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FYC: Round up of 2023 films in cinemas this weekend

As the year wraps up, here are some of the 2023 films just hitting cinemas and screening for your consideration (FYC). Although there are a couple I would suggest avoiding ...

'All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt'

(only at Digital Gym Cinema)


Let's start at the top of the offerings with a film that will likely fail to garner Oscar's attention but which deserves high praise: "All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt."

This indie film was a hit at Sundance Film Festival where it was picked up by distributor A24. The film immerses you in sound from the darkness of its opening frame. It creates a soundscape that defines a sense of place for characters connected to the land in the rural south.

The title of Raven Jackson’s feature directing debut is a clue to how the film should be experienced. It’s not about plot or linear narrative but rather a film you want to touch, taste and smell. Poet-turned-filmmaker Jackson offers a tactile journey across decades in the life of one Mississippi woman.

The sparsely worded film comes at you in emotional waves cued by sounds and textures. It’s a film you feel. I eagerly surrendered to its slow, impressionistic approach but I know others may feel frustrated by the lack of traditional structure.

The film just opened at Digital Gym Cinema (DGC) and I am so grateful to this micro-cinema for showcasing bold, indie films like "All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt." When so many mainstream movies feel like they are churned out by AI, "All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt" is a film with a soul and an exquisite sense of being hand crafted. Do yourself a favor and seek this gem out.

Enzo Vogrincic stars in J.A. Bayona's "Society of the Snow," about the 1972 plane crash carrying the Uruguayan rugby team. (2023)
Enzo Vogrincic stars in J.A. Bayona's "Society of the Snow," about the 1972 plane crash carrying the Uruguayan rugby team. (2023)

'Society of the Snow'

(only at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas)

In 1972, a plane carrying the Uruguay rugby team crashed in remote snowy mountains in the Andes. It would take rescuers 72 days to find the plane. During that time, the survivors had to deal with exposure, hypothermia, avalanches and starvation until only 16 remained alive. But the part of the story that got sensationalized was that in order to survive, people decided to consume the bodies of those who had died.

The story has been the basis for multiple other films. Most exploitatively it was made in 1976 as "Survive!" and billed as "the most shocking story in the history of human endurance."

But now Spanish director J.A. Bayona takes a very different tact as he adapts Pablo Vierci's book into the film "Society of the Snow."

The film acknowledges the cannibalism but never dwells on it or sensationalizes it. Instead the film takes an almost poetic approach to the story, giving voice to both the survivors and those who died. It also delivers the most brutal and visceral plane crash I can recall in a film. You can feel the destructive force of the crash with shocking intensity, and it makes you feel how removed these people are from the outside world.

The film begins by showing the rugby team on the field, playing a game. We see the teamwork, how some players react well under pressure, and others don't. We also see the camaraderie. It lays the groundwork for why this particular group of people was able to survive as well as they did. It also explores how some died giving permission for their bodies to be eaten so others could survive.

The cast is excellent and Bayona conveys a real sense of how closely knit this team was, and how that helped in a crisis. Although the deaths were tragic, the fact that anyone survived was a miracle and the film ultimately finds something inspiring and maybe even a little transcendent in that.

George Clooney directs the film adaptation of "The Boys in the Boat." (2023)
A film still from "The Boys in the Boat." (2023)

'The Boys in the Boat'

George Clooney's "The Boys in the Boat" is like a gift wrapped in transparent paper. You know everything you are going to get in advance before you even open it. So if you like to know exactly what you are getting with no surprises, then this is the film for you.

As with "Air" (also made by an actor-turned-director) this is a formulaic sports-themed film — perfectly competent in execution, well-acted, solid production values but just not anything to get excited about.

I never really felt like I got inside the sport of crewing the way "Chariots of Fire" got me into a runner's head or how "Nyad" showed exactly what a long distance swimmer must go through. Clooney gets some pretty, nostalgic-hued shots of the boats on the water but I always felt outside the sport. I never felt the blisters or the aching muscles. "Air" and "The Boys in the Boat" are films I enjoyed watching but I don't feel like there is much to discuss afterwards or any reason I would ever revisit them. That's why I prefer films such as "Poor Things" and "Anatomy of a Fall," where a second or third viewing just peels back new layers.

Zac Efron stars in Sean Durkin's "The Iron Claw," based on a true story. (2023)
Zac Efron stars in Sean Durkin's "The Iron Claw," based on a true story. (2023)

'The Iron Claw'

The true story of the Von Erich brothers, who were professional wrestlers in the early 1980s, provides the basis for "The Iron Claw," a muscle-bound, glum, by-the-numbers sports drama.

Holt McCallany is solid as a controlling, tough-love father whose sons keeping meeting with tragic fates. McCallany has the best scenes and lines, including a breakfast pep talk where he ranks his sons and tries to inspire them to adhere to his demands by noting those rankings can change at any moment.

Zac Efron gained attention for bulking up to play Kevin Von Erich but it does not help him deliver a more credible performance. He is no Robert DeNiro in "Raging Bull."

Director Sean Durkin (I loved his work on the "Dead Ringers" show) can't bring the bigger story to life in any compelling way. He does not seem to have any sense of how to depict the wrestling world — is he critical of it? Does he care about it? Does he admire these brothers' style in the ring? Or is he just critical of the relentless father pushing his sons? Wrestling is so key to the lives of all these characters yet it feels so peripheral to the film. I left the film wondering why Durkin wanted to tell this story because he seems to have no real interest in the wrestling world yet he never invests the family drama with much detail.

In Durkin's hands, "The Iron Claw" proves to be a sad rather than tragic story, and it's a film that tackles that sadness with a pedestrian persistence rather than insight or compassion.

Musicals: 'Wonka' and 'The Color Purple'

I have confessed this before — I am not a fan of contemporary film musicals. "Jesus Christ Superstar," "Absolute Beginners," "Starstruck," "Idlewild," "Once," or anything by Baz Luhrmann are some of the exceptions. But this year neither "Wonka" nor "The Color Purple" won me over to the genre.

I wish they would just leave Roald Dahl's story alone. I realize I am biased having grown up with the perfect Willy Wonka in Gene Wilder. So when "Wonka" proposed a prequel with Timothée Chalamet as a young Wonka, I just kept thinking, "Why?"

The end result was not as bad as I was expecting and it is certainly superior to the Tim Burton-Johnny Depp debacle that sullied the Wonka legacy. But still, why? The back story created here for Wonka is not terribly clever or fun. It just feels very in-your-face big.

"Wonka" harkens back to the Gene Wilder film but without much heart, soul or magic. Wilder was so perfect that it is hard for me to accept anyone else in the role. Contemporary musicals feel bloated, bombastic and formulaic. This one was no exception.

Danielle Brooks stars as Sofia in the musical film, "The Color Purple." (2023)
Warner Bros.
Danielle Brooks stars as Sofia in the musical film, "The Color Purple." (2023)

"The Color Purple" serves up a better film probably because both the stage musical and Alice Walker's book provide better material. The frustrating thing here is that filmmaker Blitz Bazawule has some stunning moments when the film's musical numbers feel like they are going to explode the conventions of the genre but then he pulls back and reverts to just large groups of people singing and dancing down a street and right into the camera.

The performers are all strong (Danielle Brooks as Sofia is a particular standout) and talented but the film rarely feels cinematic. It feels more like a stage play opened up a bit for a movie. There's a sense of artifice (which all musicals have) but it never turns the artifice into an effective stylistic choice. But out of all the musicals of recent years, this is probably the most watchable and rewarding.

Just say no to Adam Driver as the Italian patriarch in Maichale Mann's "Ferrari." (2023)
Adam Driver stars in Maichale Mann's "Ferrari." (2023)


And finally, the holiday lump of coal. Michael Mann and Ridley Scott, directors whose works I have loved in the past, both disappointed me this year with their biographical offerings.

Mann can be such a stylish filmmaker but "Ferrari" is blandly straightforward. The one standout scene was a racing crash that was truly brutal and stunningly filmed.

Not really sure what attracted Mann to this story. He is so good at meticulous detail and procedural narratives but we do not get any of that here. There is not even any love displayed for cars or racing even though the title character claims to be driven to be the best in the racing field.

And can we please call a moratorium on Adam Driver playing Italians with a bad accent? Between this and "House of Gucci" (another failed Ridley Scott enterprise) I have had enough. There is a call for Latinos to play Latinos and Asians to play Asians, so can we just have some Italians play Italians? I know there are a lot of very talented Italian and Italian American actors who could have filled all the roles in "Ferrari" and "Gucci." Plus why did Mann insist on Penelope Cruz (also not Italian I will say) being so dour and monotone throughout the film?

Mann's "Ferrari" never engaged me. The characters were unlikable but not in any interesting way, and the narrative felt diffused and never built tension. We did not get enough details about the Ferrari business or the racing world to give us insight into Ferrari's place in racing or car history. Meanwhile the family relationships play out as bland melodrama. We get a scene at the opera (opera was born in Italy for a reason) but the intense emotions shown onstage are nowhere to be found in the film. We get stereotypical screaming but not much beyond that.

Bonus: 'The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly' Extended Cut

(only at Angelika Film Center)

Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone's classic western, "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly." (1966)
United Artists
Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone's classic western, "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly." (1966)

But to end on a high note, Angelika Film Center will offer the perfect start to 2024 with the 4K restoration and extended cut of the Sergio Leone classic, "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly." If you have never seen this on the big screen, then you are truly missing out on its epic scale and stunning cinematography. It is Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach at their dirty, grizzled best. Plus an Ennio Morricone score to die for.

And finally a reminder that "Monster" has been held over at DGC, "The Boy and the Heron" is still at DGC and Angelika, and "Poor Things" is still playing in multiple cinemas. All are well worth seeking out.

I cover arts and culture, from Comic-Con to opera, from pop entertainment to fine art, from zombies to Shakespeare. I am interested in going behind the scenes to explore the creative process; seeing how pop culture reflects social issues; and providing a context for art and entertainment.
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