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Best of the Wurst – 2023 Movies in Review

A belated look back at last year's films, including a new Michael Mann classic

The best movies of 2023, in descending order…

‘Ferrari’

Most of Michael Mann’s films don’t immediately connect and typically require repeated viewings before they’re recognized for being the classics they are (case in point – “Heat,” “Manhunter,” “Thief,” “Miami Vice” and the still undervalued “Public Enemies”).

“Ferrari” is no different, as the emotional distance of the title character (a riveting Adam Driver) in his personal life matches how viewers may also feel alienated by him. Yet, as in all of Mann’s films, we’re provided a scene where we’re permitted to see these no-nonsense masters of their craft being vulnerable (remember the bookstore scene in “Heat”?).

Ferrari | Official Trailer | Starring Adam Driver and Penélope Cruz

Here, it’s a powerful opera sequence (Mr. Coppola, your check is in the mail). There’s also Penelope Cruz, volcanic and heartbreaking in the year’s best performance, period. The seductive pull and enormous dangers of auto racing have never been this vivid, thrilling and scary onscreen.

As a character study, historic reenactment, tortured love story, fractured father/son exploration and a visceral ride (delivered with masterful filmmaking), it’s sublime. Mann has made another masterpiece, one for the big screen and a gift for film lovers. (Now in theaters)

‘Asteroid City’

At the center of Wes Anderson’s wondrous, cheeky fable are the scenes between a single father and widower (Jason Schwartzman) and an actress and single mother (Scarlett Johansson) who find a romance while stuck in limbo; these scenes are the masterpiece within an already intricate, perfect meditation on theater, communities and a shared dread of what’s to come. (Peacock)

Anderson is an auteur whose work is consistently brilliant, immaculately staged and one of a kind. This is no different, though it’s his best since “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.” (On Amazon)

‘Killers of the Flower Moon’

Martin Scorsese gave us an extraordinary historical crime story and moviegoers mostly resisted. Yes, it could have used an intermission. On top of the challenging length, we have a protagonist who is hard to like, villains who are vile but chummy family men, a tale of moral rot with roots that far exceed the setting, key set pieces that are brilliantly staged but painful to watch and a draining feeling of uncertainty at its conclusion.

In other words, it’s a Scorsese film. (Apple TV+ on Jan. 12, select theaters)

‘Godzilla Minus One’

Seventy years into this franchise, we get richly drawn characters and an emotionally rich, even harrowing story about survivor’s guilt. Writer/director Takashi Yamazaki makes longtime fans feel like they’re seeing this for the first time.

GODZILLA MINUS ONE Official Trailer 2

The production values, particularly the visual effects, are superior to those in most Hollywood films this year. Here’s a true word-of-mouth sleeper hit that deserved its gotta-see-it status. Oh, and did I mention Godzilla’s in this? (Now in theaters)

‘Past Lives’

Writer/director Celine Song’s film debut hit me pretty hard. Whereas the majority of mainstream love stories establish a pre-determined And-They-Lived-Happily-Ever-After fantasy, “Past Lives” considers thoughtfully the what-could-have-been in a way that’s surprising.

If nostalgia is the comfort food of choice in these unsteady times, Song counters with the reminder that love is the reality, destiny is a fantasy and our past plays differently in hindsight. (VOD platforms)

‘Napoleon’

Ridley Scott’s enthralling epic has the scene of the year (The Battle of Austerlitz is a jaw dropper). It also has an outside-looking-in perspective on an emotionally unavailable but wily historical figure (Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby give wildfire performances), immaculate filmmaking, a chilly tone and a challenging running time.

What we have overall is the closest approximation of what Stanley Kubrick’s unmade, Jack Nicholson-led version could have been. (AppleTV+)

‘A Haunting in Venice’

What if Kenneth Branagh made a perfect trilogy and no one noticed? That’s the case here, as each Agatha Christie thriller was better than the last, building towards this creepy, thought-provoking installment on the existence of the supernatural.

Branagh makes this thrilling and playful. Adieu, Inspector Perot. (Hulu)

‘Monster’

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s drama deservedly won the Best Screenplay award at Cannes. His latest snuck up on me. The story of a boy who misbehaves in school grows deeper every time the perspective changes. This is one of the best, most illuminating films I’ve encountered about teachers.

MONSTER Trailer | TIFF 2023

Here’s a first: Parent/Teacher conferences that play like edge-of-your-seat court cases. (Select theaters)

‘Perfect Days’

Looking for a feel-good movie that actually earns the warmth it generates? Wim Wenders’ Tokyo-based, slice-of-life drama is low key and delightful. Who would have thought the story of a professional toilet cleaner (played by an effervescent Koji Yakusho, who won Best Actor at Cannes last year) could be so enlightening?

Wenders, as always, transports us with his cinema. (Select theaters)

‘Beau is Afraid’

Ari Aster’s astonishingly loose, adventurous 179-minute nightmare showcases an always-up-for-anything Joaquin Phoenix and features one spellbinding, dread-inducing set piece after another. Both richly cinematic and brazenly theatrical, Aster’s horror/comedy is divisive by design but, if you can take it, rewarding. It sticks with you. (Showtime, Paramount+)

(Must-See Runner Ups: “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse,” “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One,” “The Zone of Interest,” “Skinamarink” and “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret)”

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