SCREEN TIME: Perfect jokes, no notes

The funniest things about the films of 2023

#1   May December
Photo credit: Netflix
UNDER STUDY: Natalie Portman shadows Julianne Moore in Todd Haynes’ ‘May December.’

Cinematic comedy has taken a hit lately, with studios becoming skittish about making them and audiences proving unreliable in supporting them. The modest success of Jennifer Lawrence’s raunchy romance No Hard Feelings hints at a potential resurgence.

But in 2023, many films not necessarily considered as comedies have either brilliant jokes or use humor in illuminating ways. Rather than offer a conventional “year in film” column, this will review some of 2023’s highlights through a comedic lens — and will absolutely include some spoilers.

For the most popular film of the year (and my personal favorite), Barbie director/co-writer Greta Gerwig ingeniously interweaves Mattell doll iconography and feminist polemic for silly but substantive jokes that keep building on each other. As the titular doll, Margot Robie’s journey of feminine self-discovery, from Barbieland to the real world, from doll to human being, culminates with the screenplay’s delightful capper, “I’m here to see my gynecologist.”

The more naturalistic comedy The Holdovers offers warm 1970s throwback about a caustic prep school teacher (Paul Giamatti) striking a reluctant friendship with a troubled student (Dominic Sessa). Directed by Alexander Payne, the film delivers the year’s most exquisite insults, none better than Giamatti’s line, “I have known you since you were a boy, so I think I have the requisite experience and insight to aver that you are, and always have been, penis cancer in human form.”

Filmmaker Wes Anderson has become so accomplished at his signature brand of deadpan theatricality that his ingenious Asteroid City seems taken for granted. The film depicts scientists, students and townsfolk gathering in the titular town, named after a famous meteorite. In a moment of surreal whimsy, a nighttime gathering is interrupted by the arrival of a silent, spindly alien that absconds with the rock. (A friend of mine compared the alien’s body language to a guest awkwardly returning to a party after forgetting their coat.)

The charged psychodrama May December stars Julianne Moore as a Mary Kay Letourneau-esque woman who had an affair with a minor, served time, and then married him. Director Todd Haynes keeps the audience off-balance with both credibly-drawn characters and highly melodramatic flourishes. One of the first scenes sets the tone as Moore prepares for a cookout and declares “I don’t think we have enough hot dogs,” followed by a DRAMATIC STING on the soundtrack worthy of a nighttime soap opera.

Laughs are scarce in Oppenheimer, the other half of the “Barbenheimer” phenomenon, but Christopher Nolan’s three-hour biopic of J. Robert Oppenheimer occasionally shows excellent comic timing. In a good “trailer joke,” Cillian Murphy’s Oppenheimer declares that the chance the Trinity atomic test will ignite the Earth’s atmosphere is near zero, and Matt Damon’s General Groves says, incredulously, “NEAR zero?” It’s a quip that acknowledges the story’s hard science and high stakes while giving the characters a human moment.

At the other end of the financial spectrum, two of the year’s biggest flops, The Flash and The Marvels, may have finally broken the monopoly superhero movies have seemingly held over cinema for more than a decade. Both offer sloppy spectacle but contain some uproarious set pieces.

The Flash begins with Looney Tunes-worthy slapstick as a brace of infants tumble from the upper-story maternity ward and The Flash must use his superspeed to save them from the “baby shower.” The Marvels’ sequence is a little too complex to explain — it features cat-like aliens and a 1970s Broadway showtune – but it’s perhaps the most weirdly funny sequence in the MCU’s 30-film franchise. Alas, a sense of humor couldn’t save either movie.

Some of the year’s most notable films aren’t funny ha-ha but use humor and subvert expectations to devastating effect. In David Fincher’s The Killer, Michael Fassbender as the eponymous hitman spends almost 20 minutes extolling his own professionalism. Then, at the moment of truth, he botches his assignment — oops! — proving his own fallibility and setting the rest of the film in motion.

Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon presents a harrowing, epic-length crimewave against the Osage people in the 1920s. In an unexpectedly epilogue set decades later, a live radio show dramatizes the case and its outcome. With sharp, satirical irony the sequence features cigarette product placement and white actors doing stereotypical voices. Scorsese overtly acknowledges that any dramatization of true events — including the 200-minute film we just watched — can never do justice to the real thing, despite the best intentions.

John Wick Chapter 4 exceeds the franchises own penchant for wild action scenes with a remarkably choreographed sequence as Keanu Reeves’ unstoppable gunman fights and shoots his way up all 222 steps of Paris’ Rue Foyatier — only to be knocked all the way down and then fight his way back up a second time. It’s like the Myth of Sisyphus with a body count.

Finally, 2023 introduced one of the year’s most entertaining performers with campy horror flick M3GAN. A killer doll with an attitude? A star is born.

Thu., Jan. 4

Fight Club — Let’s talk about Fight Club: David Fincher’s scathing satire of consumerism and the masculinity crisis was embraced by some of the wrong people following its 1999 release. It remains a compelling, darkly hilarious film with great performances from Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, and Helena Bonham Carter.
9:30 p.m. Thu., Jan. 4. Plaza Theatre, 1049 Ponce de Leon Ave NE, Atlanta, 30306.


Fri., Jan. 5


ADULT SWIM: A family discovers that their new swimming pool may be haunted in the horror film ‘Night Swim.’ Photo Credit: Universal

Night Swim Kerry Condon and Wyatt Russell star as parents who become concerned that their backyard swimming pool contains a supernatural presence. Blumhouse Productions frequently debuts new horror movies in January, so hopefully Bryce McGuire’s adaptation of this short film will be one of the good ones.
Opens Fri., Jan. 5. Atlanta area theaters.



Fri., Jan. 12


MESSIAH COMPLEX: Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield), Barabbas (Omar Sy) and Elijah (R.J. Cyler) preach the good word in ‘The Book of Clarence.’ Photo Credit: Moris Puccio

The Book of Clarence LaKeith Stanfield plays a struggling young man in 29 A.D. who claims to be the Messiah as a scheme to win money and fame. The second film from The Harder They Fall director Jeymes Samuel sounds a bit like Monty Python’s Life of Brian.
Opens Fri., Jan. 12. Atlanta area theaters.




GET IN, LOSER: Bebe Wood, Renee Rapp and Avantika play the titular characters in the new version of ‘Mean Girls.’ Photo Credit: Jojo Whilden/Paramount

Mean Girls A high school newcomer infiltrates the clique of popular girls, nicknamed “Plastics.” You wouldn’t know it from the trailer, but this is the cinematic version of the Broadway musical based on the 2004 hit film.
Opens Fri., Jan. 12. Atlanta area theaters.




HEAVEN CAN WAIT: A music teacher’s near-death experience leads to afterlife hijinks in Pixar’s ‘Soul’. Photo Credit: Disney

Soul Pixar’s Soul was one of the best films of 2020 but never released in cinemas due to the pandemic. Disney rectifies that by giving it a short theatrical run this January. Jamie Foxx voices a music teacher and aspiring jazz musician who falls down a man-hole and has a series of whimsical adventures in the afterlife.
Opens Fri., Jan. 12. Atlanta area theaters.


Sat., Jan. 13


PURPLE REIGN: From left, Taraji P. Henson, Fantasia Barrino, and Danielle Brooks celebrate sisterhood in ‘The Color Purple’. Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

The Color Purple In 2004, Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre produced the world premiere of the musical adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel (previously adapted for the screen by Steven Spielberg in 1985). The film version of the stage musical stars Fantasia Barrino as Celie and features Taraji P. Henson, Danielle Brooks, H.E.R. and Colman Domingo. The Tara Theatre partners with WABE’s “City Lights” for a special screening hosted by Lois Reitzes.
4 p.m. Sat., Jan. 13. Tara Theatre, 2345 Cheshire Bridge Rd. NE, Atlanta, 30324.


Fri., Jan. 19


WE HAVE A PROBLEM: Ariana DuBose plays an American astronaut in a power struggle aboard the International Space Station in ‘I.S.S.’ Photo Credit: Bleecker Street

I.S.S. A rookie astronaut (Ariana DuBose) is deployed to the International Space Station just as a nuclear war breaks out between Russia and the United States, leading to a standoff in space. The tense trailer makes this look like a high-stakes episode of “For All Mankind.”
Opens Fri., Jan. 19. Atlanta area theaters.