It seems that I’ve spent at least 130 hours watching movies this year. Here’s what I thought about them.
The Three Worst Movies of 2023 (that I saw)
Cobweb (2023 US version)
If you look at the trailer to this it seems interesting. And it does a good job establishing a spooky atmosphere. Basically if you just jumped in on any scene without knowing what was going on in the rest of the movie it would be okay, even great. But it’s the plot as a whole that bogs this whole thing down.
Basically there’s this kid, Peter. His name is Peter, and he eats pumpkins, because he’s got a pumpkin patch outside his house. It’s a very spooky pumpkin patch. He doesn’t have a wife, because he’s twelve, but there’s someone else that’s living in a pumpkin shell of sorts (a wall wallpapered with pumpkins) and the movie is all about Peter’s relationship with this person, his parents, and the kids at his school.
I don’t think I’m spoiling things too much by saying that pretty much all these people betray Peter at some point. If you watch the trailer you get that much. But at no point is there any hope for Peter or the other characters. This isn’t the Korean film Parasite, where the people living in the wall are mostly good people driven to desperation. No, the being in the wall is pretty much a jackass all the way through. This isn’t Carrie where the parents are awful but the kid rebels against them in terrible, but cathartic ways either. The parents are a bit stupid maybe. I’d say at eight years old or so it’s time to start telling your children about the dangerous and violent family members that might show up to threaten them at some point. But the parents aren’t the bad guys really, they’re just a bit crazy and…dumb. And this isn’t The Shining either. Peter doesn’t really have any clever tricks for getting away from anyone or any moments of real agency. He just runs scared from one problem to the next.
So it all just ends up being a frustrating mess. It’s not all bad by any means. There are great visuals and the wall person is super creepy. But it’s like three monkeys playing in a three piece suit rather than one well-dressed gorilla.
A Haunting in Venice
This is an Agatha Christie Hercule Poirot film, which is…fine. I mostly liked the earlier installment of Murder on the Orient Express. Kenneth Branagh does a good job with the character. He’s much more believable than Steve Martin in the Pink Panther. But, while the Orient express moved at a pretty good pace and went to some unexpected places (for me at least, since I hadn’t read the book or seen the earlier film version), A Haunting in Venice just kind of sits in the same damp waters and seems stuck with the tired locked room mystery format that every Agatha Christie inspired book, show, or movie has used for the last several decades.
Great actors of course. It’s worth watching for that reason I suppose. And I didn’t know whodunnit until they revealed whodunnit. So I guess the ending was unexpected? But was it really? Because I knew going in that nothing was going to be as it seemed. Everyone was going to turn out to be shady for one reason or another, and the whole thing was going to be a lugubrious dance of misery.
And that’s what I got.
So I’m not a fan. Also the film wanted to have it both ways with the supernatural aspects. If you want a film with actual ghosts in it, sorry, there aren’t any in this film. If, like me, you like to see a scientific explanation of initially inexplicable things, though, sorry, you’re not going to get that either. You see the trick is EvErYbOdY’s DrUgGeD! That’s it. That’s what’s causing the spooky stuff. Well, that, and someone is living in the walls.
Didn’t think of it before, but there’s a lot of commonalities between A Haunting in Venice and Cobweb. People are living in the walls and everyone is awful. Even Poirot comes across as overly arrogant and judgmental in this movie.
My favorite part was Michelle Yeoh. Her character Joyce Reynolds was the most interesting thing in the movie. But…she dies in like, five minutes. So no love there. And I suppose it’s possible for an Asian woman to be living in Venice in 1947 and working as a medium, but that does seem a bit odd, and I would have liked a bit more backstory there. Instead, it’s not even remarked upon. Also she has a daughter and there’s some sort of secret servant who helps her, and the servant guy has his own drama, and I kind of wanted to know what was going on there, but oh someone else died. I guess we have to move on. Okay.
You know how sometimes you’re walking around a dark place and you see something out of the corner of your eye that looks like a creepy face?
That’s this movie.
Just that, over and over again. And somebody is possessed but not all the time, just when it’s convenient for the plot, and someone else is able to defeat the evil thing that makes creepy faces by believing _really_ hard.
Aside from that it’s mostly like the first fifteen minutes of the Sound of Music, but the nuns never quite get around to singing “How do you solve a problem like Maria?”
The Three Best Movies of 2023 (that I saw)
Godzilla Minus One
Bunch of Godzilla this year. I’ve been watching the Monarch TV show, which is about Godzilla too, but that has a very different feel to this.
Unlike a lot of earlier Godzilla movies, which are mainly about running away from Godzilla while someone tries to explain how Godzillas are people too, this one isn’t trying to say anything about nature conservation or even the horrors of atomic warfare. Instead, this is about what it means to have honor, what it means to have a family, and how to deal with loss and change.
Godzilla isn’t this delightful creature that happens to be destroying things in this movie. Godzilla has all the personality of a hurricane and just as much mercy. It is something awful and gargantuan that can’t be destroyed or even understood completely. Godzilla stands for something a bit different in every movie. In this movie, I think it stands for guilt.
The movie centers around a would-be kamikaze pilot Koichi Shikishima. He lands on a island to refuel his plane after what was supposed to be a suicide mission. Then Godzilla shows up. And it’s Godzilla. No amount of artillery is going to do anything but make Godzilla angry. But the engineers want Shikishima to use his plane’s guns to shoot the giant lizard. He gets in the airplane…and he can’t. He ends up escaping out of the airplane just before Godzilla destroys it.
We know that shooting Godzilla wouldn’t have helped, but Shikishima doesn’t. And beyond that there’s the fact that he didn’t suicide himself at the enemy like he was supposed to. The guilt he feels is truly something awful and gargantuan that can’t be destroyed or even understood completely, just like Godzilla itself.
That’s just the beginning of the movie, and Shikishima spends years dealing with his guilt and the destruction caused by Godzilla. To be clear, the movie isn’t bogged down with these personal scenes, there is plenty of action and even some comedic moments. But there is enough of an emotional core that it feels like the stakes are real. And the ending works on multiple levels.
Great acting, great directing, complex characters and a masterful depiction of an important time in history. Enough has probably been said about this movie already, but I thought it was great.
I think overall it’s a great example of how to depict an imperfect character sympathetically. A different director might have portrayed Oppenheimer much more negatively, but Christopher Nolan, while not shying away from Oppenheimer’s multiple immoralities, also doesn’t spend much time judging them. Somehow, despite almost murdering someone, cheating on his wife, and having a hand in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, he still seems like the protagonist. Sure, there are people who complain about him in the movie, but aside from them having a point, there isn’t much weight put on their statements.
One of my favorite parts of the movie is a sequence where Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) and his wife Kitty(Emily Blunt) are dealing with their child. The kid cries a great deal and they simply can’t deal with it. They try for a while, but eventually they give the child to a friend to care for, saying that they’re awful people. As much as that might be true on some level, I am totally with the Oppenheimers at that point in the movie and it’s more a moment of humor rather than anything melodramatic. Also it shows how the characters of Robert and Kitty are on the same team, which might not quite be how the real life Robert and Kitty were, as the actual story is a bit more complicated (https://www.vulture.com/2023/07/oppenheimer-historical-accuracy-what-really-happened.html).
The relationship between Robert and Kitty in the movie is an odd, but endearing complication. Despite Robert cheating on Kitty, she stays with him, but she also doesn’t take any guff from him. She’s extremely independent and has a massive amount of spine, which is shown not only in the scenes with Robert, but also in the scenes where she is interviewed about her and Robert’s ties to the communist party. Emily Blunt and Christopher Nolan did a great job of putting some flesh on what could have been a two dimensional character.
I saw this movie at the Belcourt Theater in Nashville, Tennessee, which is a small theater that mostly shows independent films and sometimes has plays or comedy acts. It’s a wonderful theater that was recently refurbished. I had a cup of wine while I watched the movie and I had a great seat.
So it could be that that’s why I loved it so much. I bought the DVD version of it, and I have to say that the film really needs HD quality to hit right. I think it also helps to watch it by yourself and not with anybody with a low attention span.
It’s a Wes Anderson movie, and Wes Anderson movies are perhaps an acquired taste. I didn’t care for Rushmore, and the Royal Tennenbaums was a bit dreary. But It could also be that Wes Anderson has gotten better. The Life Aquatic was great. Tale of Dogs was delightful. The French Dispatch was amazing. These are, of course, my opinions, and as much as I harbor them, I also feel like if I was a slightly different person, I would hate Wes Anderson’s movies instead of loving them.
I think the sticking point is how characters are portrayed. They’re kind of…not. Performances are extremely flat and almost monotone. For most of them you could put a costume on a robot and get the same effect. On the other hand, as much as that’s largly true, great actors can take the flat monologues and do some marvelous things with them. One of things that comes to mind is when Gweneth Paltrow’s character in The Royal Tennenbaum’s corrects her father on what her middle name is. The emotion she puts in the words “It’s Helen,” is masterful.
In a way I think it’s a bit like anime. In the Japanese style of animation, most things are kept still. The only things that move are the parts that absolutely must move to convey the action. Dialogue costs nothing so, at least in earlier anime, there are often long monologues interspersed with quick scenes of action. It’s the same with Wes Anderson movies, except it’s more that so much care is put into the sets and costuming that putting any energy into camera work or high drama seems counterproductive.
I love the oddness, the celebration of absurdity, and more specifically how things can seem so absurd and yet make sense as natural progressions from the plot and characters. Asteroid City has buckets of all that.
The movie is about…hmm…
Okay so there’s about four different layers to this movie. Maybe more. The main character, sort of, is Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) a photojournalist who is taking his son Woodrow (Jake Ryan) and three daughters to the titular town to attend an astronomy convention where Woodrow and other children will present their inventions. Augie’s wife has died, but his kids don’t know this yet. As he enters the town, his car breaks down in a bizarre way, and he has to call his father-in-law for help who has some things to say about him not telling his children about their mother. Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson), a renowned actress and mother to one of the children presenting at the convention, is staying in the room next to him and there are some sparks of attraction there . Later, at the convention, a spaceship comes and steals the asteroid. Augie takes a picture of the alien, and things progress from there.
BUT Augie is really a character in a play called “Asteroid City” being written by a fictional playwright called Conrad Earp (Ed Norton). The actor who is playing Augie is struggling to figure out his character’s motivation as the play starts production.
AND the production of the play “Asteroid City” is the subject of a fictional television documentary series hosted by a narrator (Bryan Cranston).
ALSO a lot of time is spent with Woodrow getting to know the other kids at the convention, the inventions they’ve come up with, and the games they play to pass the time.
FURTHERMORE, the audience of the movie (ie you) is sometimes addressed directly, breaking multiple fourth walls at once.
But Augie is the center of the movie, and if you have to know what the whole thing is about, I think he’s the key. He doesn’t know what his motivation is, as his actor reveals. He has just lost his wife, has to figure out how to tell his children, and has to figure out whether he can start a new relationship or not.
During a key moment of the movie, when tensions reach a boiling point, Augie’s actor leaves the set of “Asteroid City” and leaves the studio, going out onto a fire escape in a busy city street in the snow to think. The scene, like all scenes with the actors, is in mostly black and white while the Asteroid City scenes are in startling color. Also Asteroid City is very much a desert town with a double digit population and not a city at all; so the contrast is even more pronounced. While Augie’s actor is on the fire escape he sees the actress who was going to play his wife in a scene that got cut (played by Margot Robbie in the best cameo ever) She has the whole cut scene memorized and she runs the lines with Augie’s actor, which finally gives him the motivation he was looking for.
Asteroid City has a happy ending. And I don’t mean just that things turn out well, I mean that I was filled with joy and my face was smiling for a long time after watching it. There are so many side characters and extra bits (like the road runner that keeps showing up at odd moments). It’s a bag of movie candy for my eyes and brain. Just lovely.
Other Movies I saw in 2023
|Godzilla Minus One
|John Wick: Chapter 4
|Great, brutal action. Ending a bit of a letdown
|Surprisingly good. Like Rocky with cars.
|Nando Fodor and the Talking Mongoose (and the other Roald Dahl shorts on Netflix)
|Delightful. Wes Anderson used to greatest effect.
|The Old Way
|Nick Cage doing what he does best
|They Cloned Tyrone
|A bit racist, but in a fun way. Some good sci fi too.
|Rebel Moon Part 1: Child of Fire
|Some awesome moments. A little over long but worth watching
|David Fincher contract killer movie. Masterful direction, plot a little too subtle for a higher rating
|No One Will Save You
|Lovely, thought provoking creepy alien movie. But why don’t the aliens wear pants?
|Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves
|Fun movie, doesn’t take itself too seriously. I liked the gelatinous cube.
|Mostly well done, but the protect the girl plot is getting a bit old.
|Fun movie, but there’s a turn at the end that kind of wrecks the emotional stakes…so it didn’t pierce my heart
|Five Nights at Freddy’s
|Liked it more than I thought I would. Some parts were a bit weak, but I enjoyed it.
|The rules of the Barbie universe bother me too much, but yay Margot Robbie. Yay bright cheerful sets! Yay funny and witty dialogue!
|Spider-man: Across the Spider-verse
|Too many Spider-men. Would like a Miles Morales only, or a Spider Gwen only story. But fun with a neat twist.
|Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3
|Nice to let the old brain take a vacation now and then.
|Meg 2: The Trench
|Low budget and the seams show, but a very good giant shark movie
|Kind of tired of war movies, but this is a great one about honor and keeping a promise especially when it’s hard.
|Heart of Stone
|Gal Gadot vehicle, but she’s a decent driver. A bit like Mission Impossible with a lady lead.
|Albert Brooks: Defending My Life
|Documentary about Albert Brooks’ career and a bit about his life. Responsible for a lot of great comedy movies.
|Very much a sequel. It was good action. I don’t remember anything about the plot.
|The Family Plan
|Super charming movie. The family sticks up for each other, which is nice.
|The Super Mario Bros. Movie
|A lot of people liked Bowser, but I didn’t. I liked the humor and brightness, but I still want a real villain.
|The Retirement Plan
|Nic Cage movie, so it’s fun, but there was a side character that didn’t get the arc he deserved.
|Turn your brain off and it’s fine. It takes some effort though. If you watch Bollywood, that’s the level of silliness we’re talking here.
|Shazam! Fury of the Gods
|I miss Chuck.
|It has some trouble finding a lane sometimes, but for the most part, it’s fun comedy-horror type entertainment.
|The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial
|You have to be in the right mood for this, but it’s an excellent courtroom drama movie.
|Why don’t they just stick a thick wooden pole into those giant holes in their heads?
|Transformers: Rise of the Beasts
|A movie based on a game of capture the flag with robots that look like animals.
|No Hard Feelings
|It’s a bit cringe at times, but ultimately funny and endearing.
|Evil Dead Rise
|No humor. And innocent people die, which I don’t like . Truly creepy, brutal horror though.
|I would rate this higher than the Flash, except…it doesn’t have the Flash in it.
|Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania
|I absolutely love the worldbuilding they did for the quantum realm. But the movie’s focused on other things, which, largely, sucked.
|The Nun II
|A Haunting in Venice
So that’s the year in movies for me. I hope you’ve had a good 2023 and a better 2024.