Ben Affleck’s first directorial effort in over a half-decade is leagues ahead of his last feature. While Live by Night felt like a significant step down, Air is undoubtedly a return to form. It’s a tightly constructed, incredibly well-written biographical drama that overcomes most of the hurdles that tend to come with the typically hit-or-miss subgenre.
Biographical movies often feel disingenuous. Many of them seem to exist only to win awards, and in the end, that motive tends to hurt so many overly sentimental misfires.
There’s no denying the fact that Air sticks to a specific formula, but that’s okay in this case. Rapid-fire, quip-filled dialogue helps this film soar, but more importantly, there is a cast of supremely talented actors.
As Sonny Vaccaro, Matt Damon is at his absolute best. This is easily his best work since The Martian, and at times, he even tops that. When you look at the supporting cast, things only get better. Viola Davis, Jason Bateman, Chris Tucker, Marlan Wayans, and of course, Ben Affleck, chew the scenery like a Philly Cheesesteak. They deliver their lines with plenty of passion, and they bounce between different moods with ease.
On the one hand, Air lacks the rapid-fire dialogue of Blackberry. On the other hand, it offers plenty of feel-good moments delivered by A-list stars who absolutely know what they’re doing. If it’s not a complete reinvention, it’s nevertheless a warm hug.
7. The Starling Girl
The Starling Girl introduces viewers to Jem Starling, a 17-year-old fundamentalist Christian. Jem is naive and sheltered, and that’s exactly why Owen Taylor, her older youth pastor, takes a liking to her. Throughout the sub-two-hour runtime, viewers watch as Owen subtly grooms the misunderstood protagonist. It’s an uncomfortable, raw watch, but it’s also one of 2023’s greatest cinematic achievements.
Laurel Parmet’s grounded screenplay does a lot of the heavy-lifting. She gives us a number of authentic characters with varied quirks. Jem in particular is as multifaceted as she needs to be for a movie with so many uncomfortable talking-points. This is a film that avoids Hollywood clichés whenever it possibly can; that’s why it stands out among similar contemporary releases. That being said, The Starling Girl wouldn’t be as successful without its strong cast.
It’s always great when Eliza Scanlen gets time to shine as the leading lady. While her career is still young, it’s clear that she has what it takes to command the screen. This is especially true here, where she delivers a career-best performance. She gives Jem the right amount of nuance, but she never overperforms. It’s a melancholic, muted performance that feels right at home in a film like this.
The Starling Girl can be hard to stomach, but it does an outstanding job of tackling provocative themes in unconventional ways. It’s one of the best feel-bad movies of the year, and as long as you’re willing to devote your time, you’ll be rewarded with something special.
8. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret
Based on the acclaimed 1970 children’s novel by Judy Blume, Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret is a confident adaptation that covers the greatest parts of the source material. Kelly Fremon Craig, who previously directed The Edge of Seventeen, seems to understand the inner workings of the original novel, and because of this, she covers the most noteworthy themes and motifs, giving viewers a thoughtful, timely drama that should resonate with different age groups.
While the story is very clearly focused on a preteen girl, the actual experience of growing up is something everyone has gone through. Yes, there are massive socioeconomic and cultural differences from person to person, but the physical experience should click with most viewers regardless of differences in upbringing. This is a movie about growing up, and its ability to send strong messages shouldn’t be ignored.
9. Saint Omer
When you think of courtroom dramas, you probably think of long, drawn-out monologues delivered, and perhaps overacted, by reputable actors. Hollywood courtroom dramas tend to play out very similarly, and although they tend to result in plenty of worthwhile moments, they rarely deviate from this preestablished formula. That’s what makes Saint Omer so exciting.
This French drama largely ignores the tropes of its subgenre, instead opting to tell its story in a more nuanced, subtle manner. This decision likely stems from the film’s primary purpose.
Saint Omer isn’t concerned with reaching a definitive verdict. It’s less about the actual trial and more about the people involved. Viewers are meant to dissect the dialogue bit-by-bit, and they’re expected to come to their own decisions about how these characters’ inner workings affect their actions.
It’s bold, it’s unconventional, and it’s refreshing. Unsurprisingly, it’s also slow-paced and, at a glance, low-stakes, but patient viewers will no doubt be rewarded with a powerful, timely film.
10. Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 3
Given the lackluster response to recent MCU movies, this may be a controversial choice. What makes Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 3 any better than the myriad of other ho-hum superhero movies from the past year or so? Well honestly, it just does enough to stand out.
The complaints leveled against the Marvel Cinematic Universe are valid. Recent releases, like Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, have felt factory-made. One could argue that they only exist to move the overarching story forward. The culmination could very well be worth the wait, but presently, several of MCU’s biggest heavy hitters lack anything remotely distinctive or exciting.
Of course, that doesn’t apply to this movie. Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 3 is a James Gunn movie first and an MCU movie second. That means there is no grand-scale universe building outside of the universe Gunn built in the previous two movies. Folks looking for the explosive next step in the connected universe likely won’t leave satisfied, but this is a delight for fans of this specific franchise.
Gunn claims this is the big finale, and if that’s really the case, this is a bittersweet ending to one of Marvel’s most unlikely success stories. Gunn uses everything he has learned this past decade and throws it together to create an emotionally complex superhero movie that features layered characters and a nuanced narrative. This is how you conclude a trilogy.