Top Films of 2023 | Nic Champion

I nearly didn’t see Killers of the Flower Moon this year.

There are a number of major films I didn’t get a chance to see. Poor Things, The Holdovers, the Palme D’Or winning Anatomy of a Fall. Mostly this is because I almost exclusively watch movies at home now. Going out is still a risk, a risk I’d only be willing to take if other conditions were optimal, but the theatrical experience has become intolerable for me.

There was a time when, before the movie, they’d play a short PSA telling you to be quiet and respectful. One that sticks out in my memory featured animated frogs singing an R&B song about turning your phone off and not talking during the film, proclaiming “this ain’t your living room.” Theaters today, however, say, “wait a minute, actually this IS your living room! You can sit back, recline, pull up a blanket, and order food while the movie is playing. Here, we put a light on your seat so that you can see the menu.”

I greatly prefer the old theater experience—comfortable, upright chairs; concessions, but outside of the theater; limits on hot food; no phones and no talking; and for God’s sake, it doesn’t have to be that loud. Maybe then I’ll consider going inside if I feel like wearing a mask for two hours, because God knows people still aren’t being careful. I’ve evaded COVID, but a nasty cold during the holidays has only solidified my abhorrence of crowds.

That is to say that, this year, I maybe didn’t put as much of an effort into seeing new things. I preferred the comforts of home, sometimes the comfort of movies I was already familiar with or of filmmakers I was already familiar with. First watches of old films from Frederick Wiseman and David Lynch kept me going while I stayed apprised of current releases based on what was available from streaming services and local libraries. It left me with blind spots. Again, I almost didn’t see Killers of the Flower Moon this year.

And yet I did, eventually, see Killers of the Flower Moon, and it proved that you don’t have to try that hard—don’t even have to leave your house—to know that cinema lives. It thrives. And it’s stronger than ever.  

Honorable Mentions: The Beasts, Huesera: The Bone Woman, Oppenheimer, Plan 75, Queens of the Qing Dynasty, R.M.N., The Stroll

20. The Integrity of Joseph Chambers

19. Showing Up

18. Satan Wants You

17. Knock at the Cabin

16. Godland

15. Theater Camp

14. A Thousand and One

13. Talk to Me

12. Beau Is Afraid

11. Asteroid City

10. Past Lives

Celine Song’s soulful and bittersweet debut offers a bold take on relationships, depicting the complexity of a Korean-American woman’s attachment to an unrequited love from her youth and her happy marriage to a kind and understanding American man in a way that challenges the norms of romance with nuance. The film acknowledges that one can love multiple people at once, but that we are limited in how many people we can share that love with. We are limited by location, time, fate, obligations to others, and ultimately an obligation to ourselves, to the people we become as life places us in ever changing circumstances. Past Lives both validates our connection to the past while recognizing the necessity of change and adapting to the current moment.

9. Barbie

Barbie is a corporate product that came with an oversaturated marketing campaign, a bona fide blockbuster. That it manages to feel like a real, original movie and not a bloated Saturday morning cartoon and digital effects showcase written by AI is miraculous. It feels like something from fifteen or twenty years ago, back when seeing an existing intellectual property expanded into its own film was an exciting event instead of a rote exercise in brand-awareness packaged up and sent down an increasingly generic assembly line of content. While it contains an insightful social message, the film has an awareness of its limited scope, not burdening itself with the responsibility of being a comprehensive feminist text, but instead a thoughtful and pleasurable piece of entertainment that happens to have opinions about its subject and the society that created it.

8.  Earth Mama

This sad and sensuous drama about young black motherhood in corrosive circumstances is social realism served up like dessert. Shot on exquisitely textured 16mm film in dreamy pastel hues, Savanah Leaf’s debut probes the cruelty and inadequacy of the foster-care system with a tender and affectionate eye towards her very flawed protagonist. Leaf directs confidently, her carefully placed camera framing her subjects with perceptive closeness, telegraphing the tumultuous internal life of Gia (Tia Nomore) while capturing the glowing bloom on her skin and the serenity and resplendence of her surroundings, rendering her into a figure of grace and beauty despite her grappling with the near-impossibility of personal reform in a broken and oppressive society. In this way the film addresses societal harm without making a tragic figure out of its main character, instead celebrating her inherent humanity and yielding a story not of black suffering but of black perseverance.

7. Enys Men

The success of Midsommar resulted in a solid three or four year folk horror revival, and while a lot of duds came out of that, Enys Men seized the moment and yielded something new and refined, a pinnacle of sorts when it comes to this particular resurgence. Folk horror and time folded in on itself, a weird lichen-covered Möbius strip cycling through fragments of pagan ritual, Cornish folklore, isolation, and some obscure trauma faced by the silent protagonist. While the uncompromising ambiguity and non-linearity of the film, in addition to its meditative pace, may alienate some viewers, Enys Men achieves something striking and evocative as a result, a distillation of tropes and motifs into a hypnotic and troubling dream of the ancient and everlasting forces that engulf us as we live out our small, delicate little lives.

6. The Quiet Girl

Colm Bairéad’s quiet, gentle film about a girl spending the summer with distant relatives is deceptively simple, placid on the surface but full of feeling. With most of the dialogue in Gaelic, The Quiet Girl acts almost as an ethnography, not only preserving a language but exploring the culture it sprang from as young Cáit escapes the dredges of her dysfunctional, unloving home and settles into a simple but secure life with the childless Eibhlín and Seán, who run a Dairy farm in rural Ireland. Cáit’s gradual blossoming is portrayed with impressive subtlety by Catherine Clinch, with Carrie Crowley and Andrew Bennett giving great naturalistic performances as well. Bairéad’s light touch creates an environment where the ways in which we show love are rendered so clearly, and how essential the wholesome and nurturing aspects of this environment are to the well-being of people.

5. How to Blow up a Pipeline

This sharp eco-thriller creates characters for its compelling scenario with both authentic and schematic properties. Ranging from conscientious college graduates to personally affected blue collar workers and those whose health has been impacted by climate change, the personalities result in the emergence of a polemical, sometimes didactic quality, having the potential to grate if the observations weren’t so astute. As one of the activists plainly states towards the end, the blowing up of an oil pipeline is not an act of terrorism or even an act of violence, but of self-defense. While How to Blow Up a Pipeline is a compelling bit of drama, it’s also a persuasive and insistent reimagining of a manifesto. For a film industry that is often quick to equivocate or refrain from pushing direct political action, this film is a bold outlier.

4. May December

Todd Haynes’s latest upcycled melodrama feels equally scandalous and uncomfortable and thrilling, turning the tabloid of the past and the discourse of the present into a moral swamp reflecting the images of Bergman and Sirk back at us from its murky surface. Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman are strong and assured leads, never relinquishing control of the film’s major focus, but Charles Melton slowly works his way into their odd, self-obsessed mirroring to portray the deep conflicts within his character, a result of years-long manipulation and arrested development. In addition to the film’s dark humor and genre savviness, the film devotes a serious amount of thought to the painful exploration of complex trauma, elevating it above what could have been a sordid albeit artsy exercise in exploitation. May December has all the unabashed, morbid curiosity of a Lifetime true crime film, but with a sensitive, intelligent personality behind it.  

3. Hannah Ha Ha

This anti-work, anti-capitalist, neo-mumblecore indie actually has an opinion on the issues it presents, never failing to identify the human personalities behind oppressive work-culture with acute incisiveness. Smart direction, economic but evocative, and gauzy cinematography create an environment that slowly teeters between leisure and languor, a humid New England summer that feels both nostalgic and stale. Co-directors Joshua Pikovsky and Jordan Tetewsky, with great affection for the rural Massachusetts town they set the film in and the people who inhabit it, craft an airtight microbudget gem with a personal, political directive that is deeply humane and compassionate, but also rightly and quietly acerbic. 

2. The Zone of Interest

The non-prolific Jonathan Glazer returns with his bleakest movie yet, one that treats the Holocaust with the solemn horror it deserves while completely refusing to dramatize it the way other films do. It’s timeless and confrontational and sickening, formally uncompromising and acidic. With clarity and precision Glazer highlights the clockwork quality of systematic destruction, the banal routines involved in the efficient execution of mass death and political domination. The characters’ willful ignorance comes as a natural result of their compartmentalization and indulgence in self-absorption, status, and comfort. As such it’s a sobering look at the kind of easily-concealed and deniable civic participation that fuels successful fascism.

1. Killers of the Flower Moon

Scorsese’s approach to adapting David Grann’s non-fiction book, which deals heavily with the birth of the FBI, shifts focus away from the said institutions and examines, instead, the adjacent entities composed of White Capitalists whose genocidal activities instigated such governmental developments in the first place. A basic familiarity with the story told by Grann about the murder of the Osage people, perpetrated by White so-called benefactors dwelling on their oil-rich land, is vital in assessing how Scorsese’s adaptation mines history in order to depict a deeply destructive United States. The country Scorsese depicts has carried out its violence towards its indigenous population mostly through the unquestioning obedience and complicity of everyday people who cohabitate with them. The overarching power structures that govern simply help facilitate their actions and decrease the likelihood of change. Perseverance, cultural recognition, swift justice, and the proper historical focus are all posited as solutions, but not before a thorough examination of the causes of the injustice and the people who carry out atrocities, both their internal psychology and what is motivating them externally. | Nic Champion

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