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Musab Ekici caught in a snowstorm in eastern Turkey is one breathtaking visual in "About Dry Grasses." Courtesy Janus Films

With this feature, I can truly put the movies of 2023 to one side (at least until I revisit them in early 2034). Here’s a rundown of some notable movies that I saw and didn’t have the occasion to review, so I’m writing up these miniature reviews for your sampling. The Oscars may be over, but you can still look for these excellent films on streaming or disc.

About Dry Grasses
Nuri Bilge Ceylan is one of the world’s great cinematic masters, and he scores again in this 3-hour epic about a Turkish schoolteacher (Deniz Celiloǧlu) who hates his life teaching out in the boondocks of Eastern Anatolia. He keeps saying what a nice guy he is, and he really isn’t. This guy should be insufferable, but Ceylan builds an absorbing and intensely beautiful story around him as a disabled colleague (Merve Dizdar) and a favored student (Musab Ekici) call out his dishonesty and hypocrisy. If you’re new to Ceylan, I would start with Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and not this, but this is immensely rewarding for those who can appreciate Ceylan’s poetry.

 

Courtesy September Films
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Afire

Want to know what I’m like at my misanthropic worst? Check out the protagonist of Christian Petzold’s film, a writer (Thomas Schubert) who uses his laptop as a shield — sometimes literally — against other people. He goes on a summer vacation on the German coast, and when he and his gay friend (Langston Uibel) discover that they’re sharing the cabin with a woman (Paula Beer), he spends the time making everybody miserable while shouting at them that he needs to work on a novel that sounds like crap. When tragedy strikes the group via the forest fires burning around them, only then does he become a real artist.

 

Courtesy Netflix

El Conde

Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship is a touchstone of Pablo Larraín’s films, and this black-and-white Netflix movie cleverly imagines him as a vampire who surveys the broad sweep of history through the centuries. It makes him into a monster hoarding power and money, and it makes his adult kids into petty monsters jockeying against each other for their inheritance while banding together against the outside world. Ed Lachman’s cinematography deservedly got an Oscar nomination.

 

Courtesy Sumerian / Utopia

Divinity

Eddie Alcazar’s science-fiction film doesn’t work so well as a story, but what pictures! Stephen Dorff plays a scientist who developed the formula for eternal youth, and then there’s actors as disparate as Scott Bakula, Moises Arias, and Bella Thorne in roles that I can’t make head or tail of. Just see this thing for Danny Hiele’s black-and-white cinematography delineating a future world that truly feels alien.

 

Courtesy Scanbox Entertainment

Godland

I named a Christian movie as the year’s best documentary, and this Icelandic entry is a terrific Christian film on the fiction side. Hlynur Palmáson’s drama was inspired by a photograph taken by a 19th-century Danish priest who went to the island to build a church there. Elliot Crosset Hove portrays the priest who loses his faith from the isolation and his inability to communicate with the locals. The landscape and Maria von Hausswolff’s cinematography bring those qualities home.

 

Courtesy Fiery Film Company

Mami Wata

This Nigerian film is a feast for the eyes. Evelyne Ily Juhen and Uzoamaka Aniunoh portray two sisters who are outcasts from their village who are nevertheless trying to invoke a sea goddess to save their village from the predations of a Westernized con artist (Emeka Amakeze). Cinematographer Lílis Soares and composer Tunde Jegede turn this into a sensual experience, and director C.J. “Fiery” Obasi gives this the feel of a piece of avant-garde theater whose religiosity you can feel, if not always understand. I want to see his other stuff now.

 

Courtesy Project 8

The Missing

The best animated film of 2023 was Carl Joseph E. Papa’s Filipino entry that switches between sophisticated rotoscoping and Sesame Street-level kids’ drawings. The mix of visual styles tells the story of a mute gay teenager who keeps seeing various body parts fall off while he navigates romance and reckoning with his childhood trauma. Don’t confuse this with the found-footage thriller from January 2023 that was entitled Missing.

 

Courtesy SBS Distribution

Passages

I finally found an Ira Sachs movie that I like. This bruising romantic drama stars Franz Rogowski as a German expat filmmaker in Paris who cheats on his husband (Ben Whishaw) with a hot crew member (Adèle Exarchopoulos) and then runs home to tell him how amazing the sex was. Then he can’t understand why his husband isn’t happy for him. This self-absorbed narcissist inflicts all kinds of damage on the people around him, and Sachs picks through the damage expertly. I usually admire Sachs’ dramas at a distance, but this one got its hooks in me.

 

Courtesy Master Mind Limited and Spoon Inc.

Perfect Days

This movie made my top 10 list ahead of fellow Oscar nominees Anatomy of a Fall and The Zone of Interest. I suspect that’s because German director Wim Wenders has been dogged by inconsistency over the course of his long career, and seeing him back to his best is just so damn reassuring. Kōji Yakusho has his own lengthy résumé (he was the dancing salaryman in Shall We Dance? and the guy with a scarred face in Memoirs of a Geisha), and he gives a career-capping performance as a Tokyo janitor who finds meaning in Harry Nilsson’s song and his routines keeping the city clean.

 

Courtesy Lokiz Films

Robot Dreams

This Spanish animated film snagged a surprise Oscar nomination, and it’s well worth the accolade. The dialogue-free film set in a 1980s version of New York populated by animals is about a dog that buys a robot as a friend until the two are separated at the beach at Coney Island. Between this film and The Missing (see above), the best animated movies of 2023 came neither from America nor Japan. That’s encouraging.

 

Courtesy Bleecker Street

The Starling Girl

If you’re looking for a good Christian film, chances are you looked in the wrong place last year. Laurel Parmet’s low-budget drama features yet another terrific performance from Eliza Scanlen as a girl in a Kentucky fundamentalist community who has sex with her married youth pastor (Lewis Pullman). This Christian enclave and the way faith colors every aspect of life are well captured even as our heroine starts to notice how men and women are treated differently in this place.

 

Courtesy Alpha Violet

Tótem

Film fans justly celebrate Mexican filmmakers like Alfonso Cuarón and Guillermo Del Toro, but who among the next generation is coming up? The answer is here. Lila Avilés made a big splash with her debut film The Chambermaid, and this second film is even better as it depicts a girl’s seventh birthday party as her extended family gathers and she gradually realizes from her limited perspective that her ailing father probably won’t live to see her turn 8. The gradual accretion of detail and the casual sketches of the various party guests are the mark of a master.

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