Our critic takes inventory of his favorites after six months.
We are in the midst of another Hollywood freak-out.
It seems that the business model of throwing hundreds of millions at movies that look and sound like unadulterated garbage is beginning to fail. Who would have thought that people would tire of puerile, overproduced, same-o/same-o entertainment, with running times that seem to expand in ratio to the films’ budgets, that now take most of an afternoon to watch?
People are stunned that the fourth “Indiana Jones” sequel is bombing. For the record, Hollywood spent on that picture more than the last one grossed domestically 15 years ago. But you don’t have to be an accountant to see why it’s disappointing shareholders, you need only to see the movie. It’s a blob of IP-driven accommodation without any reason to exist save for a studio’s desperate underestimation of an audience. It seems that the crowd that will accept anything dipped in frivolous nostalgia is dwindling. And why wouldn’t it be? It’s no longer novelty, but a business model. There’s nostalgia for pop cultural detritus everywhere now. Original material, now that would be a novelty.
When the countercultural phenomenon of the New Hollywood of the 1960s and ‘70s briefly broke open, Old Hollywood was similarly addicted to expensive, out-of-touch product that was boring its audience senseless. The soil is ripe for another revolution, but can such revolutions even happen in a culture that can’t unite over anything? We are so skillfully divided by algorithms that cater to our private little whims and prejudices.
That said, good movies are still being made and released. As I say every year, you just have to look for them, because chances are that if they’re good, their studio doesn’t believe in them. This has actually been a decent year for movies so far, if you’re training your eyes and ears somewhere besides the great dumpster fire of the elephantine blockbusters.
Below are the ten best movies I’ve seen so far this year, in alphabetical order. (While certain of these films have played elsewhere prior to 2023, all of them debuted in America this year.)
“Asteroid City” (Wes Anderson)
Yes, it’s Wes Anderson “doing his thing.” But there are quite a few variations within the Anderson model, and this is one of his most beautiful films. An existential art object that suggests a 1950s saucer invasion movie by way of Antonioni and Jarmusch.
“Blood” (Brad Anderson)
A horror film about a family undone by an evil hiding in plain sight. Many familiar tropes here, particularly the vampirism-as-addiction metaphor that was used so often in the 1990s, which Anderson reinvigorates to startling effect. A perverse, mysterious, surprisingly moving freak-out.
“John Wick: Chapter 4” (Chad Stahelski)
Action-movie gymnastics served up hot and spicy. This film’s stylishness shames most blockbuster eyesores, and the set pieces are a new Mount Olympus of timing and choreography.
“The Outwaters” (Robbie Banfitch)
The closest that cinema has come in a long time to splashing pure madness across the big screen—a mind-screw that suggests nothing less than a redefinition of horror cinema. Think Lovecraft helmed by Dennis Hopper at his druggiest and most adventurous.
“Palm Trees and Powerlines” (Jamie Dack)
A disturbing character study that uses many cliches of the American indie against us, lowering our guard for a series of intensely personal perversities. A daring and empathetic look at sexual exploitation, with a career-redefining performance by Jonathan Tucker.
“Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game” (Austin and Meredith Bragg)
A funny, personable story of how people lost in life sometimes accidentally make a difference, their actions rippling in minute fashions across time. Part of a recent trend of biographies that are small and compact, elucidating particular moments in time rather than cradle-to-grave cliches.
“Showing Up” (Kelly Reichardt)
Kelly Reichardt’s best film to date is one of the definitive explorations of how artists balance their work with the rest of their lives, and of how that balance is, itself, the manna for said art. With another superlative performance by Michelle Williams.
“Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” (Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, Justin K. Thompson)
A pop movie that respects comic books as contemporary myths, as primordial reflections of our yearnings and insecurities and the tensions that divide and bind us. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that it’s one of the few movies this summer that isn’t hemorrhaging money. Count on Hollywood to learn all the wrong lessons from its success.
“Walk-Up” (Hong Sang-soo)
Another film about art-making, in this case utilizing a walk-up apartment as a symbol of artists’ psyches. Art-making is Hong’s master subject, which he explores in two or three movies a year somehow, without either exhausting the theme or his creative intuitions. One of his drollest and most suggestive films, “Walk-Up” would pair well with “Showing Up.”
“White Building” (Kavich Neang)
This Cambodian film is the directorial debut of the year so far, following residents of an apartment complex that’s on the verge of being condemned. Neang mixes anthropological, slow cinema film grammar—the apartment is real, and he lived there—with a shrewd sense of humor and character, which is to say that he drinks in his setting without boring the audience to death with his good intentions. Think “Summer Hours” by way of “Uncle Bonmee Who Can Recall Past Lives,” with an unexpected chaser of “Dazed and Confused.”