Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Very Good Movies from 2023

 by Rob DiCristino

Thoughts on a few bangers that will just miss my top ten.

1. American Fiction (Dir. Cord Jefferson)
Acclaimed television writer Cord Jefferson (The Good Place, Watchmen) makes his feature debut with a wry comedy about an African-American novelist (a delightfully loose Jeffrey Wright as Monk) fed up with a literary establishment that insists his books aren’t “black” enough to sell. In response, Monk pens a condescending parody of “black” stories, a tale of gangster-rapping crack dealers he calls My Pafology and publishes under the guise of a convict on the run. The book becomes a sensation — especially after it’s retitled Fuck — pushing Monk even further into existential despair. Though a bit too uneven in its final act to be entirely successful, American Fiction is an incredibly well-observed satire about the commodification of identity, especially by the white liberal hivemind that insists Fuck is “urgent” and “needed.” One laugh-out-loud early scene finds an erudite, college-educated black writer played by Issa Rae lecturing on a dearth of space for “our stories” before reading from her novel, We’s Lives in Da Ghetto. Monk, as you might expect, is not amused.

2. The Zone of Interest (Dir. Jonathan Glazer)
English auteur Jonathan Glazer returns with his first film since 2013’s Under the Skin, an unconventional historical drama about Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), chief administrator at Auschwitz II-Birkenau during World War II. As the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust are carried out just inches beyond a cold concrete wall, Höss and his family (including Anatomy of a Fall’s Sandra Hüller as his wife, Hedwig) maintain the domestic tranquility of any other midcentury suburban family. The children go to school, guests come for dinner, and the patriarch frets over the business of the day. Glazer’s decision to keep that business outside the frame — apart from the blood-curdling sounds no wall could contain — is sure to ruffle the feathers of those who insist we always confront those atrocities head on. Glazer is focused on the banality of that evil, though, the ease with which our personal ambitions can often overwhelm our basic human dignities. The Zone of Interest is a deeply uncomfortable watch, but it might be one of the most striking Holocaust films ever made.

3. All of Us Strangers (Dir. Andrew Haigh)
Andrew Scott delivers one of the year’s best performances as Adam, a reclusive London screenwriter whose budding flirtation with neighbor Harry (Paul Mescal) inspires a journey through fantasy and memory that brings him face to face with his long-deceased parents (Jamie Bell and Claire Foy). Killed in a car accident when Adam was just a child, his parents occupy a hazy liminal space outside of time, frozen in his mind as the young adults they were at the time of their deaths. As he and Harry grow closer, Adam must finally reckon with the unspoken and unfulfilled personal truths he’s kept hidden for so long. Scott’s at his nervy, naked best in the role, but it’s Bell and Foy who grant the film its warmth, weight, and compassion. The best scene finds Adam coming out to his mother, whose prejudices are defined by the ‘80s AIDS epidemic that raged in her lifetime. “It’s okay now,” Adam insists, not fully convincing her and maybe not fully convinced himself. All of Us Strangers is about that space between, an open wound of a movie desperate to heal.

4. The Taste of Things (Dir. Trần Anh Hùng)
“Marriage is like a piece of cheese,” says Vincenzo Cortino in Jim Abrahams’ seminal 1998 masterpiece, Mafia. French filmmaker Trần Anh Hùng elaborates on that wisdom with The Taste of Things, a luscious tête-à-tête between master chef Dodin (Benoît Magimel) and his partner in cuisine, Eugénie (Juliette Binoche). Their simmering romance is the engine of their culinary creations, and Hùng commits large swaths of the film to the dance of cooking, the elegant symphony of flavor that results from their collaboration. When tragedy unexpectedly strikes, however, one of them searches for a new song that will move them as profoundly as that which the two shared for so many years. Though its tale of middle-aged romance is august and reserved, The Taste of Things’ depiction of cuisine is positively pornographic; elaborate dishes are prepared with excruciating detail, cooked over late 19th century stove tops without electricity or other modern conveniences. That rustic authenticity gives the film an impeccable zest you won’t find anywhere else this year.

5. Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves (Dirs. Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley)
Game Night directors Goldstein and Daley return with another underseen and underrated comedy, this one a rousing fantasy epic set in the world of the classic tabletop roleplaying game. Genre MVPs Chris Pine and Michelle Rodriguez (as Edgin and Holga, respectively) lead a rag-tag band of adventurers on a quest to rescue Edgin’s daughter Kira (Chloe Coleman) from the clutches of the cunning Forge (Hugh Grant), who seeks to become the new lord of Neverwinter. Perhaps it seemed too niche and complex for general audiences exhausted by Marvel and DC, but Honor Among Thieves is nonetheless exactly the kind of achingly sincere family adventure many would complain isn’t made anymore, one deserving of far more than its middling box office haul. Chris Pine continues to prioritize interesting ensemble work over lesser projects that might give him the spotlight he probably deserves, which only serves to endear him to us all the more. Here’s hoping Honor Among Thieves can distinguish itself in the streaming wilderness enough to give its creatives another shot at mainstream success.

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