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The Free Press Goes to the Movies

Grab the popcorn and get ready for awards season, as our team gives you the score on Maestro, May December, Poor Things, Priscilla, Napoleon and more.

By The Free Press

January 6, 2024

We at The Free Press love a good party—especially one that pretends to be about culture. So when we heard the Golden Globes is airing tomorrow (catch it on CBS at 8 p.m. ET), we rushed to the movies to check out some of the most talked-about films of the year. Or at least, the ones we talked about most. 

The U.S. box office boomed in 2023, grossing more than $9 billion, the most since the pandemic started. Thank you, Taylor Swift. And the Barbenheimer juggernaut, which we dissected in July—Suzy Weiss fell big time for Barbie; Oppenheimer blew Elliot Ackerman’s mind. Then, after the summer hitfest came a slew of buzzy releases, like Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, a favorite to win the Golden Globe for Best Picture, and a movie that became a family triumph for Free Press contributor Nancy Rommelmann. And don’t forget the boom in religious flicks; movies like Jesus Revolution racked up better numbers than most of last year’s Oscar nominees.  

Below you’ll find TFP’s own slate of superlatives. Sit back, grab the popcorn, and scroll down to hear our takes on some of the best films of the moment. And cast your votes for best drama, worst comedy, most erotic movie musical, or whatever else you saw this year, in the comments. 

Bradley Cooper smolders in Maestro. (Photo via Netflix)

Best Erotic Musical: Maestro by Ben Kawaller 

I was wary of Maestro. This is, after all, a film about Leonard Bernstein, the composer of the greatest musical of all time (West Side Story, if I even have to say this). I feared the Bradley Cooper biopic, in constantly reminding me of Bernstein’s most towering achievement, would fail that most basic of tests: Would I rather be watching. . . West Side Story?

Wisely, Cooper has limited the use of the WSS score to one well-placed sample that cheekily highlights the film’s central conflict between Bernstein’s long-suffering wife, Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan, breathtaking), and his ardent homosexuality. He practiced the latter, the film suggests, at a level far exceeding his compositional output. At one point, an existentially frustrated Bernstein confesses, between drags of his ever-present cigarette, “Actually, when you add it up, there’s not much that I’ve created.”

Cooper—transformed by a prosthetic schnoz—is transfixing as Bernstein, and his screenplay, co-written with Josh Singer, is a swiftly moving, often devastating chronicle of a life (two lives, really) both audacious and unshakably confined by mid-century morality. It’s also an unsparing depiction of the ruthlessness of time: one image, late in the film, of a far-too-old Bernstein at a nightclub, still utterly in thrall to youth, drugs, and sex, ranks for me among cinema’s most crippling sequences. To be fair, I’m not sure if anyone else in the theater let out an audible sob.

Interestingly, that moment follows a scene, perhaps intentionally calling to mind 2022’s Tár, in which a 1980s Bernstein coaches a young (black) student in conducting. The film’s audience holds its breath: Are we about to watch an egomaniac decimate a mere mortal?

It gives little away to reveal that no, we are not. Like Lydia Tár in the moment of her undoing, Bernstein is uncompromising, teasing, and affectionate (very affectionate, it turns out). Unlike Lydia Tár, he gets away with it. The mutual warmth, Bernstein’s palpable joy in teaching, and the unremarkable fact that his students view him as a master, turn the scene into a eulogy for a bygone era. And the junior conductor’s obvious delight in Bernstein’s sexual touch, despite how pathetic it all looks, is just one of the film’s many contradictions that add to its depth.

Is Cooper’s film as good as West Side Story? Well. . . nothing is as good as West Side Story. But Maestro, which ingeniously incorporates some of Bernstein’s other most iconic compositions, is a brilliant work of art in its own right. It gutted me.

And the soundtrack is, of course, transcendent. 

One of the many big-budget battle scenes in Napoleon. (Photo via Apple+)

Best French Film with American Accents by a British Director: Napoleon by Oliver Wiseman

I was told I had to review a film about a megalomaniac bent on world domination. But when I discovered that Wonka breaches my ban on watching musicals, I was forced to go in another direction. And so Napoleon it was. Instead of Timothée Chalamet’s portrayal of a ruthless master of the chocolate universe, it’d be Joaquin Phoenix as a misunderstood man of the people.

Most critics loathed Napoleon. So did the public, judging by its 59 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes.

The haters are half right. Is Napoleon perfect? No. But Ridley Scott’s historical epic is a valiant and entertaining attempt at the almost impossible task of depicting the man Hegel described as “world history on horseback.” 

A frequent complaint about this much-anticipated movie is that it strays too far from the truth. To be sure, the film’s historical inaccuracies are many and flagrant. Napoleon was not there when Marie Antoinette was beheaded. He did not meet his wife Joséphine at one of the bals des victimes held to celebrate the end of the Reign of Terror. He did not order his troops to blast cannonballs at the Egyptian pyramids.

To these complaints, Scott’s response has essentially been Who cares?

And he’s right.

Historical drama is not history. His job is to tell a story, not report the facts. If you expect a history lesson at the movies, that’s on you. 

What you’re guaranteed is the epic satisfaction of big-budget battle scenes, Joaquin Phoenix working his mesmerizing, if slightly predictable, magic (who knew the Joker, Johnny Cash, and Napoleon were so similar?), and a surprising number of laughs.

One final, important data point: the French hate Napoleon. They were never likely to take well to a British director getting Hollywood A-listers to shout “Vive la France” in American accents. Oh well. Most offensive to the French, however, is the fact Scott portrays Napoleon as a flawed leader and—quelle horreur!—bad in bed.

All this Gallic whining is a very good sign; it’d be far more worrying if Scott had made a movie the French actually liked. 

Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore in May December. (Photo via Netflix)

Best Bad Romance: May December by Emily Yoffe 

May December is a movie about sex that’s not sexy. Instead, director Todd Haynes has made a movie about making movies.

Before seeing May December, it helps to know the real events that inspired it. It’s based on the life of Mary Kay Letourneau, a married elementary school teacher and mother of four, who in the 1990s began a sexual relationship with her sixth-grade student Vili Fualaau, when he was twelve years old and she was thirty-four. She went to prison, gave birth to Fualaau’s two children, and after her release, they married. Letourneau died in 2020 of colon cancer at age fifty-eight. 

In May December, Letourneau becomes Gracie (played by Julianne Moore) and her husband is Joe (played by Charles Melton). When the movie begins, they are more than two decades into a marriage that has produced three children, the youngest a pair of twins ready to graduate from high school. The film takes place during a visit by an actress, Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), who has come to study Gracie. Elizabeth, who is the age Gracie was when she embarked on the relationship with Joe, is hoping her portrayal of Gracie will propel her from television star to serious film actress.

Although the Letourneau scandal is the scaffolding of May December, Haynes’s focus is the psychological interplay between the two women. We watch Elizabeth’s efforts to embody Gracie, a process both enabled and resisted by the older woman. This doppelganger effect is one of many references to Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 classic Persona, about a similar relationship between an actress who has fallen silent and the nurse sent to tend her.

May December unfolds as a series of set pieces filled with simmering tension and subtext—only occasionally do emotions spill over. Portman plays an actress who is not a good enough actress to hide her voraciousness and ambition. Moore’s Gracie is invested in a daily portrayal of domestic bliss, even if at night she descends into crying jags her husband is tasked with comforting.

Both women—especially when interacting with Joe—are master manipulators. As Joe, Charles Melton gives a breakthrough performance, as he comes to realize he sacrificed his childhood first to Gracie, and later to his own children. He delivers a potent performance of pathos and loss, giving emotional weight to a movie that often feels like it’s keeping the viewer at arm’s length.

Throughout the film, lest you start getting drawn into the story, Haynes jolts you into awareness that you’re watching a movie through the loud, staccato, and intrusive score. That’s intentional. The music is taken from the mostly forgotten 1971 film The Go-Between, another story about sexual violation, deceit, and a sensual older woman’s exploitation of a schoolboy. 

Timothée Chalamet returns to his theater-kid roots in Wonka (Photo via Warner Bros.)

Best Eye Candy: Wonka by Kiran Sampath 

I initially thought Wonka was going to be a 2023 remake of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. But Paul King’s Wonka isn’t a remake at all. It’s Willy Wonka’s origin story—the musical version. Who asked for that? I don’t know. But I loved it.

The story follows young Willy, a broke orphan raised in the jungle who, like every other person on the damn planet, dreams of becoming a chocolatier in the big city. During his first night on the town, Willy—who is illiterate because he “focused his studies almost exclusively on chocolate”—ends up enslaved in an innkeeper’s basement. 

That’s where he meets his best friend, called Noodle. Noodle dropped down the laundry chute as a baby and also ended up a captive of the innkeepers. She’s “damaged” and upset because nothing rhymes with her name. (She’s so upset, she sings about this—although later they discover some rhymes.) 

With the help of Noodle and Co., Willy manages to create a market for his chocolates. The city delights in his confectioneries made from the “mallow marshes of Peru” and the “bittersweet tears of Russian cloud.” But then the local chocolate cartel gets threatened by its peasant competition. Mrs. Bon Bon calls the police. The police chief, who is bribed by the cartel, orders all his officers to ban Willy from making chocolate.

Everyone, from the cartel to the chief of police to the church monks, wants Willy to fail. They fine him for daydreaming, dishearten him, disgrace him. They extort him—offering to bail his friends out of slavery in exchange for his exile to the North Pole. And then, there’s a try at homicide.

But this is America—or at least, somewhere like it—and sometimes an illiterate orphan born in the jungle really does make it. 

For an hour and 56 minutes, I was charmed by a world where it rains gumballs and commoners eat giraffe-milk macaroons. Where Hugh Grant is an orange Oompa Loompa nicknamed Shorty Pants and Timothée Chalamet is brought back to his theater-kid roots, earnest and endearing, singing and dancing like a pro.

The movie is a sugar rush for the eyes and a reminder for the soul: hold on to your imagination. That’s where paradise is. 

Jacob Elordi and Cailee Spaeny play Mr. and Mrs. Presley in Priscilla. (Photo via A24)

Best Fairy Tale-Turned-Horror Show: Priscilla by Margi Conklin

Watching Priscilla is like being trapped for two hours in an uncomfortable box. That’s likely how director Sofia Coppola wants us to feel, watching the story of an innocent teenager who became a kept woman, imprisoned by a king in his castle. 

When Priscilla Beaulieu is cherry-picked by Elvis Presley at a party on a German army base, she is just 14 to his 24. And seeing Cailee Spaeny, who plays Priscilla—all tiny, fragile, and doll-like—next to Jacob Elordi’s Elvis, a six-foot-five hunk of burning machismo, is enough to make you squirm. 

But I couldn’t turn away. This hypnotic movie had me transfixed. 

If, like me, you don’t know Priscilla’s backstory, it’s a shock. When she’s 16, her parents allow her to leave the family home and live on the grounds of Graceland. While he tours the world and beds other women, she goes to Catholic school by day and wanders the halls of his mansion by night, alone and friendless, pining for her man. 

Her life is a monotony until Elvis comes home, and then it’s a whirlwind of drugs and guns and shopping and heavy petting (he won’t have sex with her until their wedding night). He is often lonesome and moody and cruel to Priscilla, choosing what she wears, telling her to dye her hair black, forcing her to stay sequestered when he goes off to Hollywood to shoot movies.

Finally, they marry and Priscilla makes love to her man. But after she gets pregnant on their wedding night, he spurns her almost immediately.

You know why she puts up with it. She’s stuck, and in love with a god. But Elvis, a man loved by every woman on the planet at one point, could never truly love her, the movie suggests, because he never loved himself.

Based faithfully on Priscilla’s memoir, Elvis and Me, the fairy tale is actually a horror show, first wrapped up in creamsicle colors, then turning sharper and more realistic as she wakes from her dream, faced with a grim choice.

Ultimately, the movie is about Priscilla’s liberation from Elvis. The final scene is a triumph and you root for her. But at the same time, it fails to satisfy when we all know this isn’t the ending for real-life Priscilla, who will forever be known as Elvis’s wife and never break free from the Presley curse.

Barry Keoghan—and a field of English sex and splendor—in Saltburn. (Photo via MGM and Amazon Studios)

Best Foreign Porn: Saltburn by Suzy Weiss

Saltburn is a story about coveting thy neighbor’s sick castle. 

It starts in familiar territory: an awkward but brilliant boy, Oliver Quick—played tightly by Barry Keoghan—dropped onto the groomed grounds of Oxford, is desperate to fit in with the sparkly crowd. Their king, Felix Catton, languid and at home in the world, played by an eyebrow-pierced Jacob Elordi, takes a liking to Oliver. After Oliver regales Felix with a trauma tale of his drug-addled parents and poor upbringing, Felix invites him to stay at his posh family’s stately manor for the summer. 

The next two hours are at turns sinister, dreamy, voyeuristic, homoerotic, and regular erotic, but never boring.

Felix’s mother Elspeth (Rosamund Pike) gets the best lines of the movie: when a character commits suicide, she quips, “She’d do anything for attention.” Or after Oliver is surprised to learn her daughter has an eating disorder: “Well, exactly! Hasn’t even helped. Complete waste of time.” 

Oliver, meanwhile, is obsessed with Felix and his dreamy life in all its hedonism and pomp (his family wears black tie for weeknight dinners). But the tables are turned when Felix takes Oliver on a surprise trip to see his poor, downtrodden mother, and discovers that Oliver has kept a shocking secret.

“Look, I just gave you what you wanted. Like everyone else does,” Oliver says to Felix during a confrontation at his birthday party. “Doesn’t this just prove how much of a good friend I actually am?” 

There’s been a lot of nit-picking over character believability and plot holes in this movie, which is probably valid. But director Emerald Fennell (Promising Young Woman) has delivered something shocking, original, and fun. 

For all the talk of blue bloods being cold-blooded, Saltburn is about the hot-blooded outcome when envy and desire become one.

Myha’la (from left), Mahershala Ali, Ethan Hawke, and Julia Roberts star in Leave the World Behind. (Photo via Netflix)

Worst Propaganda Film: Leave the World Behind by Olivia Reingold

My happy place is in bed with an apocalyptic thriller on my laptop (yes, I’m a cord-cutting millennial with no TV). The bleaker, the better. 

But the genre has been dead for a while. 

We sadists could only be tided over by HBO’s (now Max) sublime The Last of Us for so long. So when the holidays came, and we were surrounded by our families—puke—we needed an apocalyptic pick-me-up more than ever. 

The only thing on offer is Leave the World Behind, the new Netflix drama about the end of the world—if it is indeed ending (its major innovation is to keep you guessing on that front). But beggars can’t be choosers, so I reluctantly watched the film on the lowest volume possible, careful not to wake my three-year-old nephew asleep in the next room. 

It’s an okay way to spend two and a half hours. If you’re a junkie for this stuff, you’ll take anything. But it’s not the good stuff—it’s no Children of Men or Cloverfield. The parts I like show the characters trying to figure out how this is all happening​​—who could be attacking us and how do we get medicine now? It’s worse when it veers into social commentary, like the time a young black character (played by Myha’la) bristles at a comment a white New Yorker (Julia Roberts) makes about her hair. I grit my way through a few scenes that have the dynamic of a Karen-BIPOC showdown. And a handyman, played by Kevin Bacon, gets the QAnon treatment, although it accidentally flatters him, since he’s the only one who knows what the hell is going on.

Perhaps it makes sense that the film is a product of Barack and Michelle Obama’s production house, Higher Ground, which is dedicated to “elevating new and diverse voices in the entertainment industry.”

Obama, if you’re reading, please don’t let the social justice warriors come to the apocalypse next time. I’d like to think that if the world is burning, no one cares about microaggressions anymore. 

In 2024, I’d like movies to take us back to apocalypses in which groups decide whether or not to team up with strangers based on how many cans of beans they have, not if they’re people of color.

Keep the wokes out of my culture. Make the apocalypse scary again. 

Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo take a break from “furious jumping” in Poor Things. (Photo via Searchlight Pictures)

Worst Movie to Watch with Your Grandparents: Poor Things by Francesca Block

Few things are cringier than watching graphic sex scenes in a movie theater while sitting next to your grandma, but that’s where I found myself when I jovially invited my family to join me for a viewing of Poor Things, the sci-fi comedy nominated for seven Golden Globes.

The film is based on a 1992 book of the same name by Scottish writer Alasdair Gray, which I now have no intention of reading. 

It features Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), the body of a socialite who has been implanted with an infant’s brain, as she discovers herself (and her sexual desires) in a fantastical version of what I think is Victorian-era London. 

Willem Dafoe plays the surgeon/mad scientist Dr. Godwin Baxter (who the characters aptly refer to as “God”), whose face looks like a patchwork of skin grafts sewn together like a rag doll. God enjoys melding together different animals and body parts, and Bella is his next, most unpredictable, project. 

Bella starts out as a child—portrayed in black and white film—stomping around the mansion, throwing tantrums and giving in to her bodily impulses. But she quickly grows up, learning 15 new words a day and discovering that there is an outside world she wishes to explore. 

Despite God’s trepidations, Bella joins Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo, who sports a fabulous mustache and an accent I couldn’t place) on an adventure full of saturated colors and constant sexcapades (which Bella calls “furious jumping”).

Bella encounters the world as it is: whimsical and warm, full of adventure and opportunity, but also pessimistic and cruel. Her naivete is at times refreshing, her boldness admirable and amusing. It’s oddly satisfying to watch her break free from the control of others—as long as you can suppress the strange voice in your head telling you this film appears to be glorifying pedophilia and convincing you that sexual promiscuity is the only path to true enlightenment. 

This movie wasn’t my cup of tea, and I have no intention of ever seeing it again or recommending it to anyone I know. 

But to my surprise, when the credits started to roll, my grandma turned to me, her eyes wide and bright, and declared it “genius,” even “Machiavellian.” The woman with blue hair sitting behind us in the theater agreed, and then told me she just loves Mark Ruffalo. Make of that what you will. 

A scene from The Zone of Interest. (Photo via A24)

Best Period Thriller on the Edge: The Zone of Interest by Peter Savodnik

The best part of The Zone of Interest is what you don’t see: the Jews, the selections, the gas chambers. You can hear it and you can listen to other people talking about it. But you can’t quite make it out. 

If Schindler’s List was an attempt to recreate in granular, mawkish detail the experience of the Holocaust, the unstated thesis of The Zone of Interest is that that experience cannot be recreated, that any attempt to do so reduces the suffering.

Instead, director Jonathan Glazer parachutes us into the bucolic world adjacent to the world of Auschwitz-Birkenau: the villa inhabited by commandant Rudolf Höss; his wife, Hedwig; and their five children. The lovely two-story house; the garden; the pool. The surreality of an upper-middle-class German family doing ordinary things—eating dinner, going to school, going to bed, having a drink—while an extraordinary evil is perpetrated next door. We can’t see the horror. We are confined to the penumbra of it.

Of course, that’s where the interesting things happen. 

Inside the inferno is pure darkness. Outside, far away, is innocence or, at least, plausible deniability. 

But along the edge of evil, inside the proverbial zone of interest, in which characters close their windows to prevent the ashes of dead Jews from leaving a film on their kitchen counter—that is where the inner tumult, the fear of what will happen to one’s soul, plays out.

The commandant and his wife—dubbed “the Queen of Auschwitz”—maintain the steeliness we expect. They seem incapable of any human impulse. Rudolf Höss, played brilliantly by Christian Friedel, oversees the world’s most efficient killing machine. Hedwig Höss, played by the charmless and very believable Sandra Hüller, pretends not to know what her husband does while letting on that she knows exactly what he does. At night, after the kids are in bed, he has sex in his office with Jewish women who may soon be gassed, and then rinses off in an underground bathroom.

But there are barely perceptible wrinkles: Höss’s mother-in-law, while visiting, glimpses a smokestack in the distance billowing flame and smoke; soon after, she leaves without a word. Höss, toward the end of the movie, appears to glimpse the future—in which being a Nazi is the worst thing anyone can be—and then retches. (This anticipates Höss returning to the Church at the end of his life and apparently suffering an existential crisis—shortly before his execution.)

There are, as Glazer knows, as Martin Amis, who wrote the novel on which the film is based, knew, many “zones of interest.” None are as cinematic as the paradise that Höss built. All are shot through with the same wonderings and nightmares. They are the places on the outside, but really, they are where the action takes place. They are where we discover who we are

Tom Blyth and Rachel Zegler star in The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. (Photo via Murray Close)

Best YA Prequel Adaptation: The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Julia Steinberg

I first read The Hunger Games as a teenager—the same age as the children (called “tributes”) who fight to the death in The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

Now I’m 21 and still enthralled by the series.

The latest film from the franchise, which takes place 64 years before the first Hunger Games installment, is the prequel story of Corialanus “Coryo” Snow, who becomes the president of Panem, the dystopian successor to the United States, and is the antagonist of the original series. 

Snow, portrayed by 28-year-old Tom Blyth, is the heir to one of Capitol’s aristocratic families, which is now in decline. The prequel explores his rise to power as an Academy student who plans on returning his family to their former wealth and glory. Instead of using test scores to decide who will receive a prestigious scholarship to the university, Capitol leadership tells 24 top students that their mentees’ performance in the 10th annual Hunger Games will determine who receives the award. 

Snow, who has the highest grades but no money to afford the university, is determined to win, despite being paired with the tribute with the greatest odds of losing—Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler). In classic YA fashion, the two fall in love, though the relationship is facilitated by Snow’s ambition. 

Snow is successful because he realizes that spectacle is everything. He earns the ear of Head Gamemaker Dr. Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis) by proposing that, to boost falling viewership in the Capitol, the audience must have a connection with the tributes. For example, Snow coaches Lucy Gray to sing to gain the attention of Capitol viewers in exchange for gifts sent to the arena. 

But Snow’s attachment to Lucy Gray reminds us that this handsome schemer is responsible for the deaths of thousands both through his role as a gamemaker and through his eventual leadership of Panem. As the audience roots for Snow’s success, we are alienated from his future crimes—it’s hard to root against a hot young actor versus an old man (with apologies to Donald Sutherland, who plays Snow in the original film series).

Ultimately, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes falls into the very trap that Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins masterfully highlighted in her trilogy. While her series offered a postmodern reflection on spectacle, the movie never steps far enough away from its own fireworks to make the same critique. But, if you want to lean into the spectacle, it's a great way to spend two and a half hours.

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