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PAST LIVES on Variety's top 10 films of the year

Dec 26, 2023
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The best movies of 2023


Looking back, 2023 was a year of wild swings. And two big strikes (if you’ll forgive the pun) — first the Writers Guild and then the Screen Actors Guild took the studios and streamers to task, forcing production to a halt. Yet whatever was going on behind the scenes, Hollywood had a grand-slam year, asserting its audacious cultural relevance with the historic double-header that was “Barbenheimer.”


Variety’s two chief film critics agree that Christopher Nolan’s portrait of the man behind the Manhattan Project is one for the ages — a Lawrence of Arabia-level feat about a turning point in human history, as seen through the haunted blue eyes of one of our finest actors. At the same time, some of the year’s best movies flew under the radar. Consider this a guide to the top cinematic achievements, large and small, whether shot on Imax cameras or hand-drawn by an artisanal French couple. The film industry is constantly in transition, but one thing doesn’t change: the power of a well-told story to transport us. From a visionary new take on Frankenstein to the dazzling old-school Ferrari, what follows are some of the best vehicles your imagination could hope for. (Click here to jump to Owen Gleiberman’s list.)




Peter Debruge’s Top 10



1. Poor Things





And God created woman. Playing God in this equation, Willem Dafoe suggests a cross between Dr. Frankenstein and the mad scientist’s monster, whose crudely stitched facial scars belie a childhood of cruel experimentation. Decades later, the benign Godwin Baxter continues his father’s research, reanimating a fully grown woman with the brain of an infant, whom he christens Bella (a fearless and very funny Emma Stone). This tragicomic premise sets up a boldly expressionistic provocation from absurdist social critic Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite), who assembles a demented, Buñuelian satire of gender roles that’s part Pygmalion, part Lolita, and otherwise totally distinct from anything else on the scene. While Barbie poked fun at the patriarchy, born-again Bella upends it.



2. Oppenheimer



Photo : ©Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection  



I admit to being underwhelmed by Oppenheimer on first viewing. (Hard to imagine, considering the scale, but it didn’t help that the Imax print broke at the film’s press screening, forcing the theater to switch over to a lower-res backup projector — a twist that must have horrified control freak Christopher Nolan.) Grand as anything David Lean ever directed, this massive, awe-powered biopic had been marketed as the making of the atomic bomb, the detonation of which occurs at the two-hour mark, with a third of the movie still to go. Turns out, that last hour holds the (moral) key to why Nolan had to tell this story. After racing to beat the Germans, Manhattan Project super-brain J. Robert Oppenheimer (a never-better Cillian Murphy) faces the terrifying ramifications of what he’s wrought: We now live in a world of nuclear weapons, whose secrets inevitably fell into dangerous hands. I should have known that Oppenheimer would demand multiple viewings, as that was true of Memento, Inception and nearly all Nolan’s films. My advice to you: See it as big as possible as many times as it takes.



3. Chicken for Linda!



Photo : Courtesy of GKIDS  



The best film at this year’s Cannes (a stellar edition that launched no fewer than four of the entries on this list) debuted quietly in the festival’s indie-centric sidebar, ACID, without pomp or the obligatory standing ovation that official selection screenings get. Three weeks later, it took the top prize at Annecy, the world’s leading animation festival. It’s uncanny, but the Crayola-colorful hand-drawn feature from directing duo Chiara Malta and Sébastien Laudenbach (The Girl Without Hands) captures the complicated relationship between a single mother and her 8-year-old child better than any live-action movie. The setup is simple: Linda can’t remember her late father, so she asks Mom to cook his signature chicken dish, but the main ingredient proves unusually difficult to come by. From its opening lullaby through to the loony watermelon-fight finale, this observant toon entertains the kids, while giving exasperated parents permission to be imperfect.



4. Past Lives



Photo : Courtesy of A24  



Ten years into A24’s existence, audiences have learned what to expect from the indie studio’s slate, as the company’s films tend to fall into two categories. There are flashy, style-forward movies, like Spring Breakers and Uncut Gems, and there are subtler, piercingly personal entries (often from voices denied the opportunity to tell their stories a decade earlier) like Moonlight and Minari. Celine Song’s poetic debut falls into the latter category, offering a poignant counterpoint to A24’s busy, Oscar-winning Everything Everywhere All at Once, while suggesting a low-key alternative to that movie’s multiverse premise: What if, instead of there being infinite parallel realities, old souls found one another again and again over the centuries? Here, Nora (Greta Lee), a New York-based playwright born in Korea, reconnects with her childhood sweetheart (Teo Yoo), confronting what her life might have been.



5. The Monk and the Gun



Photo : Toronto International Film Festival  



If you weren’t lucky enough to catch Bhutan’s official Oscar submission on the festival circuit this fall, keep an eye open for this unpredictable and enlightening comedy in early 2024. Previously nominated for Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom, director Pawo Choyning Dorji rewinds the clock a few years, as Bhutan was preparing for its first democratic election — a concept none of the locals seem to grasp, or want, even as they sip Coca-Cola and watch Bond movies on TV. Dorji, who studied in the States, invites Western viewers to observe his idyllic kingdom, contrasting modern materialism with traditional Buddhist values via the film’s lone American character, a rare-gun collector who travels halfway around the world to retrieve a rare Civil War rifle. There’s just one problem: The weapon currently belongs to a pacifist monk.



6. Anatomy of a Fall



Photo : Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival  



For the U.S. release of director Justine Triet’s Cannes-winning drama, Neon added an exasperating “didshedoit.com” slate to the beginning, focusing audiences’ attention on the wrong aspect of this unconventional courtroom drama. It’s only natural to wonder: A frustrated writer plunges to his death from the upper floor of his mountain chalet, making his wife (Sandra Hüller) the only suspect. As with The Staircase, however, what gripped me about the ensuing investigation was how this tragedy forces the most intimate aspects of the couple’s marriage into the light, effectively putting their relationship on trial. What matters more than the verdict (or the “you be the judge” court of public opinion) is whatever their young son decides, since the trial affords the grieving boy a chance to make sense of what happened.



7. Origin



Photo : Courtesy of Neon  



Not since Roots has an American drama taken such an ambitious, all-encompassing approach to the stain of slavery. Origin is not about ancestry, but the seeds of a system that dehumanizes one group so that others may dominate them — a dynamic for which Pulitzer-winning author Isabel Wilkerson found analogs in Nazi Germany and the Indian caste system. If “Origin” sounds like a lecture (of the sort the Florida school system seems determined to avoid), think again. Rather than making another documentary, à la remarkable 13th, director Ava DuVernay personalizes Wilkerson’s research, dramatizing how a woman wounded by national tragedy (the murder of Trayvon Martin) and personal setbacks (casual racism, the loss of loved ones) connected disparate ideas to reframe the country’s most difficult conversation.



8. May December



Photo : Netflix  



At a moment when audiences can’t seem to get enough of true-crime movies on Netflix (where this meta-melodrama is now streaming), Todd Haynes takes a sly look at the imperfect prism through which such stories are presented to the public. Natalie Portman plays a professional actor who swoops into the life of an ex-con (Julianne Moore, channeling tabloid subject Mary Kay Letourneau) years after she went to prison for initiating a sexual relationship with her underage baby daddy (Charles Melton). Determined to absorb all she can from the “real” woman, Portman’s vampire-like star winds up crossing the lines in highly inappropriate ways. Zoom out, and it’s all performance — since Moore’s acting, too — in a mirror room where empathy and exploitation tend to blur.



9. The Holdovers



Photo : Courtesy of Focus Features  



Alexander Payne is back on form, following 2017’s disappointing Downsizing, with the kind of intelligent character study that’s earned him comparisons to the great 1970s filmmakers before. The Holdovers is set early that decade and features a weathered-celluloid filter designed to look like it was also shot back then, though much of the comedy arises from the tough-love way a boarding school Scrooge deals with his students over Christmas break — conduct that would never fly today. Less a lost relic than a shrewdly contemporary commentary on how the way we expect people to treat one another has changed, the project reunites Payne with Paul Giamatti, uncorking more of that special Sideways mojo.



10. The Taste of Things



Photo : Courtesy of IFC Films  



It’s easy to be seduced by the voluptuous way director Tran Anh Hung films the preparation of a series of gourmet French meals, his camera floating about a country kitchen as sunlight and birdsong filter through the open windows. The film, like its characters, takes the time to appreciate life’s pleasures. And yet, like Babette’s Feast before it, Taste is more than mere food porn. The subtext — and true subject — of this rich dish turns out to be the emotional connection simmering between chef Dodin Bouffant (Benoît Magimel, as the fictional late-19th-century “Napoleon of culinary arts”) and his cook (Juliette Binoche), who’ve shared a decades-long professional passion. The two actors have history, too, adding unspoken depth to this moving workplace romance, whose tender last scene says it all.



10 more for good measure: Afire, Asteroid City, The Color Purple, Dream Scenario, Eight Mountains​, Eileen, Memory, Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, Perfect Days, Reality​.



Owen Gleiberman's Top 10


1. Oppenheimer



Photo : ©Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection 



Christopher Nolan’s mesmerizing drama became a testament to the promise that serious movies for adults can, and will, have a future in movie theaters. In the wake of its success, however, many have asked: How is it that a densely packed three-hour movie about the father of the atomic bomb became a big-ticket blockbuster on the level of films featuring superheroes, avatars, and Tom Cruise? The answer lies in Nolan’s wizardry as a storyteller. He stages Oppenheimer as a coruscating light show of history, dazzling in every detail. It’s a film that draws you in with centrifugal force, even at it both celebrates and interrogates the fabled figure of J. Robert Oppenheimer, played by Cillian Murphy as a charismatic mandarin whose scientific genius is matched by his self-justifying insolence. If you think the movie falls off in its last third, you haven’t watched it closely enough. Long after the bomb has been dropped, Nolan uses both the extended 1954 security hearing and the amazing performance of Robert Downey Jr. to place Oppenheimer in the crosshairs of judgment, revealing that his delusions were nearly as large as his heroism.



2. Anatomy of a Fall



Photo : Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival  



For a while, Justine Triet’s brilliant drama is built around a mystery of tantalizing darkness. Samuel (Samuel Theis), a teacher and writer, has fallen to his death from the upper level of his sprawling chalet home in the French Alps. Was he killed by his wife, Sandra (Sandra Hüller), a more successful author than he is, and a woman who’s been given ample motivation to resent and even hate him? Or did he commit suicide? Triet hard-wires the tension, gripping us in every moment, and some viewers have come away feeling that the film’s central question — did she or didn’t she? — is never answered. In fact, it’s answered midway through (just look closely at the moment when the police drop a dummy from the top of the house). Yet the tension remains, as Triet stages an explosive courtroom drama that turns into Scenes from a Marriage as staged by a 21st-century Hitchcock. Anatomy of a Fall tells the story of this marriage — but more to the point it tells a story of women and men in our time, when the shifting power dynamics have increased women’s equality, leaving certain men feeling as if that assertion of justice were somehow a fatal assault.



3. Ferrari



Photo : Lorenzo Sisti  



Michael Mann brings off a masterful piece of supple ’70s storytelling in this thrilling, humane, high-stakes biographical drama about three months in the life of Enzo Ferrari (Adam Driver), the legendary Italian automaker. It’s 1957, and Ferrari’s company is on the brink of bankruptcy. To attract enough business to save it, his cars and drivers must win the Mille Miglia, the thousand-mile motorsport endurance race through the open roads of Italy. Driver gives Ferrari a coiled authority, and Penélope Cruz is Lady Macbeth fierce as his wife and business partner, who must subsume her rage when she learns that her husband not only has a mistress (Shailene Woodley, good despite a thin accent) but a secret second family. Money and risk, love and hate, all fused by speed — Ferrari is a hypnotic ride, one rooted in the specter of death that’s hovering over every hairpin turn.



4. Maestro



Photo : Courtesy of Netflix  



It’s no exaggeration to say that every scene of Bradley Cooper’s drama about the life of Leonard Bernstein is a lush and vibrant surprise. Cooper stages each moment with great emotional and historical precision (he wants you to feel like you’re right there, eavesdropping). At the same time, the film leaps around with impressionistic freedom, omitting most of Bernstein’s formative conducting career as well as such minor details as his composing of West Side Story. Yet Cooper plays Lenny — now aged, now a giddy young man, now courting the woman he will marry, now pursuing the men he also loves, now conducting Mahler with a sweaty transcendent passion —in a performance of such vivid soul-sharing that it scarcely matters what the film leaves out; you’re so caught up in what’s there. As Felicia Montealegre, who married Lenny with open eyes and stood by him, Carey Mulligan creates an indelible portrait of a love rooted in intimacy and play, empathy and heartbreak.



5. Past Lives



Photo : Courtesy of Sundance Institute  



Celine Song’s drama has a lyrical deceptive quality — and not just because it’s tranquil on the surface and tumultuous underneath. It begins in Seoul, where a 12-year-old boy and girl develop an innocent attraction, then lose touch after her family emigrates to North America. Years later, Nora Moon (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (John Magaro) reconnect through video calls, a bond that’s maintained after she attends a writer’s retreat and meets the prickly New York doofus she goes on to marry. We could swear there are still romantic vibes between the childhood friends, and we wait for them to bloom. The movie, however, has played a trick on us; for that’s not what happens. Yet we weren’t quite wrong. Past Lives is a neorealist multiverse film — not a fantasy but a moving drama of the universes of love and possibility, from the past and into the future, we carry around inside us.



6. Operation Fortune: Ruse de guerre



Photo : Courtesy of Lionsgate  



In 25 years, I’ve rarely liked a Guy Ritchie film; I have never loved one. But this was the year he upped his game, relaxing his dynamo craftsmanship into something less bombastic and more startlingly accomplished. The Covenant, the Afghanistan War rescue drama Ritchie directed, is one of the finest movies ever made about the post-9/11 world. That said, my choice for Ritchie movie of the year — and one of the most riotously enjoyable movies of the year, period — is this delirious screwball espionage caper, staged with a quick-talk nonchalance worthy of Howard Hawks, starring Jason Statham as the iciest of superspies, who leads his team, including a divine Aubrey Plaza and a star-worthy Josh Hartnett, on a mission that makes the latest M:I adventure look stodgy, all to foil an arms dealer played by Hugh Grant with irresistible sociopathic glee.



7. Little Richard: I Am Everything





Lisa Cortes’ transfixing documentary about the wildest king of rock ‘n’ roll is a movie that thrills you in two ways. It uses stunning archival footage to channel the electricity of Little Richard, and the eruptive glory of his volcanic gospel-on-amphetamines music still hits you like a revolution. Yet the movie also takes a deep dive into how Little Richard, a Black queer man who was not about to conceal who he was, entwined the very DNA of rock ‘n’ roll with the perverse power of his identity. His story becomes the stirring and in some ways tragic tale of an artist so ahead of his time that even his own life couldn’t catch up with how he’d changed the world. 



8. May December



Photo : ©Netflix/Courtesy Everett Colle  



Two words have stood in the way of a full appreciation of Todd Haynes’s daring psychodrama. The first word is “camp” — as if the extravagant elements of this lurid tale of seduction were somehow meant to add up to a postmodern wink. The second word is “tabloid” — as if the fact that it’s a gloss on the true story of Mary Kay Letourneau somehow meant that we’re supposed to place the experience of it in a box marked “trash Americana.” But Haynes, in telling the story of a famous actress (Natalie Portman), who spends a few weeks with the Letorneau-like Gracie (Julianne Moore), who married the former 13-year-old (Charles Melton) she slept with, is actually posing a serious and even dangerous question. He’s looking at a relationship our culture condemns as criminal and abusive and asking: Is it defensible? Could it be love? (Nabokov asked the same question.) Elizabeth, who wants to “become” Gracie (so that she can portray her), becomes our representative as she acts out the answer.



9. Fair Play



Photo : Courtesy of Netflix  



You could say that this delectably heated-up drama about two hedge-fund analysts, Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) and Emily (Phoebe Dynevor), who are carrying on a serious romantic relationship they have to keep secret (because it breaks the rules of their firm), is like something Adrian Lyne would have made in the ’90s. Except that it may also be the most telling, plugged-in portrait of the killer go-go finance world since Oliver Stone’s Wall Street. The writer-director, Chloe Domont, creates money-fueled dialogue (part jargon, all greed) that sizzles and convinces, and once Emily gets the promotion that Luke was angling for, the dissolution of their engagement is fueled by enough psychology and emotional playacting to make the movie a genuine heightened projection of the post-#MeToo world.



10. The Zone of Interest



Photo : A24  



A movie that channels the horror of the Holocaust should hit you with the force of revelation. Yet too many movies with this subject matter do not; Jonathan Glazer’s quietly shocking drama assuredly does. It’s set in and around the stately German bourgeois home where Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), an SS officer, carries on a comfortable domestic existence with his wife, Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), and children. The catch is: He’s the commandant of Auschwitz — and the concentration camp is literally right over the wall next to their garden. Glazer creates an unnerving true-life fairy-tale nightmare of evil, using the distant sounds of Auschwitz (the fire from the ovens, the screams) to evoke a monstrousness we can’t see, and that the Höss family lives in denial of. The film is transcendental in style until, in its second half, it becomes a tale of corporate intrigue. Christian Friedel makes Höss an architect of death with the devil’s haircut, and Hüller’s performance as the Carmela Soprano of the Third Reich is chilling.



By Peter Debruge, Owen Gleiberman 


Link: https://variety.com/lists/best-movies-2023/

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