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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Our 40 personal favorite films of 2023

Screen Grabs: Our 40 personal favorite films of 2023

From 'Astrakhan' to 'Zone of Interest.' Plus: Tarkovsky's Timeless Echoes, '21 Positions' of OnlyFans, reliving the Y2K panic, more movies

There is no better time than year’s end to ponder the metaphysical, and the Roxie is conveniently providing an illustrated opportunity to do so via Timeless Echoes: A Tarkovsky Retrospective. The late Soviet filmmaker (he died of lung cancer in 1986 at age 54, just missing the USSR’s demise) is esteemed as perhaps the preeminent founding master of “slow cinema” and a screen transcendentalism that has been reflected in many rarefied talents since, from his protege Aleksandr Sokurov to Theo Angelopoulos, Bela Tarr, Abbas Kiarostami, Tsai Ming-liang, Lav Diaz, Carlos Reygadas, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

Like everyone else on that list, Andrei Tarkovsky’s films require patience, and are likely to bore or baffle if you don’t surrender to their trance-like pacing and enigmatic narratives. I’ll admit it took me a long time to become enthused, probably because the first movie I saw was his posthumously-released last—The Sacrifice, as pompously labored a thematic and stylistic dead-end as Tarr’s later Turin Horse. But the five films in the Roxie’s series provide ample evidence of a sensibility at once monumental and very private, their meanings cryptic and questing.

They do not include Sacrifice, or his most widely-seen feature, 1972 sci-fi epic Solaris (please do not consider Soderbergh’s misguided remake a fair substitute). But there’s everything else of importance, with my personal favorites Andrei Rublev (a staggering, wayward 1966 biopic of the 15th-century iconographer) and Stalker (a futurist fantasy even more cerebral than Solaris, from 1979), the latter kicking off the program this Sat/30 and Sat/6. There’s also his 1962 debut feature Ivan’s Childhood, a bitter wartime indictment anticipating Elem Klimov’s legendary Come and SeeNostalghia (1983), an Italian production that was the better of his two films made in reluctant self-exile to Europe; and 1975’s Mirror, a particularly personal, confounding puzzle that I still find near-impenetrable… but that may change someday. The “Timeless Echoes” series runs this Sat/30 through Feb. 24, with most films playing only once. More info here.

LOOKING BACK AT 2023

The year’s end also inevitably brings the obligation to look back over the preceding 12 months and chip in one’s two cents about what was “best.” I prefer to brand any such lists as personal favorites, this being a very subjective business. I couldn’t really tell you why say Oppenheimer (or any among a number of other high-profile awards contenders) isn’t on this list, while something like goofy comedy Biosphere or ultraviolent Sisu is—beyond that I genuinely liked the latter duo, while Christopher Nolan’s big biopic left me, as usual with his work, admiring of his craft yet unmoved.

The majority of titles here aren’t mainstream releases or genre films, but smallish foreign, independent, and documentary features, a fair number of which went more or less direct to streaming. (Particularly in the Bay Area, which within the last few years has gone from being arguably the nation’s longest-running best arthouse market to one that new movies regularly bypass for lack of available venues.) Again, that’s just my taste. Although if you’re reading 48 Hills, you likely won’t be too upset that nothing based on a children’s toy or Qanon-adjacent purported “true story” surfaces among this roster.

Out of laziness, and/or a spirit of inclusiveness (though there were plenty of other good releases that didn’t quite make the cut), this is a “Top 40” not in order of preference, or alphabetization, but simply chronology. This serves the purpose of keeping near the end several films that are being pushed for 2023 award consideration, but won’t actually be opening anywhere near here until early 2024. (Also, Close and The Quiet Girl are at the top because they were pushed for 2022 awards, but Bay Area viewers couldn’t access either until February this year.) Those forthcoming releases haven’t as yet been reviewed in this space, but nearly everything else has, and you can read our prior coverage by clicking on the relevant titles. Movies listed are primarily U.S. productions unless otherwise noted—where the multinational production is very complicated, we just listed the nation of principal location.

Close (Belgium, Lukas Dhont) 

Alice, Darling (Canada, Mary Nighy) 

The Quiet Girl (Ireland, Colm Bairead) 

Palm Trees and Power Lines (Jamie Dack) 

Tori and Lokita (Belgium-France, Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne) 

Beautiful Beings (Iceland, Guomundur Arnar Guomundsson) 

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (France-Luxembourg-Netherlands-Canada, Pierre Foldes) 

Sisu (Finland, Jalmari Helander) 

The Eight Mountains (Italy, Felix van Groeningen & Charlotte Vandermeersch) 

Tommy Guns (Portugal, Carlos Conceicao) 

Biosphere (Mel Eslyn) 

The League (Sam Pollard) 

Past Lives (Celine Song) 

Return to Seoul (South Korea, Davy Chou)

The Lesson (U.K., Alice Troughton)

War Pony (Gina Gammell & Riley Keough) 

Shortcomings (Randall Park) 

Afire (Germany, Christian Petzold) 

The Owners (Czech Republic-Slovakia, Jan Havelka) 

Astrakan (France, David Depesseville) 

Rotting in the Sun (U.S.-Mexico, Sebasian Silva) 

Klondike (Ukraine-Turkey, Maryna Er Gorbach) 

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, Justin K. Thompson)

Dumb Money (Craig Gillespie) 

Scrapper (U.K., Charlotte Regan) 

The Origin of Evil (France, Sebastian Marnier) 

Hello Dankness (Australia, Soda Jerk) 

Into the Weeds (Jennifer Baichwal) 

The Mission (Amanda McBaine & Jesse Moss) 

Fast Charlie (Philip Noyce) 

Anselm (Germany, Wim Wenders)

Poor Things (Ireland-U.K.-U.S., Yorgos Lanthimos) 

The Zone of Interest (Jonathan Glazer)

Family Game aka Arsenault et fils (Canada, Rafael Ouellet) 

American Fiction (Cord Jefferson)

The Promised Land (Denmark, Nikolaj Arcel)

The Teacher’s Lounge (Germany, Ilker Catak)

Shayda (Australia, Noora Niasari)

The Taste of Things (France, Anh Hung Tran)

Society of the Snow (Uruguay, J.A. Bayona)

In that spirit of inclusiveness, naturally there are a few last new releases sneaking under the calendar wire to cover before we bid smell-ya-later to 2023:

Rose

To say middle-aged Inger (Sofie Grabol) doesn’t get out much is a drastic understatement—she’s lived in a mental institution for many years. Even within its bounds, she doesn’t like to move around without a wheelchair she doesn’t necessarily need. So it’s a pretty big leap for younger sister Ellen (Lene Maria Christensen) and her husband Vagn (Anders W. Berthelsen) to take her on a group bus tour from Denmark to Paris, which it turns out is where Inger suffered the romantic rejection that sent her schizophrenia into overdrive several decades ago.

She has vague intentions of looking up the ex-lover from that time. She helped in that quest by a 12-year-old boy (Luca Reichardt Ben Coker) who befriends her on the trip, despite the open hostility of that boy’s father (Soren Malling). The latter thinks it’s completely irresponsible—not to mention unpleasant—for a mentally ill person to be brought on such a journey, and he’s obnoxiously loud in such opinions.

Admittedly, Inger is a lot to deal with: She has no verbal filter, saying things inappropriate things (particularly “I’d like to strangle you”) to the inappropriate people. Her irrational mood swings can encompass suicidal urges. At one point everything grinds to a halt when she insists a roadkill animal be properly buried in a parking lot. But then, again, she’s not just “some nut”—among her hidden skills is a multilingualism that proves very helpful once they arrive in France.

Rose is directed by Niels Arden Oplev, who’s best known for the original Swedish TV version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, but also made the excellent fact-based hostage drama Held for Ransom. This latest is also purportedly “based on real events,” as opening text informs us. But the only further suggestion of that is its being conspicuously set in the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death, whose Parisian car accident site is visited here.

Otherwise this seems like a generally familiar but strong fiction about coming to terms with mental disability—both for the suffer and those around them. It seldom risks falling into any rote “inspirational” trap; Rose’s difficulties are not sugar-coated, and the eventual sense of this trip being a success is very hard-won. With excellent performances, and enough humor and warmth to counterbalance the discomfiting material, it’s well worth a look. It was released to U.S. digital platforms by Game Theory Films last Tues/26.

21 Positions

Somewhat less revealing—except in terms of clothing doffed—is this Spanish drama from Nestor Ruiz Medina, co-written and/or improvised with his actors. Thirtysomethings Julia (Maria Lazaro) and Mateo (Fernando Barona) are living a rather carefree existence on the Cadiz coastline, funded by their OnlyFans page. They seem to be living a very 21st-century boho dream life. But there are signs of discontent on her side, and it eventually emerges that she is no longer comfortable doing online porn—she feels she’s losing her authentic self to the online persona created for that purpose.

It’s an interesting conflict. But these characters aren’t drawn with enough depth for us to truly understand where either Julia’s resistance or Mateo’s refusal to change is coming from. They have no backstories, no outside interests (beyond partying), no dimensionality. While the actors are perfectly fine, the material they’ve given themselves ultimately doesn’t make it easy to care about these people. They say they love each other, but they also seem rather shallow, so maybe that love doesn’t mean much.

Despite the titillating plot hook, there’s casual nudity but no graphically depicted sex here. 21 Positions (originally titled 21 Paraiso) is intriguing to a point in its presentation: That many chaptered sequences, shot on actual film in a near-square aspect ratio, each consisting of a single camera composition or sustained movement. As an experiment, Medina’s movie is admirable, but after 97 minutes I felt like I still barely knew anything about Julia and Mateo that actually mattered. They’re like people met at a rave—the illusion of intimacy evaporates as soon as you exit. Omnibus Entertainment launches Positions on digital and On Demand platforms Fri/29.

Time Bomb Y2K

Fast-shifting cultural currents will no doubt soon make the centrality of OnlyFans in 21 Positions look as antiquated as the turn-of-the-millennium panic charted in this new HBO documentary from Brian Becker and Marley McDonald. Entirely consisting of archival materials, it traces the dystopian paranoia that arose around the “1999 Doomsday Computer Glitch” or “millennial bug”—the fear that computer systems making the awkward change from “19—“ dates to “20—“ ones would go on the fritz, triggering everything from infrastructure and manufacturing failures to famines and nuclear bombing. “It could be the beginning of the end of the world” says one of many armchair alarmists here.

Did we really work ourselves into a pitch of hysteria over what turned out to be nothing? (Admittedly, it turned out that way precisely because governments and industries spent years carefully preparing for the changeover, smoothing out any anticipated speed-bumps.) I remember thinking nothing more fretful than “Well, if things shut down, everyone will be in the same boat, so why worry about it?” But that was here in librul San Francisco, where we tend not to conflate mutterings of the intrawebs with imminent End Times and such.

Elsewhere, emotions ran feverishly high, and opportunists duly cashed in by selling Jesus, weaponry, and “survival” gear to the gullible. Some poor suckers were so swept up, they abandoned homes and jobs, moving to the backcountry in hopes of riding out civilization’s anticipated collapse. Did they regret it? Or did they simply become an already-burrowed-in advance guard for today’s Qanon and “white replacement theory” fear-mongers?

Whipped into further froth by relentless media coverage, the Y2K “meltdown” of course failed to arrive. The new millennium was greeted instead by a relieved NYE “global love-in”—one that’s poignant in retrospect, since 9/11 et al. was just around the corner. Like the events it depicts, this documentary finally feels like much ado about nothing. But as a flashback to a curious cultural moment, it has its charms. It premieres on HBO Sat/30, when it also becomes available to stream on HBO Max.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

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