The Top Five Best Films of 2023
Year's offerings prove that there is reward in risk
1. Showing Up
I have made no qualms about my admiration for Kelly Reichardt, whose last two films have topped my year-end lists, and she does it again with this quirky, autobiographical gem. The story of a struggling sculptor (Michelle Williams giving another knockout performance) preparing for a gallery exhibition in the midst of personal and financial hardships speaks directly to Reichardt's own career which has been mired by its troubles throughout the years. It is also a love letter to the artist in a society that seems to have the utmost contempt for art as a profession — where simply showing up to a gallery or screening is cause for celebration. On top of that, it is the funniest film in Reichardt's career. The dry humor wonderfully adds to the absurdity of the various situations in which the protagonist finds herself. The result is a subtly entertaining and deeply personal statement from possibly the best filmmaker working today.
2. The Eight Mountains
Over 10 years ago Felix VanGroeningen tore at our heartstrings with The Broken Circle Breakdown. Now he (along with co-director Charlotte Vandermeersch) does it again with this humanistic epic about friendship. The story of two boys whose friendship endures as their journey to manhood takes them down very different paths, is sensitive and never judgmental of their decisions in life — merely observant of where those decisions take them. Call it a masculine companion to Agnes Varda's One Sings, the Other Doesn't. Their lives are beset by triumph, tragedy, and enlightenment both spiritual and personal, but within their hearts remains the bond that ties them together. The film masterfully shows the importance of those deep bonds but also laments in how rare they often are. I think it is already on its way to becoming a modern masterpiece.
3. Beau Is Afraid
Ari Aster rose to prominence with two intense and terrifying horror films. His latest isn't horror in the traditional sense, but this psychosexual hero's journey is easily his most intense and terrifying. Aster brilliantly infuses the tale of a paranoid man's (Joaquin Phoenix — excellent, as always) attempt to get to his mother's funeral with surreal imagery and absurdist situations designed to evoke fear and anxiety. The result is a story that is nightmarish, personal, and darkly funny — like if Charlie Kaufman wrote The Odyssey. The fact that we still live in a world where a filmmaker is given free reign (and a sizable budget) to basically put a fever dream/panic attack onto the screen gives me an endless amount of joy. This ride is definitely not for everyone, but oh, what a ride it is!
4. Past Lives
One of the best things about art is an artist's ability to take a familiar story and tell it in a unique and unexpected way. That is certainly what Celine Song did with this moving and emotional film. The story of a happily married woman (Greta Lee) who begins to doubt her life choices after reconnecting with her childhood friend (Teo Yoo) after 20 years apart definitely hits on some cliches. However, rather than turn it into a sordid melodrama, Song tells an intelligent, mature story about regret, fate, and what it means to truly love someone. If given the chance to take other paths in life, would things look completely different or would we end up exactly the same? Song presents this question with a deep sympathy for her characters and a compassion for their situations. The film says more with quiet conversation than any amount of shouting and heightened emotions could, and the fact that it was a hit with audiences is a real victory for adult indie dramas.
Zachary Wigon has achieved what few filmmakers are able to: he made a film set in one location with only two characters and made it one of the most exciting films of the year. The story of a young man (Christopher Abbott) on the verge of inheriting his late father's hotel empire and the professional dominatrix (Margaret Qualley) hired to help him through his fears, has the potential to be stagy and visually uninteresting. But Wigon rectifies this with clever blocking and an ingenious use of color and camera movement, giving us a dazzling story about the power dynamics of a dom/sub relationship, the unique role that kink plays in dealing with anxieties, and the constrictions of social expectations and gender roles. Carried by two solid performances, the film is sexy, witty, and, in the end, a surprisingly sweet love story.
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