Combustible Celluloid
 

What Happened to Me in the Dark

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

While insanity raged around the world, people seemed ready to go back to the movies. The seemingly unshakable Marvel kingdom began to topple, and "Barbenheimer" was the filmic event of the year. Emma Stone acted up a storm in Poor Things, equaled in intensity only by a Cocaine Bear. John Wick and Godzilla returned in impossibly good sequels. Spider-Man, Ninja Turtles, and a boy and a heron were tops in animation. And yet I found ten other movies that hit me just a little bit harder, affected me just a little more deeply. [Note: The Zone of Interest was disqualified from my San Francisco Examiner list due to it not opening in theaters in 2023, but I'm including it here, reluctantly bumping Earth Mama down to the runner-up list.]

- The Top Ten -

1. Killers of the Flower Moon

Martin Scorsese's furious, majestic epic is the flip-side of Dances With Wolves, a tale of white greed and racism with the twisted, toxic King Hale (Robert De Niro) and his easily-manipulated nephew Ernest (Leonardo DiCaprio) doing everything in their power to steal oil from the Native Americans of the Osage Nation. DiCaprio's relationship with Mollie (Lily Gladstone), both loving and deceitful, only complicates matters. The three-and-a-half-hour movie rips through its story like a bullet, never feeling padded or bloated, and it's capped with Scorsese's examination of his own place as a storyteller. It's a mature, masterful work.

2. Past Lives

A remarkably beautiful feature debut by Celine Song, Past Lives is not really a romantic tale, but a nuanced exploration of connections, distance, and time, telling the story of a childhood romance and its players reuniting after years apart. It's a love triangle with equally perfect corners, with a perfect beginning (the trio sitting at a bar, described by unseen others) and a perfect, unspoken ending.

3. Priscilla

Sofia Coppola's delicate, humane film is the flip side of last year's flashy Elvis, telling the story of Elvis's partner Priscilla (Cailee Spaeny), made to stay behind, forbidden to express herself, and forced to pass the unbearable hours alone. Unlike a normal biopic that merely tells what happened, Coppola imagines what it all must have felt like.

4. Fallen Leaves

One of the great masters of deadpan, Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki has been around for decades, yet has never achieved magic quite like this oddball tale of two would-be romantic partners whose coupling is derailed by several ridiculous roadblocks, as if the universe itself were a stoic prankster.

5. Menus-Plaisirs — Les Troigros

Jafar Panahi has gone from being a visual poet, a disciple of the great Abbas Kiarostami, to an outlaw and perhaps the world's most dangerous filmmaker. It's impressive how much he has evolved, stylistically and thematically, since his first outlaw effort, This Is Not a Film, made after Iranian authorities charged him with creating propaganda, arrested him, and enacted a 20 year-ban on his making films. No Bears is his fifth film since then, a complex dual tale of a filmmaker (Panahi himself) and his lead actors, and the man-made persecution they face.

6. Showing Up

Kelly Reichardt's look at a community of artists in Portland — with Michelle Williams as a tightly-wound sculptor — is like a lovely little short story, with mostly ordinary things happening to mostly ordinary people, but still adding up to something extraordinary.

7. The Zone of Interest

Jonathan Glazer's brilliantly deceptive Holocaust film never directly shows any atrocities in its story of a Nazi officer and his family, living in the shadow of a concentration camp. The real trick of the film is that you find yourself going along with its rhythms, almost becoming complacent, before being shocked awake again. It's a good lesson for life.

8. Asteroid City

One of Wes Anderson's finest films, exploring everything from loss to showbiz to life in the universe, Asteroid City has a breathable, exterior feel — less stuffy than his previous film — and so many fleeting moments of existential wonder, that it almost requires a viewing in slow-motion.

9. May December

Director Todd Haynes and star Julianne Moore return to the darkly queasy territory they explored in their masterpiece Safe in this story of an actor (Natalie Portman) shadowing an unusual couple. Surface pleasantries give way to secret, stabbing undercurrents.

10. Fremont

While touching on the immigrant experience, this black-and-white indie about an Afghan ex-military translator, Donya (Anaita Wali Zada), who works in a San Francisco fortune cookie factory, creates bits of delightful deadpan humor, but its greatest strengths lie in its ability to appreciate small moments of strange beauty.


Ten Runners-Up


Guilty Pleasures & Little Treasures


Great Performances

  • Juliette Binoche, The Taste of Things
  • Sterling K. Brown, American Fiction
  • Robert De Niro, Killers of the Flower Moon
  • Leonardo DiCaprio, Killers of the Flower Moon
  • Robert Downey Jr., Oppenheimer
  • Paul Giamatti, The Holdovers
  • Lily Gladstone, Killers of the Flower Moon
  • Greta Lee, Past Lives
  • Paul Mescal, All of Us Strangers
  • Tia Nomore, Earth Mama
  • Rosamund Pike, Saltburn
  • Da'Vine Joy Randolph, The Holdovers
  • Andrew Scott, All of Us Strangers
  • Cailee Spaeny, Priscilla
  • Emma Stone, Poor Things
  • Teyana Taylor, A Thousand and One
  • Jeffrey Wright, American Fiction
  • Koji Yakusho, Perfect Days


21 Great DVD and Blu-ray Releases


The Year's Worst Films


Thanks for reading. I appreciate you all. May the future bring peace and joy to each and every one of you. -- JMA

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