Sunday, January 14, 2024

Best of 2023: Top 10 Films of the Year


We've come to the end of another fantastic year at the movies. And as I look back on the year's best films, it's clear that filmmakers around the world had big, important statements to make. Even at their most fantastical, these films forced us to lean in and contemplate society's ills. The year's most talked about movie event was the Barbenheimer double bill, and their themes of female self-actualization and genocidal violence permeated throughout many of the year’s best films. Read below to find out which eight other films joined them in my Top 10 of 2023.

Best of 2023: Top 20 Acting Performances


It's always a difficult task to narrow down the year's best film performances. The art of acting continues to impress and surprise me every year, as talented performers reveal humanity at its best and worst. After much deliberation, I finally landed on these 20 standouts, ranging from an undead Victorian era woman, to a chaotic, bisexual heartbreaker.

Saturday, January 13, 2024

REVIEW: Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

After numerous sequels, reboots and Marvel Cinematic Universe crossovers, you'd think audiences would be tired of seeing Spider-Man on screen. I would be one of the first to admit a certain level of superhero fatigue. But when "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse" introduced the animated interpretation of Miles Morales as our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, this enduring IP was thoroughly reinvigorated. Five years later, the sequel "Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse" has further solidified a lofty pace in the canon, with an extraordinary piece of art that stands as one of the very best comic book adaptations. 

"Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse" picks up where things left off for Morales' new companion and fellow Spider-person Gwen Stacy. Having returned to her alternate universe where she is now separated from Miles and suffering the loss of her best friend Peter Parker, Gwen feels despondent about her life. But an unexpected chance to reunite with Miles and a vast network of Spider-People appears on the arrival of a new villain named Spot, whose revenge-driven plans threaten the entire multiverse. With their various worlds at risk, the Spider-Society must band together before it's too late. 

At it's core, "Spider-Man Across the Universe" uses a familiar formula. Namely, a select group is tasked with saving the world from destruction by a slighted villain. Indeed, even the multiverse concept was already explored by "Spider-Man: No Way Home" before it. And yet, the film still manages to feel fresh by interpreting the well-worn narratives in exciting and inventive ways.

Most notably, the animation mesmerizes with its array of styles - sometimes mixed within the same scene - ranging from painterly tableaux to more directly comic-influenced sketches. Those dazzling visuals and the epic soundtrack set the tone for the film's fast-paced energy, as Miles' adventure explores myriad settings and characters. Yet miraculously, the complex narrative never feels convoluted, which is a credit to the excellent voice performances that give the film its palpable human characters to care about. They truly feel more fully realized than many of the bland live action heroes we've seen over the years.

Ultimately, it's this grounded humanity that sets "Across the Spider-Verse" apart. The sincere relationships between family and friends. The relatable challenges of coping with parental expectations. The thought-provoking ideas surrounding fate and the butterfly effect of our choices. It all comes together for a film that's both incredibly thrilling and emotionally resonant. I can't wait to experience the next chapter of this monumental cinematic journey.

REVIEW: The Zone of Interest

On first glance, the Höss family of two parents and five children are your typical middle class family. They live in a comfortable home with hired help, a beautiful garden and nearby lake. But look closer and you'll find something far more sinister than this white picket fence ideal. As Jonathan Glazer's "The Zone of Interest" tells the story of this family, the bigger picture is one of the most unsettling things you'll see on film.

The truth is, this family is not your ordinary group of Germans and this is no ordinary countryside setting. The head of this household is in fact, a Nazi commandant and on the other side of the wall of their humble abode is none other than the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp. As the horrors of the Holocaust are inflicted next door, the Höss family carry on with their daily routine. For Rudolf, his main concern is climbing the ranks of the Schutzstaffel (SS). Meanwhile, Hedwig tends to the garden and plays the dutiful wife and mother. 

That unbothered banality is in fact what makes "The Zone of Interest" so stupefying and downright nauseating at times. While we never see their Jewish victims, their suffering is omnipresent in nearly every scene thanks to the atmospheric sound design and evocative shot compositions. Indeed, there's no dismissing the low rumbling sound of the Holocaust operation - recalling the mechanistic portrayal of Auschwitz in 2015's "Son of Saul" - which is accompanied by the intermittent screams and gunfire. Likewise, the smoke from the gas chambers and the towering structures of the camp further bear witness to the evil at hand. 

And that evil is also expressed within the seemingly peaceful home too. While maintaining his austere tone, Glazer skilfully finds subtle ways to show how the Hösses' domestic life is intimately linked to the Holocaust's crimes. It's evident in the casual way a group of women discuss the stolen posessions of Jewish people over a cup of coffee. Or a mother and daughter sparing a fleeting thought for a Jew they knew personally, before continuing their stroll through a garden mere feet away from Auschwitz. And through many other subtle examples, it rebukes the notion that only those outfitted in Nazi uniform were fully aware of and complicit in the atrocities committed. Indeed, Sandra Huller's Hedwig is as terrifying as her husband, as she callously barks orders at her servants and even threatens murder.

Some years ago, the esteemed Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke denounced the vast majority of Holocaust cinema, claiming that tended towards insensitive manipulation in their efforts to appeal to audiences. In his matter-of-fact approach to depicting this Nazi family and their life, "The Zone of Interest" feels like it acknowleges those ethical concerns. It's a stunning film of indellible images and sounds, with an ending that further hits home with present day relevance.

REVIEW: Four Daughters

Among the post 9/11 terror panic, few radical groups are as feared as ISIS. At the height of their powers they seized control of significant portions of territory across Northern Africa and the Middle East and waged a murderous campaign against those who did not conform to they draconian laws. Perhaps one of the most confounding elements of the rise of ISIS are its voluntary female members, who submit to a life of subjugation. One such example is intimately explored in Kaouther Ben Hania's documentary "Four Daughters", in which a Tunisian mother processes the loss of her two oldest daughters to the ISIS cause. 

The subjects of "Four Daughters" are Olfa and her two remaining daughters Eya and Tayssir. As Olda prepares to tell the story of her family, Ben Hania sets the premise of the film, wherein professional actresses will portray the lost sisters Rahma and Ghofrane, as well as another who steps in for Olfa during particularly difficult moments. As all six women participate in this effort to bring the past back to life, the filmmaking process illuminates a wealth of wisdom and understanding amid the painful memories. 

Indeed, as this remarkable collaboration unfolds, the storytelling reveals both personal and broader truths. Probing the past to understand the present, Olfa begins by recalling the male harassment her mother faced and her own unfullfilling and dispassionate marriage. Later, as she recalls her own volatile motherhood, a legacy of patriarchy and misogyny is revealed, profilerated by society and more significantly, Olfa herself. 

In confronting Olfa's complicity and guilt in her daughters' eventual rebellion and disillusionment, Ben Hania's unique docudrama style proves to be ingenius. On a formal level, the film features stunning mise-en-scène. Furthermore, it's also a triumph of casting (as incredulously acknowledged throughout). And as the actresses and the central women work together, their genuine connection blurs the lines between reality and acting. Rather than mere reenactments, the women form a sincere sisterhood in which they challenge the warped psychology that failed Olfa and society as a whole.

Ultimately, "Four Daughters" serves as a devastating cautionary tale for other mothers and daughters in similarly conservative societies. In addition, it's a testament to the power of filmmaking, using a beautifully collaborative process to directly address a harmful cycle of oppression afflicting women. It may not tear down the pillars of partiarchy, but in its deeply personal way, it offers healing for its subjects and audiences alike. 

REVIEW: Barbie

Under ordinary circumstances, the idea of a "Barbie" film would elicit dismissive groans from any discerning movie lover. But when it was announced that this big screen adaptation of the beloved doll would be helmed by the talented Greta Gerwig, it instantly became one of the hottest prospects of 2023. As it turns out, that excitement was warranted, as "Barbie" emerged as one of the most enjoyable films of the year.
"Barbie" stars Margot Robbie in the titular role as stereotypical Barbie, a conventionally pretty woman living the dream life in Barbieland. In her perfect world, the female Barbies sit atop the social hierachy while the male Kens engage in trivial pursuits and aim to please the female citizens. But this feminist fantasy will soon be turned upside down when an existential crisis corrupts Barbie's carefree worldview. And after consulting with the Weird Barbie, she learns that she is connected to a human owner in the real world, whose own depression and self-doubt is affecting her. Now, Barbie must journey to California alongside her besotted admirer Ken (a hilarious Ryan Gosling) to get her life back to normal. Little does she know, her experiences there will change her life forever.

Like a metaphor for the Garden of Eden story, the visual language of "Barbie" vividly conveys Barbie's fall from grace. Indeed, Barbieland is a wondrous creation, with bright colors, playful sets and costumes inspired by the long history of Barbie merchandise. In comparison, the real world indeed looks drab and corrupted.

That corruption seeps into the mind of Ken, who returns to Barbieland and establishes a patriarchy, setting in motion a psychological battle of the sexes as women seek to regain control. As this war is waged between the Barbies and Kens, the colorful setting proves to be the perfect playground for the film's campy delights. From endless sight gags, to infectious songs, to showstopping dance numbers, the script brilliantly leans into its silliness while still feeling intentional and meaningful. Specifically, it offers resonant social commentary on topics such as the pressures women face to be perfect, as well as men's competitive nature and penchant for war. 

It all leads to a poignant awakening for Barbie, who learns to embrace the pitfalls of being human and specifically, a woman. Gorgeously imaginative, inspiring and just plain fun, it's no wonder why "Barbie" was the movie event of the year. Just like her wonderful "Little Women" adaptation, Greta Gerwig once again proves that you can ineed bring an ingenious, fresh spin to some of our oldest IP.

REVIEW: Anatomy of a Fall

In the opening scenes of Justine Triet's engrossing Palme d'Or winner "Anatomy of a Fall", we meet the film's protagonist Sandra at her cozy mountain chalet. A successful writer, she is being interviewed by a young female student. As the pair being to establish a warm rapport, the interview is interrupted by loud music being played by her husband upstairs. Forcing them to reschedule, Sandra and her blind son Samuel return to their daily routine. But the peace is later disturbed once again when Daniel finds his father dead, right below the same attic from where the music played. Sandra claims the death to be accidental, but further investigations raise suspicions of foul play.

Before long, a full scale court case builds against Sandra, who enlists a lawyer friend to help with her defense. With the home now being considered a crime scene, every detail is analyzed, from the trajectory of the blood splatter to the house' acoustics. Daniel also becomes embroiled as a witness to not only the day's events but the history of his parents' relationship.

Indeed, "Anatomy of a Fall" gradually evolves into an interrogation of not only whether or not Sandra committed murder, but also of the couple's entire relationship. As the courtroom scenes dive into their past, the screenplay keeps adding layers which constantly shift our perspective on the incident and the possible motives. And throughout, it challenges the "truths" we interpret based on what we see, feel and hear. The latter is particularly intriguing through the exploration of taped recordings and Daniel's blind perspective.

As the drama unfolds, Triet's assured direction and thoughtful script never oversensationalize the proceedings. Likewise, Huller is equally judicious in her acting choices, putting on a veritable masterclass of conveying both internal and outwardly expressed turmoil. The experience of studying her face throughout this film is worth the price of admission alone.

Of course, courtroom dramas rely on equally captivating supporting players and "Anatomy of a Fall" certainly fits the bill with an incredible ensemble. Though his character dies early, flashbacks showcase Samuel Theis as an ideal match for Huller's acting prowess, conveying an authentic relationship dynamic in one particularly explosive argument scene. Similarly, Antoine Reinartz invigorates the courtroom scenes as the feisty prosecutor. But perhaps the most haunting performance comes from the diminiutive Milo Machado Graner, showing skill beyond his years by brilliantly expressing the ambiguity and doubt on which the film succeeds. Altogether, it's their performances that make this writerly film about writers soar and bring Triet's astute directorial vision to life. 

REVIEW: Killers of the Flower Moon

Much like its legacy of slavery, American society has yet to fully reckon with the genocidal suppresion of Native Americans. In his latest epic "Killers of the Flower Moon", Martin Scorsese explores one particularly shameful chapter in the history of Native American relations, when the Osage Nation came under attack after the discovery of oil on their land. Shedding a necessary light on the greed, hatred and violence upon which the nation was founded, this powerful film is a vital, quintessentially American story.

Foreshadowing, the destruction to come, "Killers of the Flower Moon" opens with a ceremonial gathering of Osage Nation elders. As they symbolically bury a pipe representing their people's culture, they lament the impending loss of their identity due to the capitalist exploitation of their newfound oil riches. Indeed, we soon learn that that the Osage summarily rise to become the richest people per capita in the world. But this wealth comes at a heavy price, as White Americans seek to claim their fortunes for themselves. Among the Osage Nation is a woman named Molly, whose diabetes affliction is somewhat soothed by the courtship of the newly arrived Ernest Burkhart. But his motives come into question when a series of intermariages and subsequent murders result in transfers of Osage peoples' headrights to the White population. With these deaths coming dangerously close to her own door, Molly is forced to confront a horrifying conspiracy that threatens the survival of her people.  

Crafted with Scorcese's typical attention to detail and vivid atmosphere, "Killers of the Flower Moon" is at once captivating and unsettling. With a considerable - yet engagingly paced - running time of 3 hours and 26 minutes, the rich screenplay takes its time to establish the setting, the characters and their relationships. Indeed, the film transports us viscerally back to 1920s Oklahoma, where the underlying tensions between traditional indigenous lifestyles and modern decadence are made visible through the juxtaposition of vast fields and ranches and the busy streets lined with saloons and other commercial establishments.

Underneath the performative civility and the Native Americans' prosperity, however, the dynamic between them and the White people is still emblematic of the wild west. But in this version of "cowboys vs Indians", Scorsese rejects the age old depiction of White cowboys as heroes. Indeed, every scene of violence inflicted on Native Americans is jolting in its brutality and its nonchalant heartlessness. Furthermore, the outstanding performances also pinpoint the victims and oppressors. As Molly, Lily Gladstone is the beating heart of the film, with a graceful presence that practically commands you to be still and notice her. Meanwhile, Leo DiCaprio skillfully downplays his usual charisma to embody a dim-witted scoundrel. And as William King Hale - the primary mastermind behind Osage murders - Robert Deniro gifts cinephiles yet another unforgettable performance, portraying a chillingly composed demeanor while orchestrating unimaginable evils.

Through the authentic performances and world-building, there's an almost docudrama-like feel to this masterful work of art and historical reflection. It's the kind of film that enlightens you and makes you want to learn. Apart from its compelling cross-genre filmmaking, it's that agitating effect that makes "Killers of the Flower Moon" such essential part of 2023's cinematic landscape.

REVIEW: Oppenheimer

During the month of August 1945, two events occured that would change the course of world forever. Specifically, the atomic bombings of the Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the US government signalled the dawn of the nuclear age, where mankind now possessed the ability to enact world annihilation. The catastrophic toll of those infamous bombings would never be forgotten. But the events both before and after this act of agression are equally important to understand. In his latest masterwork "Oppenheimer", Christopher Nolan recounts that fateful time which found humanity at a crossroads due to the efforts of a man who became known as "the father of the atomic bomb."

That influential man is J. Robert Oppenheimer, an American physicist of Jewish heritage who trained in Europe before returning to the United States. Upon his arrival he is soon hired to teach at the University of California, Berkeley, where he dedicates much of his time to further understanding the potential of nuclear physics. Through the advancements of his research and fortuitious networking, he is recruited in 1942 to lead the Manhattan Project. Motivated by an international arms race between the United States, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, the project assembles a team of some of the world's brightest minds to develop an atomic bomb. Working and living with their families at the newly built Los Alamos laboratory in New Mexico, they set out to test their theories of nuclear fission. But with the devastating risk associated with this powerful weapon, everyone involved is forced to contemplate the implications of what they are about to unleash.

In a prime example of "just because you can, doesn't mean you should," the moral dilemma inherent in creating a weapon of mass destruction is indeed at the heart of "Oppenheimer". But the seemingly obvious stance is made complex through the film's robust screenplay, which digs into the geopolitics, scientific curiousity and male ego that drove both the creation and use of the atomic bomb. Known for his heady explorations of the boundaries of time and physics in such films as "Inception" and "Interstellar", Nolan once again shows his gift at making highly intellectual concepts accessible to mainstream audiences. Indeed, it's almost a miracle that a 3-hour movie largely involving smart people talking could be so edge-of-your-seat engaging. And much of that can be attributed to the relentless pacing, astonishing score and overall awe-inspiring production values.

But perhaps most impressive is the large ensemble cast, with every actor leaving their mark. Standout supporting players include Robert Downey Jr. as the conniving U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) who plays a major role in Oppenheimer's eventual security hearing, as well as Emily Blunt's no-nonsense portrayal of Oppenheimer's wife Kitty. And in the lead role, the film's central conflict is writ large on Cillian Murphy's face, as he conveys both the thrill of discovery and the anguish of his character's irreversible actions. 

Simply put, this film is a stunning achievement. Much like Oppenheimer is haunted by his work, so too will its brilliance stay with me for years to come. It's an instant classic.

REVIEW: Bobi Wine: The People's President

The corruption of African leaders has almost become a cliché since the post-colonial democratization of the continent's various nations. But unfortunately, there's some truth to this stereotype, as evidenced by the case of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. His stranglehold on the country is documented in an extraordinary new film "Bobi Wine: The People's President" directed by Moses Bwayo and Christopher Sharp. 

"Bobi Wine: The People's President" is the story of its titular character, who mounts a daring campaign to unseat Museveni and chart a new course for his homeland. He is a man who wears several hats - loving family man, successful musician and now, beloved politician. Taking advantage of his pre-existing fame of his music career and his humble background (the film's previous title referred to him as "Ghetto President"), he quickly finds favour with the general populace as a man of the people. And within a few years, his political trajectory takes him from elected parliament member to presidential candidacy. But in a society where free and fair elections are a lofty dream, his ambitions seem futile and increasingly dangerous despite his rising popularity.

That sense of danger is quickly felt in "Bobi Wine: The People's President", as Bwayo and Sharp plunge audiences into the thick of the struggle. As we witness gunshots being fired in the streets, the intensity may cause you to flinch instinctively. The camerawork is truly incredible throughout, and the access afforded the filmmakers makes the film all the more involving. 

From the heated parliamentary debates, to the infectious energy of the campaign trail, to the more quiet moments at home, we are treated to the full scope of Bobi Wine's daily life. And by his side is Barbie, a Winnie Mandela of sorts who remains steadfast to the cause amid her husband's undue arrests and threats to his life. Meanwhile, the film smartly allows Musaveni to contribute his perspective in his own words, including dubious media interviews which further prove his dictatorial regime.

While unfettered power is the film's main theme, "Bobi Wine: The People's President" could just as easily be viewed as a love story. Most obviously, there's the love between Bobi Wine and his family. But more significantly, the film displays the patriotic love that drives him despite the seemingly impossible task. As such, the film leaves viewers with a suprising sense of optimism, pointing to the embryonic but hopefullly fruitful seeds of a revolution that was indeed televised.

Friday, January 12, 2024

Top 10 TV Programs of 2022-2023

  1. Succession (HBO)
  2. Better Call Saul (AMC)
  3. Fire Island (Hulu)
  4. Abbott Elementary (ABC)
  5. House of the Dragon (HBO)
  6. The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power (Amazon Prime Video)
  7. The Bear (Hulu)
  8. This Is Going to Hurt (AMC)
  9. The White Lotus (HBO)
  10. Barry (HBO)

Top 10 Acting Performances of 2022-2023 TV

  1. Sarah Snook, Succession
  2. Matthew McFadyen, Succession
  3. Kieran Culkin, Succession
  4. Jeremy Strong, Succession
  5. Ali Wong, Beef
  6. Vivian Oparah, Rye Lane
  7. Brian Cox, Succession
  8. Bob Odenkirk, Better Call Saul
  9. Paddy Considine, House of the Dragon
  10. Steven Yuen, Beef

Friday, January 5, 2024

REVIEW: Poor Things

In the summer of 2023, Greta Gerwig's "Barbie" took the world by storm to the tune of $1.4 billion at the box office. Crafting a feminist tale surrounding the candy-colored fantasy world of the beloved doll, it critiqued the narrow ideals of beauty and womanhood perpetuated by the beloved doll's enduring popularity. The film rightfully earned audience and critical acclaim upon release but a few months later, its brilliance was arguably eclipsed by an even more subversive character study of a woman rejecting societal expectations - Yorgos Lanthimos' "Poor Things".

Set during the Victorian era, "Poor Things" is the story of a strange young woman named Bella Baxter (played by Emma Stone). When we meet her she lives with a scientist she calls God (a perfectly grotesque Willem Dafoe). God is short for Godwin, which proves to be an apt nickname considering the origins of their relationship. Indeed, we soon learn the reason for her peculiar behavior and social awkwardness, as it's revealed that her current persona is the result of one of Godwin's bizarre experiments. Bella was previously a pregnant woman who committed suicide, but was then found by Godwin, who proceeded to replace her brain with that of her unborn child. Now a blank slate, the new Bella Baxter must now learn about herself and her place in the world. With her child's curiosity as her guide, she thus sets forth on an global adventure upon the invitation of a charismatic lawyer, much to the chagrin of her protective father figure. 

The film's absurdist premise is immediately striking, as Stone's fully committs to a characterization that would be almost offensive if her backstory weren't later revealed. Indeed, as described by Ramy Youssef's Max exclaims when he first meets her, she is a "very pretty retard." But from these clumsy beginnings, Stone charts Bella's accelerated development into adulthood brilliantly, with gradual changes in her physicality and speech. And as Bella undergoes her sexual awakening and intellectual development, Lanthimos' astute screenplay explores philosophical questions surrounding free will, gender relations and the underlying cruelty of polite society.

As Bella becomes increasingly enlightened, the film's feminist manifesto does sometimes feel like it's conveying Lanthimos' worldly voice rather than Bella's. But the preachiness is thankfully offset by the film's genuine playfulness and humor, most notably from Mark Ruffalo's hilariously flustered portrayal of Duncan Wedderburn as Bella's frustrated lover. Meanwhile, the cinematography is incredible, transitioning from its initial black-and-white to thereafter exploding with deeply saturated colors and expressive production design when Bella ventures out into the world.

"Poor Things" is truly reflective of the singular artistic visison of Yorgos Lanthimos. It's weird, provocative, funny and ultimately, surprisingly sweet. It's easily one of 2023's best films.