13 Dec 2023

At The Movies: The year in review

From At The Movies, 7:07 pm on 13 December 2023

At the end of Groundhog Day you may remember, Bill Murray wakes up in bed with Andie McDowell. This is a bit of a surprise for him, since for the entire movie he’s been waking up alone on the same day, over and over again, to the same irritating breakfast DJs.

“Something is different,” says Bill. “Good or bad?” asks Andie. “Anything different is good,” replies Bill. And this year I had the same feeling.

2023 started out the same as the last ten years or so – a few blockbusters, a couple of Oscar hopefuls, a dumb movie starring Jason Statham.  

But after that, things started changing. For a start, many of the blockbuster franchises started closing down.

Oppenheimer publicity image of Cillian Murphy

Cillian Murphy in Oppenheimer. Photo: Universal Pictures

No, not Avatar, thank goodness. New Kiwi James Cameron plans to keep them coming for the foreseeable future, I gather.  This is a relief to Cameron fans around the world, and to the New Zealand film industry, mostly in Miramar, Wellington.

But many other apparent hit series are suddenly calling it a day.

John Wick is over now, as is Indiana Jones. Mission Impossible and Fast and Furious are both grinding to a halt.  I’m not complaining, you understand. Frankly most of these titles were running out of puff three or four instalments back. 

But it’s very unusual for a cash cow to shut up shop while there’s still box office life in the old dog, if I can mix about four separate metaphors. 

It seems in each case,  some brave soul simply said “Enough already” and suggested the franchise-holders switch the lights off as they go.

As well as these Great Big Titles, there are several that don’t warrant capital letters in the description but have also started looking a bit rocky.  Including Rocky itself - or rather this year, Creed 3.

Creed barely mentioned Rocky at all in the third outing, though perhaps former star Sylvester Stallone was a bit busy.  

As well as his new reality TV show, he had to put out the fourth of the less than exciting Expendables series.

The best description of Expendables 4 was “it came and it went”.  And you could say the same about other B-List blockbusters like Transformers, Hercule Poirot, Equaliser 3 and Magic Mike’s Last Dance.

It became cool in 2023 to admit you were moving on.  This is very big news in an industry that for years had depended on one immutable rule:  “keep doing it again”.  Sequels, prequels, remakes and knockoffs, in other words.

Even the risk-averse Disney Studio started looking for something new after the so-so reception to the live-action remake of The Little Mermaid.

A frame from the film Puss in Boots: The Last Wish showing the stylised animation techniques used

Puss in Boots the Last Wish Photo: Universal

But the biggest fright Disney got this year was to be beaten convincingly by rival Dreamworks’ Puss in Boots the Last Wish. 

As I say, there was change in the wind this year, hinted at when the Oscars were announced.  “Diversity” was the watchword, with the nominees the most varied in living memory.  

They came from Germany, Australia, China, Ireland, Sweden, Italy and Malaysia. But in the end there was mostly one winner…

It was Everything Everywhere All At Once that picked up 7 Oscars, even if the audience occasionally struggled to keep up. 

de Daniel Scheinert et Daniel Kwan
Michelle Yeoh.
COLLECTION CHRISTOPHEL © AGBO - Hotdog Hands - Ley Line Entertainment - Year of The Rat
action (Photo by AGBO - Hotdog Hands - Ley Line E / Collection ChristopheL via AFP)

Everything Everywhere All At Once Photo: AGBO - Hotdog Hands - Ley Line E / Collection ChristopheL via AFP

No matter, at least they went to see it in cinemas, unlike the last dozen or so Best Movie Oscar winners over the years, which famously mostly died at the box-office.

Everything Everywhere left old-school Hollywood eating its dust – more mainstream outings like Tár starring Cate Blanchett, Spielberg’s The Fablemans and the populist Elvis.   You asked for diversity, it seemed to say. Hold my beer.

In fact, the most Hollywood winner this year was Germany’s All Quiet on the Western Front.

Well, hold that thought. Because this year the idea of “the most Hollywood” got several kicks in the pants.   

The first was the upending of a cherished industry principle, “you can’t make a hit movie out of a video game.”  Or a board game. Or a kid’s toy.

The Super Mario Brothers Movie was the second biggest film of the year, to everyone’s surprise. True, other video game adaptations like Gran Turismo and Five Nights at Freddy’s did less impressive business, despite good reviews.

But the other big video-game news was a TV series called The Last of Us, the second most acclaimed game-adaptation this year.

That’s two runners up, but the winner – both critically and commercially -  was the all-conquering Barbie, which proved you didn’t need to attract absolutely everyone to succeed.  You just needed to hit your audience as hard as possible.

It was an example of dumb luck too – the right project, the right audience, the right film-maker, Greta Gerwig.

It seemed that throwing the rule book out the window and making an art-film, advertorial product placement, feminist comedy mashup was just what the public had been silently crying out for.

The other rule it broke was “don’t get released on the same day as your biggest competition.” In this case, Christopher Nolan’s ultra-serious Oppenheimer.

Barbie (2023), directed by Greta Gerwig, starring Ryan Gosling and Margot Robbie.

Barbie (2023), directed by Greta Gerwig, starring Ryan Gosling and Margot Robbie. Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures - Heyday F / Collection ChristopheL via AFP

The ludicrous concept “Barbenheimer” achieved the seemingly impossible.  It got two contrasting audiences to see both movies - not because they wanted to but because they felt they had no choice. P T Barnum would have applauded.

Both films did spectacular business around the world – Oppenheimer reached Number 3, after Barbie and Super Mario Brothers. 

And they did it on their own terms. They were actual movies, not further episodes of formulaic franchises. It was those movies that got the next kick in the pants.

Harrison Ford’s swan-song as Indiana Jones was rather more popular on TV talk-shows than it was at the box-office, despite a rumoured half a billion dollar budget.  

And Tom Cruise’s long-awaited final two-part Mission Impossible seemed to suggest that it’s possible to wait too long.

(L-R): Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) and Helena (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) in Lucasfilm's INDIANA JONES AND THE DIAL OF DESTINY. ©2023 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Rights Reserved.

Harrison Ford and Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, Photo: Lucasfilm Ltd.

Most disappointing was that Dead Reckoning Part 1 had splashed out on such a great cast - Vanessa Kirby, Rebecca Ferguson, Hayley Atwell and the rest – but didn’t give them anything much to do.

But they were shortly to be outgunned by an even starrier Part One Farewell Movie – Fast X.

Anyone who’d ever been in a Fast and Furious film - you could say, who’d ever been in anything – answered the call when Vin Diesel summoned them.  Jason Statham, Charlize Theron, Helen Mirren, Jason Momoa, Rita Moreno, The Rock….  Though they were hardly needed.  Vin Diesel and cars, that’s all she wrote.

Vin actually turned up in the one success from the old Hollywood formula.

It was the third, and as far as I know final, episode of  Guardians of the Galaxy.

The success of Guardians’ guardian, James Gunn, came at the expense of the man who for 15 years could seemingly do no wrong – Master of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Kevin Feige.

But this year Kevin seemed to do nothing but wrong – a string of very ordinary Disney Plus series, and over-blown but underwhelming films like The Marvels and Antman and the Wasp Quantumania.

The fact that Marvel’s only big hits this year had nothing to do with Feige just added salt to the wound. 

Sony’s Spiderman spinoff Across the Spiderverse was as light on its feet, as the official Marvel product was heavy-handed.

And Marvel’s other big hit came courtesy of the man who’s about to take charge of Marvel’s deadly rivals DC Comics Movies.  

His farewell gift was to show Feige’s MCU how to make comic-book movies. Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3 is beautifully done, a perfect balance of “comic” and “book”.

One group that benefited from the rewriting of the recent laws of the industry were the previous generations – comic-book sceptics like veteran Martin Scorcese.

no caption

Photo: Marvel

Unlike his old colleague Steven Spielberg, Marty had no interest in looking back at “how he got into the movies”.  He wanted to made the real thing – true-crime thriller Killers of the Flower Moon.

Killers was Scorcese’s best, most entertaining film in years, and he was joined by other Old Masters – Ken Loach’s The Old Oak,  Hayao Miyazaki’s The Boy and the Heron and the seemingly tireless Ridley Scott’s patchy but still impressive Napoleon.

There were some unexpected comebacks this year - none more enthusiastically received than actor Brendan Fraser.  Many years after his last big hit, Fraser returned in a gigantic fat-suit, giving a sweet and heartfelt performance in The Whale.  

An Oscar for both Brendan and, predictably, his makeup team.

Also back, were the half-forgotten My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchises, and a welcome return of Jennifer Lawrence in a better than you think comedy called No Hard Feelings.

My own happiest return was writer-director Nicole Holofcener and star Julia Louis-Dreyfuss in the self-explanatory You Hurt My Feelings.

No-one gets more out of First World Problems than Nicole and Julia.

In fact, it was a good year for women driven movies – and not just pink juggernauts like Barbie. On the quieter side of the street were two tiny films, both featuring young girls and their slightly feckless Dads, and both directed by someone called Charlotte.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

Julia Louis-Dreyfuss Photo: FilmNation Entertainment

Charlotte Wells got the Oscar nomination and the Bafta for the gorgeous Aftersun, starring first timer Frankie Corrio and Paul Mescal.  

But in retrospect I’m not sure I wasn’t more knocked out by Charlotte Regan’s Scrapper, starring another first-timer Lola Campbell and Harrison Dickinson.

Someone described Scrapper as “Ken Loach meets Wes Anderson”, which is not only a good excuse to check out Scrapper and Aftersun, but also Ken’s The Old Oak and Wes’s nostalgic tribute to old TV – Asteroid City.  

So Hollywood found itself writing new rules for itself, mostly old ones in a new hat - “make the movie you want to make, ignore the suits”.  

Paul Mescal and  Frankie Corio in Aftersun.

Frankie Corrio and Paul Mescal in Aftersun. Photo: AZ CELTIC FILMS - BBC FILM - PAS

But the standard of traditional film-making was borne by two regions: East Asia – Korea and Japan – and France.

The strike by Hollywood writers and actors was a bit of luck for popular French films.

A gap in the cinemas’ schedules meant opportunities for some great French titles like Anatomy of a Fall, A Good Doctor and November.

But it was also a good year for Asians – and Asian-influenced films. Everything from “girls behaving badly” in Joyride and Polite Society to the touching South Korean film Broker, and Bill Nighy in a remake of a Japanese classic called Living.

But for many, still the best movie of the year was Past Lives.

If you haven’t seen it, I strongly recommend it - a miraculous blend of Forties tear-jerker Brief Encounter, the story of Arthur, Guenevere and Lancelot, and something entirely its own.  Oscar next year, surely.

You’d think this year’s pet topics would be global warning or the scary rise of AI.  Intelligent robots certainly got an airing – in a smart bit of sci fi called The Creator and an enjoyably dumb bit of horror called M3gan.

Greta Lee and Teo Yoo in Past Lives.

Past Lives Photo: Screenshot

But oddly, the subject on most films’ mind this year seemed to be capitalism.

Barbie was as much about board room politics as it was about the patriarchy.  Oppenheimer’s theme was the clash between genius scientists and their idiot bosses. 

And the root of all the evil in Scorcese’s Killers of the Flower Moon is the oil inherited by the Osage tribe.

“Eat the rich” is the not-too subtle message behind art-film Triangle of Sadness, blue-collar satire Dumb Money, white collar satire Fair play and Emerald Fennell’s comedy of bad manners, Saltburn.

If I’ve postponed reference to New Zealand films this year, it’s partly deliberate.  

There were some, obviously, and clearly money had been spent on yet another hippie-retreat movie, Bad Behaviour, yet another Springbok Tour epic, Uproar, and yet another, slightly too silly comedy, Red White and Brass.

They were all right, I suppose, mostly. But if there’s a message this year, it’s that “all right I suppose” doesn’t cut it any more.  

Don’t just make “a movie”, make a movie you really want to make and put everything into it.  Passion is more important than a bigger budget, if you were lining up a few excuses.

no caption

Triangle of Sadness, Photo: Platform Production

And at the end of the year. I always like to give credit to people who gave above and beyond in 2023 - the much coveted Cate Blanchett She’s in Everything award. 

And the man who makes it look easy – possibly because he doesn’t bother to go to any rehearsals – is Jason Statham.

The Stath scored four films this year, including Operation Fortune Ruse de Guerre, even if it was mostly the same performance each time.  

But he shares the honour with a woman who’s not afraid of a bit of hard work.

Dame Helen Mirren it is - not only narrating Barbie but playing Golda Meir, a Greek goddess in Shazam and Jason Statham’s Mum in Fast X – a total of 5 movies and two TV series. You didn’t need to, Helen.  You had us with “Dame”…

Jason Statham: ubiquitous in 2023 Photo:

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