2023 has proven to be a pivotal year for moviemaking. The industry itself seems to be in a state of upheaval, and perhaps renewal, as two labor strikes that dominated the calendar between May and November culminated with the writers and actors guilds earning hard-won benefits for their work, as well as securities against the advent of A.I.
Onscreen, too, audience tastes seem to be changing as the biggest films of the year are pictures with strong authorial voices from Greta Gerwig and Christopher Nolan. The former used a beloved doll IP to make a comedy about growing and growing old in the shadow of the patriarchy; the latter did a character study on the man who invented the most genocidal weapon imaginable. Neither were a sequel or a conventional bet, and both far outperformed the movies that were. The industry is changing, but beyond the news and potential paradigm shifts has been a strong year of just good movies if you know where to look. Here are some for those searching.
*Editor’s Note: This list will be presented in alphabetical order.
Ben Affleck’s Michael Jordan movie, which famously does not feature Michael Jordan beyond archival footage and an actor standing in for the back of Jordan’s head, seemed like a curiosity when it was first announced. Yet it turned out there was good reason Amazon Studios opted to release this into cinemas after seeing how well it played in front of an audience: It’s the best Nike commercial since Michael Jordan himself was promoting their sneakers back in the ‘80s and ‘90s. It’s also a damn good movie in its own right.
Still, this is very much the origin story for those fabled Air Jordans, with middle-aged sad sack Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) leveraging his career at Nike, a then third-rate shoemaker, to bet it all on the incoming NBA rookie from UNC. Air trades on millennials and Gen X’s nostalgia for wanting to be like Mike (or seeing Damon and Affleck work together again, for that matter), but for all of its gloss and ‘80s jams, Air also works as an illuminating metaphor for filmmakers who still try to find art and meaning in a business increasingly driven by corporate spreadsheets and empty commercialism. That in its third act, Viola Davis’ Deloris Jordan (Michael’s mother) suddenly becomes the main character proves to be its clutch secret weapon. This is a crowdpleaser that lands with nothing but net. – David Crow
Available to stream on: Amazon Prime Video (U.S. and UK)
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.
Unfortunately this adaptation of author Judy Blume’s seminal 1970 coming-of-age novel from director Kelly Fremon Craig (The Edge of Seventeen) did not strike a chord with modern filmgoers. In fact, it arguably might have been the canary in the coal mine for a host of other failed 2023 releases banking on nostalgia, like The Flash and Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. And it’s a shame too, since Craig deftly brought the story of Margaret (Abby Ryder Fortson) to life in warm, funny, and poignant fashion, making it timeless while keeping it squarely in its 1970s setting.
Even if the lack of smartphones and social media might have proved too confusing to younger audiences not familiar with Blume’s book, Margaret’s first steps into puberty and womanhood, while dealing with all the usual trials of school, friends, and boys, are still engaging and truthful as ever. Here’s hoping that Margaret, both the book and the film, manages to find new fans again. – Don Kaye
Arguably the biggest cultural event happening in a multiplex this year, Greta Gerwig’s Barbie arrived like a bolt of thunder in Hollywood. It turns out audiences might actually want new and creative things, even if the movie is based on a popular doll. They certainly seem to want more first installments in franchises as opposed to eighth ones, and Gerwig’s reimagining of Mattel’s flagship brand is (miraculously) a true original.
Bursting with energy and ideas, as well as a clever third act twist involving the relationship of Barbie (Margot Robbie) and Ken (Ryan Gosling), Barbie is a sharp metaphor for gender dynamics in the 21st century, as well as a genuinely funny comedy that’s found a large audience. The movie isn’t perfect, and not every joke or tonal switchback lands, but as a whole the film floats with an effervescence above its pink-pastel sands, particularly due to the performances of Robbie and Gosling, the latter of whom should be a genuine contender for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. – DC
When it comes to the wavelet of films that came out this year retelling the origin story of, uh, brands (a list that includes Air, Tetris, Pinball, Flamin’ Hot, and, arguably, Barbie), this tiny Canadian indie made for $5 million may be the best of them all. Jay Baruchel is magnificent as Mike Lazaridis, the deeply nerdy, socially awkward genius who manages to create the BlackBerry and usher in a new era of mobile personal communication. Writer/director Matt Johnson plays his partner/best friend while Glenn Howerton is incendiary as Jim Balsillie, the businessman they hire as CEO of their company (Research In Motion), whose aggressive tactics both lift them up and ultimately bring them down.
Sharply written, highly intelligent, and incisive in its view of how money and greed can poison creativity and imagination at every turn, BlackBerry is also often hilarious, affectionately poking at both nerd culture and capitalist piggery. It’s probably the most fun you’ll have watching this kind of thing. With the BlackBerry itself now long gone, you won’t get the sensation of watching a two-hour commercial. – DK
Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott’s Shiva Baby was one of the real charming surprises during the hell year that was 2020: a Gen-Z comedy of cringe that reminded you why it was, in fact, horrifying to be surrounded by friends and family you hate. So seeing the pair team up again, and for a movie with a budget that could afford more than one location this time, seemed instantly like a winner. Nonetheless, the sheer demented ingenuity of Bottoms still caught us by surprise when we caught it at SXSW in March, and its reputation has only grown since. After all, how many other comedies feature an LGBTQ+ after-school fight club?
A series of mirthful sketch-comedy bits derived from tangibly real memories of high school anxiety, Bottoms blends the satirical snark of Heathers with the oversaturated sunshine of Bring It On. The film’s vivacious energy makes the movie dance between raindrops (or at least flecks of blood splatter). It also features a terrific ensemble led by Sennott and Ayo Edebiri as pint-sized chatterbox teenager with the neuroses of a wine mom. It’s daft, delightful, and has Marshawn Lynch as a gym teacher so out of touch, he doesn’t mind his students are beating the shit out of each other between football games. Give it a watch or three.
This extension of the Rocky franchise, becoming a narrative unto itself, continues in fine if somewhat predictable fashion with Creed III, which finds star Michael B. Jordan stepping confidently behind the camera as well as in front of it for his first feature film as a director. Jordan handles the character material, the pacing, and the visuals quite capably, bringing an imaginative, stylized zest to the fight scenes that marks him as a filmmaker to watch.
But the real star of the movie is Jonathan Majors as Adonis Creed’s childhood friend/mentor Damian, who emerges from an 18-year stint in prison looking for what he feels is the shot at the title that he never got. Majors is magnetic, intimidating, and eminently watchable throughout, and the personal and physical clashes between him and Jordan’s Adonis are the high points in a story where every beat is pretty much laid out well in advance. That doesn’t stop Creed III from being rousing entertainment, however, although it remains to be seen whether there’s more gas left in this franchise’s tank. – DK
Available to stream on: Amazon (U.S. and UK)
Dicks: The Musical
There are two types of moviegoers. Those who will vibe and savor every crass pun, double entendre, and tacky visual gag in Dicks: The Musical… and those who would rather have a root canal than withstand 86 minutes, of pure, uncut, undiluted camp. To which we say, we wouldn’t want to go to the movies with you, anyway! From the moment, Aaron Jackson bursts onto the screen to sing, “My cock is fucking massive / it always leaves the ladies soar!” we know we are in for the best goddamn time.
Adapted from Jackson and co-star Josh Sharp’s Off-off Broadway play, Fucking Identical Twins (which if you read carefully, it will tell you what kind of story you’re in for), Dicks: The Musical is a happily absurd raunch-fest from two guys who somehow convinced theatrical royalty like Nathan Lane and Megan Mullally, as well as Megan Thee Stallion and A24, to sign up for this nonsense. It doesn’t overstay its welcome and has more laughs that land than don’t while refusing to hide the fact it’s shot on a soundstage with spare props lying around. Either sing along or get out of the way.
There’s something so malevolently cruel about Kristoffer Borgli’s Dream Scenario that it circles back around to funny. A Kafkaesque take on social media fame—and the swiftly followed infamy it usually brings—the film follows Professor Paul Matthews (Nicolas Cage), a remarkably unremarkable man. Prof Matthews is neither the most loved instructor at his university nor the greatest thinker in his field. In fact, he’s a schmuck who is ignored by everyone but his devoted wife Janet (Julianne Nicholson) and their two adolescent daughters. So when the whole world inexplicably starts dreaming about him, it’s not only bizarre, but kind of flattering for a guy who just wants to be appreciated and recognized. Imagine how it must feel, however, when those dreams he cannot control turn into nightmares?
A surrealist riff on our need for attention, and how that has mutated into an industrial cancel culture complex, the film works in large part because of how pathetically needy Cage makes himself. Donning a bald cap and an off-putting smile that belies deep-seated passive aggression, the performance is at once well-cultivated and outright caricature. It teases a quasi fatalism wherein someone invited their own destruction. In this way, the film provides a portrait of our times: a nebbish figure whose simultaneous timidity and vanity makes him incapable of doing anything but succumb to the latest hashtag. – DC
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves
For decades, Dungeons & Dragons as a brand has been associated with nigh impenetrable layers of esoteric geekery and (in some incredibly sheltered circles) satanic occultism. So leave it to the directors who gave us Game Night to crack the code for a D&D movie by turning it into an easy-breezy comedy in the vein of Stardust and The Princess Bride. A genuinely funny romp, Honor Among Thieves both respects the nerdy minutiae of its source material while still being able to glance at it sideways.
A big reason this is made possible is a cast which conjures a wall-to-wall charm offensive. They’re led off by the appropriately judged oil and water dynamic between Chris Pine and Michelle Rodriguez, but elsewhere the movie also scores points by presenting Hugh Grant at his smarmiest and Regé-Jean Page as a traditional D&D paladin character. He is thus simultaneously dashing and insufferably pedantic, depending on your disposition (which s a little bit like the tabletop game itself). It all melds into a spell that might be fleeting, but it’s nonetheless enchanting while up there on the screen. – DC
Available to stream on: Paramount+ (U.S. only)
Real-life Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was a monster in every sense of the word. His violent overthrow of the government in 1973 paved the way for his execution squads and minions to murder thousands of people. So you probably do not need to turn him into a movie monster. But the fact Chilean director Pablo Larraín did so anyway makes El Conde all the more intriguing.
To American audiences, Larraín is probably best known for his pair of beautiful and challenging biopics about tragedy and mythmaking, Jackie (2016) and Spencer (2021), two films that netted Oscar nominations for their leads. However, with El Conde, he returns to his native language to build a myth of his own, one that is darkly, dryly humorous and also horrifying as Pinochet takes a page from Vlad “Tepes” Dracula, and becomes a bonafide undead vampire feeding off the life blood of his citizens. It’s one of the most bizarre and rewarding horror movies of the year.
Available to stream on: Netflix (U.S. and UK)
The box office woes of Pixar these days often obscure what makes the animation house still special when it’s firing on all cylinders: they produce high-caliber fables that work just as well for adults as children. While we wouldn’t suggest Peter Sohn’s Elemental is in the highest echelon of that legacy, it is a genuinely charming love story. A metaphor about a flame-and-water romance may be as subtle a blast from a firehose, but it works and deserved a larger audience than it’s so far found.
The picture is set in a fictional world where the four elements—earth, fire, air, and water—are anthropomorphic beings trying to make it in the big city. So basically it’s modern day New York City with water-people making up the one percent and upper middle-class, and fire-people representing mostly foreign-born immigrants relegated to the outer-boroughs. It’s there that Ember (Leah Lewis) grows up being taught to resent water folks until an adorkable one working for the city, Wade (Mamoudou Athie), falls in love with her, and she’s kind of smitten too. It’s a simple, and winning, American immigrant story.
Available to stream on: Disney+ (U.S. and UK)
Fictionalizing the real life of an author so it better resembles their most famous work is a tricky proposition. It often can play as aggressively twee (Becoming Jane) or too satisfied with its winks and asides (Shakespeare in Love). So Frances O’Connor’s moody and effecting directorial debut, Emily, is something of a unicorn. Without a trace of irony or hauteur, the film walks the line between biopic and wish fulfillment while examining the life of Emily Brontë through as Gothic and forlorn a lens as the one she used in Wuthering Heights.
A breakout showcase for actress Emma Mackey, Emily lives happily in the gloomy cynicism that the middle Brontë sister found ever so invigorating. Hers is a life of poetry by tombstones and stolen kisses by flickering candlelight; it’s also of a gushing romantic heart that’s kept smothered by the religious mores of her day, as well as the far more earthy human vices of jealousy, cruelty, and selfishness. Emily, her brother, and her illicit lover (an easily corruptible vicar, no less!), make for a bizarre kind of emotional love triangle that proves as vampiric as the cold gaze of Heathcliff on the moors. What a refreshingly bleak, and authentically Gothic, slice of romanticism. – DC
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3
In some ways it’s a wonder this film made it to the screen intact given the firing and rehiring of writer-director James Gunn, the further delays in filming, and Marvel Studios’ well-documented and overall travails in navigating a post-pandemic (and post-Endgame) box office. But amazingly, Guardians Vol. 3 not only arrived to lift Marvel fans’ spirits, but ended up being a stirring, highly emotional, and beautifully rendered finale to the MCU’s most quirky trilogy of films.
Perhaps the most personal of Gunn’s films yet, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 focuses on Rocket Raccoon’s dark origins (in a manner that gets quite disturbing at times), paralleling his story with the challenges faced by his fellow Guardians as they battle to save Rocket’s life and defeat the terrifying High Evolutionary. As unsettling as Rocket’s journey gets, his (and the other Guardians’) eventual transcendence provides the film with the deep empathy for our heroes that has seemingly been harder to find in other recent MCU offerings. All this, plus Gunn’s deftness in keeping the essential sweetness of the team’s cracked dynamic front and center, makes Vol. 3 an undisputed high point of the MCU’s uneven Phases 4 and 5. – DK
Available to stream on: Disney+ (U.S. and UK)
With his latest feature, director Alexander Payne returns to what have become dual motifs in his work: the awkward murkiness of adolescent life and sad sacks played by Paul Giamatti. Both elements are refined to tragicomic sweetness in The Holdovers. A film set during a snowy and lonely Christmas season for young Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), a rich kid who’s been abandoned by his newly remarried mother over the holidays as she vacations without him, and his stringent history teacher who was always lonely, Mr. Hunham (Giamatti), The Holdovers uses its festive framing to practically crowbar humor and good cheer out of what could’ve been a far colder and less beguiling film in lesser hands.
In truth a stealth three-hander, as both Tully and Hunham come to take a new appreciation for the kitchen chef Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) who has agreed to stay on and feed these leftovers after enduring her own far greater tragedy, The Holdovers is a soft and sincere character study about facing the wrong turns we take in life—and having the courage to turn again after looking back. Also in addition to all three central performances being knockouts, David Hemingson’s script is laugh-out-loud funny. – DC
Brandon Cronenberg came into his own as a filmmaker with the hallucinatory nightmare that is Infinity Pool. Initially predicated on the worst anxiety for wealthy tourists eager to exploit the natural beauties of impoverished nations, the film at first glance is the legal hell of what happens when an author named James (Alexander Skarsgård) ventures out of the artificial luxuries of his resort vacation and into the local areas where he accidentally kills a man in a hit and run.
What makes Infinity Pool so twisted, though, is how it transforms that opening horror into something more sinister and primal. It turns out the film’s fictional country has mastered the science of cloning—and real-life replicas that maintain all your memories, at that!—and they use it as a veritable “get out of jail free” card for wealthy tourists. What James did is a capital offense, but he can watch his clone be executed in his place for a price. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg as he discovers other tourists like Gabi (Mia Goth at her most blithely perverse), a fawning fangirl of James’ book who comes to this country in order to play real-life GTA.
An aloof and ultimately Freudian mingling of sex, death, and self-destruction, Infinity Pool is a film that glistens on its surface, but while there are are no edges in its presentation, as you reach deeper, the picture reveals a truly jagged nature. – DC
John Wick: Chapter 4
John Wick: Chapter 4 is the grand symphony of gratuitous movie violence. The first trio of films in the saga were certainly spectacles unto themselves too, but for the first Wickian adventure since the pandemic, director Chad Stahelski and star Keanu Reeves surpassed all expectation by delivering an honest-to-Lean epic that is nearly three hours in length and begins with an homage to Lawrence of Arabia where John chases down his prey at sunrise across the desert while still wearing that finely tailored three-piece suit.
Before Chapter 4, the Wick flicks were beginning to risk descending into self-parody as the story of John’s journey into the surprisingly bureaucratic and genteel underworld became ever more ludicrous. Yet there is such an operatic majesty to what feels like the finale to John’s story in Chapter 4 that it elevates the whole series, not least of all because this one has all the best action sequences. Adding Donnie Yen as a secondary protagonist has that effect, and the final 45 minutes of the film where Reeves and Yen paint the streets of Paris red is an all-timer for martial arts gun-fu. If this really is the end, John earned his rest. – DC
It’s heartening to see studios slowly dip their toes back into the water of R-rated comedies. And of those so far released in 2023, Adele Lim’s uproarious Joy Ride is the funniest one yet. A strong showing for first-time helmer Lim, who co-wrote the movie with Cherry Chevapravatdumrong and Teresa Hsiao, Joy Ride is a familiar road trip raunch-fest. However, because this particular trip is embarked on by four Asian-American friends (Ashley Park, Sherry Cola, Sabrina Wu, and Everything Everywhere breakout Stephanie Hsu), and their journey is through the Chinese countryside, the material for the laughs turns out be acutely original and ruthlessly egalitarian in its targets.
All four leads are game for a project that balances innocent cheerfulness with a filthy, no-holds-barred aim to satirize everything from the conservative niceties of Chinese society to the zealotry of K-Pop fandom. That the movie can get away with featuring a scene where the four leads are forced to smuggle cocaine inside their bodies while also painting an authentic portrait of the duality of being a product of Chinese and American cultures is a testament to the filmmakers’ deft ability to juggle tones. Or, in other words, it turns out everything goes down better with sex jokes about the devil’s triangle. – DC
Killers of the Flower Moon
Martin Scorsese and co-writer Eric Roth not so much adapt David Grann’s searing nonfiction work, Killers of the Flower Moon, as they excavate it to find the bedrock sin of American racism buried at the very foundations. They then turn that elemental bigotry into a three and a half hour tone poem of greed, avarice, and regret. The film is long, but it’s sprawling size still isn’t enough to soak in the complete totality of the evil inflicted on the Osage Nation, an Indigenous people who briefly became the richest folks in the world per capita in the early 20th century due to the discovery of oil on their lands. This meant they became targets yet again for bottomless white greed.
The film is primarily told from the perspective of envious eyes, including Leonardo DiCaprio as a dim-witted tool named Ernest and a chilling Robert De Niro as his uncle who orchestrates a conspiracy of mass murder. It’s the best performance De Niro has done in years. Yet the movie belongs to a luminous Lily Gladstone as Mollie, the Osage wife of Ernest and heart of the film as she slowly comes to understand the full breadth of betrayal in her own household. There are many ways to approach this material, and Scorsese’s chosen path is one that follows you out of the cinema and lingers long afterward. – DC
A clever combination of horror and sci-fi that introduced a whole new generation to its own killer doll movie, M3GAN leans hard on the ongoing debates about what artificial intelligence means for humankind’s future. It also taps into the anxieties of every parent and guardian. In this case that’s Allison Williams’ overworked scientist. She’s had parenthood forced on her when her niece is suddenly and tragically orphaned. Williams’ protagonist dreams to life M3GAN: a toy that can actually be a constant, interactive companion to their kids. She also unintentionally exposes her family to a serious exploration of the loneliness of modern-day kids.
This doesn’t mean M3GAN takes itself too seriously though. Right from the start, there’s a playfulness and slight edge of camp that keeps the movie light (even when M3GAN offs someone’s pet) and generally fun. Writer Akela Cooper and director Gerard Johnstone know exactly what they’re working with; they understand the basic silliness of their premise and before things get too grimdark, M3GAN busts out her already famous dance to take things to a different level. This one was a true January surprise. – DK
After a quarter-century in the business, Christopher Nolan appears to have finally gone thermonuclear in what we consider to be one of his very best films. Oppenheimer is a biopic about J. Robert Oppenheimer, the so-called father of the atomic bomb. As played by Cillian Murphy, however, the scientist takes on an operatic level of tragedy as he rushes into building the power of the gods for his government without ever fully considering the world it will unleash until after “the device” has been dropped on civilians in Japan.
Nolan has a long history with tortured male protagonists obsessed with their work (and men who pay only a minimal amount of interest to the women in their lives), but by exploring a real dreamer whose idea may eradicate us all in Oppenheimer, the director and frequent muse Cillian Murphy achieve career-best heights. The film uses a familiar nonlinear structure to make men sitting in rooms talking theoretical physics more tense and visually spectacular than any action movie released in 2023. – DC
Every so often a new filmmaker emerges with an astonishing amount of confidence and fully formed vision. Writer-director Celine Strong is one such filmmaker, and Past Lives is one such film—a shimmering but aching love story that has the maturity to ponder about the roads not taken and the loves not fulfilled.
In a decade where everything from superhero movies to Oscar winners are using the multiverse as an allegory about the choices we make in life, Past Lives removes the metaphor by examining what that real anxiety is for two people living without artifice. Nora and Hae Sung were childhood sweethearts while growing up on the streets of Seoul, South Korea, but after Nora’s parents elect to immigrate to Canada, Nora leaves without really even saying goodbye. She simply takes one road going up the hill one afternoon, and Hae takes another that keeps him on his level. The film then jumps several times into the future, revisiting the pair first in their early 20s and then 30s when they reconnect time and again. In each reunion, they’re painfully curious about how the other’s life turned out—and implicitly searching for what might’ve been, could be, and never will come.
This is an exquisitely acted and layered film that has a patience that comes from lived wisdom, as well as perhaps regret. Song takes her time, contrasting the choices and cultures which shape both characters. What hangs in the air over every scene though are questions that Past Lives has the grace to know can never be answered. It’s the year’s best film to date.
Director Yorgos Lanthimos, screenwriter Tony McNamara, and star Emma Stone’s reunion after The Favourite is the best Frankenstein movie we’ve had in decades. Adapted from Alasdair Gray’s novel of the same name, Poor Things is sumptuously decadent and happily transgressive as it finds dark comedy in the following setup: A mad scientist (Willem Dafoe under a thick coat of makeup) brings a random suicide he discovered back from the dead… but only after he’s put the brain of the unborn fetus in her body into her skull. It’s a macabre setup which the film nakedly turns into a satire of the patriarchy as mental newborn Bella Baxter (Stone) breaks away from the men who created her in order to discover what it means to live, particularly as a woman.
The show-stopping draw of the film is Stone’s electric performance as Bella; it’s fearless, leaping without a net stuff that balances between extreme physical comedy and textured complexity. It also, frankly, courts offending some audiences given how bluntly it embraces sex as part of the human experience. But behind all the perversity is a layered work that is surprisingly gentle for Lanthimos. It doesn’t hurt, either, that the film is a feast for the eyes with jaw-dropping costumes and production designs, which are captured exquisitely atonal cinematography by Robbin Ryan. It’s a dirty little freak of a movie, and we suspect Mary Shelley would be proud. – DC
By design or accident, Sofia Coppola provides a quiet yet firm rebuttal to the Vegas razzle dazzle of Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis. That film presented the King of Rock and Roll as a musical god and martyr among a sea of Judases. Coppola’s Priscilla depicts him as a man. An immensely flawed, selfish, and peculiar man. But Priscilla is not his film; it belongs to the title character who on paper should therefore be the Queen of Rock and Roll, and yet, as poignantly revealed through a subtle performance by Cailee Spaeny, is more like a prisoner too starstruck to recognize the Gates of Graceland might as well be iron bars.
Spaeny does impressive work playing Priscilla from ages 14 to 27 in the span of a couple of hours—yes, she was barely in high school when she caught the eye of 24-year-old Elvis Presley (Jacob Elordi). There is an unspoken horror about their age difference, but then much is left wordless in a film that might be the quietest portrait of a life of sex, drugs, and rock ’n roll ever conceived. Like so much of Coppola’s oeuvre, it’s really the story of a young woman finding herself after a quarter-life of dreamlike loneliness. – DC
Writer-director Tina Satter adapts her own one-act play in Reality, a tersely surreal recreation of the interrogation and arrest of Reality Winner, which is all the more disquieting when you realize like its title, almost everything depicted onscreen really happened. Satter achieves this by pulling directly from the FBI transcript of what happened the day that feds showed up on Winner’s driveway in 2017 with a warrant to search her home. And as borne out by that transcript, Winner is most concerned at first with what will happen to her beloved dog and cat, even as it slowly dawns on her to ask, “Am I going to jail tonight?”
The real Winner, has become a lightning rod in the United States’ culture wars, which is depressingly ironic since it was the lies and reality distortions of then-President Donald Trump, which were shared on a loop on Fox News at Winner’s office, that caused her to leak evidence of the Russian government interferring in the 2016 election. Thanks to Winner’s efforts, we had a clear idea of how much we were being gaslit by the commander-in-chief about the threat to American democracy, but because of sloppy journalism at The Intercept and a ruthless pursuit of whistleblowers in the 21st century, Winner was sentenced to over five years in prison for violating the Espionage Act, the most severe sentence for a leak to date. (It’s yet another irony then that this is the same law now being used to prosecute Trump.)
Satter’s Reality bypasses much of that context to live in the painstaking moment of a quiet, deeply patriotic life being turned upside down by feds who are ingratiating in their awkward bids at small talk, chuckling at the shade of pink on the gun Winner keeps in the house. Sydney Sweeney also gives a sharply judged and underplayed performance, letting the reserved nature of her protagonist fry beneath the grueling pace of this rapid-boiling 80-minute movie. It makes for a curious footnote in a larger American story that is far from finished, and which has only become increasingly unreal. – DC
For the first time since the 1990s, Ghostface is scary again. Like much else in life, horror turns out to be all about location, location, location. And in their second go-round in the Scream franchise, directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett use New York City locales to their fullest as the pop culture-spewing killer in a Halloween mask follows the Carpenter sisters (Melissa Barrera and Jenna Ortega) to the Big Apple.
From a tense cat-and-mouse game where the heroes are trapped on a crowded subway car on Halloween night—and thus surrounded by half a dozen Ghostface costumes—to the disturbingly believable sequence in which the killer follows them into a bodega and starts wielding a shotgun in a public space, Scream VI hits differently. It has the best set pieces in the franchise since 1997’s Scream 2, as well as the best use of its protagonists, convincingly making Barrera, Ortega, and even supporting players inhabited by Jasmin Savoy Brown and Mason Gooding matter in ways they wouldn’t in most slasher flicks. The ending loses a little steam when the killer’s motivation is revealed, but Scream VI is a bloody good night out on the town until then. – DC
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse
If 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was a profound game-changer for both animated films and the superhero genre, then this mind-blowing sequel introduces us to a whole new game entirely. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse ups the ante in every way: It deploys a massive new collection of Spider-Mans and their universes—each rendered in their own dazzling aesthetic—while upping the emotional stakes for Shameik Moore’s Miles Morales and Hailee Steinfeld’s Gwen Stacy. The film tells a multiverse story that is both epic in scale and intimately character-driven.
Instantly joining the ranks of films like The Dark Knight, The Empire Strikes Back, and Toy Story 2 as one of the finest sequels of all time, Across the Spider-Verse literally explodes with imaginative visuals and ideas, to the point where it strains to contain them all in the frame. Even its cliffhanger ending feels earned instead of forced. At a time when the superhero movie faces its most challenging headwinds in 25 years, Across the Spider-Verse proves that the genre has not yet run its course. – DK
Talk to Me
Young people do stupid things. Sometimes that involves booze, and sometimes that involves drugs. Heck, I’m old enough to remember when crank calls were a thing friends did in the ‘90s. But demonic possession? That’s a new one, and it’s used to appropriately chilling effect in the first feature from Australian brothers Danny and Michael Philippou.
In the film, lonely and thoughtful teen Mia (Sophie Wilde) is going through some tough times at home. It’s why she spends so many nights in the house of her friend Jade (Alexandra Jensen) and Jade’s kid brother Riley (Joe Bird). Yet the lonelier you are, the more you want to fit in, and when some neighborhood kids reveal that they’ve discovered a new high—seances where you invite the spirits of the dead to possess your body for a few minutes—Mia’s game for laugh. By the end of Talk to Me, however, you will not be laughing; in fact, you’re probably reeling from the most visceral gut punch we’ve had at a cinema this year. – DC
Molly Gordon, an actress perhaps best known for appearing in Booksmart and Shiva Baby, and Nick Lieberman make their feature-length directorial debuts with Theater Camp, a knowingly funny sendup and salute to “theater kids” everywhere. Working from a script the directors co-wrote with Noah Galvin and Ben Platt (who also appear in the movie with Gordon as camp counselors), Theater Camp is affectionately, and unsubtly, made in the Christopher Guest mold.
The film’s mockumentary-approach ostensibly begins as a study of an elderly woman who’s given her life to training elementary and middle schoolers in the performing arts. But after she has a brain aneurysm and slips into a coma on the first day of filming (and first five minutes of the movie-within-a-movie), our alleged documentarians decide to keep rolling and see what happens when her dude-bro son attempts to run the camp. The answer is a sweet, and at times bitingly funny, deconstruction of every clique, tic, and cliché created by Broadway-obsessed youngins’, as well as their teachers who all swear they’re aspiring performers even in their 12th year of writing musicals for campers. If you ever were a theater kid, or just knew one growing up, you’ll be in for a good time. – DC
Available to stream on: Hulu (U.S. only)
The concept of a Tetris movie always seemed like a stretch. How do you make a film about falling blocks? Well, in what’s turned out to be a popular direction in 2023, director Jon S. Baird and screenwriter Noah Pink realized you tell it as an ‘80s creation myth. Yet of all the feel-good capitalism nostalgia pieces to come out this year, Tetris may be my favorite because it has enough self-awareness to see the humor in its conceit… and to realize it’s also a low-key gripping Cold War espionage yarn.
In a case study of truth is stranger than fiction, Tetris reveals to a mass audience how the video game’s global impact was only made possible due to some cloak-and-dagger maneuvers behind the Iron Curtain, with the ultimate winner being Henk Rogers. Played by Taron Egerton at his most charming and mustachioed, the film’s Henk is a relentlessly optimistic figure, even as he flies to Moscow as a tourist and ignites a bidding war with various unscrupulous Western parties. The true story is so sensational, Tetris probably didn’t need to embellish the details with flourishes of KGB chases and death threats. Yet there is something acutely intelligent and mirthful about Tetris and its “plague on both your houses” approach to contrasting the wary communists and the big pocketed vultures who try to screw the Soviet government out of video game rights.
Available to stream on: Apple TV+ (U.S. and UK)
The Zone of Interest
Jonathan Glazer’s formidable film about the Holocaust might be called The Zone of Interest, but “the banality of evil” would have been just as apt. In a stark step away from most cinematic depictions of the incomprehensible annihilation of six million Jewish people—and millions more the Third Reich deemed undesirable—we never once step foot inside a concentration camp despite the film being set entirely around Auschwitz. The systematic slaughter of thousands is occurring, and it is impossible to not notice. You can occasionally hear the sounds of screaming or a muffled gunshot; the dog barks at far angrier hounds on the other side of a wall; and, of course, there is that billowing cloud of black smoke wafting in the winter sky as German children play.
The Zone of Interest focuses not on the atrocities but the people who made them happen, either directly or by turning a blind eye. The central characters are Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), an SS officer and commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp where he spearheaded the introduction of gas chamber showers. However, you only hear him speak about that in passing over the phone. Instead he seems to be a man who loves his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), dotes on his children, and truly adores his prized horse. Hedwig is also fully aware of what her husband does (how can she not be?), but his ingenuity pays for the home and garden she always dreamed of raising her children in. Theirs is an idyllic life.
This is a portrait of how humans normalize evil until they are either oblivious to it or enjoy profiting from it. So if you do not see echoes of how the modern world of today normalizes hate, totalitarian ideas, and the persecution of minorities… well you might be already willfully blind. – DC