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Five 2023 Movies You May Have Missed (and Where to Watch Them)

In the final hours leading up to the Oscars, I imagine that many movie lovers are finding ways to binge the nominated movies and finalize their prediction ballots. After the ceremony, I expect a similar surge in 2023 streaming in celebration of the winners. 


The BFBs have been doing our best to keep up with new releases throughout the year (see: our Pick Flicks YouTube series), but naturally, there are a few that managed to slip through the cracks. Here are some great 2023 movies that lost out on Academy recognition – and where to watch them.


Fremont

dir. Babak Jalali 



This crisp black-and-white film follows a young Afghan immigrant in Fremont, California. Donya (Anaita Wali Zada) works an unsatisfying job at a fortune cookie factory. Feeling isolated from her peers and struggling to sleep, she decides to visit a therapist, whose sessions provide an opportunity to branch her painful past with her monotonous present. 


Cinematographer Laura Valladao’s Jarmushian-inspired visuals create a dreamy landscape for Donya’s woes. The actors’ dry deliveries – another likely nod to Jarmusch – add bouts of unexpected humor and humility. Each new character provides an opportunity for Donya to expand her circle, but between her reserved demeanor and the abundant cultural differences (sometimes immigrant-to-immigrant), many connections falter.



The result is a wry and romantic movie, with a knowing tribute to the challenges faced by first-generation immigrants who have left their homes behind. Jalali demonstrates deep compassion for a woman who wants to love, but fears that her desire is trivial in the larger scheme of human suffering. How do we reconcile our quest for happiness in the face of others’ misery? Thought-provoking questions such as that one render Fremont highly therapeutic for viewers navigating a heightened awareness of the world.


Streaming: Mubi


Afire

dir. Christian Petzold



Christian Petzold’s latest attempt at environmental mytho-realism is one that takes time to settle. Thomas Schubert plays Leon, a perpetually defensive, Debbie Downer of a man whose idea of summering at an idyllic German cottage includes A) insisting he needs to write his book and B) not writing that book. For any of us who struggle – or know someone who struggles – to relax, his stubbornness is familiar and frustrating. He is the sore thumb sticking out of a Rohmerian holiday, properly contrasted by his good-spirited friend, Felix (Langston Uibel). The trio is rounded out by Nadja (Petzold’s current muse, Paula Beer), a self-possessed woman whom Leon is determined to hate until he decides that he’s attracted to her. Then, when she turns him down, he hates her a little more.


Leon doesn’t deserve much grace, as far as film characters go. What’s worse than a writer with nothing to say? But you do pity him, and his inability to be present in his surroundings. He simply does not see his peers as three-dimensional beings, and that’s the basis of Petzold’s signature, subtle commentary. Solely perceiving your friends in service to your story is missing the point. Leon must escape himself, and he must grieve in order to grow. 



With that conflict in mind, the film’s ending is deliciously twisted. Leon could very well be an unreliable narrator – the bored puppeteer of the film’s eventual melodrama. Are Leon’s friends more complex than he is letting on? Only the viewer can make that determination, and Petzold’s narrative magic keeps the mysticism alive well after viewing. Afire is a laudable entry in the director’s enigmatic filmography.


Streaming: The Criterion Channel


Fallen Leaves 

dir. Aki Kaurismäki 



Kaurismäki’s (arguably) most accessible work seemed to narrowly miss a nomination for Best International Film, despite strong momentum since the film’s premiere at Cannes last May. Another movie about loneliness and the longing for human connection (a trend, it appears, since the pandemic) follows two working-class Finns who keep missing out on one another. Ansa (Alma Pöysti) struggles with job insecurity, while Holappa (Jussi Vatanen) struggles with addiction.


The Finnish director's bleak signature is still present, but Fallen Leaves has a notable hint of sweetness to it that propels its simple, simple plot. A common miscommunication trope like losing someone’s number is all the more devastating in the movie’s working-class, Arctic environment, where any wasted energy may compromise one’s basic needs. Pöysti and Vatanen’s phlegmatic chemistry is extremely watchable, and the universe’s gentle hand in pushing them together reinspires trust in the stars, despite the duo’s worldly delays.



As Rihanna once sang, “we found love in a hopeless place.” The pursuit of love may just make survival more tolerable.


Streaming: Mubi


The Starling Girl

dir. Laurel Parmet



Eliza Scanlen has been quietly lighting up screens since 2018. Her latest star turn features her as a literal Star-ling: Jem Starling, the oldest daughter of a devoutly Christian family in Kentucky. She is committed to honoring God and worshipping him via her dance troupe. However, when a charismatic and unconventional youth pastor (Louis Pullman) returns from a mission trip in Puerto Rico, her loyalty to faith and family comes into question. 


This story will seem fairly obvious to anyone familiar with tales about hyper-religious communities and how they assess sexual transgression. But The Starling Girl subverts expectations at many turns, humanizing the easily stereotyped and aspiring for more than a victim designation for its protagonist. Her lust is not purely naive, but natural, and for his part, Louis Pullman brings a plausible charm. Their convincing dynamic briefly turns the movie into a bona fide romance: two misunderstood people trying to escape a town of fundamentalist critics. Of course, there is a power imbalance, but Jem’s agency is never in question until they are discovered by their community.



Laurel Parmet’s direction lingers just the right amount, gearing up for the moments of shame that succeed impulse. Most satisfying, however, is Jem’s gradual journey to liberation. Misgivings about religion do not always result in blunt denouncement. Jem is still able to read the signs, and her family's genuine, if misled, attempts to “raise her right.” She knows that she doesn’t know best. But if God doesn’t have the answers, who does?


Streaming: Fubo


How To Blow Up a Pipeline

dir. Daniel Goldhaber



Not too many mainstream films dare to explore the slippery slope of eco-terrorism. But Daniel Goldhaber, in collaboration with Ariel Barer and Jordan Sjol, did, in fact, dare. Urgency about environmental justice issues may no doubt receive eye-rolls from the comfortable, aging elite (for Iceland’s take on this topic, see Benedikt Erlingsson’s 2018 movie Woman at War), but most young people recognize the existential threat of a rapidly changing climate. Featuring a cast of eight hip, indie mainstays, the film’s interpersonal drama may not exist without oversimplified motivations, but the titular question (and its ethical ramifications) is the most essential fuel for change.


Does this movie promote terrorism? Because the characters are Americans targeting domestic assets, Americans may feel overexposed; the film’s official website initially went so far as to map out the locations of oil pipelines in the United States. But like any good Marxist would tell you, that insecurity reveals flaws in the system, which may, in turn, justify bottom-up action. The book’s author, Andreas Malm, is not looking for imitation, but conversation. Blame or sympathy, a fictional framing of a story with attractive young actors in this climate tends to go a lot further than a documentary or book about the same topic.



Don’t take my word for it – watch it and develop your own opinions. 


Streaming: Hulu


-Lydia

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