Salty Air

Best movies of 2023 shine a light – Play It Again, Tim

Perfect Days
Written by Tim Miller

Sometimes it takes me a while to grasp the obvious.

That invisible lightbulb above my head will suddenly flick on, I’ll wipe the drool from my slackened jaw with my sleeve, and I’ll realize something that I should have known decades earlier.

The latest lightning bolt: Movies, at their best, bear witness.

This hit me while watching “20 Days in Mariupol,” Associated Press war correspondent/video journalist Mystyslav Chernov’s stunning documentary about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This is war – a war still going on – up-close and personal. Chernov’s news footage bears witness to just what such conflicts entail: a city turned to rubble, a maternity hospital bombed, bloodied children dying on operating tables, bodies of civilians filling mass graves. This is filmmaking at its most important, its most essential, if we want to know what’s going on in the world.

While the Chernov doc is an obvious example of bearing witness, I realized, as I considered the other great films of 2023, narrative features as well as documentaries, that they all shed light on aspects of life in their own, often profound, ways. Movies, at their best, strive to capture different truths, to help us understand our experiences and those of others, to help us make sense of it all and maybe, just maybe, become better people as a result.

Here are my 10 favorite movies of the year. As I write this, I’m still struggling over which of the top two should be No. 1.

Perfect Days

Koji Yakusho and Arisa Nakano appear in Wim Wenders’ “Perfect Days.” (Neon)

1. “Perfect Days.” Master filmmaker Wim Wenders (“Paris, Texas,” “Wings of Desire”) delivers another sublime masterpiece. This one captures the daily life of Hirayama (Koji Yakusho), an aging toilet cleaner in Tokyo. In many ways he seems like one of life’s invisible people going through a dull, repetitive, seemingly lonely existence. But Wenders shows how – and, to a degree, why – Hirayama embraces this simple life, how he lives in the moment and finds joy in everything from playing Lou Reed and Patti Smith cassettes in his van to shooting photos of trees in the park. This is no naive you’ve-just-gotta-stop-and-smell-the-roses story, however. Hirayama has made choices, with tradeoffs, and bittersweet results. He knows he lives in a different world than others, and he does so consciously. In depicting this life, Wenders subtly challenges us to consider what world, what life, we’ve chosen, and whether we’ve done so with a similar awareness.

Past Lives

Teo Yoo and Greta Lee star in Celine Song’s “Past Lives.” (A24)

2. “Past Lives.” Speaking of bittersweet, this poignant love story from writer-director Celine Song will tear your heart apart. It opens in South Korea, where Na Young and Hae Sun are childhood friends with unspoken crushes on each other. They’re separated, but reconnect 12 years later. They separate again, but reconnect another 12 years later. Will they wind up living happily ever after together, or will choices and circumstances keep them apart? Song, making her directorial debut, captures the vastness and complexity of human experience and emotion in a way that leaves you in awe. Greta Lee and Teo Yoo, as the adult versions of Na Young and Hae Sun, are perfect in the leads.

3. “20 Days in Mariupol.” With the Russian attacks on Ukraine continuing, this is arguably the most important film of the year, for the reasons outlined above. Chernov and his small crew put their lives on the line to record the destruction of Mariupol, a city now under Russian control. The results reveal the senseless cruelty that comes with war in general, and this conflict in particular. Why this movie is essential should be self-evident.

Killers of the Flower Moon

Lily Gladstone, seen with Leonardo DiCaprio, gives the performance of the year in Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon.” (Apple)

4. “Killers of the Flower Moon.” Martin Scorsese’s monumental history lesson, set in 1920s Oklahoma, tells a true story of greed, racism, misogyny, betrayal, hypocrisy and so much more. When Native Americans of the Osage Nation strike oil on land previously considered worthless, they suddenly become extremely wealthy. Enter white men, who manipulate their way into possession of the riches, through marriage and murder. Lily Gladstone gives the performance of the year as an Osage woman who falls victim to her dimwitted husband (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his powerful, ruthless uncle (Robert DeNiro).

5. “The Zone of Interest.” Anyone baffled by why a large segment of our population – and a large segment of a political party – still supports a Mussolini wannabe? You might gain some insight through writer-director Jonathan Glazer’s chilling drama. The film, based on a Martin Amis novel, focuses on the family life of Rudolf Hoss (Christian Friedel), commandant of the Auschwitz concentration and death camp. While he and his wife, Hedwig (Sandra Huller of “Anatomy of a Fall”), strive to create their idea of the perfect home, complete with beautiful garden, on the other side of the wall, from the camp, screams and shots are heard, and smoke is seen coming from the crematorium. Without the horrific context, Hoss would be just another guy driven to seek success at work and the perks that come with it, and Hedwig simply a demanding, materialistic wife. Why worry about what atrocities are happening nearby, as long as you get yours?

6. “August at Twenty-Two.” I saw this sleeper at the Provincetown International Film Festival, and it was like uncovering a precious gem. Directed by Sophia Castuera and written by Ali Edwards, who plays the main character, it’s about a young woman just out of school who’s trying to make it as an actress in New York City. Not exactly a new subject, right? But Edwards and Castuera capture the confusion and awkwardness of starting out, of seeking one’s identity, in a sweet, funny way that rings true.

7. “Fallen Leaves.” If you like Jim Jarmusch’s deadpan humor (count me in), you’ll probably love this movie from Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki (“Leningrad Cowboys Go America”). In fact, the main characters of “Fallen Leaves,” Ansa (Alma Poysti) and Holappa (Jussi Vatanen), go to a Jarmusch zombie movie, “The Dead Don’t Die.” They watch, expressionless, but when they walk out, Ansa says she’s never laughed so hard. Hilarious. However understated, Kaurismaki’s film also offers a warm love story about two lonely people, one alcoholic, struggling to break out of their dead-end lives by connecting with each other in a meaningful way. No matter how bleak life can be, Kaurismaki suggests, there is hope.

8. “Afire.” In German writer-director Christian Petzold’s deliberately paced drama, four young people – a writer (Thomas Schubert), a photographer (Langston Uibel), a lifeguard (Enno Trebs) and an ice-cream vendor (Paula Beer) – navigate romance, artistic ambitions and a deadly fire while staying at a summer cottage by the Baltic Sea. Deceptively light at first, the film takes a dark turn while considering what makes great art (partial answer: bearing witness) and the need to step outside oneself.

9. “Oppenheimer.” Christopher Nolan’s gripping biopic/thriller about J. Robert Oppenheimer covers a lot of ground: Oppenheimer’s involvement in the Manhattan Project, which led to the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; his personal life; his Communist ties and the postwar repercussions of his leftist leanings. Cillian Murphy gives a restrained, compelling performance as this complicated, brilliant man, an intellectual snob and cold fish with an unpredictable moral compass. He’s backed by an all-star supporting cast that includes Robert Downey Jr., Emily Blunt, Florence Pugh and Matt Damon.

10. “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret.” Kelly Fremon Craig’s funny, life-affirming adaptation of the Judy Blume bestseller focuses on an 11-year-old girl, Margaret (Abby Ryder Fortson), who moves from New York City to New Jersey, finds new friends, enters sixth grade, and anticipates developing breasts and having her first period. Never saccharine or contrived, it shows that life can be challenging, no matter what one’s age, but that it can still be good. Rachel McAdams and Benny Safdie are excellent as Margaret’s parents.

Honorable mention: “Still: a Michael J. Fox Movie,” “The Teachers’ Lounge,” “The Eight Mountains,” “The Pigeon Tunnel,” “Flora and Son,” “Everything Went Fine,” “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves,” “The Taste of Things,” “Scrapper,” “May December,” “Anatomy of a Fall,” “Emily,” “The Creator,” “She Sings to Birds” (a narrative short by former Cape Codder Steven J. Martin), “Joy Ride,” “American Fiction,” “The Holdovers,” “Master Gardener.”

Best performances of the year

Lily Gladstone’s work in “Killers of the Flower Moon” was not only the performance of the year, it was the cinematic highlight of the year. As Mollie, a wealthy Osage woman who provides the heart of “Flower Moon,” she expresses so much with just a word, the hint of a smile, a glimmer of sadness. She is magnificent.

The 10 best performances of 2023:

1. Lily Gladstone, “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

2. Koji Yakusho, “Perfect Days.”

3. Merve Dizdar, “About Dry Grasses.”

4. Lily Gladstone, “The Unknown Country.”

5. Robert Downey Jr., “Oppenheimer.”

6. Cillian Murphy, “Oppenheimer.”

7. Mark Ruffalo, “Poor Things.”

8. Glenn Howerton, “Blackberry.”

9. Ali Edwards, “August at Twenty-Two.”

10. Emma Stone, “Poor Things.”

Honorable mention: Jamie Foxx, “The Burial”; Jeffrey Wright, “American Fiction”; Emily Blunt, “Oppenheimer”; Juliette Binoche, “The Taste of Things”; Natalie Portman, “May December”; Florence Pugh, “A Good Person”; Greta Lee, “Past Lives”; Paul Giamatti, “The Holdovers”; Hugh Grant, “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves”; Robert DeNiro, “Killers of the Flower Moon”; Sophie Marceau, “Everything Went Fine”; Margot Robbie, “Barbie”; Cailee Spaeny, “Priscilla”: Tilda Swinton, “The Killer”; Da’Vine Joy Randolph, “The Holdovers”; Parker Posey, “Beau Is Afraid.”

The worst movie of the year

I didn’t go out of my way to see craptastic movies, but one certainly qualified as truly terrible.

And the winner (?) is: “Mafia Mamma.”

It’s a mob comedy, directed by Catherine Hardwicke (“Twilight”) and starring Toni Collette and Monica Bellucci, that is so painfully, shockingly unfunny that I couldn’t help wonder whether Collette and Bellucci were either blackmailed into doing it or were paying off on a lost bet. It’s almost worth watching the first 10 minutes just to see how bad a movie can be. Almost, but, really, don’t.

Other movies that stood out for their awfulness were Ari Aster’s cynical, relentlessly ugly horror-comedy “Beau Is Afraid,” whose only bright spot is Parker Posey, and “Anyone But You,” an annoyingly contrived rom-com starring Sydney Sweeney and Glen Powell.

But when it comes to bad movies, “Mafia Mamma” puts them to shame.


Let’s hang out (more shameless self-promotion)

I’ll be back at Sturgis Library in Barnstable to host a free screening of “All the President’s Men” at 12:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 13. The 1976 film stars Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who helped bring down the Nixon administration by exposing the Watergate break-in and cover-up.

Jason Robards steals the film as Ben Bradlee, the Post’s editor, who sums things up nicely when he says to Woodward and Bernstein:

“You know the results of the latest Gallup Poll? Half the country never even heard of the word Watergate. Nobody gives a shit. You guys are probably pretty tired, right? Well, you should be. Go on home, get a nice hot bath. Rest up … 15 minutes.

“Then get your asses back in gear. We’re under a lot of pressure, you know, and you put us there. Nothing’s riding on this except the First Amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country. Not that any of that matters, but if you guys fuck up again, I’m going to get mad. Good night.”

Gets me every time.

The screening, which will be followed by a discussion, is part of the five-part series “Fighting the Good Fight: Movies About Journalism.” Upcoming screenings will include “Broadcast News” on Feb. 10 and “Spotlight” on March 2.

The library is located at 3090 Main St. (Route 6A). More information:

** Click here for  Tim Miller’s previous movie columns for Cape Cod Wave **

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Tim Miller

Tim Miller, Movie Critic

Tim Miller is co-president of the Boston Society of Film Critics and a Tomatometer-approved critic. He teaches film and journalism at Cape Cod Community College in West Barnstable. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or follow him onTwitter @TimMillerCritic. Or you can ignore him completely.

About the author

Tim Miller

Tim Miller, a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics, was the Cape Cod Times film critic for nearly 36 years. A Detroit native (and hardcore Tigers fan), he’s been obsessed with movies since skipping school in 1962 to see “Lawrence of Arabia” with his parents when he was 7. Miller earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and his master’s from Suffolk University, where he taught film and journalism for 10 years. He continues to teach film at Curry College and Cape Cod Community College. He is a juror each year for the short-film competition of the Martha’s Vineyard International Film Festival, has moderated several panel discussions at the Woods Hole Film Festival and frequently is heard as a guest on Cape & Islands NPR station WCAI. His work appeared as a chapter in the book “John Sayles: Interviews.” His favorite movie is Cameron Crowe's “Almost Famous” – because it makes him feel good to be alive.

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