This year, I watched movies in cinemas, watched movies at home,
watched movies with friends, watched movies alone,
watched movies while sick, watched movies in trains,
watched movies while well, watched movies in planes.
Unfortunately, I did not find the time to watch movies on a boat or in a box or with a fox or with a goat, which would have made rhyming simpler.
Movies were a constant source of comfort and, at times, welcome distress, throughout the year whether they came out this year or in 1975. So for that reason, my list of 2023 movies will go beyond cinematic releases from the year. Here they are, in no particular order:
- Anatomy of a Fall
I'd argue most courtroom dramas can be plays. All the pieces are there: prosecutors, defendants, juries, and judges all locked in a single location while dialogue fires off, playing out in real time. But "Anatomy of a Fall" cannot be anything but a movie. Director and screenwriter Justine Triet sees the courtroom as a battle between perspectives. At some point, the subjective view, if pushed hard enough, if lobbied with enough force, becomes the objective truth. We see this in its editing, its shots, its smooth camera movements, and in the film's most affecting moment, its sound design. It's one of the best courtroom dramas I've ever seen and something that can't exist anywhere but on the big screen.
- Across the Spider-Verse
After the triumphs of "Into the Spider-Verse" and the theme park attraction that was "Spider-Man: No Way Home," I wasn't sure if "Across the Spider-Verse" could live up to expectations. The multiverse as a concept has become overburdened and weighed down with an over reliance on cameos and the elimination of consequences. But "Across the Spider-Verse" managed to find the heart of its characters amidst the web of detritus and was a reminder that the multiverse isn't about combining mega-franchises. It's about possibility.
- The Abyss (1989)
Every filmmaker has sight and sound in their toolkit. But few directors, especially those working in science fiction, are as concerned with physical touch as James Cameron. Cameron, throughout his career, has utilized the sense of touch in his worlds to make them feel lived in. It's in the ponytails of "Avatar," it's in the squelchiness of "Aliens," and vitally, it's in the aquatic world of "The Abyss." It's a movie that makes you feel the frigid water flowing into its compartments, but that doesn't make it cold. In fact, it's perhaps Cameron's warmest movie, a movie about forging new connections, and rebuilding old ones.
Wes Anderson cemented with "Asteroid City" that his style isn't defined by twee or palettes. It's tragedy, comedy, and at this stage of his career, formal experimentation. If you haven't already, watch his newest short films, "The Ratcatcher" and "The Swan" on Netflix. Two highly overlooked releases, buried within the platform.
In the months since watching "Oppenheimer," I've only grown to like it more. It's easily Nolan's best film, his most reflexive, probably his most personal, where all his weird little Nolanisms coalesce into a single burning bomb.
- Memories of Murder (2003)
We can define the noir in a couple different ways, like a troubled detective, a murky crime, and a lack of moral truths. But for me, more than anything, it's that uneasy feeling when the credits roll. It's knowing that though the story may be complete, the void it has ripped open can't be filled. Part of that potency comes from Bong Joon-ho recreating the real murders of an uncaught serial killer, utilizing the facts as a springboard for his story. But beyond that, he also recreates the less tangible environment of paranoia, as the nation reckoned with a foe that seemed almost supernatural. This mystery pulls its central pair of detectives deeper into the abyss, and as the light grows dimmer, we wonder too if there will ever be a way out. And to me, that's what noir is really about.
Probably the biggest surprise of the year for me. A comfort movie bar none.
- The Squid and the Whale (2005)
Domestic dramas, especially those about infidelity, aren't usually my cup of tea. But Noah Baumbach managed to win me over with this intensely personal film. Baumbach manages something I still don't understand: he presents this adolescent version of himself with brutal honesty, criticizing his callousness while somehow, forgiving himself for his sins. It'd verge on indulgent, if it wasn't as funny and acerbic as it is.
- Past Lives
In the past, I've talked about movies where you can see your reflection. "Past Lives" is just that. It's a movie that invites you into its world and into yourself. And more than anything for me, it was a reminder that the big screen isn't just for action set-pieces. It's for the subtle things too, like a walk in the rain, a boat leaving the harbor, or three people lost in translation, having a drink together.
- Mishima: A Life in 4 Chapters (1985)
Paul Schrader merges Yukio Mishima's stories with his real life, crafting an intense, psycho-sexual portrait of a deeply troubled man. It's already a masterwork with its script and performances. Elevating it beyond that is its immense art direction by Eiko Ishioka. The big theme of the year for me are movies that can only be movies. And there's nothing else like "Mishima."
Mission: Impossible is the best action franchise there is. There's literally no competition. I can't wait for Part 2, when Tom Cruise presumably launches into space or bore directly into the sun.
- La Haine (1995)
Kinetic, electric, extremely funny and tragic, simply put: lightning captured in a bottle. It's incredible that writer-director Mathieu Kassovitz claims he wasn't making a political work, when he's made something more potent than people trying.
I've heard primarily two criticisms of this film. One is its length and the other is its centerpiece. Though I'm a relatively impatient viewer, I never found myself bored with "Killers of a Flower Moon." If anything, I loved how its length lent itself to the town's tapestry; by the end of the film, you feel as if you had walked through Osage County, pillaged and ransacked by grinning townspeople. But that does tie to criticisms of its perspective; rather than place us behind the eyes of Mollie Burkhart, we follow her repulsive husband. For other filmmakers, this could double down on Mollie's erasure from history. But Scorsese's objective is to correct the narrative. We don't end on the moral failures of Ernest Burkhart or the machinations of his conniving uncle, William King Hale. Instead, we close the saga on a dour note of culpability, atonement, and reckoning.
- Platoon (1986), Wall Street (1987), Training Day (2001)
One of my favourite types of movies is when someone is tempted by the devil. Not necessarily the literal devil, but often, worse than the devil himself. This year, I watched three of the most devilish characters onscreen: Tom Berenger as Staff Sgt. Barnes in "Platoon," Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko in "Wall Street," and Denzel Washington as Detective Alonzo Harris in "Training Day." Each character offers the film's protagonist a possible future, an opportunity to change their lives, to mold themselves in their image. And like our heroes, we are entranced by their charm. It doesn't matter if it's the Vietnam War, a stock broker's penthouse, the streets of LA, or Osage County. Greed is good, everywhere, anytime.
- Network (1976)
I watched "Network" with two of my friends. And every few minutes, we would look at each other aghast, like secondary school students hearing a teacher curse for the first time, saying, "wait, can you do that?" We were stupefied by the places Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky could go to, without fear, without restraint, without any consideration for criticisms of bluntness or directness. It was refreshing, especially in an era where we believe political commentary has to be subtle to be effective. "Network" is outrageous, it's prescient, it's hilarious, and it's horrifying. It refuses to be silo-ed into any genre and it's all the better for it.
I always find myself unconsciously prejudiced towards the modern, falsely believing that because we're at the most technologically advanced time in history, we're also at the forefront of storytelling. That we're better able to conceptualize a beautiful frame, craft a better narrative. That we're bolder and braver now than we were before.
None of that is true.
I'm looking forward to more terrific movies in 2024, whenever and wherever they are from.