Wednesday, March 6, 2024

Taking On 2023: Top Films

Back for my annual tradition of writing about the films that most resonated with me from the previous year as we either turn the page to the new year and/or lead up to the Oscars. In this case it's more the latter, though given the way some releases have gone part of the reason this list is being posted so late has more to do with the way distributors have opted to trickle out some heavy hitters. It would, of course, be a fool's errand to try and make a definitive list, and, despite seeing a good number of films in 2023 (easily tracked on my Letterboxd list for those who like to play along), 2023 proved unique in a number of ways.

While I certainly lament my inability to see/Mubi's holding hostage of Do Not Expect Too Much From The End Of The World, a film I am sure would at least reasonably have had the ability to compete for a top spot given the pedigree, I was fortunate enough to see a number of releases that are still considered in some strange limbo state. In the past I have also been resistant to including television on this list, and will continue to not this year, though those limits were pushed with Scott Pilgrim Takes Off, a marvelous work of adaptation that illuminates and repurposes the source material in such a surprising and rich way that it feels like it could stand alongside the best features, and was one of the few TV shows I logged on my Letterboxd. But there will be a slight change this year, as I write about a Top 12 for the first time, though for those who do care or are more sticklers than I am at present I have ordered things so you can opt to still have a definitive Top 10 without having to disqualify certain films that almost certainly should be thought of as 2024 releases based on when they'll actually be more accessible theatrically.

All that to say that things have changed, but not drastically. And it's time to count down.

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12. Skinamarink

A viral horror, at least from my understanding, the debut microbudget feature from Kyle Edward Ball is one that I did not get a chance to see theatrically, but in hindsight that is perhaps for the best. Mercifully light on jump scares, there's still an ever developing sense of dread and terror that engulfs the film, watching as two young children navigate a night in their home where the house traps them. Or, something does, anyway. From the VHS aesthetic to the crunchy sound, those elements only help make the film scarier, listening to the whispers of the kids as they attempt to make sense of the night, and the noises of the threat lurking within the home. It also has one sequence that, even in its restraint, unsettled me so much I needed to take a break. Still a bit shaken thinking back on it a year later. A testament to the film's power.

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11. Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret.

Based on a text I've never read, wasn't entirely sure what to expect with this one, but this ended up exceeding all of my expectations. While the specific coming of age aspects were not directly relatable for me, the emotional core in the film is universal. Watching Margaret come to terms with life, with herself, her family, and friends, there's a feeling of authenticity that carries the feature. Little surprise coming from Kelly Fremon Craig, whose The Edge Of Seventeen probably occupied a slot on a previous list and also did an amazing job capturing an inflection point in life. And this film is brimming with life, beautiful and a joy to watch. Even enough to get through my hardened heart.

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10. The First Slam Dunk

Each year I try to see at least one anime film on the big screen, something that, thankfully isn't the case anymore, used to be much more challenging than it currently is today. And yet this alternate look at Takehiko Inoue's manga (a work I have not read, for the record) still manages to be one of the most special anime films I saw theatrically last year. Stylistically gorgeous, the film uses flashback to fill in the characters and establish the stakes of the game we watch play out. It's a novel way to slow down a basketball game and also tell its story, one that allows Ryota to be an emotional anchor for the feature. Even without a familiarity of the original text, and only being a passive basketball fan, this weaves both and achieves something that goes far beyond either. Sports and art have a strange relationship, but by blending both this film produces a compelling meditation on emotion, connection, and self acceptance.

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9. "Asteroid City"

A long time ago Wes Anderson probably wouldn't have come close to my own top tens, the artifice of his work leaving me cold aside from a few exceptions, but really since Fantastic Mr. Fox it's hard to imagine a year he releases a work that wouldn't at least push for consideration among the year's best. Even the collection of shorts he did last year were great. But the complete picture of his feature, one where the artifice layers to expose raw moments of emotion. That tension Anderson creates between the two result in some of the strongest scenes of the year, and brings a depth to even the most simple interactions. Remarkable craft, as always, but he's at his best, as he is here, when that craft is directly enhancing theme.

8. Red Rooms

Good to see over the past few years a push back on the rise of the True Crime genre, and how Pascal Plante approaches the dark side of obsession resulted in one of the more unsettling theatrical experiences I had last year. Splitting its time between a courtroom trial surrounding a serial killer and central character Kelly-Anne's apartment where her independent fixation on the case has her navigating her public life with dives in to the dark web. The film's exploration of obsession, and how media gives a platform to horrific people, can stand on its own as a compelling enough starting point, but the formal elements on display, a camera that feels simultaneously frantic and controlled, strike a ton that's absorbing, frightening, fascinating, disturbing.

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7. Evil Does Not Exist

The latest from Ryusuke Hamaguchi has him working once again in a focused community, this time a small forest town that is in the process of dealing with a big corporation coming in to set up a luxury camping site. Scenes of the beauty of this town, the rituals of those who have made their lives there and the threat, financially and ecologically, play out with a care and reflection that Hamaguchi has worked with throughout his career. But it's probably an elongated town hall meeting towards the middle that serves as the standout sequence. The construction of this scene, the performances, are presented with a tangibility that almost feels like it would be at home in a documentary, but with a bit of humor injected that wouldn't be out of place in his previous Wheel Of Fortune And Fantasy. And, like that one, the complexity in this film builds. Hamaguchi captures the majesty of this community without romanticizing it, makes us understand what is at stake for these characters, and ends up culminating in one of the year's strongest closing sequences.

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6. May December

Returning to the kind-of-true-crime scene that made the list earlier, Todd Haynes delivered what is, on the surface, a fairly straight forward story of an actress researching a role. The part, however, is based on a woman who had a relationship with a young boy, and we enter, as Natalie Portman's Elizabeth does, years after when the two have since wed and are living what seems like a fairly normal life. But Haynes gets in to the breaks within the characters to broaden the scope, showing the damage that is readily apparent and also that which bubbles below the surface. The entire cast play their parts perfectly, especially surprise standout Charles Melton as Joe portraying a quiet, subtle victim at an inflection point in life. There's an unexpected complexity as the film progresses, tackling what it means to commodify tragedy, the human cost that one can so easily overlook in a 'ripped from the headlines' shocking adaptation, and does so with both a care and viciousness that's fascinating. 

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5. Killers Of The Flower Moon

Kind of been a tremendous run for Martin Scorsese since Hugo (honestly even before that), but depending on how one feels about Silence this might be his most ambitious work in years. A predictably stacked cast, anchored by the (former Top Five Supporting Performance on this very blog if memory serves) great Lily Gladstone, is reason enough to get excited even without knowing the pedigree behind the camera. And Scorsese is visually firing at an elite level, especially having the pleasure to see this in IMAX where the scale of Hale estate early on, where the destruction, physically and culturally, is staggering. A film very much about America, this takes a specific town and time to explore the power dynamics that allowed the displacement of indigenous people in the United States, and how business and the law are manipulated to allow criminals to masquerade as pillars of a community. And then there's the final ten minutes or so, a stroke of brilliance that's audacious thematically and functionally. Even writing about it now I just want to go back and rewatch this. Honestly, maybe 5 is not high enough.

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4. The Zone Of Interest

When Cannes wrapped up, I'll admit that I was a skeptic of all the buzz surrounding Jonathan Glazer's Auschwitz set drama following the life of a higher ranking Nazi family. But I was very wrong to doubt, and my initial hesitation was likely a result of ignorance of Glazer's non-Under The Skin work. From the opening moments, a couple of minutes of a black screen as sounds begin to condition us to listen, you realize that this film is going to be more in line with Son Of Saul (but good) rather than Schindler's List (but good). Think it's easy to get bogged down in the banality of evil talk that has cropped up in discussions around this film, and I'm certainly not going to say that isn't there as we literally listen to casual conversations about installing more efficient gas chambers in the concentration camp, but it also feels like that overlooks how the film examines the way evil gets justified on a personal level. How little it can take to kill groups of people for personal comfort. Glazer's distanced camera underscores this, we watch as the characters justify and accept constantly throughout, and it does it all with a terror that permeates the work. Can't speak highly enough about how the sound of this film works to communicate the horror, scenes playing out where it's sometimes hard to tell if you're hearing the family's children laughing or the screams just behind the Auschwitz wall in the background. A monumental work, formally, thematically, technically. Stronger than I ever would have thought.

3. Riddle Of Fire

Switching from probably the heaviest entry to a more traditionally enjoyable watch, Weston Razooli's debut can maybe be described as a modern day The Goonies meets Labyrinth, but even as some of its influences are clear it does feel like I'd be selling it a bit short to simply call it a homage to those types of films. Following a group of kids as they go on a quest that will allow them time to play a new game console, Razooli is able to create a balance between childlike wonder, the core cast confronting nearly every situation with a reckless attitude, and our awareness of how increasingly dangerous these sequences become. It also has some of the funniest scenes of the year, and Skyler Peters as Jodie, whose dialogue gets subtitled, knocks every line he's given out of the park, just such an electric and fun character. And I wouldn't want to overlook just how good this looks, fittingly shot on 16mm it gives each scene such richness that works perfectly to evoke the era of films from which it draws some inspiration and to situate our own memories of these childhood adventures (though ideally with fewer weapons in most cases, one would hope). Was able to see this at PFF this year and, even with what ended up being a strong lineup, this one was such a refreshing feature. Just pure cinematic joy, so refreshing to see a film like this one.

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2. Barbie

Returning to the world of adaptation, albeit in a different manner than with Little Women, Greta Gerwig continues to show why she is a must watch filmmaker. There's so much care in every aspect of this film, the way Barbie's world comes to life, the costumes, the soundtrack, and Gerwig's referential nods to other classic films interact with the core themes of growing up, identity, and self-discovery. It's beautiful, literally and figuratively, to watch play out on screen, and what Margot Robbie brings to the titular role as a physical performance and the emotion she is able to convey as her Barbie becomes more self-aware is among the year's best performances. As is, of course, Ryan Gosling's Ken, a nice juxtaposition that lets the film dive a bit deeper in to its gender politics. Obviously this isn't a complex meditation on feminism, but it is a film that makes its themes accessible for any audience. Have seen since release a lot of criticisms that likely have better places to address more fully, but it does seem silly to criticize a film like this for not being earth shattering in how complex it is willing to get, especially since a more didactic version would likely take away from the cinematic successes it finds on its own terms. Arguably the worst moment of the film is when it gets didactic, using America Ferrera as a conduit for Gerwig's dialogue, especially when compared to possibly the strongest scene earlier with Barbie speaking with an older woman in the real world. And, honestly, sometimes you just want a big choreographed beach fight scene, and that's okay too.

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1. Robot Dreams

And topping the list this year is what I suppose was the best film I saw at the Philadelphia Film Festival, Pablo Berger's essentially silent animated feature about a dog finding companionship with a robot he orders, taking place in an alternate New York City inhabited by animals. While it doesn't have the most jaw dropping style, and while the actual story it tells is pretty straight forward, this film is more than just the parts. Starting off as a fun animated film, one built for all ages and enjoyable in that regard, it never really lets us forget the loneliness that Dog feels, the desire for connection that led him to purchasing his robot, and how much their connection develops up to and beyond the early standout scene set to "September". This undercurrent of loneliness and tragedy is what begins to elevate the film, filling out both the characters in an economic way that ends up being surprisingly complex. It is a movie that does not shy away from emotion, good or bad, which is admirable in general, but as it starts towards its conclusion the film soars. Using the appearance of simplicity to hit on emotional truth, one that's surprisingly complex and difficult to face, creates one of the most moving and beautiful works from the past year.

And with that we've reached the end of 2023, all in all a strong year with plenty of great films. Ended up just shy of 130 films that I considered for the list, which you can check out here. Anything I missed? Things that are too high or too low? Feel free to let me know in the comments below. Until this time next year, if not earlier. Hopefully by then we have this Radu Jude released.

Comments are welcome and, for anyone with a literary mind, I encourage checking out my poetry blog filled with all original works for your reading pleasure.

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© 2024 Richard James Thorne

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