HughesReviews: The Zone of Interest and Other Major Cinematic Works of 2023

| February 19th, 2024

I didn’t particularly care for Barbie or Oppenheimer; the former felt cloying and obvious, the latter bloated and often incoherent. But one cannot understate their cultural importance. These two films, and the brilliant, seemingly organic marketing campaign which conjoined them into Barbenheimer, were the Sosa and McGwire of the modern movie landscape. At the physical cinema’s darkest moment, they brought fans back to the ballpark, and they are the legacy of “Movies 2023.”

But aside from these two popular pictures, this was a year where great filmmakers made great films. Each of the films that comprise my top five of the year are by established masters, cinematic artists working at the height of their powers. They are films I look forward to revisiting and writing extensively about. But I’m not a professional movie critic. I don’t spend each week advising the moviegoing public where to spend their movie buck and I’m not interested in wasting energy on the films I don’t like. At the risk of sounding like, well, an asshole, my academic pursuit of cinema enables me to focus entirely on that which interests me. I can dismiss the crap films and never write a sentence about them. Thus, you will not be reading about Maestro below.

And apologies to Frederick Wiseman, whose Menus-Plaisirs – Les Troisgros is certainly another in a long line of master works, but I just couldn’t muster the four hours of energy required to sit in an uncomfortable Film Forum seat. Although these are my favorite films of 2023, my favorite cinematic experience of the year was seeing the 93-year-old Wiseman live at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens.

Note: I know that many of you have not seen most of the films below, so I’ll refrain from giving away too many plot details. But I am happy to discuss movies any time via email – just reach out. 

(10) BlackBerry. One of the great entertainments of 2023, this first major work from Canadian director Matt Johnson serves primarily as a grand showcase for Glenn Howerton, whose towering, menacing performance is a brilliant expansion of the darkness he has honed over decades as Dennis on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

(09) Bottoms. Is this a great movie? No. But it was the funniest film I saw in 2023 and we all need to encourage Hollywood to keep producing damn comedies.

(08) The Killer. David Fincher is a master of the neo-noir, having created moody classics like Se7en, Zodiac and Gone Girl. This film, a perfect addition to that corpus, deserved more attention (see my Netflix rant below), if only for Tilda Swinton’s tour-de-force cameo. The film’s deliberate pacing requires the patience of its subject, but the reward is palpable.

(07) Titanic: The Musical. I was underwhelmed by the Tony-winning Titanic when it ran on Broadway in 1997, opening just months before the film would take over the world. It had a brilliant cast (Michael Cerveris, Brian d’Arcy James, Vicky Clark, etc.) and some powerful Maury Yeston music, but the piece left me, pardon the pun, cold. (If you know me, you know I want no such pardoning. I relished writing that sentence.) This film, a documentation of a touring production in England, is brilliant example of what can be achieved on screen when a director does more than point a single camera at the stage. Directors Austin Shaw and Thom Southerland use the camera to amplify the play’s emotional character and in doing so provide a profound stage AND screen experience.

(06) The Taste of Things. Subtle and sublime, very few films are so willingly, and lovingly, about process. Dramatic encounters are suggested. Deaths occur between edits. But each moment of culinary preparation is displayed in painstaking detail. (I only saw this film Wednesday so still need time to digest the whole affair.) Side note: how did this become the American title? The French title was La Passion De Dodin Bouffant. How does that become The Taste of Things? What does The Taste of Things even mean? Does it mean ANYTHING? Can we get a documentary about the corporate conference room that produced this inane title?

(05) Showing Up. When you are a struggling artist, “showing up” is survival, and Kelly Reichardt’s film is the finest depiction of that struggle I can remember. The director, and her star, Michelle Williams, manage to create a character in pain without allowing the pain to be her definitive characteristic. Lizzy has no hot water. Her brother is psychologically at sea. Her father is being taken advantage of by two drifters. But she still manages to make herself emotionally available to everyone, even the pigeons. She shows up. And you’re foolish if you don’t show up every time you read the phrase “Directed by Kelly Reichardt.”

(04) May December. In 1995, this film would have been a cultural touchstone. It would have opened at a few art house cinemas around the country to positive reviews, expanded into multiplexes after about a month or so, and become the critical darling of awards season, especially the magnificent performance at its center from Natalie Portman. (Her absence at the Oscars this year will be a bizarre injustice.) Instead, a major film from a major filmmaker (Todd Haynes) has been relegated to the streaming cemetery of Netflix, where it is forced to compete with twin flame documentaries and old episodes of Suits. This film demands to be seen.

(03) Killers of the Flower Moon. Martin Scorsese’s western epic is a condemnation of the western itself; Moon is not only a film about the terrors committed upon the Osage in the name of white capitalism, but also an indictment of how such acts have been depicted by predominantly white artists, including the silent cinema and radio plays directly referenced by Scorsese. It is both unlike anything Scorsese has previously done and a perfect complement to his canon. (I would argue there is a montage in the film that could easily have been underscored by the piano exit from Layla.) While much has been written about the film, both positively and negatively, one thing should not go unsaid: this is the best Robert DeNiro performance in decades.

(02) Fallen Leaves. I was not familiar with the work of Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki until this year, discovering the acid-trip-road-movie-musical Leningrad Cowboys Go America and falling down a glorious rabbit hole. Leaves is nothing like his earlier work. It is neither stylistically flashy, nor narratively quirky. It is a quiet, poignant film about two lonely people trying to find each other, with the cinema of Jim Jarmusch featuring in lovely fashion. When understood within the political framework of the Ukraine war, which the film historicizes via radio broadcasts, the depth of Leaves reveals itself.

(01) The Zone of Interest. I always think of Roger Ebert’s review of Joe Versus the Volcano when I encounter something as starkly original as Jonathan Glazer’s masterpiece: “Gradually during the opening scenes of “Joe Versus the Volcano,” my heart began to quicken, until finally I realized a wondrous thing: I had not seen this movie before. Most movies, I have seen before. Most movies, you have seen before. Most movies are constructed out of bits and pieces of other movies, like little engines built from cinematic Erector sets. But not “Joe Versus the Volcano.” Zone is not a film to be glibly reviewed on a sports blog, even if that blogger has multiple degrees in the field. It is a film to be studied as one of the most remarkable historiographic works ever produced, a film about the very role cinema plays in the depiction of historical events, and it elevates Glazer to the status of modern master.

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