Saturday, December 30, 2023

Creative Confidence and Emma Stone's Masterful Acting Make Poor Things a Must-See

Have you ever wanted to plunge yourself into a movie? Just grab the edges of the frame and dunk your entire body inside? That's exactly how I felt watching Poor Things, the latest movie from the delightfully sick mind of director Yorgos Lanthimos. Like his seminal film Dogtooth, Poor Things is about an isolated soul with no knowledge about the wider world. Like his 2016 motion picture The Lobster, Poor Things is about how ridiculous "normal" social routines are. In the vein of his 2018 film The Favourite, Poor Things is rife with sexual tension and brought to life through an outstanding Emma Stone performance. However, simultaneously, Poor Things feels like a whole new era of the filmmaker's career. The intentionally subdued color palette of The Lobster and realistic locales of The Killing of the Sacred Deer are eschewed for luscious vibrant imagery that feels akin to everything from the works of Powell & Pressburger to episodes of The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack. It's like the earlier (already superb) works of Lanthimos were a foundation being built for the glorious house that is Poor Things.

Bella Baxter (Emma Stone) isn't like other girls...she's been brought back from the dead. How did that happen? Well, Dr. Godwin "God" Baxter (Willem Dafoe) found the body of a pregnant woman dead in a river after an apparent suicide. Naturally, this scientific mind decided to take this lady's corpse, put her baby's brain inside her head, and then revive the organism. The result was Bella Baxter, who now has an entirely new consciousness and, as she ages mentally, is growing more and more enamored with the outside world. Jerk supreme Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo) promises to show Baxter the world and take her everywhere she wants to go, a trip that inspires Poor Things to switch from monochromatic colors to a wide array of hues utilizing every shade in the rainbow. This voyage also leads to Baxter figuring out nuances of the world and discovering just who she is as a person.

Confidence courses through every vein of Poor Things (an adaptation of the Alasdair Gray novel of the same, with the script penned by Tony McNamara). That's always been key to why Lanthimos movies work so well, they execute outlandish premises and inexplicable human behavior with nary a wink to the camera. However, Poor Things is an especially assured achievement from this filmmaker. Best of all, that conviction manifests throughout the feature in such proudly overt ways. The outstanding costumes are colorful creations full of bold flourishes and poofy sleeves, for instance. Richly detailed sets stretch out to the heavens and revel in their artificiality, they remind one of colorful versions of backdrops from vintage expressionistic films! Meanwhile, the score by Jerskin Fendrix is a masterfully brash creation that isn't afraid to get noisy. Discordant instruments (like strings on a harp getting plucked strangely or the harsh clanging of a triangle) and deep-pitched wailing sounds dominate the sonic landscape of the film. A track like "Reanimation" is full of appropriate momentousness (not to mention a blaring organ and an ominous high-pitched wail) to accompany the sight of Bella Baxter being brought to life. There's so much pomp and circumstance in these compositions and the entire film is all the better for that grandeur. Ferndrix's score functions as a great musical extension of Bella Baxter's personality (we truly feel her pain with the aid of these music cues) while these qualities also coalesce into a score unlike any I've ever heard before.

Bella Baxter doesn't hide her true feelings or's great that elements like Fendrix's compositions or those sets are similarly proudly prominent. Many filmmakers may be wary of coming off as "silly" or "not serious" by embracing the absurd, but Lanthimos and crew always opt for the stylized when it comes to realizing the world of Poor Things. The result is a movie overflowing with so much infectiously endearing creativity that it's impossible not to get soaked up in all the twisted mayhem. Poor Things encapsulates many of the sights and images that could only be accomplished in cinema, the sort of glorious spectacle that the big screen was made for. If you're going to make a story this bizarre, you should really lean into all of its most preposterous possibilities. Poor Things, with its endlessly creative visuals and score, does just that.

Best of all, Poor Things does one of my favorite things any story in any artistic medium can do: give us a protagonist worth caring about in the middle of confines divorced from reality. Bella Baxter may travel to real-world locations like Paris in Poor Things, but they sure don't look like any destinations you could travel to in the real world (that's a compliment!) Her surroundings are intentionally at odds with normalcy, yet Bella Baxter is a lead character who's endlessly compelling. Everything from the writing to Robbie Ryan's cinematography and especially Emma Stone's performance renders Baxter with a sense of humanity. She's an oddball, but she's not a punchline nor are we meant to gawk at her "weirdness." On the contrary, Poor Things invites us to view the world through Bella Baxter's eyes and realize just how moronic normal conventions of everyday life (particularly when it comes to gender roles) are. Mesmerizing sequences like Baxter wandering around Lisbon on her own (the first time she's ever been truly independent in her life) touch one's soul as we bear witness to just how much the outside world means to this lady. There's a beating soul to Poor Things, a movie that often casts off reality to the wind to hysterical results.

Much of that soul does come from Stone, who once again indulges in her chops for weirdo comedy by inhabiting Bella Baxter. What's immediately striking about her on-screen work is her physicality, specifically the way she portrays Baxter as someone who is still getting the hang of the finer nuances of walking. For the rest of the movie, Stone keeps masterfully contorting her body language to reflect Baxter's growing knowledge of the wider world. It's a tour de force performance just in physicality alone, the fact that she always nails such precise pieces of outlandish comedy just makes Stone's work all the more amazing. Plus, it's downright remarkable how much Emma Stone sheds her movie star image for this role. When I was watching Poor Things, I truly felt like I was watching Bella Baxter, I wasn't just watching Stone taking on a role or reminder of this leading lady's many other roles from the last 16 years. Bella Baxter is a totally idiosyncratic creation and much of that uniqueness emanates from Stone's total commitment to such an unusual role.

Stone is backed up by a totally game-supporting cast who are also unforgettable in such transfixing ways. Mark Ruffalo has been getting a lot of hype for his enjoyably despicable work as just the worst human, but I also want to throw some roses towards Hanna Schygulla and Kathryn Hunter in their key supporting roles. Neither performer sticks around on-screen for long, but they each leave an enormous impression with the screen time they do get. Schygulla makes for a great understated but confident counterpart of Stone's Baxter, while Hunter's unpredictable work as a brothel owner consistently keeps viewers on their toes. Of course, the MVP of the supporting cast has to be Willem Dafoe, who brings such interesting levels of lived-in reality and nuance to a character (the mad scientist playing God) that has existed in cinema for nearly a century. You've seen this archetype before, but you've never seen a character quite like Dr. Godwin "God" Baxter thanks to Dafoe's tremendous performance.

For both movie geeks and just folks looking for a good time at the movies, Poor Things is a scrumptious cinematic feast. You'll want to gorge on the cinematography, request seconds of all the great comedy beats in the script, roll around in the costumes, stare in awe at the performances, and send your compliments to Yorgos Lanthimos for crafting something so original and daring. When the COVID-19 pandemic first shut everything down, I truly wondered if movie theaters would even exist anymore. I didn't dare to dream that one day somebody could once again wander up to a movie theater and spend a few hours in the dark immersed in something they've truly never witnessed before. Thankfully, that day has come. Poor Things is here and it's just the kind of movie you too will want to plunge head-first into.

Friday, December 22, 2023

Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom isn't interesting even with a heroic octopus

You can spend all the money in the world on a movie but you can't automatically make it compelling. No matter how many dollars and cents you throw at a motion picture, it will not suddenly transform into something memorable or fun. Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, like so many expensive American blockbusters, encapsulates this beautifully. Warner Bros. has tossed a king's ransom at this title in the hope of replicating the enormous box office success of the initial Aquaman. In the process, they've lost the zest that made that original feature work. Though better than fellow 2023 DC Extended Universe titles like The Flash and Shazam! Fury of the Gods, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom just isn't very interesting. The money is on the screen, but it might as well be burning in real-time.

Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa) doesn't much like being the ruler of Atlantis, especially since he has to split time between aquatic royalty duties and taking care of his son on dry land. All of this gets thrown for a loop when the villainous Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) resurfaces and begins a nasty plot involving burning Orichalcum to raise the temperatures of the planet. This climate change scheme involves melting a lot of ice and is connected to ancient trident that's giving Black Manta a lot of power. To stop this foe, Curry will have to team up with his half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) by breaking him out of prison. Now it's a buddy/cop movie where people keep saying Orichalcum (emphasis on those last three letters) a lot.

Why is the music in a blockbuster like Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom so bad? This thing took years to produce, countless souls burning the midnight oil to realize this, and the best anyone could think of for needle drops were "Born to be Wild" and "Spirit in the Sky"? The latter song was already in a DC Extended Universe movie! Please, superhero movies, learn that other songs exist beyond Dad Rock from the 70s and 80s. The score by Rupert Gregson-Williams is also a wash, save for some interesting electronic flourishes in a scene where Arthur and Orm entertain a crime region known as the Sunken Citadel. Otherwise, Gregson-Williams leans on generic music cues, especially when it comes to emphasizing punchlines like Orm's befuddlement at Arthur knocking down a giant statue. A veteran of Happy Madison comedies and animated children's films, the sensibilities of Rupert Gregson-Williams as a composer just never fit with Aquaman as a movie. You need a rousing old-school sensibility in the music, not somebody who treats the most outlandish plot elements with sonic indifference.

Then again, perhaps the score by Rupert Gregson-Williams is just a byproduct of the ambivalence soaking Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom down to its bone. To be fair, there are some enjoyable Saturday Morning Cartoon flourishes in here (like an evil lair located in a volcano or an octopus sidekick) that at least keep the proceedings from being dreary. Some of the practical sets and costumes look neat, but these are anomalous qualities in a film that's too busy to ever commit to one thing to its fullest potential. Aquaman's fatherhood woes, for instance, vanish for nearly 2/3 of the movie. This kid seems so important in the initial half-hour of the Lost Kingdom before getting sidelined quite easily.

Worst of all are the attempts to wring buddy/cop humor out of Arthur and Orm, a dynamic that Jason Momoa is just not equipped for as an actor. The endearing performer has a great grin and a physical presence to die for, but he's just not good at witty banter. His poorly-written punchlines especially land with a thud in Momoa's hands. Worst of all, this dynamic never goes anywhere fun or interesting, it's just another disjointed piece of the wonky puzzle that is Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom. The first Aquaman's willingness to shift genres on a dime felt like an infectious imaginative creative team at work. Here, attempts to be An Inconvenient Truth, The Lord of the Rings, and 48 Hrs just reek of indecision over what an Aquaman follow-up should look like.

I did have to laugh, though, at how the climax of Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom eventually involves Arthur and Orm staring down the ghost of an ancient underwater ruler, an entity brought to life through CGI. Yes folks, the DC Extended Universe, in its final installment, managed to squeeze in one more digital bad guy before the lights went out. In the tradition of Ares, Doomsday, Sabbac, and so many others, this undead foe concludes a pricey blockbuster with CG ripped straight out of The Mummy Returns. Some things never change, including how no amount of money can make your movie entertaining...not even if that movie briefly involves Topo the octopus (who, per Nicole Kidman's Atlanna, is quite good at musical instruments!)

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

The Color Purple Provides a Disjointed but Frequently Engaging Reimagining of a Familiar Tale

The 2023 movie incarnation of The Color Purple is this year’s Doctor Sleep. Both are extensions of 1980s Warner Bros. movies built on conceptually paradoxical creative aspirations. Doctor Sleep director Mike Flanagan aimed to adapt a Stephen King novel, be a sequel to the most famous King adaptation of all time, and address that horror author's criticisms of The Shining. Similarly, director Blitz Bazawule wants to make sure this new Color Purple film restores key elements of Alice Walker’s original book (namely the queer material involving the film's protaganists), properly adapt a stage musical, provides a big Christmastime spectacle movie for Warner Bros., and be a loving tribute to the original 1985 movie. Being pulled in so many contradictory directions ends up resulting in a disjointed feature, but the best moments of The Color Purple do capture why this particular story has endured for so many decades (beyond Warner Bros. executives wanting to capitalize on familiar brand names).

The Color Purple, for those unaware, concerns the life of Celie Harris-Johnson (played as an adult by Fantasia Barrino), who initially navigated the trials of everyday existence with her sister, Nettie (Halle Bailey). The two are separated after Celie is forced to be a wife to Albert "Mister" Johnson (Colman Domingo), an abusive man with evil in his heart. As the years wear on, Celie endures endless strife but is also given glimpses of a wider, more beautiful world beyond the walls of Johnson's house Many of these peeks come from traveling singer Shug Avery (Taraji P. Henson) as well as the outspoken personality of her friend Sofia (Danielle Brooks). Through her bonds with other women, Celie clings to the truth that there is more to life than the torment she's suffered.

Bazawule's approach to filming The Color Purple is to have the performances pitched in a manner evocative of classical mid-20th-century musicals. This influence also extends to the fantasy backdrops of certain musical numbers, such as a lovestruck Celie singing about a bathing Avery on a gigantic record player or those same two characters harmonizing on a glitzy 1920s dance floor. These digressions away from reality harken back to similar sequences in Oklahoma! or Singin' in the Rain, where stylized sets and fantastical backdrops encapsulate the vivid emotions of key characters. Even scenes firmly set in "reality" often feature crowds of extras ready to go to start dancing at a moment's notice, even if all everyone is doing is nailing up advertisements. Considering modern musicals like The Little Mermaid tend to strip away all bombast in favor of "realistic" musical numbers of a guy just singing on a hill, such homages to classic musicals in The Color Purple are more than welcome.

However, the visuals of The Color Purple, unfortunately, betray those old-fashioned tendencies. Bazawule and cinematographer Dan Laustsen have opted to shoot this title with digital cameras and exceedingly bright lighting that just makes everything look too plastic and artificial. Classic mid-20th-century musicals tended to make the spectacular feel like something you could reach out and touch. This new Color Purple oddly contradicts its vintage influences with imagery that feels distractingly modern. There are lovely touches in the camerawork of The Color Purple, including one scene that clearly functions as a homage to one of the visual motifs of Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust. However, the sterile digital look of things does undercut the film's commitment to realizing this story in a manner evocative of vintage musicals.

Marcus Gardley's screenplay, meanwhile, also struggles to satisfactorily balance out classical and modern impulses. Whatever incarnation of The Color Purple you're watching, it's going to be a brutal story that puts its characters through endless hardship. Gardley's script preserves that but it also wants to evoke mid-20th-century musicals in its very arch depictions of human emotions (a quality carried over in Bazawule's direction of the actors). Harrowing displays of anguish are rapidly followed up by people dancing while nailing up signs and vice versa. Some of these intentional shifts in tone do work nicely in communicating ideas like how often joy in Celie's world can vanish in an instant or, in the case of Sofia's storyline, how white people can make everything worse in the blink of an eye. Still, too often Gardley's script seems to be caught between a desire to engage in emotionally raw material and the spectacle impulses innate in musical numbers. The result is a film that sometimes feels disjointed in tone rather than intriguingly nuanced.

The greatest saving grace to this version of The Color Purple, though, is quite simple: the actors are great and when it comes time to put on a show, the movie delivers. The connective tissue getting there is wonky, but performers like Fantasia and Danielle Brooks belt their hearts out whenever their big numbers come up. If there's anything that helps save a messier musical movie, it's simply delivering when it's time for people to harmonize. Plus, the best tunes in The Color Purple really lend a bullhorn to the inner voices of these characters, in the process showcasing the humanity that the world wants to erase from women like Celie. These grand sequences, then, function as an interesting new interpretation of Alice Walker's original work. This 2023 The Color Purple looks towards music to reaffirm the enduring spirit of the downtrodden, which is a sense of perseverance that's always defined this yarn. That's an interesting way to utilize the language of musical cinema to make an old story feel new, even if The Color Purple's execution of its musical impulses (particularly visually) leaves a bit to be desired. But hey, it’s unspeakably tough to make a remake/sequel built on so many contradictory artistic impulses. Just ask Doctor Sleep director Mike Flanagan!

Monday, December 18, 2023

Lisa Laman's Top 25 Movies of 2023


TFW you saw a lot of good movies in 2023.

Well, here we are once again. The end of another year. On a personal level, 2023 was both an exciting year (yay, I finally got to come out as a trans lady!) and an exhausting 12 months (living with depression will do that). Life is complicated. It's rarely one thing for long, for good and for ill. But one constant across the year was movies. There were lots and lots of new features to see this year and it was difficult to whittle a list of the standout movies from this year to just 25. Still, after much work, I've plucked 25 standout titles selected from the 219 (and counting) new releases I saw in 2023. Movies were unspeakably helpful in making this year a lot more bearable and exciting...I hope this list opens up your eyes to certain films and reminds you of the wonders this medium of storytelling can provide.

Onto the list, which, for once, I've arranged in an actual ranking instead of just alphabetical order! Let's start with...

25. Oppenheimer

Christopher Nolan made the apotheosis of a Christopher Nolan movie in 2023 and it was fantastic. A devastating horror film about man’s capacity for evil, Oppenheimer had bold filmmaking to spare. Oh, and Cillian Murphy crushing it in the lead role didn’t hurt either!

24. Cannibal Mukbang

Tired of stale cinematic exploits? Chow down on this horror/comedy that isn’t always easy to watch but boy is it creative. Cannibal Mukbang wears its cinematic influences (ranging from 2000s rom-coms to the heaven scenes in The Exorcist III) on its sleeve, but it's all in service of a twisted bit of fun genre entertainment that will undoubtedly influence future generations of grindhouse cinema homages. It's all held together by a masterful lead performance of April Consalo, who channels the energy of Amy Adams and Jennifer's Body with equal levels of aplomb. Dig into this one folks, it's a feast for twisted souls like yours truly!

23. A Thousand and One 

The walls of the past are depicted with such care by writer/director A.V. Rockwell in A Thousand and One. Her deft touch as a filmmaker is a key reason this story is so richly compelling. Teyana Taylor’s unforgettable lead performance doesn’t hurt either.

22. Godland

The cinematography of Godland alone earns it a place on this list. A plethora of breathtakingly composed images set against the relentlessly undaunted landscapes of Iceland define this feature’s visual style. It’s a glorious motion picture to witness, especially since all those frames are in service of a story vividly chronicling the folly of man’s desire for control. 

21. Fallen Leaves

Some of the movies on this list stood out in the realm of 2023 cinema by being gargantuan cinematic accomplishments. Others, like Fallen Leaves, were so great because they were so streamlined, so relaxed. Sometimes, all you want out of a movie is to follow a quiet romance and two people navigating working-class woes. Small joys of everyday existence often provide such essential serotonin in reality...movies like Fallen Leaves recognize and build on this truth beautifully. 

20. Joyland

Whether we realize it or not, we're all confined by restrictive societal expectations. Director Saim Sadiq movingly captures how widespread those suffocating gender, economic, familial, and other expectations can be within Joyland, a terrifically rendered feature that makes great use of a claustrophobic aspect ratio and a terrific ensemble cast. Alina Khan especially stuns in a performance rich with personality and authority, she grabs your attention so effortlessly whenever she comes on-screen.

19. The Zone of Interest

There's not much to say about The Zone of Interest, but not because the film is lacking in substance or virtues worth clamoring about. It's just that writer/director Jonathan Glazer's harrowing depiction of normalized complicity in genocide really is just one of those movies that needs to be seen to be truly understood. One can talk about the power of its measured camerawork or its avant-garde filmmaking accentuations, but the strikingly chilling images making up The Zone of Interest say so much more than any descriptions ever could.

18. Godzilla Minus One

From the moment Godzilla just shows up out of nowhere in the prologue of Godzilla Minus One and begins tearing up everything in sight, it's clear this movie is going to deliver the goods. Godzilla is thoroughly terrifying in this sequence, a relentless creature of incalculable might. Meanwhile, the human drama surrounding this iconic beast in this scene is actually interesting!! These qualities carry over into the rest of the motion picture, which turns into a story about working-class souls recovering a passion to live in the face of immense horrors. One of the longest-running franchises in history felt brand new with Godzilla Minus One.

17. Nimona

N.D. Stevenson's graphic novel Nimona came to life this year in a vibrant computer-animated feature of the same name that touched the soul by embracing such a fascinating complicated tone. Veering between anarchic fun and intimate explorations of what it's like to exist as a societal outcast, Nimona captured how queer existence can go from laughs to tears in a matter of seconds. It also looked sharp as a tack in its imaginative animation and contained no shortage of memorable voice-over performances. A movie deemed unsuitable for release by Disney turned into one of the most heartfelt cinematic accomplishments of 2023.

16. Ear for Eye 

There are images, editing choices, and stirring pieces of writing from Ear for Eye that will never leave my brain. Writer/director debbie tucker green adapted her own play of the same name for this feature, but anyone expecting a straightforward recording of a stage show will be astonished by green's ingenuitive filmmaking. Impressionistic backgrounds, sharp cuts between shots, and vividly penned testimonies from the characters bend the mold of what a "conventional" film looks like. A blend of the claustrophobic scope of a play with the intimate visuals only a film can provide, Ear for Eye was nothing short of a stunning accomplishment.

15. Monica 

I can't stop thinking about Trace Lysette's performance in Monica...maybe I never will. The way she communicates years of internalized thoughts with her eyes. Her delicate interactions with Patricia Clarkson speak volumes about the fractured dynamic between their characters. Lysette's gift for playing unbridled joy during a scene where she's portraying a lady just getting ready for a fun night out. Trace Lysette's work on-screen is a is the rest of Monica.

14. Anatomy of a Fall

It's always a treat to watch a movie that quietly takes a sledgehammer to audience expectations of how a certain genre "should" play out. So it is with Anatomy of a Fall, which constantly zigs when you expect it to adhere to the norms of a typical courtroom drama. Its bold deviations from the likes of A Time to Kill (especially in its quiet, haunting ending) encapsulate a sense of wild creativity that made Anatomy of a Fall one of the year's most gripping titles.

13. All of Us Strangers

Even if you've heard ad nauseum about how All of Us Strangers is going to make you cry, you're not prepared for just how emotional this feature is. Quiet longing permeates every frame of the proceedings and Andrew Scott's lead performance just aches with unresolved emotional angst. The allure of the past defines writer/director Andrew Haigh's work here, with this man especially excelling in realizing such quiet yet deeply moving interactions between the lead character and his dead parents. All of Us Strangers will leave you sobbing, no question, but it will also leave you astonished at the gifts of artists like Haigh and Scott.

12. Showing Up

Kelly Reichardt movies are such wonderful quiet gems and Showing Up is no exception. In the hands of a master filmmaker like her, a wounded pigeon and an impending art exhibition are far more absorbing than the biggest stakes of this year’s largest blockbusters. It’s also a riot packed with terrific performances, including yet another outstanding turn from Michelle Williams in a Reichardt movie. The quiet triumphs of Showing Up speak louder than words! 

11. Asteroid City

Wes Anderson went to the desert with Asteroid City for one of his most challenging and boldest works yet. Shifting between two narratives and a slew of different perspectives across an expansive ensemble cast could’ve resulted in a disjointed mess. Instead, Asteroid City was one of Anderson’s best explorations yet of searching for meaning that can never be obtained. Plus, it’s jam-packed with memorable characters and performances, right down to a quirky alien that doesn’t need to say a word to capture your heart. Achingly vulnerable and so darn funny, Asteroid City was quintessential Wes Anderson and all the better for it!

10. The Battle

Writer/director Vera Egito plops viewers right into the middle of an October 1968 skirmish between a Left-Wing Student movement and fascists in the transfixing motion picture The Battle. Divided up into 21 chunks, all captured in lengthy single-takes, Egito's camera never blinks away from these lives that the Brazillian government is trying to erase. This saga is told with such magnificent camerawork that straddles that tricky line between being impressive as a filmmaking technique without distracting from the characters. Instead, the unwavering eye capturing The Battle just makes the proceedings so intense that you won't be able to exhale until long after the credits finish rolling.

9. May/December

Director Todd Haynes and screenwriter Samy Burch really keep audiences on their toes in May December. Scenes like Charles Melton’s character smoking weed for the first time Dan alternate between humorous to devastatingly sad in the blink of an eye, with neither emotion getting undercut by this complicated tone. On the contrary, May December’s nuanced atmosphere just made it all the more distinctive and offered even more juicy material for its two leading ladies to sink their teeth into. Was there any other movie this year that could shatter your heart and then make your sides hurt laughing at the sight of a High School boy trying to impress Natalie Portman by touching the ceiling?

8. The Teachers’ Lounge

One of my favorite things about movies is how they can get you invested in an environment, sport, occupation, or anything else you may have never given much thought to before. In the case of The Teachers' Lounge, a middle school becomes the perfect backdrop for a  tale of betrayal and the limits of being a "good apple" in a corrupt system. The claustrophobic rooms and hallways of this center for education become appropriately suffocating in this story while the performances by the main cast (especially leading lady Leonie Benesch in one of the year's best turns) are all the more compelling in such intimate confines. I never gave much thought to the backdrops of The Teachers' Lounge before this movie started...but now I'll never forget them.

7. Killers of the Flower Moon

It's easy to take for granted just how good Killers of the Flower Moon is. Of course, a new Martin Scorsese movie would be something special. Yet, much like Silence, Flower Moon is a towering epic that reaffirms how Scorsese hasn't lost his touch as a filmmaker after decades of being in the game. He's still capable of producing images that hit you right in the heart and make you question the world you inhabit. Oh, and Lily Gladstone...even with the deluge of praise she's received, we still haven't appreciated her richly detailed work here enough.

6. Barbie

How insane it is that we finally got a live-action Barbie movie and it was great? What could've been a two-hour commercial instead was another terrific Greta Gerwig directorial effort that also felt like it was crafted in a lab to make me happy. A gorgeous-looking feature that combines absurdist humor with homages to filmmakers like Jacques Tati and contemplations of how we figure out who we actually are. Barbie was a joy to watch, a melting pot of tones and bold creative swings that perfectly matched how many different meanings Barbie dolls have taken on over the years. Needless to say, this was one movie that was more than Kenough.

5. Bottoms

Bottoms accomplished a lot of feats that many modern comedy movies can't even begin to nail, including delivering cinematography that felt like it belonged on the big screen. Most importantly, though, it delivered the kind of hysterical laughs and sharp writing that you just want to quote to your friends endlessly. Writer/director Emma Seligman channeled cinema's dense past of sex comedies in crafting Bottoms and ended up creating something way funnier than any of its thematic predecessors. Of course, in the defense of those earlier films, how could they possibly compete with Bottoms given that none of them were anchored by actors as gifted as Rachel Sennott and Ayo Edebiri? Two outstanding actors fully committing to relentless horny that's how you make a new comedy movie classic!

4. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

They did it, somehow. Miles Morales got another outstanding adventure after Into the Spider-Verse with Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. The animation was bolder than ever, but what really clicked with this installment was how much humanity coursed through every vein of this feature. Voyages across a variety of multiverses were always in service of the intimate struggles of Morales and Gwen Stacy, ditto a barrage of instantly iconic action sequences. Oh, and this title also gave the world Peter Parked-car. This really was a miracle movie.

3. Trenque Lauquan

A woman has gone missing at the start of Trenque Lauquan. Why? Was she unhappy? Did she get mad at her job? This initial mystery soon gives way to a sweeping four-hour-long saga that reveals that Trenque Lauquan isn't a straightforward mystery movie so much as a meditation on how women can possibly establish their own personalities detached from society's judgemental gaze. Director Laura Citarella demonstrates such impressive control in handling this epic yarn, which earns every minute of its expansive runtime. Nothing is quite as it seems within Trenque Lauquan and 2023 cinema was all the better for those unexpected qualities.

2. Kokomo City

What does it look like to be a trans woman in cinema? The D. Smith documentary Kokomo City offers countless depictions of trans existence through its interviews with a slew of Black trans women sex workers. The scope of this project solidifies that there are endless ways to be a trans person, contrary to the norms of on-screen depictions of trans lives throughout the history of cinema. Even beyond the way it subverts toxic standards in movies, though, Kokomo City is still a tremendous accomplishment in filmmaking. Its monochromatic color palette and dream-like digressions make it a stunning visual exercise while the various interviews are rife with unforgettable anecdotes that range from emotionally raw to downright hysterical. There's no shortage of amazing people in the trans community. How fitting then, that, Kokomo City would also be jam-packed with amazing qualities.

1. Past Lives 

At the end of the excellent 2023 book Burn it Down: Power, Complicity, and a Call for Change in Hollywood, author Maureen Ryan references Samwise Gangee's "there some good in this world, Mr. Frodo" speech from The Two Towers as an example of "the magic trick" the best movies pull off. "Why does it move?" she ponders, "I could list the reasons, but they wouldn't fully explain it." Sometimes, Ryan posits, art produces emotions in viewers that can't be properly communicated in words. It just is magical, moving, and wonderful. That's how I feel about Past Lives. I've written so much about this feature since its June 2023 debut, yet I haven't scratched the surface of its joy nor have I come close to fully capturing what a meaningful gem writer/director Celine Song crafted here. No rambling run-on sentences I could conjure up can fully communicate why it's such a joy to see Greta Lee's character swinging her arms with excitement on a New York street as she prepares for a Skype session with a childhood friend. Nor could anything I say capture how utterly devastating that quick cut from the present to the past is in the final scene of Past Lives. This movie endlessly delivers the kinds of emotions, filmmaking, performances, and so much else that defies description. Something as good as Past Lives is, as Maureen Ryan put it, magic.