Summer is only just now upon us, which means it’s way too early to take stock of the year’s best movies. Or is it? We all know that the Oscar pundits don’t really start making noise until the final months of the year, from September to December: those are the months in which the Oscar hopefuls start rolling in, and studios start campaigning for their big releases. But the halcyon days of June, July, and August shouldn’t be undervalued: this is the perfect time to catch up on terrific movies that may have eluded your radar in the early months of 2023. The avalanche of hype will start soon enough. Catch up on these smaller but no less worthy pictures now, before the conversation turns into a noisy free-for-all.
French documentary filmmaker Alice Diop’s first fiction feature is based on a real-life French court case involving a Senegalese immigrant who left her 15-month-old daughter on a beach to die. From that story, Diop has extracted a picture that’s both poetic and compassionately direct. Rama (Kayije Kagame), a professor and novelist, travels from Paris to the town of Saint-Omer to attend the trial of a woman named Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda), accused of an unthinkable crime that she doesn’t deny. Rama’s plan is to gather material for an updated retelling of Medea. But as she listens to Laurence’s story, she begins to see the web of experience and feeling that connects her with her subject. This is a perceptive and delicately unnerving work, a reflection on the way humans can instinctively reach out to one another even across seemingly uncrossable chasms. Malanda’s radiantly somber face, held by the camera with a kind of inquisitive tenderness as she tells her story on the stand, is the heart of the picture.
In Celine Song’s extraordinary debut film, Nora (Greta Lee), a playwright living in New York, married happily enough to fellow writer Arthur (John Magaro), finds her world rattled when a man from her past, Teo Yoo’s Hae Sung, suddenly re-enters her orbit. She’d been close friends with him in childhood, before she and her family emigrated from South Korea to Canada; they’d reconnected briefly as adults, if only via Skype, but a romance seemed impossible. When Hae Sung shows up in New York, Nora begins to wonder if she’s made all the right choices in her life, asking the kinds of questions that can knock anyone’s world off its axis. Song has said the story she tells in Past Lives is semiautobiographical, and that’s easy to believe. There are no villains here; no one lashes out or behaves badly. The movie ripples with the quiet melodrama of real life, the way big things often happen in the margins, and small things gradually come to mean the world. Somewhere between the right and the wrong decision is the choice we learn to live with, a sea of joy and sadness and everything in between.
One Fine Morning
Writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve’s delicately shaded One Fine Morning deals with the wrenchingly mundane nature of caring for those who used to take care of us. But it’s also about the difficulty—and the necessity—of tending to our own emotional lives even as we’re looking after others. Léa Seydoux is Sandra, a widowed translator living in Paris with her eight-year-old daughter. She’s been alone for a long time, but she tumbles into a kind of happiness after a chance encounter with an old friend, Clément (Melvil Poupaud), turns into an illicit affair. She needs some joy in her life: her father, Georg (Pascal Greggory), suffers from a neurodegenerative disease that has already robbed him of his sight and is now, increasingly, blurring his mind. It doesn’t matter that Georg has always been a little distant as a father; Sandra must still do her best to care for him, whatever “her best” might be. This is a movie about how the most joyful moments of our lives are sometimes entwined with the worst, a state of uneasy grace that’s as close as you can get to a happy ending.
We know very little about the woman who wrote Wuthering Heights, one of the great gothic novels, a story of melancholic obsession and of love that seeps into the soil of the grave. But Frances O’Connor’s directorial debut, which blends fact with fanciful fiction, paints a haunting and sympathetic portrait of the person Emily Brontë might have been. Emma Mackey plays Emily, the sheltered and eccentric daughter of an uptight Yorkshire curate, growing up with siblings—including the competitive, passive-aggressive Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling)—who help shape the writer she’ll eventually become. But the spark that truly ignites her imagination is an intensely erotic but ill-fated love affair with the young curate hottie, William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), who has come to assist her father in the parish. Is this really how Wuthering Heights came to be? Almost certainly not. But in surfing the wave of Brontë’s unknowability, O’Connor ultimately reaches a kind of emotional truth, one that chimes with the ideas this enigmatic writer folded into the prose of her only book.
Making anything of value—a work of art, a poem, a solid piece of furniture—demands a deep descent into the self, to the point that it’s easy to neglect the needs of others in your orbit. Stay in that zone too long and there’s a danger of forgetting how to have a simple conversation or make a phone call, of going a little feral. That’s just one of the ideas at play in Kelly Reichardt’s quietly extraordinary drama Showing Up. Michelle Williams is Lizzy, a Portland sculptor getting ready to mount a small but, for her, important show. Yet everything about Lizzy is coiled tight: there’s friction between her and her closest friend, Jo (Hong Chau), who’s also her landlord. And she’s worried about her brother, Sean (John Magaro), a fragile soul who’s barely tethered to reality. Why can’t the world accommodate her as she gets ready for her big moment? Lizzy seems to wonder. Williams’ performance, as a woman whose art demands deep inner travel but whose movement through the everyday world could use some improvement, is a work of abrasive magic. Lizzy is perplexed, anxious, constantly and unreasonably annoyed by the behavior of others. And still, you feel for her.
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret
You needn’t have grown up with Judy Blume’s best-selling young adult novel to appreciate the joys of Kelly Fremon Craig’s adaptation. Eleven-year-old New York City girl Margaret (Abby Ryder Fortson) isn’t too happy when she learns from her parents (Rachel McAdams and Benny Safdie) that the family is picking up stakes and moving to the Jersey suburbs. But she makes new friends quickly, becoming part of a secret club of neighborhood girls. (Their rules, informed by inexplicable adoloscent logic, include directives like “No socks!”) The joys of childhood are already wearing thin with this group; they just can’t wait to grow up. Who will be the first to be kissed? Who will menstruate first? The wonder of Are You There God? isn’t just that it deals directly, and without condescension, with the vagaries of preteen awkwardness; it’s that it speaks so ardently to the adolescent in all of us—particularly, maybe, women who are going through menopause or already on the far side of it. That monthly event that used to rule your calendar, and to a degree your life, isn’t forever—but sometimes it takes a work of fiction to remind you what life was like before its onset.
Even though the romantic thriller as a genre has gone somewhat out of fashion, veteran screenwriter and director Paul Schrader still knows how to make these pictures better than anyone. Master Gardener is the third of a loose trilogy of movies that also includes First Reformed (2017) and The Card Counter (2021), all three entwined around the idea of male guilt. These are stories of men who feel they deserve punishment and instead find redemption. In Master Gardener, Joel Edgerton plays Narvel Roth, a sensitive and devoted horticulturist with a past rooted in racist hatred. He’s in charge of the lavish historic garden of rich uppity white lady Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), who one day informs him that he must give her headed-for-trouble grand-niece, Maya (Quintessa Swindell), a job. She also informs Narvel, in icy-crisp grand dame tones, that Maya is of “mixed blood.” The less you know about Master Gardener going in, the better: tracing the trail of these characters’ secrets is part of the thrill. Can human beings really change? In Master Gardener they can. This is a film nourished by a sense of wonder, as fresh as the hardiest wildflower.
- The Man Who Thinks He Can Live Forever
- Why We Can't Get Over the Roman Empire
- The Final Season of Netflix’s Sex Education Sends Off a Beloved Cast in Style
- How Russia Is Recruiting Cubans to Fight in Ukraine
- The Case for Mediocrity
- Paul Hollywood Answers All of Your Questions About The Great British Baking Show
- How Canada and India's Relationship Crumbled
- Want Weekly Recs on What to Watch, Read, and More? Sign Up for Worth Your Time