Thursday, July 18, 2024

2023 was the year audiences – post-Covid – rediscovered their love of theatrical releases. Going to the movies became worthy again with embrace of the contrasting “Barbie” by Greta Gerwig and “Oppenheimer” by Christopher Nolan being released the same day, a box-office showdown that went viral as “Barbenheimer.” Both became top-grossing films, a pleasant surprise in an arena so often occupied by superheroes, reboots and sequels. 

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But while “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” dominated the discussion, they weren’t the only noteworthy films released. As superheroes became enfeebled, adult dramas became reinvigorated. Auteurs demonstrated their reliability with such films as Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” and Wes Anderson’s “Asteroid City.” New filmmakers caught attention too, including for the scathing “Anatomy of a Fall” and intimate “Past Lives,” while wide-ranging genre films took precedence in the latter months of the year with such surprise gifts as “Godzilla Minus One” and legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki’s “The Boy and Heron.” 

From Mattel to Christmas in Boston, here are the best films of 2023.

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 width=“The Zone of Interest”

Jonathan Glazer’s rendering of the banality of evil captivates. In tight close-ups, we watch as a German family tries to create an idyll for themselves in a slice of heaven with a big lawn that spawns self-sustaining life, tended to by Hedwig, played by “Anatomy of a Fall” star Sandra Hüller. When the camera pulls out, we see billowing smoke in the near distance. It’s just one sign of the heinous ills in the hands of this family: The patriarch, played by Christian Friedel, is real-life Nazi commandant Rudolf Höss, and behind the high wall that abuts the family home is the Auschwitz concentration camp. We hear screaming and gunfire in the distant background as the family goes about its daily life. The film is an exhaustive endurance test – as it should be. There’s brutalism to Glazer’s filmmaking, the hard edges and severity of editing and sound design superb and eliciting a sense of nauseating dread. Still, Glazer takes pains to ensure we only hear the horrors, questioning the morality of making them cinematic. (Ally Johnson) Coming soon to theaters.

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 width=“You Hurt My Feelings”

A contemporary Manhattan family’s comfortable routine gets disrupted when writer and teacher Beth Mitchell (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and her sister, Sarah (Michaela Watkins), overhear Beth’s husband, therapist Don Mitchell (Tobias Menzies, “Game of Thrones”), confide to his brother-in-law Mark (Arian Moayed, “Succession”) that he does not like his wife’s new novel. Writer-director Nicole Holofcener reunites with Louis-Dreyfus to outdo their independent dramedy hit “Enough Said” (2013), with Holofcener per usual capturing the realistic yet casual ebb and flow between work, home and leisure and creating organic, three-dimensional characters. Louis-Dreyfus and Menzies anchor the film as a long-married, still-in-love couple who must find their way from rupture to repair. At the epicenter are well-intentioned lies that the film’s hypothesis has it are the lubricant that makes relationships work, while honesty makes each character question their grasp of reality, self-worth and professional choices. Beth’s story is the film’s drive, but Don’s world is arguably more compelling because of the exposure of his work and potpourri of patients, including real-life wife and husband Amber Tamblyn and David Cross playing a miserable married couple vocal about Don’s professional inadequacies. The film’s a provocative probe into one’s self-worth and esteem rounding midlife and trying to find truth within and within others close to them. (Sarah G. Vincent) Video on demand only.

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Celine Song’s debut marks a lavishly melancholic film. Childhood friends Nora (Seung Ah Moon) and Hae Sung (Seung Min Yim) are together constantly, tethered by the others’ orbital force. They lose touch when Nora emigrates with her family from South Korea but reunite as adults, now played by Greta Lee and Teo Yoo. A soulful, bone-aching story, the film serves as a reminder that life is determined by action and instinct. The script, also written by Song, showcases emotions that lie beneath the surface, capturing the idea of love being a reflection of youth. Is what we’re remembering the love of the person or the love of the feeling? These characters linger in the others’ minds, pillars of their youth and, in moments, projections of what could have been. What makes “Past Lives” such a feat of storytelling is the ability to make ordinary existences transformative. Song’s grace in the film is found through her empathic understanding of how even the briefest relationship can take up space in a person’s heart for decades. Read a full review from June 8. (Ally Johnson) On Amazon Prime Video.

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Director Alexander Payne (“Election,” “Nebraska”) and television series writer David Hemingson’s first collaboration – shot on location in Massachusetts and set in the 1970s – is an instant Christmas classic. Every winter break, the exclusive, fictional all-boys boarding school Barton Academy has young men who remain on campus. Curmudgeon ancient civilization teacher and alum Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), who has nothing but contempt for his privileged charges, supervises the “holdovers,” which includes rebellious, sullen junior Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa, in a seamless onscreen debut). Thanks to the coaching of mourning mother and kitchen supervisor Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Robinson), the only other adult staying on campus, and local faculty member Lydia Crane (Carrie Preston), Hunham transforms into Tully’s most nurturing and fiercest advocate. This heartwarming and humorous tale of misfits connecting over wounded pasts and adoring the beauty and potential in each other is a lesson in unconditional acceptance and redemption without pity or mocking. By saving Tully from the Vietnam War, Hunham gives himself a second chance of living a full life. Read a full review from Nov. 11. (Sarah G. Vincent) In theaters and on Amazon Prime Video.

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Only Christopher Nolan could adapt Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s “American Prometheus,” a mammoth tome about American physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, and have audiences gobble it up like his more traditional summer popcorn films such as “Inception” (2010), the Dark Knight trilogy and “Tenet” (2020). The titular protagonist (Cillian Murphy, who carries the film dutifully) hits his zenith as the father of the atomic bomb during World War II; during the Red Scare of the 1950s, he falls from grace because of nonpolitical ties to communists. Besides the Trinity Test in the desert, much of the action becomes backroom betrayal and kangaroo court sparring, a conventional, contrasting character study between Oppenheimer and his former boss, Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), that gets told in an unconventional way, alternating between charting Oppenheimer’s career, the 1958 Senate hearings on Strauss’ nomination to secretary of commerce and the 1954 U.S. Atomic Energy Commission deliberating whether to revoke Oppenheimer’s security clearance. Nolan eschews chronological order and toggles between color/subjective perspective and black and white/documentary-style, complemented by editor Jennifer Lame and composer Ludwig Göransson, and the film never gets bogged down despite the intermission-less, three-hour runtime – a record for Nolan. Bursting at the seams with an ensemble delivering memorable performances and impressive practical effects, “Oppenheimer” is Nolan’s best film to date and the definitive historical biopic about the era. Read a full review from July 19. (Sarah G. Vincent) In theaters and on Amazon Prime Video.

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The most recent from indie stalwart Kelly Reichardt (“First Cow”) reunites the director with early collaborator and recent Oscar nominee (for “The Fabelmans”) Michelle Williams (who starred in Reichardt’s “Wendy and Lucy” and “Meek’s Cutoff”). The focus is again the Pacific Northwest, where many of Reichardt’s films take place, but in the near contemporary rather than the frontier era of “Cow” and “Cutoff.” The shaggy-dog narrative is as much about family and familial dysfunction as about the art scene and its passive-aggressive competitiveness. Williams plays Lizzy, a sculptor who makes Degas-like statuettes of waifish young women. She can’t catch an art opening break and her landlord, also an artist (BU alum Hong Chau, so good in “The Menu” and Oscar-nominated for her caretaker part in “The Whale”), drags her feet in getting the hot water turned back on despite Lizzy not having had a shower in days. There’s also Lizzy’s dad, an established but eccentric artist (Judd Hirsch, also opposite Williams in “Fabelmans” and also Oscar nominated for it) who’s got a bunch of random hippies hanging out at his cottage studio. It’s a dour yet quirky meander that revolves around the well-being of a wounded pigeon. (Tom Meek) On Showtime. 

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 width=“Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret”

There’s overwhelming compassion for the characters in Kelly Fremon Craig’s (“The Edge of Seventeen”) adaptation of the Judy Blume YA classic, and Craig’s take on the 1970s-set novel captures turbulent girlhood with detail and reverence. Margaret (Abby Ryder Fortson) is 11 and going into sixth grade after having moved, reluctantly, to a new town. “Are You There God?” refreshes the genre by focusing on the minutiae of day-to-day life for preteen girls, whose naiveté has them longing to get their period, wear bras despite their discomfort and kiss boys they’re not even sure they like. Rachel McAdams as Margaret’s mother, Barbara, is luminous in a performance made for her easy charm and empathetic disposition. Shooting with compositional care for all the bits and pieces that make up these characters’ lives, Craig delivers an honest, hilarious and heartfelt film about a girl who is beginning to see the world with greater skepticism and curiosity. The result is something quietly profound, a film that understands that the world at 11 is impossibly endless. (Ally Johnson) On Starz and Amazon Prime Video.

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“May December”

Todd Haynes’ loose adaptation of the real-life Mary Kay Letourneau case, about the Washington schoolteacher who had an affair with a 13-year old student in the 1990s and marries him after she gets out of prison, is a smorgasbord of deep character plumbs and rich performances. The film slowly and effectively backs into the premise as the fictional Mary Kay, Gracie (Julianne Moore), and her much younger husband, Joe (Charles Melton), are visited by a striking young woman by the name of Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), a midlist actor renowned for a graphic nude scene or two who is down to do research for an upcoming telling of Gracie and Joe’s sordid union in a small, indie production. The character study veers as Elizabeth has coffee with Gracie’s ex-husband (D.W. Moffett) and later a music hall encounter with Gracie’s son Georgie (a sassy and beguiling Cory Michael Smith) from her first marriage. Elizabeth’s presence also stirs something in Gracie and Joe. They have a simmering inner turmoil fueled by the reliving of their ignominy and the upcoming graduation of their children that will leave the two alone – “to what future?” seems to be the lingering question. The performances by the three leads have raw reveals nailed with aplomb. Most intriguing is Portman’s actor: inviting at first, then unnerving as she begins to work the equation from both sides. It’s her most perverse and sensual performance since “Black Swan” (2010). It’s also nice to see Haynes (“Velvet Goldmine,” “I’m Not There”) back in the realm of dark quirk after the conventional “Dark Waters” and reuniting with his longtime muse, Moore, from “Safe” (1995), “Far From Heaven” (2002) and “Carol” (2015). (Tom Meek) On Netflix.

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Justine Triet’s film, winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes, dissects the slow, vicious implosion of a marriage. The reasons are the usual suspects: grief, blame and jealousy. But there’s little else usual about Triet’s emotionally eviscerating narrative, which begins with the death of one spouse and, in carefully curated frames, rewinds as the survivor is put on trial for murder. Sandra Hüller portrays a revered German writer living in the remote highs of the French Alps and then subjected to character dissection in the courtroom, and the performance is immersive, fully felt from within and the reason the film rivets from opening to closing frame. Between her work here and “Zone of Interest,” Hüller could see her name called twice when Oscar nominations are announced. Read a full review from Oct. 28. (Tom Meek) Not available in area theaters or yet streaming.

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 width=“Monster”

Sakura Andō stars as a mother, Saori, who begins noticing strange behavior in her young son, Minato (Sōya Kurokawa) in the empathetic and haunting latest from Hirokazu Kore-eda (“Shoplifters,” “After the Storm”). The story is told from three points of view, including the mother, the boy’s teacher, Hori (Eita Nagayama), and the boy himself, revealing successively more about the truth behind Minato’s personal demons in a story about rebirth and the painful reality of a parent’s inability to ever truly understand their child. Written by Yûji Sakamoto, the film possesses an emotional subtlety that lies heavy against us as it progresses and we become more entangled and concerned in the lives of these characters – Minato in particular. Kurokawa’s performance is vital to the film’s success; our hearts ache for his desperate, quiet search for compassion and understanding from adults who can’t begin to understand the pressure he feels to hide himself from the world. Kore-eda’s elegance as a filmmaker is on display here, taking an observant approach to characters while capturing the overwhelming nature that surrounds them. The film brandishes acute beauty in devastation and understanding of human error, ending on a note of melancholy as we’re asked to question what constitutes a happy ending. (Ally Johnson) Not available in area theaters or yet streaming.


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