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NPR film critic Bob Mondello's top films of 2023

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

From the peaks of Barbenheimer to the depths of actors and writers strikes, Hollywood has been on a roller coaster this year. Happily, the overall trend is up, with attendance inching ever closer to healthy, pre-pandemic levels. And quality - that is up, too, judging from critic Bob Mondello's 10 best list, which positively overflows.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Can we just marvel for a moment that a cerebral drama about the father of the atom bomb very nearly topped the billion-dollar mark at the box office?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "OPPENHEIMER")

MATT DAMON: (As Leslie Groves) Are we saying there's a chance that when we push that button, we destroy the world?

CILLIAN MURPHY: (As J. Robert Oppenheimer) Chances are near zero.

DAMON: (As Leslie Groves) Near zero.

MURPHY: (As J. Robert Oppenheimer) What do you want from theory alone?

DAMON: (As Leslie Groves) Zero would be nice.

MONDELLO: Christopher Nolan's "Oppenheimer" isn't just a breathtaking achievement visually and dramatically. It's also, at least in terms of dollars and cents, the most successful serious film in decades. A blockbuster biopic who'd have thunk? And Nolan wasn't alone in crafting a stylish portrait of a major 20th century figure.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MAESTRO")

BRADLEY COOPER: (As Leonard Bernstein) Hello. I'm Lenny.

CAREY MULLIGAN: (As Felicia Montealegre) Hello. I'm Felicia.

MONDELLO: Bradley Cooper made an evocative chamber biopic about composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein and his complicated life as a closeted, bisexual and mostly happily married celebrity in the 1950s and '60s.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MAESTRO")

MULLIGAN: (As Felicia Montealegre) What age are we living in? One can be as free as one likes without guilt or confession. Please. I know exactly who you are.

MONDELLO: "Maestro" is as much about Carey Mulligan's Felicia as it is about Bradley Cooper's Bernstein. Martin Scorsese's epic "Killers Of The Flower Moon" is also taken from real life, the story of a scheme to cheat and ultimately extinguish Oklahoma's Osage Nation.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON")

ROBERT DE NIRO: (As William Hale) They have the worst land possible, but they outsmarted everybody. The land had oil on it. Money flows freely here now.

LEONARDO DICAPRIO: (As Ernest Burkhart) I do love that money, sir.

MONDELLO: Leo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro are the killers, while Lily Gladstone embodies the promise of a flower moon in a monstrous, true tale of greed and violence. A pair of sharply pointed comedies took aim at some other social issues this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "POOR THINGS")

EMMA STONE: (As Bella Baxter) I am Bella Baxter.

MONDELLO: Emma Stone stars in "Poor Things," the latest weirdness from Yorgos Lanthimos, which feels like what you'd get if Mary Shelley had written "Frankenstein"...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "POOR THINGS")

WILLEM DAFOE: (As Dr. Godwin Baxter) She's an experiment. Her brain and her body are not quite synchronized.

MONDELLO: ...As a sex farce with feminist leanings.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "POOR THINGS")

KATHRYN HUNTER: (As Swiney) A woman plotting her course to freedom - how delightful.

MONDELLO: Also using comedy to make a point, "American Fiction" tackles the way writers of color get erased or compromised by the publishing industry.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AMERICAN FICTION")

JOHN ORTIZ: (As Arthur) They want a Black book.

JEFFREY WRIGHT: (As Thelonious "Monk" Ellison) They have a Black book. I'm Black, and it's my book.

ORTIZ: (As Arthur) You know what I mean.

MONDELLO: He does. So to make a point, he pens a story chock full of stereotypes and sends it to his agent.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AMERICAN FICTION")

ORTIZ: (As Arthur) I'd be standing outside in the night.

WRIGHT: (As Thelonious "Monk" Ellison) Deadbeat dads, rappers, crack. You said you wanted Black stuff. That's Black, right?

ORTIZ: (As Arthur) I see what you're doing.

MONDELLO: And when the agent sends it out...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AMERICAN FICTION")

ORTIZ: (As Arthur) We sold a book.

WRIGHT: (As Thelonious "Monk" Ellison) No.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) We believe Mr. Lee has written a bestseller.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) This is a joke.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) The most lucrative joke you've ever told.

MONDELLO: If media stereotyping were all that first-time filmmaker Cord Jefferson were playing with, his film would be a riot. But he's also got bigger fallacies to fry and emotions to lean into, and he ends up making "American Fiction" every bit as grand as that title. That's five of a top 10. The next two are animated, one in just about every style you can imagine.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SPIDER-MAN: ACROSS THE SPIDER-VERSE")

SHAMEIK MOORE: (As Miles Morales) Oh, wait. Hold on. There's an elite society with all the best spider-people in it?

MONDELLO: "Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse" brings us Miles Morales, Brooklyn's Black Latino spider-guy, as well as spider-folks and even spider-cats from all over.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SPIDER-MAN: ACROSS THE SPIDER-VERSE")

MOORE: (As Miles Morales) I leveled up my whole thing.

MONDELLO: Cleverly animated, it's also rich in feeling and character, which is something it shares with "The Boy And The Heron" from Studio Ghibli's 82-year-old master of anime, Hayao Miyazaki.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BOY AND THE HERON")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) I'm looking for someone.

MONDELLO: He's recounting in fable terms and with exquisite images his own youth coping with wartime tragedy through imagination.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BOY AND THE HERON")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) You see this world. There's more work to be done.

MONDELLO: "The Boy and The Heron" has intensity, longing, ethereal beauty, all qualities also found in a pair of this year's most delicately nuanced romances, one bridging continents, Korea to New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PAST LIVES")

JOHN MAGARO: (As Arthur) What a good story this is.

MONDELLO: It's called "Past Lives."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PAST LIVES")

MAGARO: (As Arthur) Childhood sweethearts who reconnect 20 years later and realize they were meant for each other. In the story, I would be the evil white American husband standing in the way of destiny.

GRETA LEE: (As Nora) Shut up.

MONDELLO: The other romance bridges dimensions.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ALL OF US STRANGERS")

PAUL MESCAL: (As Harry) I've always felt like a stranger in my own family.

MONDELLO: It's called "All Of Us Strangers" and looks at two gay men finding each other just as one of them discovers he can visit the parents who died when he was 12.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ALL OF US STRANGERS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) This is real.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: (As character) Does it feel real?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #8: (As character) Our boy's back home?

MONDELLO: Call "All Of Us Strangers" a haunting romance.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ALL OF US STRANGERS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #9: (As character) It was a long time ago.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #10: (As character) Yeah, I don't think that matters.

MONDELLO: No less haunting is the film that rounds out my top 10, one that captures the joy and the pain of adolescent friendship. In the Belgian drama "Close," two rambunctious, inseparable 13-year-olds have their closeness irrevocably upended by a stray comment at school. Writer-director Lukas Dhont is alert to broader social implications, but the film's power comes from the boys themselves.

Ten is an arbitrary number, and I've still got some time, so let's just keep going. I keep thinking there's no new way to tell a story of the Holocaust, but "The Zone Of Interest" finds one, embedding audiences with a Nazi commandant's family in a home that butts up against the walls of Auschwitz. Also powerful, a documentary about more recent cruelties, "El Juicio," "The Trial," made up entirely of the actual court proceedings that put Argentina's dictator in jail in 1985, including the prosecutor's fiery final statement.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE TRIAL")

JULIO CESAR STRASSERA: (Speaking Spanish).

MONDELLO: Nunca mas - never again. It's been such an extraordinary year for foreign films that another trial, this one rivetingly acted in the drama "Anatomy Of A Fall"...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ANATOMY OF A FALL")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #11: (As character, speaking French).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #12: (As character) That's not true.

MONDELLO: ...Managed to win the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Fest, but still won't be France's entry in the Oscars. What beat it out? A mouthwatering feast for foodies called "The Taste Of Things." It stars Juliette Binoche and should not be seen on an empty stomach. In a British film called "Scrapper," a long absent father comes home after his ex dies to find their 12-year-old is fending for herself.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SCRAPPER")

LOLA CAMPBELL: (As Georgie) How come you didn't want to know me 12 years ago?

HARRIS DICKINSON: (As Jason) Because we were young. We weren't getting along. She told me to leave.

CAMPBELL: (As Georgie) You're a liar.

DICKINSON: (As Jason) I ain't surprised no one stuck around for you.

MONDELLO: "Scrapper" basically turns the adolescent coming-of-age story on its head. Dad is the one who needs to grow up so his daughter can finally let go and be a kid. In an American twist on the absent parent notion, a free-spirited mom fresh from prison kidnaps her 6-year-old from foster care in the drama "A Thousand And One."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A THOUSAND AND ONE")

TEYANA TAYLOR: (As Inez de la Paz) Just let me see your eyes so I know you're not mad at me. I'm staying out of trouble this time.

MONDELLO: The film builds to a startling reveal that makes you question everything you've just seen. Other purposely discomfiting juxtapositions of adults and children include the tabloid-inspired "May December," Todd Haynes' provocative - I'm going to call it a mellow dramedy about an actress preparing to tread in dicey territory.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MAY DECEMBER")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #13: (As character) Why would you want to play someone who you think is a bad person?

NATALIE PORTMAN: (As Elizabeth) It's the moral gray areas that are interesting.

MONDELLO: Also, Alexander Payne's prep school comedy "The Holdovers" about a curmudgeonly teacher played by Paul Giamatti.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE HOLDOVERS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #14: (As character) Sir, I don't understand.

PAUL GIAMATTI: (As Paul Hunham) That's glaringly apparent.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #14: (As character) I can't fail this class.

GIAMATTI: (As Paul Hunham) Oh, don't sell yourself short, Mr. Cotes (ph). I truly believe that you can.

MONDELLO: And the mockumentary "Theater Camp" about showbiz-y counselors and 11-year-olds who speak fluent "Wicked" and "Sweeney Todd."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THEATER CAMP")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #15: (As character) Welcome, auditioners.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #16: (As character) You guys are so talented, so unbelievable. This will break you. This will fully destroy you.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #17: (As character) Congratulations on being the most talented kids at camp.

MONDELLO: And yes, I've not forgotten...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BARBIE")

RYAN GOSLING: (As Ken) Hi, Barbie.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #18: (As character) Barbie.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #19: (As character) Barbie.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #20: (As character) Barbie.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #21: (As character) Barbie.

MONDELLO: ...Greta Gerwig's insanely popular hot pink comedy that is insanely popular for a reason, which brings us to 20 bests. And now, though I could still go on, we are out of time. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.

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