A hell of a year this has been, however you look at it. In likely the best season of the past ten+ years across screens of all sizes, television and cinema thrived in ways that exceeded and subverted expectations. Mentioning all the highest-profile happenings alone is an overly ambitious endeavor.
We’ve had a 148-day-long Writers Guild of America strike coupled with a 118-day-long Screen Actors Guild and Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers strike, bringing about historic deals for the film industry workers. There’s been an uptick in domestic box office sales, likely to reach $9 billion by EOY; a solid 22% increase relative to 2022, but still well below the $11-billion wins from 2018 and 2019, and that’s with 15% cheaper tickets. Colossal productions like Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer and Martin Scorcese’s Killers of the Flower Moon drew in the big bucks and revived critical political discourses.
Exorbitant fan services like The Marvels and Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny flopped, while stories about wives on trial for murder (Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall), childhood love from Korea (Celine Song’s Past Lives), and… um… Frankensteinian young women discovering the world (Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things) won over both critics and audiences. Illustrious Hollywood filmmakers and foreign auteurs (that’s European for “filmmaker”) alike hit us like a hurricane: films by Ben Affleck (Air), Ari Aster (Beau Is Afraid), Hayao Miyazaki (The Boy and the Heron), David Fincher (The Killer), Michael Mann (Ferrari), Ridley Scott (Napoleon), and more enveloped us from the theaters, Netflix, Apple TV+, you name it. And this is before we even mention that a movie about a doll made $1.44 billion worldwide, or the corresponding Barbenheimer phenomenon, likely the most intense grassroots advertising (or is it astroturfing?) craze ever to have stormed the Internet.
Indeed, so much has been happening with such intensity that even the postponement of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part Two and Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers to Spring 2024 barely turned any heads. For cinephiles, keeping up has been a full-time job this year.
All this hubbub is better left for PopMatters’ expansive Best Films list, though. This piece is reserved for some of the (many) bold, exciting, profound, or otherwise good ol’ quality entertainment flicks you might have missed among the noise. As I’ve said, it’s been a hell of a season – and I know you must be exhausted from trying to catch up with whatever is en vogue on any given week – but we still have a long winter ahead of us. So strap yourselves in and take note: you’ll be happy to have seen these gems before social hibernation is over.
The Holdovers – Dir. Alexander Payne
There’s no better, or at least no more bittersweet way, to kick winter off. Though The Holdovers is critically high-profile enough to have made PopMatters Best Of, it hasn’t exactly been a typical box office hit.
An unlikely holiday film and a wonderful return to form for Alexander Payne, this tender story of an all-boys school in 1970s New England and their grumpy history teacher earns every one of its many tearful moments. Paul Giamatti is in absolute top form as Paul Hunham, a hermit Classics professor staggeringly inept at human(e) contact but stuck with guarding the kids over Christmas after refusing to let one of the rich boys pass. Sure enough, all sorts of conflict ensue.
On the other side of this ghost winter wonderland sparring match is newcomer Dominic Sessa, captivating as the lupine rebel teenager Angus Tully, who has a terrible issue with authority. The dreary, snowy days stretch into perpetuity around the ghastly empty Barton Academy boarding school campus, and among incessant squabbles, it’s difficult to say who resents whom more. The only company for Hunham and Tully is Mary Lamb (also phenomenal Da’Vine Joy Randolph), Barton’s cook and a bereaved mother trying to come to terms with an unspeakable tragedy. As the three dejected outcasts attempt to coexist over the loneliest Christmas ever, we learn about their bitter histories and the many reasons they ended up all by themselves – not just over the holidays. If this sounds a bit grim for a snug watch, worry not; the humor and warmth permeate every frame of this small wonder.
As predictable as it is that the sad trio will see their relationships evolve during this time of unique hardship and solitude, the way Payne achieves the many character developments is a marvel to behold. More complex than just a love letter to The Breakfast Club or a throwback to ’70s classic cinema, The Holdovers is a compelling tale of grief, dysfunctional families, and the power structures that make or break the lives of the everyman. Payne, a master of lowkey narratives about average people coming to terms with great changes in their lives, pulls off a rare feat here – a profoundly heartbroken film that will fill you with hope.
Eileen – Dir. William Oldroyd
This is another film from PopMatters’ general Best Of list, but a diametrically different one. Unlike The Holdovers, Eileen, a sparse neo-noirish psychological thriller based on Ottessa Moshfegh’s intriguing debut novel, contains no traces of hope but delivers heaps in the domain of twisted seduction and morbidity. Also set in the dead of New England’s winter, but in the 1960s, Eileen follows an eponymous protagonist (a great Thomasin McKenzie), a hapless young secretary at a local boys’ corrections facility, quite possibly the most detached and blank character we’ve encountered in a while. There is no excitement or hope in Eileen’s sad little life with an abusive alcoholic father (Shea Whigham) until a mysterious psychologist, Rebecca Saint John (Anne Hathaway), joins the facility staff.
Seemingly overnight, a whirlwind of intrigue and deceit swoops Eileen down, but in a bizarre twist of fate, she welcomes the seduction and immense uncertainty that comes with it. Who is Rebecca? What could this Harvard-educated, fearless pin-up hotshot possibly want with the plain, unnoticeable secretary Eileen? McKenzie and Hathaway are fascinating in their cat-and-mouse game of self-deprecating ingenue and pulpy femme fatale, though the real star of this perverted show is the story itself, with paradigm-shifting, genuinely shocking twists guaranteed to have you questioning your sense of morality. Who is at fault and what for is a problem the viewer has to work out themselves, except there will be no guidance from the authors or the cast.
Oldroyd’s film, based on a script co-developed by Moshfegh and screenwriting partner Luke Goebel, is sharp and tight to a fault, working charms within its many omissions, silences, and possible confabulations. Despite the novel being told – quite richly – from a first-person perspective, Moshfegh and Goebel did well to forego any voiceover clichés, instead allowing the audience to paint their own picture over Eileen’s inscrutability. Ultimately, What you leave with will heavily depend on your reading of this morbid narrative. Many features mistake vagueness for sapience, but Eileen works best precisely when it puts you off your stride, making you grapple for a resolution. Allow yourself to get caught up.
Evil Does Not Exist – Dir. Ryûsuke Hamaguchi
Ryûsuke Hamaguchi is on top of the world. The first Japanese director to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director for the seminal Drive My Car (with a nod for Best Screenplay, too) follows up his winning streak with Evil Does Not Exist, a quiet but powerful meditation on the clashes of man and nature, but more profoundly, man and his kin. Having premiered in Venice, where it picked up the Jury Prize, following up with rave reactions at the BFI London Film Festival, Hamaguchi’s latest has been critics’ darling without, as of yet, reaching a broad audience in the proverbial “West”.
Evil Does not Exist, a slow-burning ecological parable, opens with an expansive, spellbinding tracking shot of an unspoiled forest outside the rural village of Harasawa. An organism, a character in itself, the forest is a refuge and a source of life, but obviously, this also means a business opportunity. In Harasawa, a modest handyman working for the local udon joint, Takumi (Hitoshi Omika), lives with his eight-year-old daughter, Hana (Ryo Nishikawa). Theirs is a simple, self-sustained life, but this serenity is about to change when a Tokyo glamping (!) enterprise dispatches two brash talent agents (Ryuji Kosaka and Ayaka Shibutani) to convince the locals that a glamping site in their vicinity is a good idea.
Hamaguchi’s latest, however, is far from a straightforward one-trick pony about the strife between the urban and the rural or the blights of capitalistic urbanization. Several intriguing plot twists and a stunningly mythical, puzzling ending will likely stick with you. That evil does exist. You already knew, anyway.
The Old Oak – Dir. Ken Loach
“Peerless” is not an adjective to use lightly, but in Ken Loach’s case, it is only accurate. The British auteur is a rare, consistently socially critical voice in contemporary filmmaking, an activist who has devoted his 55-year career to challenging power structures and lending bullhorns to the most underprivileged, least visible members of society. His lifelong commitment to unsentimental exposing systemic inequalities and class conflict through the medium of film, calling out the hypocrisies of the political rulers while humanizing the countless “untouchables” whose troubles seldom seem to fit Hollywood distribution standards, is one of a kind.
The Old Oak, a complex, emotional drama about a dilapidated former mining town outside County Durham struggling to accept an influx of Syrian refugees, is a fitting (likely) farewell to the great director’s opus. In the vein of his two latest, 2016’s I, Daniel Blake (a fantastic, devastating Cannes Palme D’Or winner) and 2019’s Sorry We Missed You, it shows the results of the generational ruin of the English northeast, nowadays mostly an economically barren wasteland of shattered lives and crushed hopes.
Amid that wasteland sits The Old Oak, the last remaining pub and the only public space for its townsfolk to meet. Its owner, TJ Ballantyne, is a forlorn but kind middle-aged loner who gets in trouble with his last remaining regulars when he strikes up a friendship with a young refugee, Yara. Some townspeople exhaust their modest means to help integrate the frightened and isolated refugees, but the majority feels the immigrants have been “dumped” on them, directing their misplaced anger at the most vulnerable instead of those at the top. The decades of neglect and exploitation of a once-thriving mining region have taken their toll, making any attempts at reconciliation and acceptance challenging.
As is customary for Loach, the film stars non-professional but hugely capable actors who bring a new dimension of sincerity and “reality” into the narrative. Dave Turner and Ebla Mari shine as TJ and Yara, unrelenting in their hope that not all is forever lost. While the dialogue occasionally swerves into hamfisted expository, this is a humane, ultimately hopeful tale of empathy and solidarity and a refreshingly honest look at the many corners of our communities that Hollywood avoids by default.
May December – Dir. Todd Haynes
I concede that a film by the indie darling Todd Haynes starring A-list divas such as Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore, already nominated for four Golden Globes, isn’t exactly a low-key release. Still, this season is so packed with diverse celluloid candy that it’s easy to overlook a… domestic drama about a pedophile and her former victim, now husband, whose lives unravel when a Hollywood actress preparing to portray the pedophile on-screen arrives in their home.
For better or for worse, you read that right. May December’s basic plot is just the tip of a Titanic-sinking iceberg. Based on the real-life sex offender saga of Mary Kay Letourneau and her underage lover-turned-husband, Haynes’ latest is a masterpiece of performative camp pomp and the quiet, unregistered devastation in its wake. A minimum of four features deftly rolled into one, May December combines elements of psychological horror, identity satire, family drama, and a coming-of-age account seasoned with an astute examination of how tabloid culture and sensationalism destroy lives.
Moore and Portman are both sensational, perfectly matched sparring partners as Gracie, a 59-year-old former inmate who went on to marry the boy she seduced, and Elizabeth, a 35-year-old actress set to portray Gracie in a biopic. As Elizabeth kind of moves in with Gracie and her family to do “research”, old scars and new wounds begin to reveal themselves.
The two women, deceitful, neurotic, and deeply self-absorbed, develop an uneasy friendship. They should not be competing with each other, but judgment is neither’s forte. More than anything, they love to be seen, and the lengths they both go to fulfill their desires (in their minds, these would be “needs”) is, at turns, amusing and utterly nightmarish.
Caught in the middle of this sudden menage of media and (family) affairs is Joe Yoo (a standout Charles Melton), Gracie’s 36-year-old husband and the father to their adult children, forced to reckon with his own arrested development for the first time as their younger kids are about to leave for college. Between the two melodramatic frenemies, Joe, delicately channeled in a powerhouse performance by Melton, gives May December its potent gravitas; he is a living reminder of the real, far-reaching consequences of delusional and self-interested behavior.
At times humorous but always disturbing, May December is among the greatest psychological dramas of the decade so far. It is almost certain to become a “cult classic”, so make sure you’ve seen it before you fall behind during haute holiday matinee banter.