Spark Joy

Festival de Cannes

Perfect Days (2023)

When Wim Wenders hits, he scores. “Perfect Days” is an unbearably emotional film about being able to find peace and joy in a daily routine that keeps you alive, and the happiness that follows from living, in however small a way, on your own terms. This is not a movie for children, by which is meant people who think life is a limitless playground of opportunity. This is a movie for adults, as in people who understand how choices and circumstances prescribe a life, and that the ways in which people cope with that are the only true choices you have.

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Festival de Cannes

Fallen Leaves (2023)

It's good to be reminded that a country can have a social safety net that's the envy of the world without necessarily making life easy for its people. It's also good to be reminded that a person’s choices can make life easier or harder without the safety net coming into it, though of course accidents can and do happen. But writer-director Aki Kaurismäki has always been interested in exploring people whose lives are constrained either by circumstance (being broke in Finland) or choice (not focusing on education when young). But everyone deserves to be safe, warm and well-fed, that is taken for granted. It's the pursuit of happiness that's in question.

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Live at the Apollo

Pop. 87 Productions/Focus Features

Asteroid City (2023)

It's the way in which he uses physical things and precise language that makes him so easy to parody, but that is also his appeal. Wes Anderson is the only director currently working with such a clear visual style that it can be endlessly parodied without any further explanation. This is his gift but as “Asteroid City” makes clear, also his curse. Mr. Anderson is a sensitive, thoughtful director of grief and disappointment, but his messages of the need of kindness and the importance of true human connection are often lost under his aesthetic. That aesthetic overshadows how actors are fighting to work for him even in the smallest of parts; his gentle sense of humor is overlooked; and his willingness to explore even the tiniest detail within a frame makes his movies treasures which can be continually revisited without sound. On the other hand, deep in the credits of his newest offering, there’s mention of a yodelling consultant. So he’s on the verge of becoming a parody of himself.

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Close to the Sun

Well Go USA

Born to Fly (2023)

“Born to Fly” is much, much more interesting than its top line, a.k.a. the Chinese answer to “Top Gun: Maverick.” The influence of American war movies is strong on this one, in that there are shots and plot beats lifted straight from “Top Gun” and “The Right Stuff,” but that is not the point. And while the opening sequence features English-speaking black-helmeted pilots (who are never directly called American) harming innocent Chinese workers, damaging Chinese property and flipping Chinese pilots the bird, this is not a standard war movie. It’s instead meant as a testament to ingenuity, in how the Chinese army develops its fighter jet program without international tech or innovations from elsewhere. On the one hand, this is a huge testament to the war tactics referenced in the opening lines of “Patton.” But from “Born to Fly’s” point of view, there’s something bigger at stake here.

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Hazardous Adventures

Pathé Films

The Three Musketeers: D'Artagnan (2023)

The swashbuckling appeal of four Frenchmen fighting with swords or guns against various dastardly villains has stood up to plenty of adaptations, with the most recent English-language one back in 2011. That was kind of a mess – if you need Mads Mikkelsen to demonstrate his villainy by tying a busty blonde to the front of a C.G.I. flying sailing ship, you are almost certainly trying too hard – but it was also a comedic romp. Director Martin Bourboulon has a background in comedy, but with “The Three Musketeers: D’Artagnan” he decided to get as serious as a gun stuck in your face. With this movie France has made a blockbuster adaptation for itself and doesn’t care whether audiences elsewhere will like it. Of course, this story is as close to a guaranteed smash hit as you can get, but they do it justice.

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Class Warfare

Tina Botková

The Chambermaid (2023)

This is the first lesbian film ever made in Slovakia. It is also the story of how class impacts our sexual choices, and also a packaged history of the Austro-Hungarian empire. It is also a very beautiful and beautifully sad story about how one young woman’s life is decided by most of the people around her without it changing who she is one whit. As an ode to self-determination this is a marvelous one.

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Free Berlin


Drifter (2023)

Who wants to be the 22-year-old that has their life completely figured out? While it is old news that a good way to revive a friend from an overdose is to shove a finger up their backside, it’s perhaps only in this pesky modern age that someone will flirtatiously ask for your Instagram details while you are trying to startle them back to consciousness. This is just one of the situations young Moritz (Lorenz Hochhuth) finds himself in after his life plans blow up in his face. On the other hand, he is 22, on his own in Berlin, with no responsibilities, such as having somewhere to live or paying for the electricity that charges his phone. If ever there’s a time in your life for overdoing things, that is it. And “Drifter” is a quietly curious depiction of all the fun one young man can handle.

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Lesbi Friend

Courtesy photo

Egghead & Twinkie (2023)

It is a bold choice to include a racist slur in your movie’s title, even when the reason for it is a key part of the plot. The main character has reclaimed the name for herself as an attempt to build her identity as a transracial adoptee, which is all the more important because she doesn’t know her own precise ethnic heritage. This is a heavy hook for a lighthearted movie about teenage foolishness and personal identity, but writer-director Sarah Kambe Holland is clearly aiming for a cheerful style to mitigate the slightly gloomy substance. For the most part it works, but the slightly false sweetness can be a little tough to swallow.

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Darkened Door

"Suzume" Film Partners/Crunchyroll

Suzume (2023)

American cinema currently churns out an endless parade of superhero movies to counteract how powerless most Americans now feel, but Japanese art is the best in the world at metaphors for trauma. “Godzilla” and its uncontrollable rampages through Tokyo and other cities was an obvious stand-in for nuclear destruction, and its many imitators were able to exist because the need was still there. “Suzume” is more specifically about a more recent disaster, that of the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011, but its combination of the supernatural and modern everyday life builds to create a tearjerker of surprising emotional power.

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Sunset Strip

Warner Brothers Pictures

Magic Mike's Last Dance (2023)

How can an entire film industry look at Channing Tatum for nearly 20 years and still not know what to do with him? Gene Kelly couldn’t believe dancing wasn’t as easy for everyone as it was for him; and his resulting arrogance made him a beloved bad boy. Fred Astaire combined the vibe of a disapproving uncle with a litheness and elegance on his feet that has kept him a byword for physical grace. And Mr. Tatum is like your best friend’s goofy little brother, somehow so likable and charming that you smile just thinking about him. There’s very few actors who have ever had his combination of killer physique, relaxing physicality and sense of humor. He should be surprising us with fresh new tricks as often as Kelly and Astaire did. It is devastating to report that instead “Magic Mike’s Last Dance” doesn’t know what to do with him, either.

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