It’s the final month of the year, which means much of our attention will be turned to sharing various best-of-2023 rundowns throughout December. The month also brings many of the year’s most noteworthy films, which we’ve rounded up before––some of which will be opening in a more limited capacity and expanding next month.
We should also note some top November picks like The Boy and the Heron and May December are finally getting in front of wider audiences, with the former getting a wide release on December 8 and the latter arriving on Netflix this Friday. For this round-up we’re also not including films getting limited one-week-only runs this month, such as Noora Niasari’s Shayda on December 1 and Ava DuVernay’s Origin and Alice Rohrwacher’s La Chimera on December 8.
14. Memory (Michel Franco; Dec. 22)
Every year there’s at least one film that premieres at the fall-festival circuit without distribution and then does a last-minute jump into the impending awards season. 2023’s major entry in this category is Michel Franco’s Memory, starring Jessica Chastain and Peter Sarsgaard, which premiered at Venice and TIFF. It was subsequently picked up by Ketchup Entertainment, who previously released the Ben Affleck-led Hypnotic this past summer. David Katz said in his review, “Memory hands Chastain and Peter Sarsgaard (deserved winner of the Venice competition’s acting prize) gifts of roles, in a love story whose exact contours it’s tempting to keep concealed. Franco definitely operates with the element of surprise, having tricked viewers sitting down to (for instance) Sundown of his attractive leads Tim Roth and Charlotte Gainsbourg’s exact relationship.”
13. Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget (Sam Fell; Dec. 8 in theaters and Dec. 15 on Netflix)
Arriving nearly a quarter-century after its predecessor, and this time with no Mel Gibson in sight, the sequel to Chicken Run is helmed by ParaNorman director Sam Fell. Oliver Weir said in his review, “Many people (this reviewer included) scoffed at the announcement of Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget. Something about the ludicrous title and 23-year hiatus gave the air of a studio in desperation, or one searching for an Oscar contender. How wrong we were. For in spite of the long wait and changes of personnel––Zachary Levi and Thandiwe Newton replace Mel Gibson and Julia Sawalha; Sam Fell replaces Nick Park and Peter Lord––this latest adventure is every bit as well-crafted, cleverly written, and stuffed with gallinaceous puns as its predecessor.”
12. Eileen (William Oldroyd; Dec. 1)
In the cold, dreary outskirts of 1960s Boston, Eileen (Thomasin McKenzie) spends her days hoping for a better (or at least more sexually active) life, splitting her time working at a juvenile prison ward and caring for her ailing drunk of a father (Shea Whigham). When the elegant, mysterious Rebecca (Anne Hathaway) glides into her work as the new psychologist on staff, Eileen’s dull world is suddenly brought to life and an unspoken attraction sparks. Little does Eileen know the spark will lead to unimaginably dark consequences. Adapted by the novel’s author Ottessa Moshfegh, here working with Luke Goebel (Causeway), William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth follow-up Eileen is lacking in a considered formal approach but strives to make up for this misgiving with a script that offers its talented ensemble an unexpected mix of sensual longing and perverse thrills. While this clash of tones doesn’t entirely gel, part of its appeal is the shock of such contrasts. Continue reading my review.
11. Occupied City (Steve McQueen; Dec. 25)
After crafting the finest work of his career with his ambitious five-film project Small Axe, Steve McQueen is working on a large scale once again with Occupied City, a four-and-a-half-hour documentary about the city of Amsterdam vis-à-vis dueling histories: the Nazi occupation and its precarious place amidst pandemic life. While our own Luke Hicks was a bit underwhelmed out of Cannes, I’m quite curious to catch up ahead of McQueen’s vision of the time period ahead of his WWII drama Blitz next year.
10. Silent Night (John Woo; Dec. 1)
John Woo’s return to Hollywood action filmmaking is all that really needs to be said to get onboard for Silent Night, but our own Nick Newman has upped the ante further: “Silent Night suggests what would happen if Michael Winner directed The Human Surge, but you could also call it Eduardo Williams’ Death Wish III. Not that it isn’t very John Woo in melodrama and morality. Needless to say I enjoyed myself, sometimes immensely.”
8. Poor Things (Yorgos Lanthimos; Dec. 8)
As I was watching Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things during its fall-festival run, I felt its staying power wane, an effect only confirmed in the weeks since viewing. However, that’s not to say this tale of reanimation doesn’t have its particular pleasures: a pompous Mark Ruffalo, lavish production design as captured in all its glory by Robbie Ryan, and a no-holds-barred Emma Stone elevating the wayward script. Luke Hicks said in his review, “DP Robbie Ryan doesn’t let any of it go to waste, capturing sets brilliantly with a blend of lenses, movements, and styles as inspiring and eclectic as the design elements: a hefty section of the film shot in stunning black-and-white; another good chunk shot with lenses so wide open they stretch and squeeze the fantasyland into an ever-morphing fish-eye perspective whose aesthetic quality adds to the shot instead of rendering it ineffective; another good chunk photographed with a lens defined by a thick, distorting radial blur around the edges. Ryan’s put together a masterclass on how to creatively and effectively find the intersection between camerawork and theme.”
8. American Fiction (Cord Jefferson; Dec. 15)
Thelonious “Monk” Ellison is in a rut. He’s still trying to get a publisher to accept his latest book in a market that doesn’t exactly embrace his erudite style. His gig as a college professor lecturing to students that are too “goddamn delicate” to embrace thorny topics of race has him ostracized from colleagues. He’s estranged from family, all of whom are juggling their own issues––health problems, divorce, the financial strain that comes with both. When Monk concocts an elaborate joke to get more fame and acceptance, it’s taken shocking seriously, setting off a series of misadventures exploring how white America is more willing to accept the most reductive, pandering stories of Black trauma versus something that rings holistically authentic. With American Fiction, Cord Jefferson––who has worked on series such as Succession and 2019’s Watchmen––has crafted a directorial debut of biting satire but one that smartly stays grounded in the perspective of Monk’s journey. Continue reading my review.
7. The Iron Claw (Sean Durkin; Dec. 22)
Following up his long-awaited return to The Nest, writer-director Sean Durkin is back with The Iron Claw, an immensely well-directed portrait of the Von Erich wrestling dynasty and the fatalistic “curse” that plagued the family. With a brooding, pained Zac Efron in a career-best performance guiding the emotional weight of the film, Durkin doesn’t forget to show the tender bonds of brotherhood before it all unravels.
6. in water & The Daughters of Fire (Hong Sangsoo and Pedro Costa; Dec. 1)
Hong Sangsoo’s in water may be his shortest feature yet but it’s also his most formally fascinating, shot almost entirely out-of-focus and as bold of an artistic statement as you’re likely to see this year. Coupled with Pedro Costa’s new short The Daughters of Fire (make sure to read Nick Newman’s interview with the director), the true Barbenheimer of the year is here. As Rory O’Connor said in his review out of Berlin, “Narratively it’s nothing if not succinct, and whatever In Water lacks for plot it more than makes up for in mood and ideas, as well as a kind of raw artistic honesty––regarding his work, yes, but also his sense of mortality. All of which only makes you wonder: might something be fading for the 62-year-old? Derek Jarman was losing his eyesight when he made Blue. Could Hong eventually distill his cinema to different shades of grey? In any case, you’d never doubt the sincerity. ‘I’m not the type to make films for the money. I lack the skill for that, anyway,’ Seoung-mo explains in an early scene. ‘I’m just hoping for honor.’ Amen to that.”
5. The Sweet East (Sean Price Williams; Dec. 1)
The fast-paced, grimy underworlds that Sean Price Williams has captured as cinematographer beautifully set the stage for his directing debut The Sweet East, an Americana romp for our times if there ever was one. Working from a script by critic Nick Pinkerton, the road trip follows Talia Ryder’s character as she comes across Jacob Elordi, Simon Rex, Ayo Edebri, Jeremy O. Harris, Andy Milonakis, and more––and it’s as hilarious as it is upsetting. Rory O’Connor was taken with the film at Cannes, saying, “[The] punky directorial debut boasts both the cinematographer’s signature aesthetic (grainy, shaky, full of lovely pastels and close-ups) and Pinkerton’s idiosyncratic, roguish worldview. Premiering this week in Directors’ Fortnight, The Sweet East––seemingly taking cues from John Waters––is cinema at its most playfully facetious, infectiously puerile, and flagrantly transgressive, and an early highlight of a Cannes Film Festival that, near its midway point, has been somewhat short on provocation.”
4. Godzilla Minus One (Takashi Yamazaki; Dec. 1)
If a Dune-less fall is making the season a bit less exciting on a blockbuster, fear not: Godzilla is here to save the day. And thankfully it’s not the rather disappointing iteration that WB/Legendary has evolved to, but rather Toho’s first live-action Godzilla film since Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi’s Shin Godzilla. Ryan Swen said in his review, “For much of Takashi Yamazaki’s Godzilla Minus One, Toho Studios’ 33rd film in the beloved kaiju franchise, the iconic monster exists as an abstraction. After a brief, brutal rampage to start, he is kept offscreen, a shadow in the mind of our hero Kōichi Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki).”
3. Ferrari (Michael Mann; Dec. 25)
Michael Mann’s long-awaited return to feature filmmaking hits where it counts, with its riveting racing sequences feeling like new territory for the octogenarian director. And if the family matters don’t necessarily have the brooding atmosphere and catharsis that has become synonymous with the director, there’s at least a fantastic, fiery Penélope Cruz to help the drama move along. Luke Hicks said in his Venice review, “Michael Mann’s first feature since 2015’s Blackhat offers a late-career challenge: a time and place the iconic writer, director, producer has never touched: 1950s Italy. He’s done the ’30s, the ’60s, the ’70s, and almost all modernity. But never the ’50s. And his stories rarely leave the United States. When they do (e.g. Ali, Miami Vice), it’s often for a brief pit stop. Modena is tone, setting, and mood, an aesthetic invasive and beloved enough to be the heart of all three.”
2. The Zone of Interest (Jonathan Glazer; Dec. 15)
A decade after Jonathan Glazer debuted Under the Skin, he’s now reteamed with A24 for the chilling Holocaust drama The Zone of Interest. Based on Martin Amis’s Auschwitz-set novel, but taking many liberties in the adaptation, the film features Toni Erdmann star Sandra Hüller and Christian Friedel (Amour Fou, The White Ribbon) as we witness their daily activities outside the concentration camp. Rory O’Connor said in his review, “Just as he did with Under the Skin, Glazer takes but a sliver of the source text and lets his imagination––perhaps his nightmares––take over. In his novel Amis alternated between the perspectives of an Auschwitz camp Commander, the mid-level officer who seduces his wife, and the antihero Szmul, a Jewish man who heads the Sonderkommando unit. Glazer strips the vast majority of it away: this is not a film that dares get too close to anyone’s perspective, let alone three.”
1. All of Us Strangers (Andrew Haigh; Dec. 22)
One of the most beautiful, tender, and mysterious films of the year, Andrew Haigh’s All of Us Strangers follows Andrew Scott as his character strikes up a relationship with a neighbor (Paul Mescal) in his building while looking into his past. The ethereal, deeply moving drama, also starring Jamie Bell and Claire Foy, screened at the New York Film Festival, where Jake Kring-Schreifels said in his review, “Even in its overwhelming melancholic power, Haigh has made something therapeutic—about longing and holding on and learning to let go. They’re human lessons that sometimes need a paranormal push.”
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