--the only active force in an insensate, immoral vacuum.
A day or two before my dad died, he told me he had a dream of being in a forest, wearing a paper mask, holding a fire in his hands and coming upon a group of others in a similar state. I asked him if it was a scary dream, and he said no--he said it was a deathdream, and that he was going home. He wasn't a spooky guy, my dad. He didn't tell many ghost stories when I was growing up. We were credulous; there were enough things to fear here and now to worry about later, elsewhere. For the twenty years since his death, I have waited to dream of a forest full of figures, paper on their faces and flame in their hands. He gave me a lot of things to carry once he set them down. That's what fathers do. Ted Geoghegan's chamber horror Brooklyn 45 assembles a gallery of war dogs in the immediate aftermath of WWII to drink, tell their hoary stories of survival and the terrible things they've seen, and confront, eventually, how deep the roots of conflict have taken in each of them. A German maid is discovered, a friend of theirs kills himself, favours done for a pal become a secret about a war crime; in the year Henry Kissinger finally went home to his throne in Tartarus, here is this little movie about the heads that wear the hero's laurels. Michael Edward Geoghegan, the director's late father, is thanked in the credits for giving his son the stories of pain and personal sacrifice comprising the background of this personal project that, in the telling, becomes a mortal diagnosis for all our prospects. I miss the people in my life who are gone. I alternate between wishing they were still around and being jealous that they don't have to be here with me to watch the walls bleed.
Lila Avilés's Tótem covers a birthday party for a terminally-ill man through the eyes of his young daughter, seven-year-old Sol (Naima Senties)--more a death-day party, really, as everyone except Sol measures the gravity of this being the last time most of the guests will see the centre of attention. Senties is remarkable--or, rather, Avilés demonstrates an uncanny ability to piece together an emotional process from what is unspoken, seen, hidden, and revealed. She is a major emerging talent. Compare her work in silence here with master John Woo's in the logical endpoint for his career as a choreographer of the sublime dance of heroic bloodshed, Silent Night. I feel like I've spent thirty years defending Woo's narratives as books for operas, step charts for elaborate tangos, works that operate in experimental and gestural spaces rather than novelistic and narrative ones. He's been working towards a "silent" film for a long time, and 2023 seems to be a year where being robbed of one's voice (it happens, too, in Sisu and No One Will Save You) speaks piquant and eloquent. I think the film would have been met with the same incomprehension and derision had it been traditionally scripted: For my money, Woo has never been traditionally scripted. Silent Night is not an outlier for Woo, in other words--it's a meticulously-engineered vehicle for action. There would be no John Wick without John Woo.
Alice Rohrwacher's sedate, melancholy, haunted "thriller" La Chimera is about a taciturn tomb raider, Arthur (Josh O'Connor), armed with an unerring nose for buried antiquities and pining for a woman who's more than likely dead. The title suggests his lost Lenore is a mythological beast, an amalgam of disparate parts or capable of changing its appearance--and indeed, Arthur is restless, constantly searching for things to fill the hole in him. He finds it in the end, only to hurl it into the ocean upon realizing that what gives his life meaning is his miserable, romantic, and endless hunt. Isabella Rossellini, at this point in her career the human embodiment of the elderly relative you love and miss the most, plays Arthur's grandmother, maybe the last person to still love him. The last, certainly, to indulge his fantasy that he'll ever recover what he's lost. Finding meaning in the diversions is the crux of Rodrigo Moreno's shaggy heist flick The Delinquents. Not shaggy like some '70s piece, aswarm with character actors and European sensibilities, but so entirely in the bag for the concept of the "MacGuffin" that long stretches of it have nothing to do with what it's ostensibly about. Moribund bank tellers Moran (Daniel Elías) and Román (Esteban Bigliardi) hatch a Hitchcockian plot to abscond with enough money to live comfortably for the rest of their lives, but halfway through their half-assed plan, well, Román gets distracted. The ticking bomb of his inevitable discovery underpins a sweet romance, a light comedy of living life in the moment, and eventually the realization that none of us knows when the falling piano will flatten us, so maybe lift your eyes and fill your lungs while you can.
No One Will Save You
World War III
Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret
Brian Duffield's brilliant alien-invasion flick No One Will Save You manages to tell a pitch-black tale of the dark desires of the human soul without ever playing like a "down" picture. (Its resurrecting the music of Ruby Murray surely helps.) The idea that there might be a higher intelligence who will one day offer to trade your awful reality for a curated unreality--and that this bargain will be more than even the most heroic could resist--is a ballsy one to present in a genre used to noble expressions of the indomitability of the human spirit. Ditto Bomani J. Story's outstanding debut The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster, which mines Mary Shelley's extraordinarily progressive Frankenstein for a story about a brutal police force, being profiled for your appearance, and how autodidactism is the only way out of the shackles others would place on your freedom. Completing this trio of young women heroes is 11-year-old Margaret Simon (Abby Ryder Fortson), making her way in a new school with new friends while navigating puberty and organized religion in Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, Kelly Fremon Craig's follow-up to her similarly exceptional The Edge of Seventeen. Perhaps we should also include Charlotte (Natália Germáni) of Tereza Nvotová's chthonic fable Nightsiren, returned to her family's hut in the forest upon her mother's death and after a long separation following an unspeakable accident.
Round out this section with Iranian filmmaker Houman Seyyedi's dizzying, satirical balancing act World War III, in which itinerant worker Shakib (Mohsen Tanabandeh), hired on as a physical labourer on the set of a Holocaust film, is first recruited to play a concentration camp extra and then Hitler himself. Consider the absolute audacity to use the Holocaust as a metaphor for how money corrupts everything, power systems immediately pervert morality, and desperation makes villains of us all. It shouldn't work, but it works like a Swiss timepiece, clicking along invisibly and betraying nothing while moving through a series of events that are at once entirely unpredictable and the only things that could possibly happen in hindsight. It opens with a quote attributed to Mark Twain, one I've returned to as 2023 wheezes to a close: "History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme."
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem
A Haunting in Venice
At the beginning of Jeff Rowe's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, our boys pause on the way back from a scavenging trip to be "normal" for a while, watching in the dark with the rest of their block a bit of the outdoor movie cutting through the sultry New York summer night. 2023's themes surrounding the power of community-forged families and the evergreen urge to belong are captured in this most unlikely of places--a film that is arguably the first truly faithful adaptation of Eastman & Laird's high-concept underground quartet, who were designed to speak to the immigrant experience, the fracture of social class in New York, and the despair of being invisible in one of the most densely-populated places in the world. It's as sharp and savvy in its callouts as Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, which shifts its attention from a Black kid finding his voice to a young woman seeking to do the same. The search for words is central to Brandon Cronenberg's Infinity Pool as well. There, an author's fears of being blocked, being made ridiculous, being seen, are exploded as a deathdream of broken identity and murder on the cheap. Everything is for sale in Infinity Pool except actual accomplishment. The world is plastic, and nothing means anything. How could it, when the only things it values have a price tag?
That's the world from which Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) has retreated. He has no friends, "only admirers." He refuses to use his intimidating skills of ratiocination to help the mob of people lined up every day outside his apartment, only relenting to entertain a guest when it's "old friend" and crime writer Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey). She's onto something, she tells him, a big story, and she needs his help. It involves a suicide, a seance, a haunted tenement in a sinking city, and a Halloween party for orphans where the guests are warned of all the dead children wanting to add to their numbers. It's spooky, sure, more so for Poirot's dangerous despair and, eventually, the rage that causes him to use his gifts as a bludgeon--a scythe of obliterating logic that answers every question except the one of his loneliness. My favourite line in Broadcast News comes when Holly Hunter's type-A producer is told it must be nice to believe you're the smartest person in the room and she says, "No, it's awful." I love all three of Branagh's Poirot films for this thread of a broken man exploited and celebrated but desperate for a human connection to ground him in the world of the living. El Conde deals with a different kind of supernatural element in the peeling-back of the world's injustices, placing vampires as the ageless, chimeric heads of state throughout history, responsible for the looting of their countries, the misery of their citizens, and the ongoing genocides of native populations that make all the rest possible.
Return to Seoul
About Dry Grasses
Nuri Bilge Ceylan's About Dry Grasses and Hirokazu Kore-eda's Monster form (along with Ilker Çatak's The Teachers' Lounge) a trilogy of teachers vs. students here at the beginning of a cultural revolution in which intellectuals are targeted for hostility preparatory to their eventual extermination under fascist leadership. History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme. Neither film takes sides. Both take in the absolute, irresolvable tragedy of pitting these two groups against each other in ideological battles--he said/she saids and sprung power dynamics that feel like toothpaste you can never put back in the tube. The hardest thing about the last several years has been learning how fragile our systems are and how easily they're overturned by people who just...want to. Our governments are the equivalent of those little chains on doors. It only works as a deterrent so long as the person trying to break it down refrains from putting the tiniest bit of pressure on it. About Dry Grasses leaves the classroom environment to explore how the foundations built in childhood cast long shadows on a culture's odds for survival, while Monster is fixated on the price of kindness, of standing up for the right things, even when the only difference it makes to do so is the assured destruction of the person making the right choice. Laura Moss's Birth/Rebirth is specifically about how even the notion of the "right" choice is difficult when questions of choice are entangled with existential legislations in the United States that essentially relegate women, officially, into a caste of second-class citizen.
Davy Chou's Return to Seoul is the immigrant-life-that-could've-been film I most connected with in a visceral way this year. Lost, wayward Freddie (Park Ji-Min) is a Korean-born woman adopted as a child by loving French parents who, as a young twentysomething, makes a trip back to Korea in search of the parents who gave her up. It's a set-up for any number of familiar scenarios the film assiduously avoids en route to telling a story of cultural friction and misunderstanding, resentment and grief, and figuring out who you are in maybe the last place you were going to look. I love Freddie not because she isn't a monumental fuck-up whose decisions hurt other people, but because she is. The film is unsentimental about it. People are broken sometimes, and they either find solid ground or they drown. That's it. Chou doesn't gild it, doesn't provide Freddie a safety net, merely presents all of these terrible moments where friends like Tena (Guka Han) decide not to be friends with Freddie anymore, though not before telling her how sad a person she is. Aren't we all. Cap this group with Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One, the continuing adventures of Tom Cruise's invincible hero as he suffers unimaginable losses in fighting an omniscient and indefatigable foe. Ethan Hunt is much like Branagh's Hercule Poirot at this point, aware of his specialness and the full extent of how it makes him alien. Ethan still has friends, but fewer and fewer. He is Ethan Edwards from The Searchers. His job is to save society, not live in it.
Four films about the male death drive are the legs for this group of films, starting with Jacob Elordi's violent, child-like take on The King in Sofia Coppola's Priscilla. Coppola is the very definition of an auteur--the author working through a specific set of issues and interests through her medium of choice--and this is, after Somewhere, my favourite of her careful, moonstruck tales of little rich girls abandoned emotionally by the schmucks they figure out the hard way they can live without. Michael Mann's Ferrari envisions the car mogul as a force of malignant nature whose will to power cuts a swath of death--at one point literally--through those unfortunate enough to be caught up in his dervish. Penélope Cruz steals the show, though (just as Marion Cotillard does in Mann's Public Enemies), as the long-suffering wife of Enzo Ferrari (Adam Driver), the woman trying to hold it together when massive chunks of her life fly apart. Bradley Cooper attempted to do the exact "in the middle of the maelstrom" thing with Maestro, but the difference between the two films is the difference between glancing a stone across the surface of the method pond and diving deep into the appetite for destruction that pushes some men to stoke their furnaces with the wreckage they've made of their lives. David Fincher's thematic sequel to Fight Club, The Killer locates modern man as the hunter of Amazon wishlists and the gatherer of packages dropped off thrice daily at his doorstep. A dry-as-ash comedy about masculinity's endpoint in capitalism's emasculating convenience (and the importance for some to pretend at potency regardless) sets its climax at a luxurious penthouse where a billionaire does his best to figure out which of his crimes against humanity has brought a hired killer to his doorstep. Even the fact that the film itself is a technical marvel, sleek perfection from start to finish, is part of the gag.
Consider The Killer's smooth surfaces vs. the cool facility of diplomat/official De Roller (Benoît Magimel)--"the roller," n'est-ce pas?--who slithers through Albert Serra's colonial nightmare Pacifiction like the proverbial snake in the garden. He makes promises he never intends to keep, condescends to the locals, placates the foreign heads of state, and seeks to suppress rumours of a resumption of nuclear testing in the Tahiti protectorate he represents without seeming to care whether or not these rumours are true. For De Roller, what matters is that he reach a state of relational equilibrium between every player--that he please all stakeholders by quieting alarm, smoothing over it with a blanket of unctuous equivocations. He promises one group they'll receive access to exclusive casinos ("Plus a free chip for all citizens?" "Sure!") and another the opposite, and it's not that he's ever lying--it's that his only job is to get people to a state of continuous quiescence. The art of making people not care they're about to end the world and die either in the blast or the fallout is what most of our public discourse is now. Seeing it represented on film by an abandoned rave way past its endpoint, presided over by a topless DJ dancing alone in the purple, ultraviolet glow, is the exact visual metaphor for Charlie Chaplin rollerskating along the edge of a gaping hole for our modern age of ignoring the uncomfortable. Top it off with the finest comedy of the year, No Hard Feelings, a film about the income gap, America's social classes, and how Jennifer Lawrence may be, aside from Tom Cruise, the last of our real, bona fide movie stars.
Beau is Afraid
Godzilla Minus One
Romance in 2023 is defined by Aki Kaurismäki's deadpan heartbreaker Fallen Leaves and Andrew Haigh's heart-shattering All of Us Strangers--the one about a congenital loser who realizes he has one last chance to turn everything around, and so, after fucking up, he takes it; the other about a writer who creates an entire interior life of hope and acceptance from his despair and alienation.
Kelly Reichardt's Showing Up is the first of her uniformly excellent films to truly resonate with me. It's a portrait of an artist who has an indefinable process and pace and is woefully aggrieved whenever either is violated. Plagued by inconveniences real and exaggerated, she tries to finish a few crucial pieces before her big show but mainly finds cause to be exasperated, stressed out, and depressed. Nailed it. The interiority of her dysfunction is projected in the surreal expressionism of Ari Aster's Beau is Afraid--another director making a mark on me for the first time with a personal piece obsessed with the peculiarities and perversions of the life of the mind. Opening in a Republican's vision of New York, its anxious nightmarescape pulls Beau (Joaquin Phoenix) to an innerspace constructed of filial guilt, inadequacy, and his manifold failures as a man and a father. Its closest analogue is Synecdoche, New York, and I suspect this is the film Aster's wanted to make all along before those pesky genre movies got in the way. As I've enjoyed hating Aster for hating his own films, it's a shame this one is so good.
Finally, there's Takashi Yamazaki's awe-inspiring Godzilla Minus One, the year's grandest spectacle bar none, mixed with Japan's sober reckoning with the horrors of war and the pieces of that atrocity they collectively own. Hayao Miyazaki has attempted the same sort of reckoning with his last two films (The Wind Rises and The Boy and the Heron), but while I'm a huge admirer of the former, I think the latter is done better here, in Japan's hoariest metaphor for the trauma of WWII and the inherent confusion within of outrage and culpability. Is Godzilla friend or foe? Is he expression of righteousness or manifestation of justice against not only the Japanese, but also all of mankind? In a year where our viability as a civilized species has come under serious question, here is the answer in the resurrection of a golem from the deep. Civilization was always a lie we told to forgive our unrelieved savagery. The sequence where Godzilla bites a train and stands with three passenger cars hanging from his jaws like a duck carcass in a hunting dog's mouth gives the lie to the idea any of us ever deserved the benefit of doubt. It's the insect's turn; we've had ours, and we made a real fucking hash of it.
They Cloned Tyrone
Five more romances for this block though only two are conventional: Asteroid City is focused on a widower and an actress but its heartache is built on the tragedy of a playwright's lost muse, and They Cloned Tyrone is supercharged by the screwball interplay between a pimp and his charge. Even Yorgos Lanthimos's Poor Things, wherein the untameable Bella Baxter (Emma Stone) learns all about her "place" in a male-dominated society from master-cocksmith Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo) before destroying his ego with her independence and polyamorousness, takes a few, let's say, nontraditional routes to get to its happily ever after. Rude and antisocial, it's the third of three Frankenstein riffs from 2023 (after The Angry Black Girl and her Monster and Birth/Rebirth) that each reclaim Mary Shelley's envelope-pushing activism from within the reanimated body of her work. Raine Allen Miller's hyphenate debut, the charming, Jump Tomorrow-esque Rye Lane, thrusts the slightly drippy Dom (David Jonsson) together with bon vivant Yas (Vivian Oparah), both recently single after harrowing breakups. They fall in love as they walk and talk through vividly detailed sets in a London exploding with Jonathan Demme vibrancy and cultural specificity. You could spend days in the environments Miller creates here or in the company of Dom and Yas; you could spend several more unpacking the sociopolitical complexities buried in the text. Or you could simply let the joy of it wash over you, hand-in-hand with Peter Sohn's no less exquisite Elemental, pairing a firecracker from the wrong side of the tracks with a sheltered, privileged young man who falls for her without considering the problems their mixed relationship might pose. The best romance of the year, it was marketed as a preachy kid romp about being yourself. It's also one of 2023's keenest immigrant melodramas, dealing as it does with first-generation entrepreneurs and the regulatory agencies that make their lives excruciating, if not outright impossible.
It's an instant classic, as is Juel Taylor's They Cloned Tyrone, in which racial codes are explicated as literal science-fiction when a nefarious plot to craft an entire urban social system around stereotyped behaviours is discovered by pimp Slick Charles (Jamie Foxx), one of his employees, Yo-Yo (Teyonah Parris), and a street tough, Fontaine (John Boyega), who takes care of a never-seen invalid mother while playing muscle for the local crime lord. Compare its Blaxploitation vibe, sense of fun, and sharp satirical slant against the blithe, retrograde racism of Gareth Edwards's appalling The Creator for a sense of how great, how welcome, it is. Wes Anderson's Asteroid City is science-fiction of an entirely different stripe and the first movie of his I've wholly connected with since The Darjeeling Limited. It accessed my grief for my mother's death in the way Anderson's films used to access my father's death. Knowing nothing about Anderson's life, I wonder if this was by accident or providence. It doesn't matter. Asteroid City features one of the best performances of the year from Scarlett Johansson as an aging starlet recovering from a few bombs and maybe some abuse she's having trouble camouflaging in the desert next to an atomic test site. Is there nuclear anxiety in the air in 2023? Is there ever. When apocalypse looms, it seems we collectively prick up our ears. Let's see if it's too late. You know where my money is.
The five best films of 2023 begin with Alexander Payne's The Holdovers, which I love unreasonably. Then Trenque Lauquen, Laura Citarella's indescribable, incandescent two-part saga of obsessive love, monsters, and the end of the world. Everything 2023 is about, in other words, packaged in one four-hour odyssey in which two men in love with the same woman search for her across time and the unmarked Argentinian backcountry. The clues? A series of old letters hidden in random library books--love notes exchanged by two people long dead that gradually morph into documents of a relationship turned sour and possibly worse. The beauty of the film, though, is its refusal to behave. It's not "slow" cinema because so much happens in it, but neither is it a breakneck thriller with something to solve. The mystery of the piece involves the peculiarities of the human heart: how we fall in love so helplessly that anything seems possible, then fall out of love so calamitously that the sun fails to rise. Trenque Lauquen is unclassifiable (if akin to a Márquez novel) and endlessly compelling. It's wonderful.
When Evil Lurks is savage, lawless; at the end, when our heroes saddle up to fight the Rotten, I felt like I always feel when Chief Brody, Quint, and Hooper board the Orca in Jaws. That's right.
Wim Wenders's Perfect Days is about the grace of being okay when you're not okay--about living out your days for the little things in defiance of the dismal tide. Jonathan Glazer's The Zone of Interest is that dismal tide.
2023 was a marvellous year for the movies and an awful one for the human race. There's a Presidential election in 2024, and one of the candidates will be an illiterate, authoritarian fascist who has already promised to complete the dismantling of every social guardrail in favour of a white-nationalist ethnostate as his first order of business. Things are about to get worse. 2024 will probably be a marvellous year for the movies, too. God help us all.