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.
John Wick was fighting for something in his initial outing nine years ago. That film’s scale, while certainly heightened, felt at least knowable, hinting at something deeper under a surface that established the rules and stuck to them. Three films later, gravelly voiced officials and globe-spanning locations have taken over and Wick has been fighting for his own life against crime bosses who keep changing the rules. Rooting interest in the characters left the franchise around the time Wick was cutting off his finger in the Moroccan desert to appease the chief assassin, a figure who gets unceremoniously dispatched in John Wick: Chapter 4’s opening minutes. A new entry in the Keanu Reeves-led franchise has become a deadening and compulsory chore, like being assigned a sniper job that requires the shooter to wait for days by an open window. Imagine my surprise when Chapter 4 remembers that there are other characters in the universe besides Wick, and that there has to be some kind of grounding influence that motivates these killing sprees. Longtime director Chad Stahelski can’t maintain a division of labor between character and action for the film’s entire 169 minutes, but the effort is an appreciated step up from his previous entries.
Laura Poitras makes documentaries about people fighting against great odds. The transparent rightness of their cause is never enough for her protagonists, some of whom eke out hard-fought victories while others are crushed by the antagonist, which is always the US security state. Her efforts have landed her on government watchlists, adding a second layer of prosecution to what the US wants to keep secret. Documenting the documenters can make one’s life difficult and dangerous. In Poitras’ latest, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, she steps away from government malfeasance and into the bottomless well of corporate crime. Her vessel into this new world is photographer Nan Goldin, a witness to American repression and cultural rebellion who’s been at the center of major 20th century cultural phenomena. Poitras’ arrangement of Goldin’s life and work is a consciousness-broadening experience, a confrontational redefinition of obscenity and transgression. It’s not the you-are-there reportage of Citizenfour, but a historical journey that, for once, culminates in a victory.
Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson are both icons of American indie cinema, turning their cameras onto professional class East Coast types in the former’s naturalistic style and the latter’s mannered style. Baumbach’s written scripts for the latter on more than one occasion, so it’s not like he can’t create something that meshes with Anderson’s particular aesthetic, whereas the opposite is probably not true. This is one of many things that makes Baumbach’s latest, White Noise, so confounding. Baumbach hasn’t made a film prior to this one that seems to be in direct imitation of his colleague. The characters speak in a heightened and formal cadence, like many of Anderson’s characters, there’s extensive and colorful production design like in Anderson’s sets, and it has a much more epic sweep than Baumbach’s usual character studies. In adapting a Don DeLillo novel, Baumbach’s also adapting a script for the first time instead of creating it from scratch. He’s well out of his wheelhouse and the effect is a mess.
For years in the 2000’s, the women and girls of an isolated Mennonite community in Bolivia were systematically drugged and raped in the night, awakening to extensive injuries and pregnancies that they couldn’t explain. The perpetrators were finally arrested and imprisoned, though the rapes never completely stopped. This horrifying story serves as the basis for Miriam Toews’ novel Women Talking, described as an act of feminist imagination because its events take place in the immediate concocted aftermath of the perpetrator’s discovery. This viewer was surprised that the source material for Sarah Polley’s film of the same name was a novel and not a play, because the events of the screen adaptation are dominated by a stagey barnyard discussion about what the women will do next. This is only one of the vast gulfs between what Women Talking is and what it might have been. Polley and her accomplished cast and crew have put their talents towards a worthy project, but the execution is cold and false and drains the considerable power from this story.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.