Harlan Jacobson Considers the Best of 2023
January 7, 2024
By Harlan Jacobson
Audiences have trickled back this year except for the torrent of those lined up to see big deal event films, when the mashup of Barbenheimer dominated the mediascape. Christopher Nolan’s OPPENHEIMER with Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer pulled back the cinema curtain on the Bomb of All Bombs
It was actually thrilling to see NY indie filmmaker Greta Gerwig hijack the world with BARBIE using sometime bad girl Margot Robbie as the Pink Power Bombshell.
Both films are on my list in 2023. They are vastly different but, in their way, similar and what the industry needed this year—big auteurist visions filmed without compromise, both successful creations of a place and time, where one is a light satire with a feminist intent, and the other a dark mea culpa on the ascendancy of American global power and the collapse of moral restraints.
Since this is also show business, the two films fell all over each other and us this summer, ultimately pointing the way toward the event future of theatrical filmmaking. If for no other reason, they worked, they brought people back into theatres worldwide. It certainly wasn’t just for their mega budgets—a lot of films burn money and die. Was it the undercurrent of what the films said about history, men, or women? Or the desire to be part of the pop cultural conversation? Or just sit in a theatre with other people and go for a ride? Audiences certainly came out for Taylor Swift and these two big gorilla films that sent superhero films packing.
Best of the Best:
POOR THINGS by Yorgos Lanthimos, is a Victorian feminist Frankenstein tale, with Emma Stone lumbering her way across the sexual revolution to a woman in full, dealing with the trinity of masculinity: The father, Willem Dafoe, her mad scientist creator who made her a combination of her dead mother’s body and her infantile brain maturing into adulthood before our eyes, and the alpha and beta of her later adult suitors, Mark Ruffalo and Ramy Youssef, vying for her affections in a world that looks like the inside of a lava lamp. A startling but complete vision, and never less than engaging. Winner of the Golden Lion in Venice, it played the New York Film Fest before opening in theaters.
AMERICAN FICTION Cancelled at his teaching job in LA for teaching the wrong short story, Jeffrey Wright revives his sinking career as a novelist by fabricating an identity as a convict author on the lam with a story to tell. Back in his childhood home outside Boston he’s got unfinished family and personal business—and he just doesn’t cotton to the notion that Bogus Black is the only way to sell a Black voice. Cord Jefferson’s debut feature isn’t afraid to turn the point of view around on the audience while maintain a sense of fun. See it on Amazon now.
MAESTRO is at least as much about the toll Lenny Bernstein’s rise to the top of the NY and world classic music pyramid as the toll it took on his wife, Felicia, played by Carey Mulligan, who opposite Cooper’s roman candle, walks a fine cool line in a film that wonderfully seduces us with Matthew Libatique’s black and white cinematography of their young years, crescendos in the color of their success but doesn’t climax so much as comes sweetly to a rest.
Critics nitpick about a line that landed wrong about the Café Carlyle (“Nothing fancy”) as too blasé, debate the presence or absence of heart, carp that it was too nosy here, too gay there, and no Steven Sondheim anywhere. But in 2023 Maestro has stayed with me as an ambitious, gorgeous achievement.
PERFECT DAYS is another first-rate film by German director Wim Wenders (Wings Over Berlin, Paris Texas) with the great Koji Yakusho – a favorite going all the way back to Shall We Dance in 1996. Yakusho won best actor in Cannes for his portrait of a man who inexplicably has stepped down from great wealth to clean public toilets in Tokyo. True, one doesn’t always get, or maybe even want, to take a one-of-a-kind tour of Tokyo public pissoirs. Which happen to vary in design enough to trigger appreciation of the anonymous civil service managers who had an eye for architecture. Perfect Days is a quietly wonderful film about inner peace and the outer rat race, and Wenders has always been able to catch holy light.
LE PASSION DE DODIN BOUFFANT (THE TASTE OF THINGS)
A magnificent two French chefs love story, which is perfectly comfortable taking two and a quarter hours to cook and tread elegantly on the question of gender parity. It’s a treat watching chef Juliette Binoche as the doomed Eugénie, cooking in master chef Dodin’s (Benoit Magimel) 19th Century manor estate, knowing that Binoche and the younger Magimel tried marriage for five years a quarter century ago and failed. You want to believe that actors who are paid to access the emotions the rest of us must day in and day out repress, really do fully access them. And here they do, carefully, fully, in front of Jonathan Ricquebourg’s intimate camera. You can see Binoche allowing herself to forgive Magimel for having not been a grown up when they were together. (He wasn’t.) Of course, Ricquebourg also finds the Baked Alaska with equal weight.
This is a story of restraint and respect between now mature equals in service to a shared passion for an art that started with Brillat Savarin and matured for 100 years in France before the rest of the world began to understand it. The story is based on the 1924 book by Marcel Rouff, La vie et la passion de Dodin Bouffant, gourmet, and directed by Tran Anh Hung, who returned to Cannes (The Scent of Green Papaya, 1994 Camera D’Or for best first film) last May and won best director. There’s even an anti-monarchist, pro-Socialist subtext, if you can permit the artistic license of seeing it translated into haute cuisine terms. No need to go on here about the gastronome phenomenon in films—there are reasons for it happening over the past 30 years. It is a great privilege to see a film like this in a theatre, or at home in one’s underwear, but after seeing it on the big screen of the Salle Debussy in Cannes, c’est suffit, I can die happy. It gave me pleasure to think that all the animals I saw in this film were unquestionably harmed by it. I saw no disavowal in the end credits to think otherwise. And the people were smokin’ hot.
Alexander Payne, who has made his career out of character films of semi-loveable weasels and grouches, breathes life into a New England boarding school (modeled on Exeter?) in his THE HOLDOVERS. With Paul Giamatti as Mr. Hunham, every school’s stickler Latin teacher left in charge a passel of kids with nowhere to go over Christmas break circa 1971. It’s the good version of the bad private school film, tracing its lineage back to Goodbye Mr. Chips The story shakes out about one particular kid, Angus Tully, a gangly, sharp-featured Scotch Presbyterian sort played by Dominic Sessa (a prep school kid making his feature film debut) as a kid from lousy money who has nowhere to go over the holidays and gets stuck at Barton Prep with Mr. Hunham. Angus could use a break. Teach thinks the two vacation weeks in school is a good time to cram in some extra Catullus. Thank the goddess of black women for the unlikely third holdover, Da’Vine Joy Randolph as head cook Mary Lamb, who might get an Oscar nomination before she’ll get a James Beard Award. It may be a little too pat, but it’s also completely plausible that Mary Lamb pointedly is the character with lived experience in the real world, i.e. skin in the game, which the story by David Hemingson makes clear in a side loop. Her son went to Barton Prep and then shipped off to Vietnam. Now, in 1971, he’s a portrait on Barton Prep’s In Memoriam wall.
Payne accurately summons the private school milieu – the campus (exteriors at Groton, interiors at Fairhaven High in Massachusetts), the headmaster with scotch at the ready, the kids ranging from undercooked to dopey, the helicopter (literally) parents arriving in high dudgeon to mask their crimes of omission – wonderfully well. Most Americans didn’t go to high schools like Barton Prep, which might make it hard to connect to audiences. But there’s no shortage of loneliness in the land and always room for the grand gesture. All in all, I warmed to it.
A small aside here:
As school microcosm films go, The Holdovers is less ambitious than is the on the warpath Emerald Fennell (Promising Young Woman) in Saltburn, but in the end more satisfying – or maybe that should be more soothing – in entering the nasty world of class and gate keeping institutions than Fennell. Posh herself, in Saltburn Fennell has directed the snot version of where the rotting class gets its start, at Oxford, and rehearses its rituals. Barry Keoghan (Banshees of Inisherin) is a weaselly stalker nerd with a plan, Jacob Elordi does aristocratic flirt not all that differently than he did Elvis as Hick Lord in Priscilla, softness masking steel, save for the accent. The bathtub has a great sex scene, maybe the best pervy version of “I’ll drink your bathwater” ever, way upstaging the missed attempt at crazy by Carey Mulligan (in her year of sacrificial lamb parts) as Poor Dear Pamela. And collateral damage here are the arrivals on cue of the endearing avatars of useless nobility, the Lords of the manor, Rosamund Pike and Richard E. Grant, dotty and fusty. It’s hammer hit nail time when in Fennell’s script, the posh folk don’t let the son’s body in the garden just outside the window interfere with the unfailingly prompt dinner time. But every so often a filmmaker must declare how far her journey has been.
Unfortunately, while Fennell gives Keoghan a great nude exit stage right at the film’s end, the stalker narrative cheats its way home, which is a rotten thing for a film set at Oxford to do. A class stalker film should not hold its cards up its sleeve till the end montage’s coherent reveal. Bloody hell.]
While we were all locked in our bedrooms in the winter of ‘21, so was Keith Gill, aka Roaring Kitty, a small potatoes stock picker who from his suburban Boston basement Barcalounger sent out a Buy recommendation for GameStop, the company that was to videogames what Blockbuster was to video rentals -- given up as roadkill by Wall Street. I, Tonya director Craig Gillespie’s Dumb Money is a David v. Goliath business tale about how Gill, Roaring Kitty, ignited a monumental, short squeeze by the working-class wee people in their 20s around the country, who wrung the juice out of all those smarty pants business school hedge fund guys everyone loves to hate, waiting for a payday in the Gamestop bankruptcy that never came
Paul Dano perfectly underplays Gill as a white potato face in a red pirate bandana. Lauren S. Blum and Rebecca Angelo’s script rocks the working-class retribution theme with sharp, near-skit comedy worthy of early SNL, turning Pete Davidson loose as Gill’s slacker brother, Kevin, on everything nobody holds dear. With America Ferrera as Jenny Gill, the worried but steady wife, and Vincent Donofrio and Seth Rogan as the baddie hedge fund guys. There’s a subcurrent of anti-elitist MAGA glee in the film, and a whiff of who is the Smart Money, but we always root for the little guys in stories ripped from just yesterday’s headlines. The film seduces us into a dubious alliance, but then we live in complex times. Recommendation: Buy. Or at least, I bought it all.
ZONE OF INTEREST
Jonathan Glazer’s fourth film had its premiere in Cannes on the heels of the death of British author Martin Amis, on whose 2014 novel the screenplay is based. The story lulls one into Hannah Arendt’s Banality of Evil territory and the everyday domestic stresses of the Nazi commandant of Auschwitz and his wife and children living in a pleasant manor house with gardens and a pool. Cool beans--if you ignore the main tower of Auschwitz just over the garden wall, the chimneys billowing smoke, the ashes floating down river, and the low hum of the 24-hour ovens in the background. Which they do. And we don’t.
For serious fun:
In Roger Ross Williams’ Cassandro, Gael Garcia Bernal plays a luchador exotico, a gay wrestler dressed en femme in the ring and crossing back and forth between his home in El Paso, where he takes care of his mother, to taunt the macho rabble in Juarez, where anything goes in the low-rent pro wrestling ring except maybe offending community norms of macho. Until Cassandro does it and shoots to the top of the circuit. Backstage Mexican wrestling has a little of Fellini about it, but Bernal and director Williams have also taken the film’s great heart from Pedro Almodovar in feeling the pulse of where we are now.
Air The Boston boys, Affleck and Damon, team up to direct and star in the story of how Nike signed Michael Jordan by creating the Air Jordan shoe and pursuing his mother, Viola Davis, with something like the truth. You know all this, but it’s still a great land, America.
RUSTIN is George C. Wolfe’s retelling of Bayard Rustin and the masterminding of the 1963 March on Washington. It’s built around exposing the careful, measured, Black alliance’s reluctance to go full Gandhi on the Kennedy Administration and all of America. We take it for granted as history, but Rustin is the backstory of the nervous uncertainty that preceded the watershed moment when Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, wherein the whole world saw the long arc of history start to bend. We are at the table where it’s all fought out among the main players as they weigh the risks of pressure. The film makes of Rustin a man too complex for the times he was ahead of: a gay man, an invisible operative and theorist who could conceive, organize, and will into being the March, but like Moses stayed back on the way to the promised land. Colman Domingo’s Rustin is ironic, visionary, and tragic all in the same frame. Good support from Glynn Turman as A. Philip Randolph, Chris Rock as Roy Wilkins, Jeffrey Wright as Adam Clayton Powell, and Ami Ameen as Martin Luther King, among others. In a strong year for actors, it sure feels like Domingo’s year.
When Nick Cage is good — which ain’t always – he’s very good. Unlike patron saint Jack Nicholson, whose characters start off with a bomb thrower’s attitude but make a stab in the first reel of holding it together, Cage’s characters always start in the basement rec room, and their hearts aren’t really into faking it. Give him credit in Dream Scenario, his Paul Mathews protests long and loud that he truly does not want to be the movie star in everyone’s sleep pattern. Having arrived at 60, Cage is in fine fettle playing Crazy Everymen Kings. This Kris Borgli project (writer-director) reverses the normal direction of psychosis — a man’s dreams are invaded by demons urging him to A) Save world, or B) End world — when as your basically disgruntled suburban jerk, Cage starts showing up in everyone else’s dreams. In its odd way, Dream Scenario is a gloss on Tik Tok culture involuntarily come to aging Gen-Xers. Smile for the screen inside everyone’s unconscious! He no lika dat.
Not sure Dream Scenario is one of the best films of the year on the merits of filmmaking, but definitely a curveball worth looking at. Borgli is working towards tenure in the Charlie Kaufman LSD Film School with an internal mindscape story. And it works. Go figure.
And two festival films I hope some fearless outfit will bring you soon:
THE KING OF ALGIERS. While all Cannes oohed and aahed over Benoit Magimel as a lovelorn chef (opposite ex-wife Juliette Binoche) in The Passion of Dodin Bouffant in the Competition, in Omar La Fraise (Omar the Strawberry), a completely minor film in a sidebar, Magimel and Reda Kateb are a couple of bandit buddies on the lam in Algiers. First film by Elias
Belkeddar (and one hopes a calling card effort that gets him more funding), The King of Algiers doesn’t reinvent the criminal buddy film, but it sure is twisty, turny fun. No US film company picked it up. I loved it.
Polish veteran director Agnieszka Holland’s The Green Border plants itself in a forest where Belarus meets her native Poland and follows a small cast of disparate people from Afghanistan, Muslim North Africa, and Syria back and forth over, under and through the coils of razor wire that seem brighter, fresher, more silvery than the days when Poland signed on to Hitler’s Final Solution.
The film began at the Venice Film Festival, which preceded both the Toronto and NY Film Festivals, and where it was thought to be a shoo-in as winner of the Golden Lion but instead finished as a runner up in the competition to Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things. For all but the last few moments of its characters’ journey, where we pick them up as they land from their failed states at the airport in Minsk and are assured they will cross over into free Europe at the welcoming Polish border and then go on to Sweden, or wherever they have dreamed they could spread out the contents of their lives condensed into a lone suitcase and breathe free air, Green Border breaks their bodies and their hearts and the audience’s as well. It finally settles for a moment on four African and two alabaster Polish teens finding their kid rhythm, the beat that implies freedom. The film perfectly thinks, moves, dares, and demands more than empathy but action of its audience at The Grapes of Wrath level.
The List: Naming Names
Best of ‘23:
Zone of Interest
Green Border (festival release)
Omar La Fraise (The King of Algiers) (festival release)
Le Passion de Dodin Bouffant (The Taste of Things)
Stamped From the Beginning
Little Richard: I Am Everything
Joan Baez: I Am Noise
The Pigeon Tunnel