Friday, December 29, 2023

Ten Best Films of 2023

1. Afire (Christian Petzold, Germany) 
It seemed inevitable that one of our greatest living filmmakers, Berlin School master Petzold, would eventually top one of this site’s yearly lists. Two films into his Rohmerian cycle on the elements, the director's La Collectionneuse makes consequential use of fire, wind and water all within a brilliantly controlled narrative that is so infected by its central figure's self absorption that we frequently have our viewing hopes dashed. A writer, director and actors' film equally, Afire adds some of Petzold's most lyrical and surreal images, the year's most vibey needle drop and a final act narrational recalibration that is worthy of the filmmaker's 2014 masterpiece Phoenix.

2. About Dry Grasses (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey/France/Germany/ Sweden) 
Ceylan’s latest masterclass in human motivation possesses the thematic density and character complexities of the Russian novelists for whom the director has cited his admiration—with a marathon running time to match. Structured around a series of nuanced conversations, Ceylan’s rural Anatolian epic teases out accusations of impropriety against two male middle school teachers, before their romantic rivalry, focusing on a new teacher, takes center stage. Ceylan, in this work of genuine moral seriousness, refines his now signature high-definition video aesthetic and post-Kiarostami observational style, replete with its own unexpected moment of non-fictional address.

3. Asteroid City (Wes Anderson, United States/Germany) 
In this conceptual sequel to and massive improvement on The French Dispatch, Anderson finds encyclopedic inspiration in the American cinema and popular culture of the 1950s, stacking medium-specific metaphors (trains, dreams, open-air theater) on top of pulp genres (westerns, musicals, science fiction). Done in the service of a highly entertaining dioramic narrative that gestures at a bygone nuclear age, this archly American object rivals 2012's great Moonrise Kingdom in its thematic rigor. Yet, Anderson's very personal Asteroid City also admits uncertainty too as it looks to move beyond autobiography to something more cosmic.

4. Fallen Leaves (Aki Kaurismäki, Finland/Germany) 
This refreshingly crisp and compressed romantic comedy makes masterful use of the director’s renowned expressionless performance style that fuses very funny Finnish cultural clichés of emotional impassivity with the uber-serious cinema of Robert Bresson. The latter’s L’Argent is one of a number of references that Kaurismäki underlines—others include Chaplin, Ozu, Fassbinder, Clair and 1930s proletarian Hollywood—in what proves a celebration of the director’s sources, such cinematic fellow travelers as Jim Jarmusch, and even the director's own past output (Drifting Clouds). Blissfully entertaining and one of the director's very best.

5. The Zone of Interest (Jonathan Glazer, United States/United Kingdom/Poland) 
Glazer’s harrowing and very Kubrickian The Zone of Interest recreates the mostly bucolic home life of Auschwitz’s commandant Rudolf Höss and his family as they pass their days and evenings, literally, on the other side of the infamous prison camp’s wall. The product of meticulous historical research, Glazer uses the contrapuntal language of cinema to tell us what is going on in Auschwitz (through its more and less faint soundscapes) without visualizing the Nazi’s atrocities. Alongside 2015's Son of Saul, The Zone of Interest is one of the 21st century's most novel and impactful Holocaust narratives. A film that seems custom built for future intro to cinema syllabi.

6. Close Your Eyes (Victor Erice, Spain/Argentina) 
For his first fiction feature in four decades and his first feature-length film of any variety in three, Spain's great maestro Erice has created a very personal and moving apologia for his lost filmmaking decades. After a historical preface that references the classical Hollywood cinema that Erice began his career revising with The Spirit of the Beehive—here the reference is Sternberg with a blissful Rio Bravo diversion still to come—a more televisual aesthetic obtains for much of the loose, episodic film's near three-hour runtime, before projected cinema is brought to bear to explain the present in the film's Shirin-inspired conclusion. 

7. In Our Day (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)
Korean art-house giant Hong's thirtieth feature since 1996 once again finds the director in The Novelist Film's autobiographical territory, in this case exploring the often comic daily interactions of the director's surrogate (in the figure of the poet Hong) and that of his lover and late-period axiom, Kim Min-hee. As the director contends on and off-screen with admiring acolytes and diminished health in his half of this two-parter, In Our Day extends the philosophical bent of Hong's most recent work, suggesting an answer to the biggest of questions in our ability to appreciate what is in front of us, to be thankful for existence without searching for deeper meaning.

8. Here (Bas Devos, Belgium) 
Following his luminous, nocturnal 2019 arthouse discovery Ghost Tropic, Devos once again traverses an often depopulated Brussels, in this case bringing together a Belgian-Chinese doctoral candidate and a Romanian laborer, just before the latter is preparing to return home. Devos's film is almost uniquely attuned to the acts of seeing (in microscopic detail) and listening, with the film's mise-en-scene lingering on sparkling nightscapes and to a series of magical incursions of the natural world into Brussels's industrial metropolis. A genuinely moving sense of romantic possibility decorates the film's gentle coupling in this exquisite Berlinale highlight.

9. Eureka (Lisandro Alonso, Argentina/France/Portugal) 
Though it failed to secure a competition slot at this year's Cannes Film Festival, Alonso's long-waited return may be that festival's most meaningful exploration of American Indigenous trauma. Eureka is structured in three parts that successively move backward in time and mediate Native experience respectively through a black-and-white western, an elegantly lensed if emotionally gutting Cops-style night in the life of a Pine Ridge police officer, and in an Amazonian mining camp where narrated dreams bring about tragedy. Civilization is a blight in this object of enhanced realism from the celebrated Argentine author of La Libertad and Los Muertos.

10. Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell (Phạm Thiên Ân, Vietnam/ France/Singapore/Spain) 
In a year that was short on major modernist works from Asia—one of the principle sources for the most innovative global art cinema of the past few decades—Phạm's epic directorial debut was the astonishingly ambitious and assured exception. Filled with some of the year's most elegant compositions, audacious camera movements, and a willingness to engage metaphysical concerns, the searching, Apichatpong or Bi Gan-inspired Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell is no less notable as a portrait of modern Vietnam and its Roman Catholic minority, dividing its time between contemporary Saigon and the once bifurcated country’s mist-covered, mountainous countryside.

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