by Philip Price
It's easy for movies to come out of the gate strong, it's admittedly even more difficult for movies to stick the landing, but one of the most overlooked and undervalued skills in filmmaking as a beginning-to-end process is maintaining the tone and energy you come out of the gate with through to the end and “Bottoms” comes out of the gate strong. Fortunately, writer/director Emma Seligman and star Rachel Sennott's (“Shiva Baby”) screenplay seemingly accomplishes everything it sets out to do, but more importantly: it excels in doing so. The way in which the dialogue feels so natural, the rate at which the jokes land and the simple creativity involved in crafting and conveying this hyper-realized version of high school where no one is subtle about or offended by which clique they belong to or where they land in the pecking order is simultaneously so impressive and so wildly funny that those aforementioned 92-minutes feel like nothing, a tease, which means all you can and want to do when the film ends is to watch it again immediately. Now streaming on Fubo and MGM+ as well as being available for rent or purchase through all major digital retailers.
9. The Starling Girl
One of the more major directorial debuts of the last several years not to mention of 2023 is Laurel Parmet's “The Starling Girl” and it simply is not being talked about enough. I have seen several responses to the film noting its adherence to the coming-of-age drama and how familiar such a story is, all of which is true, but what cuts so deep about Parmet's screenplay is the authenticity and lived detail of the religious aspect. Living in the "Bible Belt" it is difficult to ignore the impact of religion on the way people attempt to shape their lives and perceptions - or at least the perception people have of them - but more critically, how such expected "ways of life" cause people to both suppress natural wants and desires as well as harm people around them, often the ones they love the most. This is not true of all religion(s), of course, but Christianity in the South can sometimes feel a different brand of extreme. It is the specificities of these small moments of extremes that Parmet portrays a story I have seen play out time and time again in as delicate a fashion as can be expected while cutting to the soul of its characters for the sacrifices they make, feel pain for and lose sleep over solely due to being told of the greatest sacrifice made for them. Now streaming on Paramount+ and all Showtime partner apps as well as being available for rent or purchase through all major digital retailers.
8. The Holdovers
Director Alexander Payne (“Sideways,” “The Descendants”), who is now 62, has made films in the vein of ‘70s movies before - movies that center on multi-faceted characters with relatively small and always personal problems - but he’s never made a movie so overtly mimicking so much of what he clearly draws inspiration from. I understand “The Holdovers” might be more provoking of the look and feel than invoking the actual spirit of ‘70s cinema, but as someone of my age and viewing history, it left me feeling as if it had done both. I understand why those who might have a deeper pool of knowledge and sense of connection to movies of the ‘70s and their unshaven realism might find “The Holdovers” more of a copy than an authentic journey, but the fact of the matter is: I found this far more enjoyable than expected given my aforementioned disposition, but more than that - I found it deeply affecting and honest. While it might be aping certain ‘70s visual cues very intently, it also manages a perfect balance of melancholy and comedy that elicits heavy truths while equally highlighting the gleefully effervescent moments of life (and how they weave our days and time together). Now streaming on Peacock as well as being available for rent or purchase through all major digital retailers.
7. The Covenant
Lately, director Guy Ritchie (“Snatch,” “Sherlock Holmes”) has inserted himself into genres rather than placing the genre itself in a stylistic chokehold. With “The Covenant,” one can feel the looseness of the filmmaking and how it tends to emphasize the unpredictability of many of the scenarios we are thrown into but rather than reinventing the wheel, Ritchie simply uses his style to make the wheel turn more effectively. Separate from but intrinsically linked to Ritchie's contributions are the two rock-solid lead performances from Jake Gyllenhaal and (especially) Dar Salim who bridge the gap between the two distinct parts of this film that might have felt more glaring were it not for their ability to communicate why one aspect is as vital as the other. As much about the kinds of actions Afghan interpreters were asked to take and the sacrifices they were asked to make as it is the system that props them up, “The Covenant” displays as much as it diagnoses what it's examining without ever feeling pontifical or exploitative and while it might always remain questionable if Ritchie was the right person to tell this story it would seem indisputable that he did do it justice. Now streaming on Prime Video as well as being available for rent or purchase through all major digital retailers.
Not to spoil anything about director Ava DuVernay's latest, “Origin,” but while much of this fictional adaptation of Isabel Wilkerson's nonfiction book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents is focused on Wilkerson herself (portrayed by the great Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor) as we follow along on her journey to research and write the eventual book many of the ideas in this film are based on, where “Origin” really flourishes is when it detours into the past and recreates these stories from throughout different stages in history that inform the present story Wilkerson is desperately trying to shape and make sense of. Undoubtedly, these detours are what will cause some critics to hasten toward thoughts that the film is disjointed and tonally uneven, but how DuVernay uses these reenactments to not only emphasize the reality of these things Wilkerson is learning but – for my money – beautifully weaves them throughout make both the film’s narrative and Wilkerson’s arc feel whole. To use a tired turn of phrase, they complement one another in such a way that by the time we reach the final moments where these two strands of storytelling coalesce, I was moved to tears – asking myself the basic question of, “Why do we do the things we do to one another?”. “Origin” is now playing in limited release and goes wide on January 19th, 2024.
5. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse
What makes a spider-person the hero they are? Or the person they are? Just as Miles Morales feels like an anomaly among his own, “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” - the follow-up to 2018's wildly successful “Into the Spider-Verse” - is very much that in both today’s comic book movie and cinematic landscape. Utilizing every element at its disposal to convey character feelings and better distinguish each of the many universes it creates, every aspect feels organic despite being completely constructed out of oblivion. Themes resonate more than the sometimes confusing plot, but the care and love evident in every decision makes all the multiverse talk more semantics than linchpins. In a year that will likely go down as the beginning of the end for the most recent run of comic book films, “Across the Spider-Verse” is not only the best superhero movie of the year but something special even if it’s not completely clear what kind of "special" that is yet. That said, instead of considering it the anomaly it is we might simply recognize (appropriately) that it goes beyond anything we’ve seen before. It's also immensely rewatchable. Now streaming on Netflix as well as being available for rent or purchase through all major digital retailers.
4. The Iron Claw
The story of the Von Erichs has been presented as a cautionary tale about parental influence, sibling rivalry and the various dangers of the professional wrestling business and while those broad categorizations certainly apply writer/director Sean Durkin (“Martha Marcy May Marlene”) ultimately settles his film around something more abstract; more heavenly, if you will. That the setting for “The Iron Claw” and all of Fritz Von Erich's (the tyrannical patriarch of the story) discipline and disaster could be the warmth and mood of a southern summer night in the ‘80s feels like a contradiction and as Zac Efron's (in a career-defining performance) arc as oldest brother Kevin suggests, the contradictions of life must be balanced by the ability to perceive and understand rather than leaving it up to destiny or even circumstance. We make our own luck or, as Ric Flair (portrayed here in an electric scene by Aaron Dean Eisenberg) would say, "In order to be the man, you have to beat the man." The ultimate tragedy is that Kevin learned this lesson too late and that his brothers didn’t have time to learn it at all. “The Iron Claw” is now playing in theaters.
3. John Wick: Chapter 4
The fourth chapter in John Wick’s journey doesn’t work as hard in the story department because it counts on its audience already being bought in and therefore only leans into the expansion of the world even more - as it has done with each new installment. That said, the sheer amount of work, real locations, visceral action/combat, and new/memorable characters present in this latest (and possibly final) entry make it one of the most impressive (and gorgeous) cinematic accomplishments of the year, a true achievement. An epic with serious intent, “John Wick: Chapter 4” includes no less than a handful of action staples with the potential to go down as some of the best action filmmaking ever. Whether it be the overhead oner with the flame-throwing gun, the extended fight sequence on the 222 steps leading up to the Sacré-Coeur Basilica, Donnie Yen's kitchen sequence through to his hand-to-hand with Hiroyuki Sanada and of course the club sequence where Keanu Reeves as our titular hero faces off against Scott Adkins in a fat suit AKA Killa. Each equates to pure cinematic euphoria that, between the production design, the choreography, the stunts, the music, the extras, and the prelude, easily make it one of the best of the year if not one of the all-time greatest action films. Now streaming on Starz as well as being available for rent or purchase through all major digital retailers.
2. Killers of the Flower Moon
In the late 19th century, the Osage Nation discovered a vast oil and mineral deposit on their reservation. Enterprising oilmen received drilling rights from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, with the stipulation that the Osage received a 10 percent royalty on all sales. Such abundance pushed droves of new inhabitants to Fairfax, Okla. leading to a string of murders that, as horrific as they are for the violence inflicted upon the Osage people, are made all the more so by the betrayals and gratuitousness woven into the nature of them. With the guidance but more the willingness of auteur Martin Scorsese to bring further illumination to this shameful chapter in American history, we are delivered what is both an overwhelming and abrading experience. With a (much discussed) runtime of three hours and 26 minutes it might seem deranged to feel like this film even flirts with the idea of short-changing its audience and while it doesn't actually - it does leave you wanting more. In what is likely one of Scorsese's final contributions to cinema, these varying instances of betrayal featuring the same degree of outrage paint this sweeping portrait of atrocious audacities; the transparency of the presumed drama giving way to deeper readings of motivations as well as how much something means versus how much something is truly worth. This top-tier work from a man who's been working for close to 60 years is kind of a miracle, but “Killers of the Flower Moon “exemplifies perfectly why Scorsese is still one of the most celebrated filmmakers in the world. Available for rent or purchase through all major digital retailers.
Given writer/director Christopher Nolan accomplishes as much in-camera as possible there is very little left to the imagination in “Oppenheimer”. From the bomb to the billions of stars being contemplated and even boobs, Nolan gives us everything that made J. Robert Oppenheimer tick. Was he a neurotic loner who was also a womanizer? A cold-hearted physicist as well as a bleeding-heart liberal? That seems to be the case and maybe the best case for why Nolan’s historical biopic about the “father of the atomic bomb” is so successful: it seamlessly integrates these contradictions into the narrative surrounding the moment that set the course of humanity on a different trajectory. Nolan's trademarks are well-suited to this story of a(nother) tortured genius who faces the greatest moral dilemma - possibly in history - and must come to terms with both his ambition, understanding his actions and eventually wrangling with his legacy as he sees it being maligned and himself being exiled by those with real power. As a rule, Nolan typically leans on the science of his premises to provide the meat of his films and while we see visual interpretations of theory early on in “Oppenheimer,” Nolan largely abandons both these cues and much talk of the scientific process around creating the weapon in favor of the politics and more specifically around his subject’s mounting contradictions through every aspect of his life: how both Oppenheimer’s work and thoughts ultimately consume him. It's devastatingly effective and, like Scorsese, sees a true auteur working at the peak of their powers. Available for rent or purchase through all major digital retailers.