Movies Watched, January 2023

Still from “Babylon,” directed by Damien Chazelle

After seeing as many of the year-end prestige movies from 2022 as I could in January, I came to the conclusion that overall it was a pretty disappointing slate. Few of the movies I saw, even among the best reviewed of the year, seemed like out and out home runs. And there were, for my tastes, too many entries from a genre that I’ve really grown tired of: auteur directors paying tribute to their childhoods and/or to the magic of film.

To be fair, some pretty decent movies have been made in this mode recently. Alfonzo Cuarón’s “Roma” from 2018 and Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Hand of God” from 2021 come to mind as two particularly terrific examples. But this season alone brought “Armageddon Time” from James Gray, a director whose work has always left me cold; “Empire of Light” from Sam Mendes (same); and “The Fabelmans” from Stephen Spielberg, whose track record with me has always been erratic. I only saw the last of those, which generally got the best notices, and even then I was pretty underwhelmed.

There was actually one more in this batch: Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon” doesn’t qualify as an ode to his own youth at all but, probably moreso even than any of the others I’ve mentioned, it goes hard into that “magic of film” sentiment.

What’s utterly unique about this movie is that, for the first two-thirds of an outrageous three-hour runtime, it’s actually really, really good. Chazelle pulls out all the stops to tell a story of early Hollywood as it makes the transition from silent to talking pictures; the movie is fully uninhibited and even unhinged as it careens from drunken orgy to huge scale outdoor film sets to late night showdowns with poisonous snakes and more. Let me be clear: this part of the movie is fantastic.

The problem is that the last hour of the film becomes something else altogether: a terrible, terrible movie, riddled with clichés and storylines that won’t end and sentimental dribbling that hurts to watch almost as much as what came before was a true joy to experience. I honestly can’t remember another movie that was so, so superb for so long, and then turns out so, so bad in the end. Ultimately, my thoughts on this bizarre, misbegotten film are confusingly mixed: it’s totally worth seeing if you can bear the crashing disappointment at the end; I felt fortunate to see it in theaters but it’s way too long; and I’m so glad that Chazelle got to make this movie but I hope not to see another of its kind for a long, long time.

Here are all eighteen movies I saw in January.

  1. Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” (2022) ★★★★
    Did not expect to connect with this but it’s so universally human it bowled me over.
  2. Shazam!” (2019) ★★½
    Rewatched. Totally, unremarkably, unexceptionally fine movie in the Marvel mode.
  3. The Illusionist” (2010) ★★★
    Lovingly crafted homage to Jacques Tati that also completely misses the mark in capturing his sensibility.
  4. Theodora Goes Wild” (1936) ★★★
    Genial and unrepetantly silly Irene Dunne star vehicle from the golden age of the screwball comedy.
  5. Kamikaze Hearts” (1986) ★★★½
    Sometimes aimless but electric-charged quasi documentary made from the fringes of adult cinema.
  6. Carol” (2015) ★★★★
    Rewatched. Still lovely but honestly a little boring.
  7. Babylon” (2022) ★★½
    Honestly no idea how many stars to give this misbegotten hybrid of directorial masterwork and hacky cliché-fest. First two-thirds are auteur-level great, and then it just falls off a cliff.
  8. Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” (2022) ★★½
    Beautifully animated and apparently very entertaining—I guess, because as with most animated movies these days, it put me to sleep.
  9. Fletch” (1985) ★
    A shockingly raw time capsule from a decade when the ideal man was supposed to be the biggest asshole in any room. Also called “The Reagan Era.”
  10. Tár” (2022) ★★★★
    Not an Oscar-baiting acting showcase, which is what I feared, but a genuinely great performance in a genuine work of art.
  11. Breakdown” (1997) ★★★½
    Rewatched. Extremely efficient, tautly drawn little B-movie from the late 90s in which Kurt Russell’s wife goes missing. Far exceeds expectations.
  12. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” (2010) ★★★
    Rewatched. The cleanest distillation of Edgar Wright’s frequently hyper-showy cinematic sensibility.
  13. Watcher” (2022) ★★★½
    Better than average thriller/horror that trades mostly on an extreme sense of dread conjured up by the isolation of being an expatriate.
  14. Back to the Wall” (1958) ★★★★
    Superb, Hollywood-noir French thriller that got left behind with the excitement over the French New Wave. Twisty in a way that’s still surprising even so many decades later, and shot with an exceptionally sharp eye.
  15. Marnie” (1964) ★½
    Late period Hitchcock in which the director tries to bring his usually suppressed pathologies to the fore, with disastrous results all around.
  16. The Warriors” (1979) ★★★
    Rewatched. Sad to say this much beloved classic from the paranoid 70s may be starting to wear thin for me.
  17. The Bourne Identity” (2002) ★★★★
    Rewatched. Now over two decades old but feels like a million years ago! Still, in just about every way, remains a contemporary classic.
  18. Speaking of Murder” (1957) ★★½
    Jean Gabin in a flabby, wholly mundane gangster flick with very few, if any, real surprises.

This is the latest roundup of my monthly movie consumption. You can also see what I previously watched in 2022, 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, and 2016. Also, you can always keep up with what I’m watching by following me on Letterboxd—where I’m also writing tons of capsule reviews.