Darrel’s Dozen 2023: Satisfyingly subversive

For many years, I’ve made a list of 12(ish) films that I judge most important or just plain favorites of the year. This year I’m going to do it a little bit differently. I’ve noted that this is an especially good year for subversion—and art is often good precisely because it is subversive. So, Darrel’s Dozen 2023 films will be the ones I find most ‘satisfyingly subversive’.

  1. Barbie (directed by Greta Gerwig). My first thought on hearing they were making a movie based on the ubiquitous doll best known for destroying self-esteem because of Barbie’s unrealistic figure and looks, I though I wanted nothing to do with it. But when I learned Gerwig was directing and co-writing I was intrigued. When I saw the first trailer, I was hooked. This film takes that doll and not only makes it into a celebration of women and diversity, it skewers corporate culture. It even leaves us room to think about church (cf. Mattel execs in the film) versus a relationship with the Creator (Ruth). From the opening scene mimicking 2001: A Space Odyssey to Barbie’s first visit to the gynecologist, the film was both delightful and a challenge to our perception of the world around us.
  2. American Fiction (directed by Cord Jefferson). A very close second to Barbie in subversion. A black writer told his work isn’t “black enough” turns out what he considers trash as a protest to the idea of cliché tropes, only to have it become a major success. This challenges not just the way we think about race, but about what it means to hear an “authentic” voice. It takes down the publishing and film industries. It takes down critics and literary awards. In fact, it calls into question my including it in this list. But I’m sticking to my choice.
  3. Anatomy of a Fall (directed by Justine Triet). This courtroom drama (which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes) challenges the very concept of truth. When a woman is suspected of killing her husband, the key witness is her blind son. But he is not sure what really happened. Can he choose the truth he wants? Viewers too must deal with the idea of choosing what we will believe. Is there an objective truth or only our subjective interpretation.
  4. Perfect Days (directed by Wim Wenders). Who knew that cleaning public toilets in Tokyo was the way to happiness? Here is a refutation to common ideas of success and fulfillment. I’m sure there’s a good bit of Buddhism’s focus on the transitory and the moment, but there is also a very heavy dose of Ecclesiastes. Also some really good music in the soundtrack.
  5. The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar (directed by Wes Anderson). This in the longest of several shorts Anderson made based on stories by Roald Dahl. (All of them are worth catching on Netflix.)This film is about visual storytelling, but these shorts are much more dependent on the spoken word. We see scenes acted out, but mostly we listen to rapid fire prose spoken into the camera. This story is about a rich man whose life is changed by a small book—and what it taught him. In turn, he changes the lives of many with his philanthropy, But is it actually a moral story?
  6. Poor Things (directed by Yorgos Lanthimos). Okay, I’ll admit that anything from Lanthimos is likely to be considered subversive in some sense. Here we have a feminist, steam punk, surreal version of Frankenstein. We watch as a grown woman matures from infancy to adulthood and power. This would make a really interesting double feature with Barbie.
  7. Every Body (directed by Julie Cohen). For most of us gender is requires no thought; we’re born male or female. But there are some for whom that is not true. They are intersex—they are born with both male and female genitalia. In the past, surgery would done early in life to assign a gender. Here is a film that show us three individuals who have taken different routes in dealing with being intersex. Each has found a way to find happiness and contentment in ways that subvert the very idea of gender.
  8. The Theory of Everything (Die Theorie von Allem) (directed by Timm Kröger). This is a piece of sci-fi noir based in quantum physics. It’s a blend of Alfred Hitchcock, David .Lynch, and Philip K. Dick. A nexus of parallel universes leads us to question the truth of truth. I know it must be frustrating when I include films that you may never get a chance to see. But I can hope it ends up available somewhere.
  9. A Still Small Voice (directed by Luke Lorentzen). This doc follows a would-be hospital chaplain during a year of Clinical Pastoral Education. This film makes clear that even those who seek to strengthen the faith of others may face faith struggles of their own.
  10. The Holdovers (directed by Alexander Payne). I think this needs to be added to the canon of Christmas movies. A thoroughly unlikable prep school teacher must care for a student who has nowhere to go for the holidays. Payne is excellent in getting us to bond with unlikeable people. Their frailties make us question our own virtues and strenths.
  11. The Teachers’ Lounge (directed by Ilker Çatak). A first year teacher tries to protect one child from racist based accusations, but ends up in much deeper trouble herself when she accuses a staff member of theft. What starts out as trying to do good brings chaos to the school and her personal life.
  12. Killers of the Flower Moon(directed by Martin Scorsese). A little reminder of the ways that American history is filled with oppression and theft from our indigenous peoples. It portrays our culture as valuing money far greater than justice or even human life. It is an ugly thought, but one that it hard to disprove.

I’ll add in a few movies that may not have been quite as subversive, but are still well worth inclusion in a best of the year list: Past Lives, Oppenheimer, and Maestro.

The new year of film watching awaits. I wonder what will stand out.

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