Last week, Variety invited an impressive roster of sixteen directors to write a few words on one of their favorite films of 2023. Alfonso Cuarón comments on Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, Jane Campion on Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla, James Gray on Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers, Todd Field on Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest, and so on. The pairing of Kelly Reichardt with Todd Haynes’s May December may seem obvious—the two filmmakers have been tight friends and frequent collaborators for more than thirty years—but it also turns out to have been fortuitous.
May December has been voted to the top of lists of the best films of the year by contributors to Film Comment,Screen Slate, and Slant, while Reichardt’s Showing Up comes in at #2 in the Film Comment and Slant polls and at #3 at Screen Slate. “Ingmar Bergman’s Persona has been in the Todd Haynes canon for decades,” writes Reichardt, “long before the script for May December came around. Every Haynes film is structurally in conversation with a film that lives deep inside him, that he knows in and out.”
In May December, an actress (Natalie Portman) prepares to portray a woman (Julianne Moore) who sparked a scandal in the 1990s when she was caught having sex with a seventh-grader she later married. “The soap-operatic shock of the score (lifted from Joseph Losey’s The Go-Between) and the prurient premise, layered with cinematic allusions, make every moment in May December feel charged with significance,” writes Film Comment’s Devika Girish.
Slant’s Eric Henderson suggests that the film’s “all-too-predictable reception in the hothouse of social media only confirms the driving force behind Haynes’s fearless, confrontational idiosyncrasy. ‘Is Natalie Portman a great actress or a terrible one lucking into the perfect role? Is depicting trauma actually perpetrating it? Is it Sirkian? Is it not Sirkian enough? Is it camp?’ Here’s one more question: Does anyone actually receive movies anymore, or do they only filter them through their own matrix of preconceived polemical positions?”
Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt “shot the hell out of Haynes’s May December, encasing its deconstructed melodrama in compositions that bristle with shivery precision,” writes Adam Nayman at the Ringer. Blauvelt also shot Showing Up, which stars Michelle Williams as a sculptor struggling to meet the demands of her art, family, and day job. Nayman finds that Reichardt “has steadily refined her lo-fi style over the years so that it’s both functional and poetic, and her most beautiful shots have the self-contained eloquence of a good haiku.”
“Merging the crime and western genres with a melodrama of marital love, disavowal, and betrayal,” writes Amy Taubin for Film Comment, “Scorsese mobilizes a lifelong passion for motion pictures, collaborators long dedicated to his vision (in particular, editor Thelma Schoonmaker), and a trio of bold and subtle actors—Lily Gladstone, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Robert De Niro—to reveal a buried episode in America’s dark history of exploitation and dehumanization of people of color.”
Taubin has moved the top ten she wrote for Artforum before editor David Velasco was fired over to Screen Slate, where you can scroll up and down a mile-long string of ballots and lists of first-time viewings and discoveries from dozens and dozens of esteemed critics, performers, and filmmakers, including Isabelle Huppert, Frederick Wiseman, and May December screenwriter Samy Burch. For yet more ballots, turn back to Film Comment, whose year-end package includes an annotated list of the top ten undistributed films of 2023 as well as Gina Telaroli on the year’s best restorations and Leo Goldsmith on standout short films.
Los Angeles Times film critic Justin Chang has arranged his top ten—plus fourteen honorable mentions—as a series of themed pairings. His two favorite films of the year are Andrew Haigh’s All of Us Strangers and Hayao Miyazaki’s The Boy and the Heron. “In both movies,” he writes, “painful memories become wondrous hallucinations, a tower becomes a portal between worlds, and questions of reality versus fantasy, or old versus young, blur into insignificance. Miyazaki asks us how we live; Haigh, with no less urgency, asks us how we love.”
Chang recently chatted with LAT entertainment columnist Glenn Whipp about the Los Angeles Film Critics Association giving its award for best picture to The Zone of Interest—in which Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) and his family carry on with their daily lives while mass murder is being carried out on the other side of their garden wall—and naming Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer as their best picture runner-up. “Here are two of the most dramatically and formally daring World War II dramas in recent memory,” wrote Chang, “one a blockbuster biopic (an actual hit), the other a mesmerizing art-house stunner. And both movies, in their own damning way, are about the atrocities we cannot see, the barbarism we too easily shrug off. Call me crazy, Glenn, but given the present state of the world, I can’t help but feel that’s why they resonated with us.”
The Zone of Interest has also been named the best film of the year by the Toronto Film Critics Association and by contributors to the Playlist, while Oppenheimer tops the lists from A. A. Dowd in the Houston Chronicle and Owen Gleiberman in Variety. Both films, along with more than two dozen others, will screen as part of this year’s Curators’ Choice series opening at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York on the day after Christmas and running through January 28.
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