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Andrew Osborne’s 2023 Top 10 Movies


Based on the 2001 novel Erasure by Percival Everett, writer/director Cord Jefferson’s American Fiction is a quietly angry, laugh-out-loud goof on the insulated, mostly white well-to-do gatekeepers who determine what’s acceptable and accepted in literature and the greater pop culture landscape — namely, endless navel-gazing explorations of the lives and obsessions of insulated, well-to-do white people with occasional poverty porn thrown in so they can pat themselves on the back for caring about social issues and diversity.  Understanding how the game is played, a black author called Sintara Golden (Issa Rae) becomes a critics’ darling with an “urban” misery novel called We’s Lives in Da Ghetto.  Exasperated by her pandering, Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) writes a scathing, stereotypical parody — which the “intelligentsia” take at face value and praise for its “realness.”  Yet as sharp and timely as the satire is, the film also works as a moving, relatable family drama with a side of romantic comedy, resulting in a resonant, thematically and emotionally satisfying human-scale story that would make a great 2023 double feature with…


Another evocative character drama spiced with New England flavor (as well as a pitch-perfect evocation of ’70s period details and cinematic techniques), Alexander Payne hits all the right notes in a bittersweet crowd-pleaser about three lost souls (a misanthropic teacher, a troubled teen, and a grieving mother) who bond after winding up stranded together over winter break at a stuffy prep school.  The central trio (Paul Giamatti, Dominic Sessa, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph) all deserve Oscar consideration as much as the latter’s performance and character deserved more screen time.  But despite that small misstep, the sharp dialogue and timeless celebration of empathy should help to canonize The Holdovers as a recurring holiday classic.


What happens when you put a baby’s brain into the body of an adult woman?  It’s a premise that could easily devolve into softcore exploitation or pointless gimmickry — but director Yorgos Lanthimos (working from a funhouse script by Tony McNamara adapted from a novel by Alasdair Gray) uses the zaftig flip on Frankenstein to explore feminism, sexuality, marriage, ethics, and the complications of various types of relationships through a phantasmagorical lens (not unlike an R-rated version of Barbie set in a steampunk 19th century Europe) powered by a murderer’s row of memorable performances by Emma Stone, Willem Dafoe, Mark Ruffalo, and Ramy Youssef as well as an equally fine supporting cast (including Kathryn Hunter, bringing the same eerie gravitas of her witches in Joel Coen’s Macbeth to the role of a Parisian madame with a taste for earlobes).


Meanwhile, it’s hard to ignore the major pop culture impact and billion-dollar box office of Greta Gerwig’s subversive, candy-colored mainstream PG-13 take on similar themes in the Trojan Horse guise of a feature-length toy commercial.  Margot Robbie is so good in the role of a doll on the verge of a nervous breakdown that she arguably manages to fend off the spirited attempts of Ryan Gosling’s Ken and Kate McKinnon’s Weird Barbie to steal the movie out from under her floating feet.  And though the script’s sharp, nuanced takes on hot button topics like gender politics and representation fall weirdly flat whenever the cartoonish Mattel executives show up, it’s hard to grouse (or fathom the frothing MAGA reaction to the film) when it’s packed with so much goodwill (not to mention fabulous Easter eggs and a lovely cameo by national treasure Rhea Perlman as the ghost of Barbie’s “mom,” a.k.a. the late, great toy manufacturer and philanthropist, Ruth Handler).


This layered, unpredictable whodunnit features an ensemble of memorable characters more vivid than any true crime documentary or fictional murder mystery in recent memory — chief among them a hard drinkin’, shit talkin’ Irish expat named Patrick “Paddy” Moriarty who vanished from the quasi-ghost town of Larrimah, Australia in 2017, leaving behind about a dozen equally eccentric neighbors and just as many plausible theories about who killed him and what happened to his body.  Was he baked into a pie?  Fed to a crocodile?  Or worse?  Technically, the case has never been solved and director Thomas Tancred keeps you guessing before a final clue leads to a clear, satisfying (if not legally admissible) conclusion.


The most purely enjoyable escapist fare of the year, Honor Among Thieves is an endlessly inventive swords and sorcery heist film featuring a charismatic rogue’s gallery of adventurers including Chris Pine and Michelle Rodriguez, both fully embracing their inner geeks — and that rollicking sense of abandon is the magic potion that makes this adaptation of the classic role-playing game so enjoyable in a world of “dark” special effects epics that somehow lose sight of the idea that dragons and other supernatural beasties are inherently goofy and meant to be fun.


It’s impossible to create a cult classic on purpose.  Instead, an authentic attempt to make something good must instead go horribly awry, as was the case with the infamous 1977 fiasco The Star Wars Holiday Special, a star-studded variety show so inexplicably, surreally terrible that it’s inspired decades of parody, homage, and debate despite airing exactly once on network TV (and the fact that George Lucas did his damndest to erase it from the annals of pop culture history).  So, how exactly did a massive cinematic hit result in one of the worst TV shows of all time?  Co-directors Jeremy Koon and Steve Kozak weave together an affectionate tapestry of archival footage and exasperated interviews to solve the mystery while exploring larger themes about the necessity of artistic failure and the lost joys of pre-ironic entertainment.


Fun fact: people with brains featuring larger than average amygdalas are more likely to be altruistic.  That’s just one of the things filmmaker Penny Lane discovered after deciding to donate a kidney to a stranger while chronicling her journey in a funny, sardonic, and often thought-provoking documentary which delves into the nuts and bolts of the procedure as well as tougher questions about what individuals owe to each other and society at large, the consequences of doing good, and whether it matters if we end up improving the lives of people we don’t like.


It’s hard to believe a sweet-natured coming-of-age tale from 1970 that deals honestly with commonplace experiences like puberty could still be controversial.  But in an era of ongoing culture wars, book bans, and sexual panic, Judy Blume’s young adult novels remain as important and timeless as ever — while Kelly Fremon Craig’s cinematic adaptation of one of the author’s most beloved classics feels downright revolutionary in its straightforward depiction of the eponymous protagonist (Abby Ryder Fortson) dealing with her own changing body while reevaluating everything from her faith to perceptions of herself, her friends, and her family.


Writer/director John Carney’s sleeper about a hard-drinking single mum (Eve Hewson) watching helplessly as her sullen son Max (Orén Kinlan) drifts towards a life of dead-end petty crime in Dublin is the kind of indie gem that even most arthouses barely have screen space for in the streaming age — and that’s a shame, since the emotional uplift of realistically three-dimensional characters finally finding a way to connect (in this case through a climactic pub performance) is even better as a communal experience.

Wildcards (potentially list-worthy movies as yet unseen by moi)

Across the Spider-Verse, All of Us Strangers, John Wick: Chapter 4, Oppenheimer, Saltburn

Honorable Mention

Asteroid City, Black Barbie, If You Were the Last, Killers of the Flower Moon, Little Richard: I Am Everything, Love to Love You Donna Summer, Lynch/Oz, May December, Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning (Part 1), The Ordinaries, Past Lives, Priscilla, Quiz Lady, Theater Camp

2023 Notable Elements Not Mentioned Elsewhere

The primal evocations of childhood perception and fear (before the novelty wore off) in Skinamarink, If You Were the Last‘s palpable romantic chemistry, Donny Osmond’s enduring charm in A Disturbance in the Force, the perfect casting of Alecia Silverstone as a drama teacher in Mustache, the clever cinematic sight gags of The Ordinaries, Sophia Lillis equally magnetic as a tiefling or an owlbear in Dungeons & Dragons, Jeff Goldblum’s cameo and the alien hoedown song in Asteroid City, Mission Impossible‘s crashing train set piece, the musical finale of Theater Camp, Lily Gladstone in Killers of the Flower Moon, the era-appropriate prostitute in The Holdovers, Quiz Lady‘s poignant Paul Reubens cameo.


The music, Carey Mulligan’s stirring performance, and the time-and-genre-spanning cinematography by Matty Libatique were exquisite.  But the film in general (and Bradley Cooper’s performance in particular) were so mannered they felt like an SCTV parody, especially given that the meandering film somehow couldn’t figure out an interesting story to tell about Leonard Bernstein beyond the fact that he slept with men and his wife got sick.


Except for a brief sequence of lovely animation by Cristobal León & Joaquín Cociña, Ari Aster’s self-indulgent cinematic wank is basically just 179 minutes of rich kid whining and tacky Darren Afronofsky-esque surrealism designed to suggest critics of the film simply “don’t get it” — as if the reveal that the main character’s father is a penis monster is some type of gnostic riddle only true intellectuals could possibly fathom.  Parker Posey does her best to add a shred of charisma in her tragically brief cameo, but otherwise the only satisfying moment is Patti LuPone sharing her utter contempt for the film’s odious protagonist (suggesting the movie was meant to replicate the feeling of hitting yourself in the head with a hammer ’cause it feels so good to finally stop).

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