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Top Ten of 2023

With apologies to the almost-made-its - 12.12: The DayBottoms, Freud's Last SessionGodzilla Minus One, How to Blow Up a Pipeline, May DecemberNapoleon, RustinThanksgiving, and The Zone of Interest - I present, in alphabetical order, my Top Ten Films of 2023:

Asteroid City
dir: Wes Anderson
pr: Wes Anderson / Jeremy Dawson / Steven Rales
scr: Wes Anderson, story by Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola
cin: Robert D. Yeoman
seen: June 28, 2023

The film Asteroid City is about an American Playhouse-style program presenting a production of an unfinished play - with annotations and asides about the playwright, the director, the production, etc. - called Asteroid City, which is about five families invited to some young inventors/scientists conference at a military base in the middle of the desert where nuclear testing occurs in the distance and wild encounters are about to occur. Another of Wes Anderson's nesting doll narratives, looking at the changes in American culture, politics, and entertainment in the mid-20th-century, as well as how we use our gifts, be they art or science or whatever, to deal with the unknown: death, grief, the possibility of an intelligent world beyond our own, what we do with the knowledge we accumulate and the scientific progress we make, the uncertainty of just living. It's his best since The Grand Budapest Hotel...hell, it may be the best thing he's done.

The Burial
dir: Maggie Betts
pr: Jamie Foxx / Jenette Kahn / Celine Rattray / Adam Richman / Bobby Shriver / Trudie Styler / Datari Turner
scr: Maggie Betts and Doug Wright, story by Doug Wright
cin: Maryse Alberti
seen: November 4, 2023

Mississippi mortician makes an oral agreement with a multi-billion-dollar funeral home company; they ghost him, he needs the money, he suspects they're purposely trying to wait him out into bankruptcy so they can snatch up the entire business. Enter Willie E. Gary, a flashy Florida lawyer with a style and flair for theatrics more fit for a prosperity preacher than a trial attorney. This unlikely team-up yields a film about legacy. The legacy we leave behind, not just for ourselves, but for the future of our loved ones...and how we work to guarantee that legacy; the legacy of race relations in America in general and the South in particular; the long legacy of the rich getting richer off the backs of the not-as-rich. It's a good old-fashioned legal dramedy - edge-of-your-seat cross-examinations, mutual admiration between ruthless opposing counsels, jurors shaking their heads - anchored by smart writing and a great ensemble.

Give Me Pity!
dir/scr: Amanda Kramer
pr: Jake Agger / Sarah Winshall
cin: Patrick Meade Jones
seen: November 27, 2023

It's a 1980s TV special by rising star Sissy St. Claire, 80 minutes of songs, skits, and monologues about image, beauty, growing up, disappointment, and doing whatever it takes to stay on top for as long as you can, even if fame and celebrity can only be gifted by a cutthroat public as withholding as they are hungry for something new. Writer-director Amanda Kramer (Please Baby Please, remember?) once again confronts the "performance" of society, the pressures we put on ourselves and each other to maintain a certain image of what "makin' it" looks like - even if the upkeep of that image comes at the expense of our own sanity. A clever showbiz-horror-musical-comedy, committed to the lost-TV-special bit WHILE grounding it in genuine observation about the drag (in the "you're born naked and the rest is --" sense) of living. Honestly, some of Sissy's monologues hit very close!

dir/scr: Hlynur Pálmason
pr: Eva Jakobsen / Mikkel Jersin / Katrin Pors / Anton Máni Svansson
cin: Maria von Hausswolff
seen: December 8, 2023

A Lutheran priest goes to Iceland to establish a church and help build a Danish community. Instead, he's driven to the breaking point by the elements and by his own delusions of self-importance. He's pompous, unwilling to connect with either the native Icelanders whom he treats like animals, or with the Danish colonists who have found a way to adjust to this new land while building a community and maintaining their identity; this is a man who clearly joined the priesthood to be away from people, preferring taking photographs to preaching the Word. You know a man can't be in tune with the world of God when he looks around that landscape and can't see the beauty - unless he's behind the lens, framing everything to his liking. It's a patient film, but patience is rewarded.

A Haunting in Venice
dir: Kenneth Branagh
pr: Kenneth Branagh / Judy Hofflund / Simon Kinberg / Ridley Scott
scr: Michael Green
cin: Haris Zambarloukos
seen: September 17, 2023

Branagh optimism's been paying off this decade. A Haunting in Venice takes a big swing by adapting a lesser-known Poirot mystery, Hallowe'en Party, and reworking...well, everything. A fortnight in a small English village becomes a single night in a decaying Venetian orphanage-turned-mansion rumored to be haunted; a little girl prone to spreading lies who says she saw a murder becomes a glamorous medium who communicates with a troubled soul; a Russian au pair who nursed a dying old woman becomes a nurse-housekeeper haunted by the death of a girl in her charge. It's an inspired adaptation, leaving Branagh free to blend the grounded whodunnit with the supernatural. A tip o' the cap to Bava while still very much Christie: a miracle they pull it off.

dir/scr: Christopher Nolan
pr: Christopher Nolan / Charles Roven / Emma Thomas
cin: Hoyte Van Hoytema
seen: July 22, 2023

I love a three-hour historical epic; here's one taking some huge swings! I honestly love how much talking there is, people not just explaining theory but using words to trap each other, to dismiss one another, to find ways to pursue their own objectives without actually committing to a coherent worldview beyond, "I just want to do My Thing and be right!" Senate hearings! Closed depositions! Classroom lectures! We listen to people who defend Oppy one day - sure, he has pinko friends, but he's the best guy for the job! - derail his career the next - oh, he doesn't want to help us build a bigger bomb it must be because he's a Commie! This is a Nolan film, though, so you know the visual and sonic aspects of the film are...well, unlike anything else out there. Atomic chain reactions connect to raindrops rippling in a pond, cheering muted by the screams of the dead, and a literal baring of one's indiscretions. Fearless, visionary cinema.

Saw X
dir: Kevin Greutert
pr: Mark Burg / Oren Koules
scr: Pete Goldfinger & Josh Stolberg
cin: Nick Matthews
seen: October 16, 2023

The tenth entry in a franchise whose last few flicks made you feel the taffy being pulled. Tenth time's the charm! It's a slow burn Saw, focused almost exclusively on John Kramer, aka Jigsaw, a genius who runs afoul of a team of scammers offering fake cancer treatment at exorbitant costs. The hopeful John falls victim to their promises but, of course, once he cottons on to the truth, Jigsaw steps in! If you think following Kramer silently through loss, pain, recovery, and bonding with a local kid softens the man's image, you don't know Saw: he's still coming up with elaborate traps within hours, still shockingly dismissive about addiction as anything other than a personal shortcoming, still obsessive about his rules. Genuinely exciting and moving? It really feels like understanding the man behind the myth. The introduction of a genuine sociopath who operates out of pure greed into the lore is a breath of fresh air.

Somewhere in Queens
dir: Ray Romano
pr: Albert Berger / Ray Romano / Mark Stegemann / Ron Yerxa
scr: Ray Romano & Mark Stegemann
cin: Maceo Bishop
seen: November 7, 2023

I really loved this modest little drama. It's a typical story on its surface: Ray Romano is a middle-aged man whose high school senior son may be a basketball prodigy, and he strives to do whatever it takes to give the kid an opportunity to live the life he couldn't. How much of that is truly about the kid's best interests, and how much is his own desperate attempt to redo his life vicariously? It's thoughtful, it's funny, it's lovely, it's honest. It's (say it with me, now) "a small movie with a big heart." It has room (and time) to understand all the good and bad of its ensemble, from the son's conflicted girlfriend to a lonely business client to Romano's own clumsy, caring protagonist. No one is a sketch, they're all people. And people, hoo boy, people are a beautiful mess, aren't they?

A Thousand and One
dir/scr: A.V. Rockwell
pr: Julia Lebedev / Rishi Rajani / Eddie Vaisman / Lena Waithe / Brad Weston
cin: Eric K. Yue
seen: September 27, 2023

A woman gets out of prison, takes her kid out of foster care through not entirely legal means, and attempts to raise and provide for him in their Harlem neighborhood against the backdrop of a changing New York. Archival interviews and press statements give us the context of a city in flux, promises of renewal providing the backdrop for a story of just who has to be shoved out of the way to make room for those promises...and how they finagle their way through anyway, in pursuit of a life they deserve because they work for it - it takes hustle to try to live an honest life. An outstanding central performance from Teyana Taylor, a dialed-in screenplay that understands people and the systems they are forced to live in and finagle through, an unapologetic look at love and sacrifice.

Where the Devil Roams
dir/scr: John Adams / Zelda Adams / Toby Poser
pr: Toby Poser
cin: John Adams / Zelda Adams
seen: January 10, 2024

I came expecting some carny horror splatter fun on a budget. It delivered, but I also got an examination of love and desperation between wars: a father fighting his trauma, a mother willing to kill those who (she believes) profit from others' suffering, a daughter who cannot speak, but can sing...of "cracked and broken bones." This is a family that butchers people, sure; they also cling to the little normalcy they have, this family unit that speaks tenderly to each other, cares for each other, holds each other up. They'll do whatever it takes to stay together, as evidenced by its final shot, the greatest of any film this year.

Tomorrow, the nominees for the 2023 Hollmann Awards!

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