By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 2, 2023)
Yes, I know. That’s an oddly generic (some might even say silly) title for a post by someone who has been scribbling about film here for 17 years. Obviously, I like movies. That said, I am about to make a shameful confession (and please withhold your angry cards and letters until you’ve heard me out). Are you sitting down? Here goes:
I haven’t stepped foot in a movie theater since January of 2020.
There. I’ve said it, in front of God and all 7 of my regular readers.
*sigh* I can still remember it, as if it were yesterday:
It turns out that it is not just my imagination (running away with me). A quick Google search of “Seattle rain records” yields such cheery results as a January 29th CNN headline IT’S SUNLESS IN SEATTLE AS CITY WEATHERS ONE OF THE GLOOMIEST STRETCHES IN RECENT HISTORY and a Feb 1st Seattle P-I story slugged with SEATTLE BREAKS RECORD WITH RAIN ON 30 DAYS IN A MONTH. Good times!
February was a bit better: 15 rainy days with 4.1 hours a day of average sunshine. But hey-I didn’t move to the Emerald City to be “happy”. No, I moved to a city that averages 300 cloudy days a year in order to justify my predilection for a sedentary indoor lifestyle.
In fact it was a marvelously gloomy, stormy Sunday afternoon in late January when I ventured out to see Japanese anime master Makato Shinkai’s newest film Weathering with You (yes, this is a tardy review gentle reader…but what do you expect at these prices?). Gregory’s Girl meets The Lathe of Heaven in Shinkai’s romantic fantasy-drama.
That excerpt is from my review of Weathering With You, published February 9, 2020. If I had only known of the more insidious tempest about to make landfall, I would have savored that “…marvelously gloomy, stormy Sunday afternoon in late January” (and every kernel of my ridiculously overpriced popcorn) even more.
Of course, I’m referring to the COVID pandemic, which would soon put the kibosh on venturing to movie theaters (much less any public brick-and-mortar space in general) for quite a spell. Keep in mind, I live in Seattle, which is where the first reported outbreak of note in the continental U.S. occurred; I think it’s fair to say that the fear and paranoia became ingrained here much earlier on than in other parts of the country (and justifiably so).
Well, that’s all fine and dandy (you’re thinking)…but hasn’t the fear and paranoia abated since everything “opened up” again in (2022? 2021? I’ve lost track of the time-space continuum)? Here’s the thing-even before the pandemic, I had been going to theaters less and less frequently due to physical issues. I won’t bore you with details, suffice it to say I had both knees replaced (the first in 2014, the second in 2016)…but it didn’t quite “take”. And admittedly, I still mask up whenever I go to any public venue (including the grocery store). Perhaps that all adds up to “functional agoraphobia” (maybe one of you psych majors can help me out here?).
And you know what? I’m also tired of dealing with traffic, parking hassles, fellow theater patrons who are oblivious to people with disabilities, and astronomical ticket prices (add the $7 box of Junior Mints, and it’s cheaper to wait several months and just buy the Blu-ray).
And get off my lawn, goddammit.
Anyhoo, I haven’t been dashing out on opening weekend to see many first-run films in recent years; at least not the major studio releases that are playing on a bazillion screens. But thanks to “virtual” film festival accreditation, I am still able to screen and review a number of “new” movies (albeit many that have yet to find wider distribution).
So that is my long-winded way of explaining why I have decided not to entitle this (obligatory) end-of-year roundup as “the best” 10 films of 2023. Rather, out of the new films I reviewed on Hullabaloo this year, here are the 10 standouts (no Barbies, no nukes, no capes). I’ve noted the titles that are now streaming …hopefully the rest are coming soon to a theater near you!
Adolfo – Strangers in the night, exchanging…cactus? Long story. Short story, actually, as writer-director Sofia Auza’s dramedy breezes by at 70 minutes. It’s a “night in the life of” tale concerning two twenty-somethings who meet at a bus stop. He: reserved and dressed for a funeral. She: effervescent and dressed for a party (the Something Wild scenario). With its tight screenplay, snappy repartee, and marvelous performances, it’s hard not to fall in love with this film.
Downtown Owl – It took me a while to get into the rhythm of this quirky comedy-drama, which begins with a nod to Savage Steve Holland (palpable Better Off Dead energy) then pivots into a more angsty realm (as in Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm). Adapted from Chuck Klosterman’s eponymous novel by writer-director Hamish Linklater (no relation to Richard), the story is set during the winter of 1983-1984 in a North Dakota burg (where everybody is up in everyone else’s business).
Julia (Lily Rabe) is a 40-ish, recently engaged, self-described “restless” soul who has just moved to Owl to take a teaching position at a high school. Episodic; we observe Julia over a period of several months as she acclimates to her new environs. She strikes up a friendship with a melancholy neighbor (Ed Harris) and pursues a crush on a laconic buffalo rancher (I told you it was quirky). There’s a sullen high school quarterback, and a pregnant teen (it’s a rule). All threads converge when a record-breaking blizzard descends on the sleepy hamlet. A bit uneven, but it grew on me. (Streaming on Plex)
Hey, Viktor! – In 1998, a low-budget indie dramedy called Smoke Signals became a hit with critics and festival audiences. It was also groundbreaking, in the sense of being the first film to be written (Sherman Alexie), directed (Chris Eyre) and co-produced by Native Americans. The film was a career booster for several Native-American actors like Gary Farmer, Tantoo Cardinal and Adam Beach. For other cast members, not so much …like 11-year-old Cody Lightning, who played Adam Beach’s character “Victor” as a youngster.
Fast-forward 25 years. Cody Lightning plays (wait for it) Cody Lightning in his heightened reality dramedy (co-written with Samuel Miller), which reveals Cody has hit the bottom (and the bottle). Divorced and chronically depressed, his portfolio has dwindled to adult film gigs and half-finished screenplays about zombie priests. When his best friend and creative partner Kate (Hannah Cheesman) organizes an intervention, Cody has an epiphany…not to stop drinking, but to make a Smoke Signals sequel. All he needs now is a script, some of the original cast, and (most importantly) financial backing.
Reminiscent of Alexandre Rockwell’s In the Soup, Hey, Viktor! is an alternately hilarious and brutally honest dive into the trenches of D.I.Y. film-making (I was also reminded of Robert Townshend’s Hollywood Shuffle, in the way Lightning weaves issues like ethnic stereotyping and reclamation of cultural identity into the narrative). The cast includes Smoke Signals alums Simon Baker, Adam Beach, Gary Farmer, and Irene Bedard.
I Like Movies – To call Lawrence (Isaiah Lehtinen), the 17-year-old hero of writer-director Chandler Levack’s coming of age dramedy a “film freak” is an understatement. When his best bud ribs him by exclaiming in mock horror, “I can’t believe you never masturbate!” Lawrence’s responds with a shrug, “I’ve tried to, but…I’d rather watch Goodfellas or something.” Levack’s film (set in the early aughts) abounds with such cringe-inducing honesty; eliciting the kind of nervous chuckles you get from watching, say, Todd Solondz’s Happiness (a film that Lawrence enthusiastically champions to a hapless couple in a video store who can’t decide on what they want to see).
Lawrence, who dresses (and pontificates) like a Canadian version of Ignatius J. Reilly, is obsessed with two things: Paul Thomas Anderson’s oeuvre, and the goal of getting into NYU film school in the fall (despite not even having been accepted yet, and that he’s not likely to save up the $90,000 tuition working as a minimum wage video store clerk over the summer). Wry, observant, and emotionally resonant, with wonderful performances by the entire cast,
L’immensità – Emanuele Crialese’s semi-autobiographical drama about a dysfunctional family (set in 1970s Rome) combines the raw emotion of John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence with the sense memory of Fellini’s Amarcord. Penélope Cruz portrays a woman in a faltering marriage struggling to hold it together for the sake of her three children, to whom she is fiercely and unconditionally devoted. Her teenage daughter Edri identifies as a boy named “Andrea” (much to the chagrin of her abusive father). Buoyed by naturalistic performances, beautiful cinematography (by Gergely Pohárnok) and a unique 70s Italian pop soundtrack. (Streaming on Amazon Prime)
The Mojo Manifesto – How do I describe Mojo Nixon to the uninitiated? Psychobilly anarchist? Novelty act? Social satirist? Performance artist? Brain-damaged? Smarter than he looks? The correct answer is “all of the above.” “Mojo Nixon” is also, of course, a stage persona; an alter ego created by Neill Kirby McMillan Jr., as we learn in Matt Eskey’s documentary. The film traces how McMillan came up with his “Mojo Nixon” alter-ego, which provided a perfect foil to embody his divergent inspirations Hunter S. Thompson, Woody Guthrie, 50s rockabilly, and The Clash. Not unlike Nixon himself, Eskey’s portrait may be manic at times, but it’s honest, engaging, and consistently entertaining. (Full review) (Streaming on Amazon Prime)
Next Sohee – Writer-director July Jung’s outstanding film is reminiscent of Kurosawa’s High and Low, not just in the sense that it is equal parts police procedural and social drama, but that it contains a meticulously layered narrative that has (to paraphrase something Stanley Kubrick once said of his own work) “…a slow start, the start that goes under the audience’s skin and involves them so that they can appreciate grace notes and soft tones and don’t have to be pounded over the head with plot points and suspense hooks.”
The first half of the film tells the story of a high school student who is placed into a mandatory “externship” at a call center by one of her teachers. Suffice it to say her workplace is a prime example as to why labor laws exist (they do have them in South Korea-but exploitative companies always find loopholes).
When the outgoing and headstrong young woman commits suicide, a female police detective is assigned to the case. The trajectory of her investigation takes up the second half of the film. The deeper she digs, the more insidious the implications…and this begins to step on lot of toes, including her superiors in the department. Jung draws parallels between the stories of the student and the detective investigating her death; both are assertive, principled women with the odds stacked against them. Ultimately, they’re tilting at windmills in a society driven by systemic corruption, predatory capitalism, and a patriarchal hierarchy.
Once Within a Time – Billed as “a bardic fairy tale about the end of the world and the beginning of a new one”, this visually arresting 58-minute feature (co-directed by Godfrey Reggio and Jon Kane) represents an 8-year labor of love for Reggio (now 83), who is primarily known for his “Qatsi trilogy” (Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, and Naqoyqatsi). He re-enlisted his Qatsi trilogy collaborator Philip Glass to score the project. Glass’ score is quite lovely (and restrained-I know he has his detractors) with wonderful vocalizing provided by Sussan Deyhim.
Ostensibly aimed at a young audience, the film (a mashup of The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, Tron, 2001, and Princess Mononoke) utilizes a collage of visual techniques (stop-motion, puppetry, shadow play, etc.) with echoes of George Melies, Lotte Reiniger, Karel Zeman , Rene Laloux, George Pal, Luis Buñuel, The Brothers Quay, and Guy Maddin.
A small group of children are spirited away to a multiverse that vacillates (at times uneasily) between the lush green world, future visions of a bleak and barren landscape, and the rabbit hole of cyberspace; surreal vignettes abound. Unique and mesmerizing. (Full review) (Currently playing in select theaters)
One Night With Adela – Volatile, coked to the gills and seething with resentment, Adela (Laura Galán) is wrapping up another dreary late-night shift tooling around Madrid in her street sweeper. However, the young woman’s after-work plans for this evening are anything but typical. She has decided that it’s time to get even…for every wrong (real or perceived) that she’s suffered in her entire life. Galán delivers a fearless and mesmerizing performance. Shot in one take (no editor is credited), writer-director Hugo Ruiz’s debut is the most unsettling portrayal of alienation, rage, and madness I have seen since Gaspar Noe’s I Stand Alone. Definitely not for the squeamish.
Ride On -It’s interesting kismet that Ride On (written and directed by Larry Yang) opened in the U.S. on Jackie Chan’s 69th birthday, because on a certain level the film plays like a sentimental salute to the international action star’s 60-year career.
That is not to suggest that Chan appears on the verge of being put out to pasture; he still has energy and agility to spare. That said, the shelf life of stunt persons (not unlike professional athletes) is wholly dependent on their stamina and fortitude. It’s not likely to shock you that Chan is cast here as (wait for it) Lao, an aging movie stuntman.
While not saddled by a complex narrative, Ride On gallops right along; spurred by Chan’s charm and unbridled flair for physical comedy (sorry, I had a Gene Shalit moment). And the stunts, of course, are spectacular (in the end credits, it’s noted the film is dedicated to the craft). In one scene, Lao views a highlight reel of “his” stunt career; a collection of classic stunt sequences from Chan’s own films; it gives lovely symmetry to the film and is quite moving. (Full review) (Currently streaming on Amazon Prime, Vudu, Apple TV, and Google Play)