Of the many films I’ve seen this year, nothing has shaken me the way Killers of the Flower Moon has. Director Martin Scorsese subverts film archetypes and genre conventions to deliver a bleak, indelible story on evil and capitalism rooted in America’s past.
(Spoilers ahead for Killers, which you should watch.)
Most of Killers centers on WWI vet Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), his uncle William Hale (Robert De Niro), and other white settlers as they scheme against the Osage in 1920s Oklahoma. The Indigenous tribe became wealthy from oil rights. Hale and his crew lie, steal, and murder Osage to secure their wealth.
Most of the screen time is from the white characters’ perspective, which I found occasionally frustrating. With his gullibility and unquestioning criminal mindset, DiCaprio as Burkhart is a less compelling character to watch than the supporting players around him. Lily Gladstone, who plays Ernest’s wife, Mollie, delivers a quietly devastating, pitch-perfect performance but disappears from large stretches of the film. One could point to Scorsese’s long history with gangster crime stories and playing into his comfort zone.
The 2015 comedy-drama Mississippi Grind – the movie’s release alongside the build up and aftermath of its principal cast and crew – tells you everything you need to know about the dire state of today’s big budget movies. Grind is an underseen road trip, buddy comedy, and character study of two struggling gamblers played by Ryan Reynolds and Ben Mendelsohn.
Everything about Reynolds, Mendelsohn, and the film’s directors, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, before their intersection on Grind chart a familiar path for budding Hollywood talent.
Reynolds had a traditional leading man trajectory. He started his career in Canadian soap operas before decamping to Hollywood and landing supporting parts in a few studio comedies. Success led him into other genres (Blade Trinity) and a few breakthrough leading roles in bigger budget fare like Green Lantern and the rom-com The Proposal. By 2010, he was rich, famous, and a movie star. Around this time, he mixed in some more eclectic work with small indie directors, including Atom Egoyan (The Captive) and Persopolis director Marjane Satrapi (The Voices).
I learned a lot at TIFF 23, ending the festival with a more informed strategy for approaching future years. The sheer time on the ground helped; it was my first year as a volunteer and my first as a more devoted attendee, bumping up from three screenings in 2022 to eighteen this year.
You may be reading this and have never been to any film festival, but you’re considering watching a movie or two at TIFF 24. Or you’ve been doing this for many years and will happily pre-pay for thirty-plus films, sight unseen. Regardless of experience or interest, I have advice to make the most of your time at the festival.
I support the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes; the financial inequity between studio executives, working actors, and writers is untenable. But an extended industry-wide pause could be disastrous to theaters and small independent movies. The strike slowdown will also accelerate a general decline of film (at least beyond the biggest blockbusters) as mainstream entertainment.
Let’s start with some cold economics: any remaining 2023 movie with major stars is at risk for a delay into next year. Studios see a marketing campaign without major talent as too high a burden. Stars working the red carpet and holding press junkets generate vast social media shares and journalist coverage. And for minor releases, one prominent actor can be the defining reason for a film to get noticed.
We’re seeing some of these delays already play out. Sony pushed two major 2023 releases – Kraven the Hunter and a Ghostbusters sequel – into 2024. Warner may pivot the blockbuster Dune 2 into next year as well. A24 bumped back the Tilda Swinton starring Problemista from August to an indeterminate date. As the strike extends, expect related announcements to only accelerate.
The new drama Past Lives centers on three ordinary people taking realistic actions, leading to messy outcomes. There are no clean Hollywood endings, heroes, or villains. Characters don’t die. Nobody is saving the world. Writer-director Celine Song challenges audience expectations of Hollywood escapism and genre conventions and, in the process, makes a riveting movie.
Reflecting on the forty-plus films I’ve seen this calendar year, three of my favorites – 2020’s The Nest, 2022’s Saint Omer, and Past Lives – share the same small scale and grounded feel.
Each film has different aims and subject matter. The Nest follows a rich family moving to 80s England for business opportunities. Saint Omer is a French courtroom procedural covering a woman accused of infanticide. Past Lives centers on two childhood friends who split apart, later in life reunited.
For over a year, I was in a movie rut where merely “fine” movies dominated what I watched. Most were only mildly recommendable. It was passable entertainment, but I missed that feeling of raw exuberance that came with the greats, where I couldn’t wait to tell friends and family what I just saw.
For someone who argued on how important it was to push beyond algorithms, ironically, I had fallen into the trap of my own “algorithm.” With limited time and firmly held personal tastes, I wasn’t taking risks on fresh ideas or untested genres.
But over the last few months, I’ve had a breakthrough: I found curators I trusted and gave into their recommendations.
Midway through Nicolas Winding Refn’s new Netflix series Copenhagen Cowboy, I was thoroughly bored. The repetition was annoying: another neon-drenched set with stilted dialogue and glacial plot development. Then, in a shot that probably lasted no more than a minute, the series’ protagonist moved upwards in an elevator as a synth score kicked into overdrive. The brief scene’s immaculate construction ended up burrowing in my brain for days.
That small example underlines how Refn and fellow art house helmer Gaspar Noé are some of the most stylistically dazzling directors working today, to the point I regularly seek out their work. Yet I struggle to recommend almost any of their films. They provide memorable moments of stylish brilliance that clash against sophomoric writing, turgid dialogue, and nihilistic, sadistic violence. It’s frustrating because both could produce fantastic work with the right writers and collaborators.
Admittedly it can take a lot of work to group these two directors. Noé’s and Refn’s most famous films derive from different genres, if not at times, entirely different worlds. Noe’s 2002 Irréversible is messy and heavily improvised, a French extreme horror revenge tale whose reverse narrative structure feels in conversation with Christopher Nolan’s Memento. Refn’s 2011 Drive is a slick, minimalist crime thriller that meshes late 70s Walter Hill with 80s synths and a stoic turn from star Ryan Gosling.
Tár is one of my favorite movies from 2022, thanks to a herculean performance by Cate Blanchett alongside Todd Field’s bold direction. For Field, this is only his third feature as director and his first in sixteen years. With such sporadic output and little connective tissue to his past work, I find his contributions to Tár fascinating to dissect. The film is Kubrickian in its clinical detail, subtle yet purposeful, messy and enigmatic, with an open provocation for the audience to get on board with the film’s unique wavelength or head for the exits.
Nowhere is that challenge clearer than in Tár’s opening thirty or so minutes. Like the fictitious composer and conductor Lydia Tár (Blanchett), the opener is bold and uncompromising in a way that feels tailor made to rankle some audiences. On an otherwise sparsely attended weeknight screening, I saw several moviegoers visibly impatient, sighing and shifting audibly in their seats.
Before I dive into that opening, it’s essential to set the larger context: Tár is a nearly three hour movie for which most is a patient “slice of life” character study. We learn about Tár (Blanchett) as she works through her musical projects and interacts with her wife and colleagues. Except for a guest lecture at Juilliard where Tár criticizes a student, onscreen conflict is mostly muted for the opening half or so of the film.
Over Warner Discovery’s Q2 earnings call, the new media behemoth announced plans to merge HBO Max and Discovery Plus as a single service in 2023. While we’ve got a solid year to evaluate if CEO David Zaslav’s bet will be a financial hit, early signs are worrisome.
Sticking to safe, proven programming was always what I expected from the new, post-Netflix dip “content perspective” era. But early signs point to Zaslov and his team taking Warner Discovery into extreme, creatively bankrupt directions. Their actions risk driving away their existing subscriber base.
On the day of the earnings call, low performing TV series and movies disappeared off HBO Max to save residuals. Zaslav and friends also canceled a nearly finished $90 million superhero movie – Batgirl – as a tax write-off. A tone deaf presentation simplified HBO Max as “male skew” when some of the service’s biggest breakouts like Hacks and The Flight Attendant reach much broader audiences.
After a decade of rapid growth, Netflix took a tumble over the past quarter, for the first time losing more subscribers than it signed up. Wall Street’s reaction has been swift, with the market slashing Netflix’s valuation to less than half of its value from a few weeks prior.
Many schadenfreude-fueled takes revel in watching the king of streaming take a hit, but Netflix’s downturn won’t improve film watching habits or shake up streaming’s ascendance. The availability and discoverability challenges on streaming – clunky user interfaces, ruthless algorithms – won’t improve. Mega budget streaming sites will survive. What will change are the type of shows and movies that streaming sites buy, produce, and green light going forward.