My favorite Wes Anderson film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, takes its first several minutes to introduce a story within a story within a story. The center of this tangled device is where the vast majority of the film takes place, before unwinding in a brief epilogue back to where it started. Asteroid City, Anderson’s latest, does the same thing but in a much more intrusive way. The setting that formed the basis of Asteroid City’s marketing is a theatrical play, but the viewer also gets a reenactment of the production and the behind-the-scenes drama of the play. That none of this was tipped to the viewer before Asteroid City made its way to theaters is an off-putting move by the promotion department, but once settled in, the themes he’s trying to pull out of the most complicated structure he’s ever attempted begin to appear. Anderson’s intermittently successful in the least of his last four live-action releases, but then, Grand Budapest also was a grower for me. On the fourth or fifth rewatch, maybe Asteroid City will suddenly click into place.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse has become one of the most influential films of the last decade. Its fantastical animation style has provided a counterpoint to the photorealism of Pixar, and is being aped by animation titans like Dreamworks. It proved that audiences would turn out for multiverse storytelling, a theme that has overtaken superhero franchises and the Oscars. Into the Spider-Verse’s sequel, Across the Spider-Verse, isn’t likely to have that kind of historical footprint, as it’s building upon what the original started, but it is the rare second-chapter that eclipses its impressive predecessor. Across the Spider-Verse enlarges an already-huge world, adding more new characters and environments and challenges while also deepening the characters the audience is familiar with, and it does so with a stunning color palette and an aesthetic sense that makes it the latest embodiment of cool. It even manages to squeeze in new ideas about superheroes after fifteen years of general audiences drowning in them. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is a high-water mark for both animation and comic-book movies, validating all the imitators who have hitched their wagons to the correct train and undoubtedly inspiring new ones.
Brandon Cronenberg’s third film, Infinity Pool, gets him further away from his iconic father David and gives viewers a clearer expectation of what his style is going to be. After the 2020 dark masterpiece Possessor, a pattern emerges where the second-generation filmmaker reiterates his interest in nightmare drug sequences, humiliation, and general extremity. One can expect certain things from Brandon, just like a David movie without fleshy tumorous appendages as an outgrowth of some psychological crutch isn’t really a true Cronenberg. Infinity Pool has the eye-covering moments one expects, but Brandon hasn’t settled into a predictable groove just yet, adding comedy to Infinity Pool alongside new actors who seem tailor-made to continue to work with him, just as the cast of Possessor could only have been the actors onscreen. While Infinity Pool isn’t as mind-blowing and memorable as Possessor (what could be?), it does represent necessary growth for its director and superlative work from his two lead actors.
The superhero fever is so close to breaking, but the major studios still have to follow through on franchise plans they made when it was raging. As Disney and Marvel limp into the future behind a supervillain played by an alleged abuser and a series of movies that ended with some of the most uninteresting character teases in the history of the genre (remember when Patton Oswalt voiced a troll), they still have to close the book on one of their major successes, even as its auteur decamps for another flailing comic book franchise. The Guardians of the Galaxy showcased Marvel at the peak of its powers, a studio with such box office power that it could turn characters few people had ever heard of into the highest-grossing movie of its year. Almost a decade later, writer and director James Gunn finds something like an ending for his team of misfits. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 3, goes for maximum pathos within a franchise that previously relied on this team for jokes. The result is a marginal improvement on the forgettable to awful streak that Marvel’s been saddled with, but this is also the least of the Guardians trilogy and a bad omen for Gunn’s next job at the head of DC Studios.
Of 2023’s movies about corporations, Air and Flamin Hot were about victories that, however forward-thinking or innovative, are nonetheless about more dollars flowing into a publicly traded company. Huzzah? BlackBerry, on the other hand, is about a failure, about hubris and compromise and all the other timeless ingredients of tragedies. It therefore doesn’t leave the viewer with a sour taste as the epilogue brags about how much money Nike CEO Phil Knight donated to charity amidst all those unmentioned sweatshop scandals. Matt Johnson’s exceptional film, which he directs, co-writes, and co-stars in, is one of the year’s biggest surprises and a great Canadian achievement. Don’t worry about the World Cup flop or cheering a Nazi on your Parliament floor, hail the existence of BlackBerry!
Darren Aronofsky is a director who puts his actors through the physical and emotional wringer. Natalie Portman in Black Swan, Mickey Rourke in the Wrestler, Jennifer Lawrence in mother!, and the entire cast of Requiem for a Dream all went through it, and awards bodies that stereotypically give prizes for most acting as opposed to best acting ate it all up. The same applies to Aronofsky’s latest, The Whale, but what separates it from Aronofsky’s earlier work is a total lack of empathy for the lead character played by Brendan Fraser. A morbidly obese man in the final week of his life, Fraser’s Charlie moves between caricature and sap, like something out of a Jerry Lewis exploitation film so terrible that it’s been sealed away. I’ve enjoyed everything Aronofsky’s ever done, even when what’s onscreen is not intended for enjoyment. The Whale is as outlying as an outlier can get.
She might be horrified to see it, but the influence of Judy Blume is all over the raunchy, transgressive coming-of-age TV series that have aired across streaming services in recent years. Big Mouth, Pen15, Sex Education, and HBO’s outrageous Euphoria are all about the inner lives and changing bodies of teens. There hasn’t been a movie equivalent to match the small-screen depiction of the horrors of adolescence, and though the market is there, Kelly Fremon Craig resists the urge to take what Blume cracked open and modernize it with frank and boundary-less sexuality. Instead, she goes back to the source with a direct adaptation of Blume’s Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, placing it within its own era with a tone for most ages and sensibilities. Having already made the teen coming-of-age film and cult hit The Edge of Seventeen, Fremon Craig is well-suited to this material and she makes a cinematic counterpart to match Blume’s classic novel, mirroring the major changes in her young protagonist’s life with those of her mother and grandmother for an intergenerational heartwarmer and one of the best films of the year, were it not for a tragically abbreviated third act.
Roger Ebert famously said video games could never be art, and some part of his evidence for this statement was the terrible state of video game adaptations into movies. Movies based on video games have made some improvements in the decade since Ebert’s pronouncement, becoming marginally less offensive and even tolerable in theaters and critically praised on TV. The Super Mario Bros Movie is the latest incarnation, though based on its world-beating success, hardly the last. Adapted by that most creatively bankrupt of animation studios, Illumination, and in full partnership with Nintendo, a new franchise is spawned with spinoffs and properties to fill screens for the next decade. Imagine Link carving up skeletons to an Imagine Dragons soundtrack, or a prairie full of Pokemon boogeying to the Black Eyed Peas. The Super Mario Bros Movie provides an inoffensive window into an annoying future. Illumination makes an acceptable film that’s not without its frustrations, mainly that it doesn’t try to be anything more than that.
Luca Guadagnino’s hot-blooded romances contained plenty of hints that he’d eventually turn to horror. A Bigger Splash and Call Me By Your Name, plus his HBO miniseries We Are Who We Are, all featured attraction so strong, it looked more like compulsion for its teen characters or its adults who act like teenagers. Losing control of oneself in pursuit of sensual delights is a frequent horror theme, and in Guadagnino’s Bones and All, the line between romance and horror is obliterated. The director’s best film yet builds on everything that has made his work so memorable, incorporating sense memory and raw horniness with a grimy creep factor that crawls into the viewer’s brain. Bones and All smells and feels and drips, leaving the viewer no choice but to eat out of Guadagnino’s hand.
One of many memorable scenes from Freaks and Geeks found the latter including one of the former in their regular Dungeons and Dragons game. James Franco’s Daniel resists at first but is ultimately convinced thanks to the earnest investment of the geeks, including John Francis Daley’s Sam. Twenty-four years later, Daley and his writing/directing partner Jonathan Goldstein are still rolling twenty-sided dice in their loose adaptation of the fantasy role-playing game. For a viewer whose only experience is listening to the occasional podcast where guests play D&D, Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves has the improvisational rhythms of funny people making it up as they go along, wildly succeeding in their goals or hilariously failing depending on what number comes up. A heist film with fantasy elements provides Daley and Goldstein and their excellent cast with a vast playground, resulting in one of the more surprising successes of 2023.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.