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The year in arthouse movies

2023 was good for big movies, but maybe even better for the small ones

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Vector collage showing movie stills from The Eight Mountains, Stonewalling, and Godland.
The Verge / Images Courtesy of Sideshow, KimStim, and Janus Films

What is an “arthouse” movie in the age of streaming? The term’s origins define it by where it isn’t: showing at your mainstream cineplex. While (like “indie”) it’s just as often a marker of aesthetic or ambition, that pragmatic distinction has faded as more films get their first run online. But in a world where people lament the rise of monoculture and say things like “superhero fatigue” in casual conversation, the underlying division seems very much alive. In 2023, you could argue arthouse is the stuff that shows up not on Netflix and Max but on services like Criterion Channel and Mubi: decidedly niche movies from auteurs, with a strong emphasis on work from outside the US.

It was a good year for big movies, but maybe an even better one for the small ones. And with the arthouse streamers picking up distribution, these films have never been more accessible, especially to people without a local indie theater.

I set some rules for picking the best of these films in 2023. Entries had to be released in fewer than 1,000 domestic theaters during the calendar year, not counting festival premieres. They couldn’t be produced by deep-pocketed major streamers. (Netflix gave The Killer an awards-qualifying theatrical run across 56 theaters — but while I liked it, a David Fincher-scale production is probably not an arthouse movie.) I’m excluding documentaries, usually an arthouse staple, because I don’t feel like I watched enough this year to have a good opinion on the strongest ones. (Of the ones I did see, my favorite was Rewind & Play.)


A still from The Taste of Things
IFC Films

The Taste of Things

Director: Trần Anh Hùng
Country: France
Release: limited theatrical December 13th, 2023 (expansion in February 2024)

Trần Anh Hùng has made the food movie to end all food movies. Set in late 19th century France, famed chef Dodin Bouffant (Benoît Magimel) and his cook Eugenie (Juliette Binoche) finally reckon with their on-again-off-again relationship, after two decades of working together, side by side in a hot kitchen.

The plotting here is straightforward and mostly gets out of the way so you can just watch people cook decadent French dishes in a rustic kitchen. The Taste of Things is an extraordinary sensory experience: the crunch of a knife through flaky pastry; the sizzle of aromatics frying in hot oil; and of course, the visual feast of watching every delectable meal plated, served, and devoured. Whereas a show like The Bear is frantic, The Taste of Things gives you time to admire the copper pots and pans, without making you watch anyone wash them afterward. This is the cinema-length version of #TradWife on TikTok, minus the conservative gender role connotations.

Magimel and Binoche have some chemistry (even though she greatly out-acts him), but The Taste of Things is more interested in demonstrating their love than convincing you of it. If making dinner for a partner is an act of service, then it’s also one of creativity and surprise — an expression of providing pleasure to a loved one. I mean, how romantic is that?

A still from The Eight Mountains
Sideshow and Janus FIlms

The Eight Mountains

Directors: Felix van Groeningen, Charlotte Vandermeersch
Countries: Italy, Belgium, France
Release: currently streaming on Criterion Channel

Speaking of bucolic, can I interest you in the natural spectacle of the Italian alps?

The Eight Mountains charts a friendship over 40 years. As a child, Pietro (Lupo Barbiero) spends his summers vacationing in the countryside. He befriends Bruno (Cristiano Sassella), a boy who works on a local farm. As kids, they play, hike, and wander together. As they get older, they grow apart, only to come back together after Pietro’s father passes. Bruno decides to fulfill his last wish of building a house from the ground up. To borrow a tired meme: men would rather erect a cabin on a mountain than go to therapy.

As adults, Pietro and Bruno find something in each other. It’s a realistic portrait of friendship, even as the two BFFs are played for contrast. Pietro wanders the world, pursuing a genuinely curious (and privileged) life; Bruno is confined to the realm of the mountain, eventually becoming as immovable as the mountain itself. Throughout, Belgian filmmakers Charlotte Vandermeersch and Felix van Groeningen give the viewer the stunning, sweeping shots you might expect from a movie called The Eight Mountains, but they’re just as adept when it comes to the gentler, closer moments. Without giving too much away, the film arcs toward tragedy in its last act, and asks how one can help a friend in need. Sometimes all you can do is simply be there for a person, and sometimes that’s not enough.

A still from Return to Seoul
Sony Pictures Classics

Return to Seoul

Director: Davy Chou
Country: France
Release: available for digital rental

In Cambodian-French director Davy Chou’s second feature, Freddie (Ji-Min Park), an adoptee from Korea, ends up in her home country mostly by accident. She’s 24, likes to drink, and loves to push people even more. That’s not to say she doesn’t have a lot of baggage. During her trip, she goes to her adoption agency to try to locate her biological parents. She’s not sure what she expected, but ends up frustrated with her father’s well-meaning, drunken promises to make things up to her; she is even angrier with her bio mom, whom she’s never met and who won’t respond to the agency’s attempts to reach her, if she’s even receiving the messages.

All of this weighs heavily on the performance of Park, who had no IMDB credits before this film. She proves versatile and compelling as she moves through the many phases of Freddie’s life — and sports terrific haircuts in all of them. Return to Seoul is an intimate and believable film (bar maybe one odd subplot about arms dealing), benefitting from a clever structure that heightens its rich character tensions. More than anything, though, Chou’s film is about being a shithead in your twenties and everything that comes after.

A still from Showing Up
A24

Showing Up

Director: Kelly Reichardt
Country: United States
Release: currently streaming on Paramount Plus

Kelly Reichardt’s films often get called “anti-capitalist,” which isn’t inaccurate but treats her movies as more overtly political than they are. Because, truly, Reichardt works with a much subtler, more perceptive eye than that. Showing Up is a crowning achievement from a filmmaker with an already remarkable canon. And it’s also one of the most Portland-ass movies I’ve ever seen. 

Lizzy (Michelle Williams, a Reichardt mainstay) is a sculptor preparing for her upcoming exhibition. Everything else in her life is a distraction, especially her family, job, and landlord (a rival played by Hong Chau). Lizzy is surrounded by artists because of her job at a local art college, everyone a bit idiosyncratic and petty. (Andre 3000’s flute obsession reared its head here nearly a year before his surprise album dropped.)

Most stories about art-making offer a simple binary: to be great, you have to be an obsessive monster. Lizzy is obsessive but, as we understand throughout the movie, is not a monster. She might be prickly at times, yet she has plenty of energy to take care of the people she loves and to be kind to them in her own way. Maybe more surprising: she’s not a great artist either. The act of creativity sustains her, rather than the potential of recognition or money. Lizzy is not a tortured artist; this is simply her way of life.

A still from Godland
Janus Films

Godland

Director: Hlynur Pálmason 
Country: Iceland
Release: currently streaming on Criterion Channel

Tasked with setting up a church in 19th-century Iceland, a Danish priest (Elliott Crosset Hove) decides to travel the land to become better acquainted with it. He’s also a photography enthusiast, lugging his burdensome large-format camera and tripod across the sweaty marshes and iced-over tundras, snapping portraits of less enthused subjects. (Not so subtly, the photography equipment looks like his crucifix.)

The voyage is arduous and, ultimately, dangerous. If the journey is a trial for Lucas, it’s one he fails at every step. He is selfish, vain, and even reckless, a man of hubris as much as he is a man of God. To the viewer, his humiliations are both satisfying and cruel, as he fails to understand that he is not bigger than his environment.

Meanwhile, as the priest is brought down, unable to appreciate the landscape around him, we are treated to some of the most gorgeous natural beauty depicted on film this year. Shot primarily in Iceland, the lush palette and meticulous framing of each shot makes Godland the year’s most visually arresting work.

A final sequence, showing the decomposition of a dead horse, took director Hlynur Pálmason over two years to shoot. The seasons change, and time passes quickly, and once again Godland’s meticulous beauty is on display, suggesting that the natural world is one of grandeur, bigger than any one living thing.

A still from Passages
SBS Productions

Passages

Director: Ira Sachs
Country: France
Release: currently streaming on Mubi

At the wrap party for his latest film, a director (Franz Rogowski) cheats on his husband with a woman. He’s frank about it and convinces his partner that he should be allowed to explore his newfound desire. Things get messy.

Like any good story with a love triangle, Passages is concerned with power and attraction. But what starts as a delicate film is, by the end, a full on melodrama — a turn that will either frustrate or delight you, depending on how much fun you want to have. Ira Sachs’ film has less to say and more to show its viewer about the psychic damage of relationships, but Rogowski’s menacing performance carries the three-way to its satisfying, inevitable conclusion.

Passages may grate on those who can’t deal with stories about monstrous people. A friend texted me after she saw it: “It was a horror movie!” she said. To which I replied, “I know!!!”

A still from Stonewalling
KimStim

Stonewalling

Directors: Huang Ji, Ryuji Otsuka
Country: China
Release: currently streaming on Criterion Channel

When Lynn (Honggui Yao) discovers she’s pregnant, her boyfriend patronizingly explains: “It would be unfair to you if you had the baby.” She decides to bring the baby to term anyway, but as a surrogate for another couple, hoping that she can at least make ends meet carrying a child for someone else.

Set in modern China, Stonewalling presents the false promises made to the country’s supposedly upwardly mobile middle class. While people around her have aspirations, Lynn is just trying to get by. She suffers the small humiliations and anguish of cobbling together work: nannying, hand-selling baby products, harvesting her eggs. It’s no coincidence that all the ways she makes money involve commodifying her womanhood.

But Stonewalling doesn’t try to make its points too loudly. In fact, the naturalist approach keeps the film quite restrained. Directors Ji Huang and Ryuji Otsuka move between scenes without so much as an establishing shot. Not unlike filmmaker Jia Zhangke, Stonewalling’s perspective is a cold one, and its characters often feel quiet and distant from the world they inhabit. (The cinematography keeps them at a literal distance.) The movie does drag a touch — you’ll feel the 2.5-hour runtime — but it culminates in an understated, gutting last act.

A still from Dry Ground Burning
The Criterion Collection

Dry Ground Burning

Directors: Adirley Queirós, Joana Pimenta
Country: Brazil
Release: currently streaming on Criterion Channel

I’ll confess, I’ve watched this movie twice, and I still struggle to tell you what exactly is happening at any given point. But what I can put together: an all-women gang in the Sol Nascente region of Brazil fights back against an authoritarian establishment. First, they steal the government’s most precious resource: oil. Then they make a run for elected office, under the banner of the Prison People Party. (They’re running on a strong pro-infrastructure platform.) Cast with non-actor locals, the lines between documentary and fiction in Dry Ground Burning are hazy, and that ambiguity alternates between grounded conversations over cigarettes and almost hallucinatory scenes of joyous rebellion.

Maybe the thrill is that you never know what will happen next. One moment, workers will be extracting raw petroleum, then the next there will be a motorcycle rally followed by a cold-blooded assassination. Or it will go from karaoke, to a sermon, to some kind of tactical team trawling the streets looking for trouble, the looming threat of violence large and menacing. Then suddenly: women twerking on a party bus!

If you can bear the disorientation, directors Adirley Queirós and Joana Pimenta offer a fantastic vision of feminist revenge and all the gritty work it takes to accomplish it. Still, much of the movie will seem inscrutable, at least plot-wise. But in 2023 parlance, the vibes are always weird. Turns out that makes for pretty radical viewing.

A still from Monster
Well Go USA

Monster

Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Country: Japan
Release: limited theatrical release November 22nd, 2023

After the critical success of the Oscar-nominated Shoplifters, the prolific Hirokazu Kore-eda tried his hand at a couple films in languages outside his native Japanese. But he returned this year with Monster, a queer coming-of-age story that plays to all Kore-eda’s strengths: impressionistic scene work, delicate cinematography, a particular gift for capturing textures of adolescence. (Is anyone on Earth better at directing child actors than Kore-eda?)

Monster opens with a single mother worried that her son is having trouble in school. But when she confronts the administration, she’s told her child is bullying a classmate. It will turn out that the adults only see a small part of the picture. The movie does some clever perspective shifting over three acts, each new point-of-view rearranging what you thought of the last section. It’s less a Rashomon-ing played less for reveals or twists, and more a means to push the audience to a new empathetic space with each switch.

After the film’s rapturous reception at Cannes, where it won Best Screenplay, critics hailed Monster as the director’s return to form. (Last year’s Broker underwhelmed, but I’d argue that his French talkie The Truth was underrated!) But even if Monster has more in common with his earlier masterpieces like Nobody Knows, it’s proof that the director still has new ideas, new tricks, and a lot more to say, even if he does so softly.

A still from Skinamarink
Shudder

Skinamarink

Director: Kyle Edward Ball
Country: Canada
Release: currently streaming on Shudder

If the scariest things in a movie are left to the audience’s imagination, then Skinamarink takes this idea to its maximal conclusion: complete horror minimalism.

Two children are up late at their suburban home, playing and seemingly unable to sleep. We never see them directly, mostly just hear from them, as they stumble through the house late at night. There aren’t scenes so much as a succession of shots, so spare and at times so still you might think they were photographs. Don’t discount the movie’s shoestring-iest of budgets or the approach of its first-time filmmaker Kyle Edward Ball. The imagery is strong: heavy shadows across the ceiling, the flicker of a television in a dark room, the menacing smile of an anthropomorphic toy phone. The terrors emerge slowly, and then things get really scary. 

(A content warning: though the film never shows anything — truly very little is explicit in this movie — it does suggest some pretty disturbing violence toward children. It’s tastefully handled but if even a whiff of that will be a problem for you, I’d skip this one.)

Still, if horror is often defined by incremental (often self-conscious) steps forward in the genre, Skinamarink feels like a complete diversion from the path. There’s something thrilling about the year’s scariest movie also being its most lo-fi, inventive, and unexpected. Nearly every horror movie is better in a theater. Not this one, though. Skinamarink is best viewed at home — ideally your childhood home, after your parents have gone to bed.