Happy New Year, Viscerals!
It's amusing to me that the theme of last year's blog seemed to be "exhaustion", because Pez and I are so damn tired at the end of this year that we've forcibly carved out a final week all to ourselves, to just unplug from the world and enjoy each other's company, to collect our thoughts and recharge our batteries before leaping into next year.
We started the year by doing something we'd never done before - seeking professional script consultancy on a couple of our feature film treatments, an act we saw as poking our heads out of our private hidey-hole and dipping our toe into the wider world of film development, as we seek to strengthen our work as we tentatively step into the dark but sadly necessary lottery of applying for film financing - then helped Pez's daughter and Apparitions' lead Cate O'Connor and her partner Dylan James make their debut short film, the Influencer horror-satire Under The Influence, before producing our own short film (our first with an actual crew in the pandemic era), the King Lear-inspired Three Sisters. But for me, it was a new and constantly evolving/expanding day job with Bounty Films that really kept me running on the hamster wheel this year; a gig that quickly went from metadata and upload assistance to handling theatrical releases nationwide.
I haven't made firm New Years Resolutions for a while now, but this time of year does get you thinking about how you plan to attack the next, and right now I'm thinking a lot about combatting exhaustion, about turning the tide on feeling increasingly overwhelmed. After a few seconds of thinking about 2024 work intentions, I can already feel my stomach twisting, and I don't want to feel this way. I don't know about you, but I'm terrified that my year-on-year energy levels are diminishing just as my creative and professional lives are growing, and I won't be able to keep up.
So many of my New Year intentions seem to centre around time management: about setting task-oriented week-to-week work plans, setting aside set amounts of hours to work on specific tasks on regular days, to get onto tasks as soon as they occur to me rather than wait-and-seeing my way though them, to build in enough time so when new tasks and priorities are inevitably thrown at me (or when things equally inevitably go off the rails) I've got time to sort them out and not get freaked out. The way I manage my professional and creative lives needs to change, or I'm going to burn out by 50 (which is in less than 18 months, by the way, thank you kindly for reminding me, brain). Hustle Culture can well and truly go screw itself; self-care, time management and building in time for rest and reflection rules.
So Cinema Viscera's Year-in-Review felt very sporadic: lots of writing as Pez built not one but two feature film treatments and I hammered away at advanced drafts of a long-gestating Christmas anthology project, me editing a couple of projects and both of us working on producing and directing Three Sisters, which I can say without equivocation is completely different from any other project we've ever done.
Three Sisters is a weird little Shakespeare-and-Succession-inspired movie that we hope becomes a sort of immersive tragicomic emotional journey, equal parts schadenfreude, sensuality and sorrow. We're in the last leg of post-production and hope to start getting it out to film festivals (because we're masochists - and what other option do we have? YouTube??) in January/February. The shoot was hectic and (yes) exhausting but ultimately very satisfying, and incredibly fun to be working with friends old and new, and trying out new ways of working (such as, this is our first film in 15 years I've not edited!). So far, it's all coming together remarkably well, we're incredibly proud of it, and we can't wait to show you all another side of Cinema Viscera in 2024. In the meantime, here are some stills from the shoot:
So once we complete and deliver Three Sisters, 2024 will be focused principally on writing and developing our current slate of projects and taking the next step to a more elevated level of filmmaking while sharpening our voice, to further trust and fully realise the nutty instincts that make us who we are, not losing them.
Now, that's quite enough about us. Some of you came here for a film countdown, right?
MY TOP 20 RETRO REVELATIONS (PRE-2019 FILMS) OF 2023
#20. WHO KILLED SANTA CLAUS? (1941; Director: Christian-Jaque): A gorgeously shot, affectionate pastoral comedy about a small French Alpine village celebrating the holidays, that suddenly turns into a murder mystery. Really draws us into its world of eccentric residents - with its mongrel kids and lovesick residents, this has big Jean Vigo energy, and feels like the kind of thing we'd see from Truffaut 20 years later.
#19. NEXT STOP, GREENWICH VILLAGE (1976; D: Paul Mazursky): Writer-director Mazursky's biographical look at being a Jewish kid moving to New York to live a bohemian life in the 1950s is no mere nostaglia trip; surprisingly tough and unvarnished, and chock full of incredibly funny dialogue and great casting (Shelley Winters! Young & handsome Christopher Walken! Ellen Greene! Lois Smith! Jeff Goldblum! Antonio Fargas playing a thinly veiled James Baldwin!).
#18. SARABAND (2003; D: Ingmar Bergman): In locked-down July 2020, we began the project of watching all 39 films on the Criterion Collection's incredible Ingmar Bergman's Cinema box set, which finally ended (a month shy of three years later!) in incredibly satisfying fashion with Bergman's final work as a director: a thirty-years-later sequel to his 1973 classic Scenes from a Marriage, it brings back stars Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson for a beautiful extended conversation about ageing, loves and regrets, before dovetailing into their relationships with their grown children - which, given this is Bergman, aren't always ideal. A lovely, witty, meditative swan song to a truly extraordinary film career.
#17. THE SERPENT'S EGG (1977; D: Ingmar Bergman): Back-to-back Bergman! One of two films Bergman shot in Germany, this was a real grower for me, starring David Carradine as an Jewish-American circus performer who moves to Weimar Republic Germany in 1923, strikes up a relationship with Liv Ullman and quickly finds himself in a co-dependent downward spiral, as economic depression and newly emergent Nazism start the walls closing in. Great brief character roles for Glynn Turman and Heinz Bennent, too. Dark and depressing as hell but even more atmospheric and bewitching.
#16. MARY JANE'S NOT A VIRGIN ANYMORE (1996; D: Sarah Jacobson): Writer-director Sarah Jacobson's sole feature (before Cancer claimed her at just 32) is the low-fi punk rom-com you never knew you needed; a great, adorable hangout movie about being young, working with people your own age for the first time (at a local cinema!) and falling in and out of love. Should be much more well known, and one can only dream of what further treats Jacobson would've made had she not been so cruelly snatched from us.
#15. DIABOLIQUE (1955; D: Henri-Georges Clouzot): Clouzot's iconic, endlessly ripped-off thriller of two very different women who murder the awful man in their lives - only to find their plans complicated by his disappearing corpse - was a big List of Shame film for me, and finally seeing it this year didn't disappoint. The filmmaking felt surprisingly modern even when I could predict its twists, and both of these qualities give you an indication of how much this film has been pillaged in the seven decades since its release. Creepy and fun, with terrific lead performances by Simone Signoret and Véra Clouzot.
#14. INSERTS (1975; D: John Byrum): Imagine Babylon as a 5-character chamber piece set in a decaying Hollywood mansion and you're getting close. Richard Dreyfuss is a fallen "golden boy" silent director reduced to shooting porn with an erratic ex-movie star (an on-fire Veronica Cartwright) and wallowing in drink, drugs and self-pity, who's challenged by the enigmatic actress (Jessica Harper) dating the gangster (Bob Hoskins) who bankrolls his stag films. A lively, very adult commentary on gender dynamics, artists who believe their own bullshit and desperate aspirants working all sorts of angles, full of declarative monologues, power plays and parry-and-thrusts galore — albeit with bursts of full-frontal nudity!
#13. TO WONG FOO, THANKS FOR EVERYTHING, JULIE NEWMAR (1995; D: Beeban Kidron): No mere Americans-do-Priscilla rip-off, Kidron's film is an unabashedly queer explosion of pure joy from start to finish, with Patrick Swayze (in what might be his best performance), Wesley Snipes and John Leguizamo (all straight, cisgender male movie stars) giving 100% committed, fully rounded performances as drag queens who transform a repressed small town (it's basically HBO's We Are Here: The Movie), while making space for Stockard Channing, Melinda Dillon, Beth Grant and Frances Bay to shine in wonderful character roles. As Hollywood studio attempts to reckon with queer and drag culture go, this is one of the sweetest, smartest and most successful.
#12. PUMPKINHEAD (1988; D: Stan Winston): Why is this dismissed as a minor '80s horror film? SFX guru Winston's directorial debut is, for me, one of the very best horror films of the decade, setting up a beautiful father-son relationship, initially careless but increasingly sympathetic teens, Appalachian fairytale mythology and dazzling creature design that seems like a Xenomorph and a Predator had a baby. It has real stakes, stunning production and lighting design, brisk pacing, a complex moral to the story and a terrific lead performance from Lance Henriksen. This pumpkin is ripe for rediscovery.
#11. MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (1939; D: Frank Capra): Capra’s plea for decency in America’s legislative capital is a prime example of what he did so well; an unconventional but fundamentally decent man meets a forthright woman who brings out the best in him, joining forces to stand up to large corporate or political corruption - supercharged by casting Hollywood’s all-time avatar for decency, Jimmy Stewart, but he's matched by Jean Arthur, playing a strategist who knows all the angles and should be running things in this man's world, stealing the film out from under Stewart, who filibusters his way into our hearts under her tutelage. Manipulative, sure, but not wrong.
#10. THE FIFTH SEAL (1976; D: Zoltán Fábri): One of the more intriguing, downright horrifying philosophical dramas I’ve ever seen; in a just world, Fábri’s film would be much better known. Starts off kind of fun in a low-key, Polish New Wave kind of way with an extended late-night cafe conversation — except these men appear to be almost ghostly, and there’s those sort-of Nazis lurking outside — before descending into a quiet hell, that seems to be WWII in many ways but, well, isn’t, before landing in its harrowing final act, which puts the ethical questions these men were blithely throwing at each other to an unimaginable test. This needs the deluxe Blu-ray treatment.
#9. LADY ON A TRAIN (1945; D: Charles David): A fast-moving One Crazy Night mystery-comedy set on Christmas Eve that isn’t afraid to get unexpectedly sexy (or unexpectedly unsettling, with a certain character’s late reveal), starring Deanna Durbin relishing the chance to shed her teenage sweetheart persona; her mystery-novel-obsessed amateur sleuth here is as charming as she's ever been, but throws a lot more vibe. Also loved David Bruce as the mystery writer who’s a lot less handy than he thinks he is, and the supporting cast of well-known nice guys (Ralph Bellamy, Dan Duryea, etc) make a great roll call of suspects. Add this one to your end-of-year Christmas watchlists!
#8. AT LONG LAST LOVE (1975; D: Peter Bogdanovich): Bogdanovich rules. Sure, his wild big-budget musical swing might be shaggy, shaky and overlong, but there's no arguing with the giant smile that wouldn’t leave my face throughout. The production values are huge, its sets and costumes exuberant and expressive, Cole Porter's songs are wonderfully used, the entire ensemble are having a ball and understand the absurd assignment, with, predictably, queen Madeleine Kahn stealing the whole thing — closely followed by the great John Hillerman and Eileen Brennan. I’d be happy to watch the ‘Well, Did You Evah!’ number at The Racquet Club multiple times as its own exhibit.
#7. CURE (1997; Kiyoshi Kurosawa): Talk about a grower. Like the bizarre contagion that is the film's true antagonist, Kurosawa's spare, slow-burning Japanese horror thriller creeps under your skin and won't get out of your head. Following a quietly seething police detective (the terrific Koji Yakusho) on the trail of a series of murders committed by people who linger by the crime scenes dazed, with no memory of what they did, leading him to a psychological cat and mouse game with an elusive, enigmatic young man. One of those films whose quiet narrative and true meaning really only land on you afterwards, this might be the very best film of the entire '90s/'00s J-Horror cycle.
#6. DEAD OF NIGHT (1945; D: Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden, Robert Hamer): One of the earliest horror anthologies and the only horror picture ever made by UK giant Ealing Studios, famed for their comedies; comprised of four macabre shorts with a comedic ghost story in the middle (just to remind us which studio made this), all tied together by one of the best wraparound stories I’ve ever seen. As everyone says, the ventriloquist story is the best — that final shot in the cell is as creepy now as it must have been in ‘45 — but the others have their spooky charms, too. As British as Beefeater palace guards and Marmite, this was a ball.
#5. JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR (1973; D: Norman Jewison): Or, A Requiem for Judas. Breathtakingly shot by Douglas Slocombe, with blocking and choreography that makes stunning use of the found locations (in Jerusalem itself!), director Jewison, co-screenwriter Melvyn Bragg and Tim Rice’s book succeed in making the film simultaneously small-scale and huge while capturing the cultish nature of it all. The high-powered '70s rock opera soundtrack is glorious, the dance numbers insanely energetic and the decision to almost entirely forgo dialogue is a winner. A stunning ‘70s musical which couldn’t be more of the time and culture in which it was made - and is all the better for it.
#4. MUTE WITNESS (1994; D: Anthony Waller): What a delight this was! This exuberant giallo-influenced thriller is exactly the kind of movie I would love to make; shot in Moscow by a debut Brit director in the early '90s — with a brilliant/bizarre surprise cameo shot 8 years earlier — it's as tight as a drum, full of nods to De Palma, Argento and (of course) Hitchcock with brilliantly constructed suspense set pieces, tons of style on a small budget, a twisty (if frequently, enjoyably implausible) plot with likeable and very human characters, good performances, constant escalation and clever writing. Seek it out.
#3. THE HONEYMOON KILLERS (1970; D: Leonard Kastle): Imagine a John Waters movie directed by Jules Dassin (or vice versa) and you're in the ballpark of Kastle's startling one-and-done directorial effort. Outside of being a terrific character study of impressive complexity — and one so artfully shot (by future star cinematographer Oliver Wood) for such a seemingly tawdry micro-budget film — where it really crawls under your skin is in its depiction of the pitiable humanity of its monstrous lead couple (with terrific performances by Tony LoBianco and especially Shirley Stoler - you know Divine was taking notes) and the simple desperate banality of their murders. I did NOT expect this to hit so hard.
#2. NIGHTMARE ALLEY (1947; D: William Goulding): William Lindsay Gresham’s novel and super-scribe Jules Furthman’s script provide a killer noir plot that sees a con man (a terrific Tyrone Power, serving big George Clooney vibes) who thinks he’s the smartest in every room being comprehensively outplayed as he seeks to conquer two sides of the American Nightmare — the rural traveling carnival and the corrupt big city — only to have them eat him alive. Lee Garmes’ cinematography is chiaroscuro heaven, with prison-style bars and ravenous shadows dominating rooms and lurking around every corner. Only falters slightly at the very end, when it takes a more despairingly romantic conclusion — still no happy ending, just softer — than the chilling coda that fading to black on the previous scene would’ve been (the only aspect where Guillermo del Toro's 2021 remake improves upon this one).
#1. THE DAY OF THE LOCUST (1975; D: John Schlesinger): Holy shit. I don’t want to say too much, as you will not be prepared for the final 18 minutes of this, which could be an epic short film of its own. The team behind Midnight Cowboy — director Schlesinger, writer Waldo Salt and producer Jerome Hellman — bring their caustic view of capitalist ruin to 1920s Hollywood, finding their acidic equal in Nathanael West’s 1939 novel about a crumbling apartment block of Hollywood hustlers and hopers trying to make it in a town that drags out their worst qualities. Brilliant performances across the board in a frequently unsettling, hauntingly weird rumbling storm of a film that quite literally explodes at its climax. The kind of big, bold, feel-bad epic swing that only winning a Best Picture Oscar gets you the cachet to make.
MY TOP 20 NEW RELEASES OF 2023
It is with both sadness and relief to say this might be the last time you see me doing this year-end blog in this current form. From next year, it'll be the Cinema Viscera wrap followed by quick, potted Top 10 Older and Newer Films lists.
It almost feels fraudulent for me to make a Top 20 list nowadays, given we're a long, long way from the media-screening-heavy halcyon days of me seeing 110-120 new movies a year - these last two years have seen my totals fall into the 60s (just 68 this year, for the second year running), in a weird correlation with the decline in AFL leading goal-kicker stats - so my natural inclination was to keep this list to a tight 10 or 15... except, I saw a lot of really cool movies this year. In fact, I really liked over half the 65 movies I saw, and loved 16, with four more that I felt deserved particular mention.
For the purposes of this list, "New Releases" are feature films I saw this year that received their premiere paid public release — in cinemas, on streaming, DVD/BD, VoD or at festivals — in Australia during 2023.
As usual, there are heaps of highly acclaimed films I didn't see, like Past Lives, The Boy and The Heron, Close, Maestro, John Wick: Chapter 4, Polite Society, Reality and You Hurt My Feelings, and didn't get to a whole bunch that had festival screenings this year but will receive general releases in 2024, like All of Us Strangers, Anatomy of a Fall, Dream Scenario, Fallen Leaves, Ferrari, May December, Perfect Days, Robot Dreams and The Zone of Interest, or haven't screened here at all yet, like American Fiction, The Holdovers, The Iron Claw and Origin.
From the movies I did see, my honourable mentions, counting down from #30-21, were: Barbie, Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning: Chapter One, The Lonely Spirits Variety Hour, Bottoms, Knock at the Cabin, Skinamarink, Air, Showing Up, Blue Jean, Passages. Now, for the 20 that left more of an impression on me than anything else I saw in 2023:
#20. PERPETRATOR (D: Jennifer Reader)
A twisted child of Carrie, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Ginger Snaps and Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, with fun performances, playfully punk humour, exactly the right amount of "what the fuck is going on?" quirk that all resolves satisfactorily, the body horror of puberty and the greater horror of men ready to prey on teenage girls… all building up to a final escape plan that I felt was spectacularly well devised and executed. Alicia Silverstone's fun as a witchy aunt, but Christopher "Piz" Lowell and Audrey Francis as psycho high school officials steal the whole thing.
#19. THE ORDINARIES (D: Sophie Linnenbaum)
This tonally wackadoo comedy-fantasy-sci-fi-social-drama from Germany is not only one of the most audacious debuts I've seen in years, but also meant a lot to me personally, as it was the first film I ever personally acquired and theatrically released in my new gig with Bounty Films. While its many tones don't always work well together, this story of a girl relegated to Supporting Character status in a dystopian world that works like the movies, her struggle to be a Main Character and what she discovers about the way her world works, is alternately sweet, amusingly meta and dark as hell, but is ultimately a plea for us all to embrace what makes us individuals and be our best selves.
#18. TÁR (D: Todd Field)
While this didn’t quite get all the way under my skin, I admired the hell out of it. Very much in the key of Michael Haneke, this digs into an egomaniacal Great Artist’s very 2020s descent into hell with a FEROCIOUS performance from Cate Blanchett, with Todd Field’s script and style encouraging repeat viewings — not in an annoying all-semiotic-subtext/dumb-surface-text fashion (as some popular recent filmmakers tend to do), as its story and characters are as incredibly engaging as they are deliciously flawed. Great work all round here, reckon I might dig it more on rewatch.
#17: YOU'LL NEVER FIND ME (D: Indianna Bell, Josiah Allen)
For a micro-budget Australian horror film, I was super impressed by the filmmaking craft on display here — the incredible layered sound design, deep focus cinematography, blocking and shadowy lighting were quite excellent — in addition to the strong lead performances. The film's first half hour and final act were genuinely scary and unsettling, and even when the script runs out of road a bit in the middle stretch — there's not quite enough there there to sustain it — once it starts its journey home, it nails the landing brilliantly. Can't wait to see what Bell & Allen do next!
#16. A HAUNTING IN VENICE (D: Kenneth Branagh)
My favourite of Branagh's Poirot trilogy; does away with Nile's awful CGI and needless bloat and the absurd (if fun) blockbuster elements of Orient Express in favour of a more grounded (well, by Branagh’s standards) take on Agatha Christie’s super-sleuth that I found thoroughly delightful, even with canted angles and spook-show theatrics intact. The cast are fun (especially Tina Fey), it integrates Poirot’s wartime trauma in a much more organic and poignant fashion than Nile did, takes place against gorgeous Venice locations and an insanely gothic mansion, and the pacing is deliberate but efficiently edited, with brisk transitions. Good old-fashioned, satisfying stuff.
#15. STILL: A MICHAEL J. FOX MOVIE (D: Davis Guggenheim)
My favourite documentary of the year (granted, I didn't watch many), but given the longtime affection I've had for Michael J. Fox as a performer and an activist, that shouldn't be a surprise. Fox’s brutally honest, unvarnished, clear-eyed outlook and Michael Harte’s astonishing archival editing (near-seamlessly blended with linking re-enactments) are the twin engines that power this beautiful portrait of the star’s meteoric rise, life-altering diagnosis and continued advocacy, treatment and personal evolution.
#14. OF AN AGE (D: Goran Stolevski)
Stolevski follows up his brilliant 19th century Macedonian dark fairytale You Won't Be Alone with a deeply felt, disarmingly personal and lived-in love story between two men (played beautifully by Elias Anton and Thom Green), most of which takes place in a car in 1999 — so, y'know, totally the same. The musical nod to Wong Kar Wai's Happy Together is no accident, as Stolevski's film is similarly sensual, grounded in small gestures and looks, and ends on an elegiac note. But this undersells it, it's also frequently laugh-out loud funny as it is swooningly romantic. Few films evoke the rush of falling in love for the first time - or late '90s/pre-millennial Australian suburbia - as well as this one, and as impossibly poignant as the final shot may be, it's the journey you remember.
#13. THE KILLER (D: David Fincher)
My favourite Fincher since The Social Network. Love Fincher and his Se7en writer Andrew Kevin Walker's wry digs at connecting everyday capitalism (Amazon, Home Depot, WeWork, Doordash, etc.) to the tools of meticulous murder; it’s never been easier to be seen and be invisible, with the tools of death and destruction delivered direct to your doorstep. It's a simple story but a highly engaging and propulsive one, that sees Fincher working more in the idiom of his old pal Steven Soderbergh. Fassbender is terrific, it has the best fight scene I’ve seen in Hollywood cinema in years, and I’m a sucker for meticulous assassins with no name but brilliant aliases and weirdly specific musical tastes.
#12: SHIT (D: Susie Dee, Trudy Hellier)
A fierce, fiery, 74-minute gut punch of a film from the achingly empathetic poison pen of Melbourne playwright Patricia Cornelius, featuring a trio of searing performances (from the actors who played these roles for years on stage), theatre director Susie Dee and actor Trudy Hellier's film adaptation of Cornelius' award-winning play feels like the most arresting and vital Australian micro-budget film in years, exactly the kind of clarion call you crave from indie cinema. A powerfully feminist work with anger, acid and attitude to spare, this never coddles the audience, contrasting three bruised, tough women in a holding cell with the mysterious night before, where we gradually see what put them inside, as they reckon with the fucked up lives that have led them here — but what's most surprising is the screw-you swagger this film walks with, reminiscent of something like 1992's Romper Stomper. Seek it out.
#11. TO LESLIE (D: Michael Morris)
I love hard-won redemption stories of fucked-up protagonists, especially one as disarmingly human, empathetic and even funny as this one, with a laser focus on behaviour that gives it life. Working from an open wound of a screenplay, Andrea Riseborough's performance is a sinewy, bruised force of nature, but the film wouldn’t work as well without the quiet grace of Marc Maron opposite her, as a lonely, gentle man who takes a chance on this white tornado of a woman before even really knowing why. It’s nice to have a film that sits with its characters without judgement and offers a plausible kind of hope that a small dream that can, with the right support network, come true.
#10. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOLUME 3 (D: James Gunn)
In a year that finally saw Marvel Studios tumble from its exalted perch and the DC Extended Universe die a grim death, leave it to James Gunn — the surest hands in this corner of the business — to land the plane safely. Gunn has spent three films (and a holiday special!) carefully building this found family of galaxy-hopping mercenary misfit toys, and making this one revolve around damaged cyber-animal pilot Rocket Racoon is a masterstroke of getting to the heart of why this story matters to so many folks around the world, more than a million Avengers crossovers could ever do. Amongst all the shenanigans and wisecracks, a profound sense of loss and grief has always hung around these characters; they've not just lost an Uncle Ben but entire families, worlds, galaxies — and, in Rocket's case, sense of self, a life he was born into (as an animal) that he was never allowed to have. While this third film doesn't perhaps hang together as a story as much as the previous two (it doesn't quite know what to do with Gamora and Peter, a curse forced upon them by one of Avengers Endgame's dumbest plot twists), in a world where so many people are having their rights taken away from them, their homes destroyed and lands eradicated, there is something elementally powerful in Rocket's final liberation — "All of them." — that transcends "superhero" cinema.
#9. THE FABELMANS (D: Steven Spielberg)
Spielberg’s testament film of sorts, his attempt at a Rorschach Test to show how he became the artist he did — a child of art and science, fascinated with tech and the emotions it can elicit, struggling with constantly moving and making friends, with the thrill of wrapping his engineer-entertainer’s head around filmmaking elegantly contrasting and dovetailing with witnessing his parents’ relationship curdling — is a delight, though it could’ve gone a bit harder into showing us the “lonely kid” Spielberg so often refers to his younger self as. Loved the cast, especially Dano and Williams. The ending is an absolute treat (love that casting choice, of course), with a great joke in the final shot.
#8. POOR THINGS (D: Yorgos Lanthimos)
Just when you think "they don't make 'em like they used to," along comes Lanthimos, one of cinema's great provocative oddballs, who makes movies that feel like magic tricks. Witness this delightfully carnal steampunk-gothic feminist fantasia, an alt-universe version of Bride of Frankenstein where Emma Stone's sewn-together Bella Baxter embarks into the wider world to seek a life of sensation before settling down, only to find a world of craven dickheads who wish to possess and control her for their own purposes, like a dark funhouse mirror of something like Fanny Hill. Stone gives the comic performance of the year (followed very closely by an unhinged Mark Ruffalo), backed by a perfect cast and some truly demented production design and VFX, but it's Stone's work and Tony McNamara's consistently hilarious script that power this twisted beast, even when it gets a bit long in the tooth in the final stretch.
#7: LIMBO (D: Ivan Sen)
Sen's latest outback noir is even more mediative than previous efforts, but no less quietly mesmerising, with an inescapable sense of dread, ruin and weariness invading every monochromatic frame, lurking within all those underground caverns, as hollowed-out as the characters who dwell within them; marked by generations of abuse, displacement and disregard, like the mining sites that make this proud, sacred land look more like an alien landscape, violated by decades of invasion. Sen continues to be Australia's most dedicated genre-adjacent chronicler of the open wounds that throb beneath this land, and the fact he does it with such intelligence, skill and respect for genre makes him a national treasure.
#6. KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON (D: Martin Scorsese)
How does America's best film director keep getting better? Scorsese has always been interested in micro-societies and the violence they inflict on each other, but genocide is an entirely new subject for him to deal with, and he tackles the tragic fallout of the Native American Osage people's sudden oil wealth - swiftly followed by the mysterious deaths of the newly prosperous natives at the hands of their seething, newly-submissive white officials - with a sensitivity, a patience and an inquiry (not to mention an unflinching horror) that has become a hallmark of his later work. While I wish this followed the novel's (at least, initial) lead of seeing the tragedy through Mollie's eyes, the astonishingly great Lily Gladstone has such elemental gravity as a presence, while so effortlessly personable, that she lets you right in, refusing to believe the horrors that she increasingly knows to be true. But Robert De Niro's manipulative politico is also a monster for the ages, a late-career hallmark for one of the greats. The ending at first strikes us as odd, with Scorsese himself narrating the tragedy we've just seen as bullet points in a jaunty mid-century radio play, but this turns the tables on us: no piece of art, no matter how sensitive or careful, can ever begin to hope to do justice to the greatest of all injustices: one society's wilful intention to eliminate another.
#5. SALTBURN (D: Emerald Fennell)
Bless a filmmaker who still knows how to have fun! Fennell returns to capital-C CINEMA in grand style with this supercharged, sexy, slick, splashy and sinister spin on a couple of well-known tales (but to say which feels like a spoiler). Everyone here is perfectly cast -- Keoghan is shaping up as one of cinema's all-time great weirdos, Elordi is the alluring Golden Boy made flesh, Madekwe a perfect foil and Pike and Grant the distracted toffs inhabiting their own self-contained universe, hilarious as they are strangely poignant -- and the setting is as intoxicating as it is rotted (the production design here is brilliant), but Fennell's tale goes places you wouldn't imagine, leading to some of the most devilishly cringey moments I've seen in a film for a good long while. A mischievous psychosexual thriller with style and provocation to burn, this was a total blast.
#4. THE OLD OAK (D: Ken Loach)
89-year-old Loach's final film, about a pub landlord trying to keep his changing community of broken ex-miners and Syrian refugees together before it explodes, feels all the world like a parting wish, a road map for a way forward: a world where we're all kinder, more open to each others' experiences, where we embrace community - a world where "when you eat together, you stick together". But don't think ol' Kenny's gone all soft and sentimental on us, oh, no; this is as tough and upsetting as any British social realist drama you've seen, from one of the best to ever do it. Beautiful, essential filmmaking that takes a global issue and makes it heartrendingly personal.
#3. FEMME (D: Sam H. Freeman, Ng Choon Ping)
Drag queen Jules (Nathan Stewart-Jarratt) is beaten by homophobe Preston (George McKay) and his mates, but when Jules spots Preston at a gay bath house months later, he decides to infiltrate his life (Preston doesn't know what Jules looks like without makeup) and take him apart. Gripping from start to end, it's a beautifully structured thriller, rooted in character, that's as complex as it is claustrophobic, carrying poignant subtext about the ways queer people are forced to play hetero roles just to survive in a straight male world, while keeping us on the edge of our seats. It never shies away from eroticism and perfectly dovetails sex with danger, leading to an ending that, in an effort to avoid didacticism, doesn't quite seem to take a position... but I had trouble reminding myself to breathe throughout the climax, so it obviously wasn’t that much of an issue. Powerful stuff.
#2: LATE NIGHT WITH THE DEVIL (D: Cameron Cairnes, Colin Cairnes)
For me, the great Australian horror film of 2023 was not the one with the ghostly resin hand, but this, the Cairnes Brothers' brilliantly constructed, breathlessly entertaining late night satanic spook show, anchored by a career-best performance from David Dastmalchian, a longtime favourite supporting player of mine given a lead role perfectly suited to his particular brand of offbeat personability, sensitivity and charisma. To be fair, no film I saw this year was more For Me, with everything from its Michael Ironside-narrated opening voiceover to its cheesy Don Lane-style 1970s talk show setting, from its real-time construction to the gleeful way it blasts through Satanic horror tropes — what, you mean we can have a horror film NOT mired in trauma, that doesn't feel the need to apologise for having fun, in 2023?? — from its perfectly period-accurate production design to its double-ending, was absolute catnip to me.
...and my #1 film of 2023 is...
#1. AFTERSUN (Director: Charlotte Wells)
This is the kind of personally etched memory-scape film we see so much at festivals nowadays, but I’ve never seen it done as well as this, and I’m not sure folks understand just how difficult it is to pull off this seamlessly. Wells gives herself a head start with two brilliant actors in Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio, who give achingly lived-in performances, but her hand is always guiding this beautifully observed, soft-stepping sledgehammer of a film. Being a child of divorce, seeing a parent struggle alone, trying to keep it from you by creating as nurturing or optimistic a front as possible… I can no longer access those years of my own childhood, but they’re up in the old synaptic storage vault somewhere, as this film gave that box a good old shake.
A film of fragments, for most of its runtime it washes over you, like a summer holiday from your memory… until the last five minutes, when things get a bit more abstract, my tear ducts exploded and I couldn't hold it all in any more. A stunning directorial debut as deeply felt as it is beautifully calibrated, I’m excited to see where Wells goes from here.
Thank you to everyone who made it this far, hope you enjoyed this countdown. From us at Cinema Viscera, we wish you and yours a hugely happy and healthy 2024 - here's hoping our lives and the world at large can sort their shit out.
Love and cinema,
What fresh hell is this?
A semi-regular blog exploring films, popular culture, current or future projects and (more often) year-end wrap-up and opinions from CINEMA VISCERA's co-chief, Paul Anthony Nelson.