When Martin Scorsese makes a crime movie, he starts slowly, like in Casino or Wolf of Wall Street where the first crimes, like bookmaking and pump-and-dump penny stock schemes, have ill-defined victims, if they even exist. Conversely, in Goodfellas, it begins with a vicious murder immediately undercut by Sinatra and a warm childhood flashback. The knife thrusts are remembered, but they fade. In Killers of the Flower Moon, however, nothing fades. In depicting the murders visited upon the oil-rich Osage nation in the 1920’s, Scorsese gives the viewer nowhere to hide from the cruelty, betrayal, and savagery that defined those deeds. He can’t help but make an entertaining and propulsive film, even with material as dark as this, but he hasn’t made something this bleak and oppressive since Raging Bull. Scorsese’s previous film, The Irishman, felt like the final statement on mob movies. Killers of the Flower Moon shows that there are other, darker ways into organized crime, especially when the targets take center stage.
When a movie like Top Gun: Maverick or Spider-Man: No Way Home dominates the box office, it’s reassuring that good-to-great output gets rewarded but it’s not surprising. What is surprising is when a three hour period biopic, partly in black and white and heavy with technical dialogue, packs theaters for weeks while also managing to be one of the finest films of the 2020’s. Christopher Nolan’s best work hasn’t needed comic book or sci-fi trappings. His WWII nail-biter Dunkirk was his previous peak, but that’s now been supplanted by Oppenheimer, a dense and meaningful historical thriller that doubly serves as a coherent primer on the entire 20th century. For me, Nolan has never been a director who’s made something that works to this degree. It’s nice to finally understand what everyone’s been talking about.
No one knows what’s going to be the next blockbuster trend in Hollywood, now that superheroes are no longer a surefire path to a billion dollars. The director of Lady Bird and Little Women has perhaps provided the way forward with highly choreographed, tongue in cheek toy commercials featuring game A-list stars. Greta Gerwig’s third film thrilled global audiences and is now in the thick of awards season, cementing her as one of the industry’s most powerful directors. Barbie’s domination of the 2023 summer box office and the preceding marketing blitz put movies back in the cultural driver’s seat, a primacy that would’ve lasted longer had studio executives not sabotaged themselves in the worst possible moment and driven their creative teams to strike. Regardless of how its moment was squandered, Barbie is going to have continued ramifications for years to come through sequels and imitators that either fail to replicate its success or build on Gerwig’s imaginative but flawed entry.
Top Gun: Maverick, the film in which Tom Cruise supposedly saved cinema, worked as a metaphor for Cruise’s career in multiple flattering ways, from its analog-versus-digital prologue to its ultimate choice to stop trying to replace Cruise’s Maverick and just let him save the day himself. These kinds of readings are the only way that Cruise is going to engage with filmmaking beyond giant spectacle. His days of serious dramas seem to be dead, but the viewer can keep analyzing Cruise through his death-defying stunts, the latest series of which takes place in Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning: Part One. In Cruise’s seventh franchise entry and third with writer/director Christopher McQuarrie, Ethan Hunt and the IMF squares off against a rogue AI, which the world’s major powers are all racing to acquire and control themselves while Hunt is trying to destroy it. Cruise as the lone man stopping the advance of harmful technology places him exactly where he wants to be at this phase of his career. He is on a mission to show that filmmaking isn’t broke and therefore shouldn’t be fixed. Meanwhile, Disney is replacing extras with AI-generated oddities who are several iterations away from looking human.
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.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.