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Arts + CultureMoviesOscar who? Ficks' Picks fave flicks from last year,...

Oscar who? Ficks’ Picks fave flicks from last year, part one

Oakland pride 'Earth Mama,' 'Asteroid City,' and the BTS of 'Nope' are among films walking away with our statuettes.

Let’s be frank—the grand-daddy of Hollywood’s awards season doesn’t hit all its cues. Here, 48hills film festival critic Jesse Hawthorne Ficks offers up his yearly refutation of the Oscars with special focus on the superlative films and music videos that won’t be taking home a statuette on Sunday. Just don’t ask him to pick his favorites too finely—all of his top spots were ties. See part two here.

1. Asteroid City (Wes Anderson, US)

Wes Anderson has made yet another profoundly rewarding screwball comedy that begs to be watched multiple times. It is almost unnerving how easily critics continue to overlook Anderson’s most recent films. Perhaps one can now comprehend how a director such as Alfred Hitchcock was taken for granted during his own time period? Now, I understand that if you don’t immediately meld with the mastery of his meta-mythology, some queries may remain. (Starting with, why there are apostrophes around the title of the movie in some versions of its promo posters?) But if one can stay focused through this fascinatingly retro-futuristic structure—which includes the filming of a movie, on the set of a 1950s TV show, about the making of an experimental stage play, interlaced within a Looney Tunes Roadrunner cartoon, by way of a John Ford Western, written by Tennessee Williams and produced as a UFO B-movie—one will be rewarded with the most extraordinary achievement of the writer-director’s esteemed 30-year career and the absolute finest film of 2023.

There is a reason that every actor in the business wants to work in a Wes Anderson movie. Scarlett Johansson, Jason Schwartzman, Jeffrey Wright, and Margot Robbie were all robbed of their Oscar nominations for this film, as was Anderson’s under-appreciated production designer Adam Stockhausen and cinematographer Robert Yeoman. And to all the wavering Wes Anderson fans who need a little pep talk, take this quote from Jason Schwartzman’s Sam Fuller-esque character, Augie Steenbeck, who shares, “I still don’t understand what the play is about.” To which a mentor responds “It doesn’t matter. Just tell the story the best you can.” The film is available to stream on Amazon.

… tied with Music in the Air (Scott Stark, 2022)

My other favorite film from 2023 was the latest gem by one of the genuine luminaries of experimental film, Scott Stark. Having conceived and produced over 85 films over the past 45 years, Stark, in his latest masterpiece, showcases stunning Kodachrome found footage of a 1950s promotional film for a teen music camp near Stockton, California. At screenings, Stark tends to feed the film into his propeller-driven, duel-16mm projectors that, he stated at this year’s Crossroads Experimental Film Festival, “uses two reels of film while alternating between the left and right projectors, transposing objects onto bodies, landscapes onto buildings, sidewalks onto swimming pools, and subtle musical movements onto frenetic explosions of color.”

Feeling like an amalgamation of Stark’s: Angel Beach (which was invited into the 2002 Whitney Biennial) and Back in the Saddle Again (1997), the film demands you do whatever it takes to experience its truly transformative visual spectacle. Warning: A strobing effect occurs throughout the entirety of the 15-minute running time that may affect photosensitive viewers. The film is currently unavailable for streaming.

3. Earth Mama (Savanah Leaf, US)

This beautifully understated narrative premiered at Sundance in 2023, was immediately picked up by A24, and has been impossible for me to shake. Chockfull of devastating performances, its haunting pulse belongs to lead performer, Bay Area hip hop artist Tia Nomore. The newcomer portrays a pregnant single mother in Oakland attempting to stay afloat and reconnect with her two children in foster care. Debut director Savanah Leaf (who competed on the UK volleyball team in the 2012 Olympics) confidently allows her actors to internalize their character’s numerous struggles.

Actors Sharon Duncan Brewster (of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune Part One), Dominic Fike (Elliot in Sam Levinson’s “Euphoria”), and Bokeem Woodbine (who was astounding as the ruthless command instructor in Elegance Bratton’s underrated A24 release The Inspection) all deliver fully developed, neo-realist performances here. Add to that stunning cinematography by Jody Lee Lipes (Manchester By the Sea, Martha Marci May Marlene) and a melancholic soundtrack by the beguiling Kelsey Lu, and I honestly can’t find a single element of the film that doesn’t resonate. Also worthy of tracking down is the endearing 29-minute documentary upon which Earth Mama is based, The Heart Still Hums (2021), co-directed by Leaf and the remarkably promising new actor Taylor Russell (Bones and All, Waves). Earth Mama is available to stream on Amazon.

… tied with Shadows: The Making of ‘Nope’ (Jordan Peele, US)

Perhaps the most revelatory part of this 56-minute “making-of” documentary of Jordan Peele’s Nope (2022) is the passion that cast and crew put into this unique chronicling. Directed by Jordan Peele himself and featuring stunning on-set revelations, a jaw-dropping pre-VFX sequence, a slew of insightful observations from almost every cast and crew member (which skillfully allows the viewer to keep their own interpretations of the film’s many ambiguities) the BTS film builds to a conclusion that will bring tears to the eyes of anyone who has worked on an intense group project. Seek out at all costs! Available as a bonus feature on the 4K and Blu-Ray release of Nope.

5. The Master Gardener (Paul Schrader, US)

At the age of 76, Paul Schrader put out his 23rd directorial effort, which polarized a lot of filmgoers. He is still making cinema that shoots for the stars. Joel Edgerton gives a down-right pitch-perfect performance occupying the stoic, solitary Narvel Roth, a meticulous horticulturist who tends to a beautiful Southern estate owned by a wealthy dowager, elegantly inhabited by Sigourney Weaver. Upon being ordered to take on a troubled family member as his apprentice, a role audaciously performed by Quintessa Swindell, their disparity unravels into some of the most morally ambiguous and disturbing cinematic images of the year.

The film is highlighted by a gorgeously haunted synth musical score by Devonte Hines (aka Blood Orange) that permeates this provocative conclusion to Schrader’s “man alone in a room” trilogy—see First Reformed (2017) and The Card Counter (2021). The director has once again doubled down on his own transcendental style. His off-putting way of purposefully withholding actor’s feelings and cutting away from the story’s dramatic actions requires a philosophy of patience. Yet, those who lean into these muted moments will find a much truer cathartic release by the film’s conclusion. Long live Paul Schrader. The film is available to stream on Amazon.

… tied with The Killer (David Fincher, US)

This bafflingly brilliant expedition into the mind of an unnamed hitman had my mind spinning, forcing me to return time and time again. Director David Fincher teamed up once again with screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker (Seven) to adapt this French graphic novel series into a neo-film noir. Michael Fassbender delivers a mesmerizing performance (dressed in a pair of Skechers and bucket hat to boot) to play my favorite character he has ever done.

The experience of the movie is definitely not what one expects, mirroring the character’s own confusion. Its structuralist symphony sways back and forth so seamlessly between the inner thoughts of the protagonist and a brilliant mix of songs by the legendary UK band The Smiths that one might forget that they are dealing with the tale of an actual psychopath. I just want to say that if there is anyone else out there that found themselves clicking with this clever little cinematic cipher, give me a call; I’ve got one helluva theory about the final scene of this movie. The film is available to stream on Netflix.

7. Fallen Leaves (Aki Kaurismäki, Finland and Germany) 

Finland’s best-known filmmaker continues to make utterly beguiling films about people deeply rooted in a deadpan comedic reality that is just as cynical as it is hopeful. This being Kaurismäki’s 20th full-length film, it is a wonderful continuation of his “Proletariat” series, which follows a couple of struggling individuals looking for love in the most difficult places. Winner of the Jury Prize at this year’s 76th Cannes Film Festival, Fallen Leaves would be the perfect place to start experiencing Kaurismäki’s career—a journey that could lead you back to his adorably memorable Shadows in Paradise (1986), Ariel (1988), and The Match Factory Girl (1990). Admirers of Jim Jarmusch, Charlie Chaplin, and the Finnish band Maustetytöt will be especially thrilled with this recent treasure. Seek out the heartwarming tale at all costs. The film is available to stream on MUBi.

… tied with Tori and Lokita (Luc Dardenne and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Belgium and France)

Winner of a Special 75th Anniversary Award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, this gripping journey follows 11-year-old Tori and 16-year-old Lokita, who are doing their very best to survive on the streets in Belgium after having relocated from Cameroon. The unforgettable bond between the two makes a stand-out of this project by legendary naturalist filmmakers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne (Rosetta, L’Enfant, The Kid with a Bike, Two Days One Night, Young Ahmed.) Available to stream on Amazon.

9. Cade the Tortured Crossing (Neil Breen, US)

Neil Breen’s sixth feature is an electrifying work of art. Truly inspired by the Lynchian state of mind, this all-encompassing eerie excursion into a psychiatric hospital that’s fallen into extensive disrepair managed to genuinely expand my mind, body, and soul during every single sequence. Playing a dual role of twin brothers Cale and Cade Altair, who first emerged in the equally brilliant Twisted Pair (2019), Neil Breen shows why he’s so well known among fans for directing, writing, producing, editingm and scoring the soundtracks to his movies. His homemade filmmaking is truly the stuff that my dreams are made of. The film is currently unavailable for streaming.

… tied with Big Shark (Tommy Wiseau, US)

It took Tommy Wiseau 20 years to finally complete a follow-up feature to his infamous feat The Room (2003) and I would like to go on record to say Big Shark is a surreal tour-de-force. Wiseau manages to side-step contemporary snarky film criticism to handcraft an inspired action-adventure film. Shooting on location in New Orleans, Wiseau found a genuine comedic muse in Isaiah LaBorde, and the dynamic duo’s prolonged sequences genuinely knocked my socks off. As the studio system in Hollywood continues to find its footing, it is indie films like Big Shark (and Cade the Tortured Crossing) that can save the world of cinema. The film is currently unavailable for streaming.

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

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks
Jesse Hawthorne Ficks
Jesse Hawthorne Ficks is the film history coordinator at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, and is part of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He curates and hosts “MOViES FOR MANiACS,” a film series celebrating underrated and overlooked cinema, in a neo-sincere manner.

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