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  • Wes Brooke-White

Top Seven Films of 2023 (So Far)

Words by Wes Brooke-White (he/him)

Wes is a film studies student and cinema employee, and now he's Salient’s resident film bro.

Aftersun (Directed by Charlotte Wells, 101m) 5/5

This debut feature from Charlotte Wells is a triumph of feeling—as visually rich as it is emotionally complex. Child actor Frankie Corio is revelatory as Sophie, and is more than a match for Paul Mescal’s sweetness and wounded masculinity as her dad Callum. It’s a film about fathers and daughters, and the gulf of memory and experience which separates them. We watch Sophie and Callum’s  nuanced relationship at the dreamy, formal distance of someone looking back on a childhood photo. Sophie is as inaccessible to Callum as his younger self. Callum’s inner life, meanwhile, is beyond Sophie’s understanding. Only in retrospect do either of them have the chance to fill in the missing pieces. It’s difficult to describe the full-body experience that Aftersun entails — the burn of it — because it doesn’t feel real once it’s passed through you. As a sketch of cinema’s power to access the past, it’s inexplicable and essential. You can find it on Google Play, Apple TV, Microsoft, or Neon.  

Enys Men (Directed by Mark Jenkin, 90m) 4.5/5

Enys Men is haunted. It’s a creepy-cosy chiller from Bait director Mark Jenkin, one of the most exciting British filmmakers of our time, using its rhythms to build something uniquely terrifying. The film, shot without sound and on lush, vibrant 16mm stock, feels like a found object from a different world. Enys Men draws heft and texture from its analog sense of place. Structurally, it’s tied to the everyday procedures of a wildlife volunteer observing a flower and taking simple notes. The rituals are almost disarming, until Jenkin turns them against you. If you have the patience for it, Enys Men is as rewarding a horror experience as I’ve had in years. I’m hoping for an NZ streaming release, but until then, you’ll have to get creative.   

John Wick: Chapter 4 (Directed by Chad Stahelski, 170m) 4.5/5

John Wick: Chapter 4 is a non-stop Greatest Hits mixtape of the action canon. Not much of it is novel, but its strength is in how precisely Stahelski and his team arrange the building blocks of familiar iconography. The things we’ve seen done before have never been done better. It’s a brutal collage of old-school physical comedy, martial arts, tactical gunplay, car chases, Westerns, and video games, all captured in delirious colour and light. After an early setpiece where archers fight a demonic SWAT team, the movie never hits pause. Every sequence is made up of a dozen moving parts, all interlocking in perfect, ergonomic zen. The film is badly written (which is good), incomprehensible (which doesn’t matter), and lacks nuance (who cares). If you’ve ever enjoyed an action film, you’ll love this glorious celebration of movement, physicality, and getting kicked down stairs. Rent it from the usual suspects.

BlackBerry  (Directed by Matt Johnson, 119m) 4/5

Matt Johnson made a name for himself with his anarchic webseries Nirvana the Band the Show, but his three feature films have skewed darker. BlackBerry, about the smartphone of the same name, sees Johnson take the corporate docudrama formula (think Air or The Social Network) and place it somewhere completely new—more specifically, Canada. We’re miles away from operatic Silicon Valley psychodrama, following pathetic characters in dorky offices selling their souls for a doomed product. BlackBerry goes through the motions of a rags-to-riches story, but as an audience, we know from scene one that the BlackBerry doesn’t end up like Facebook. This is the story of a failure and Johnson uses our foreknowledge of that fact to rob these free-market fantasies of their power. As a director known for gleefully pushing the bounds of corporate copyright, he doesn’t want us cheering for the brand. This is a pitch-black comedy about the joys of the creative process and how capitalism conspires to suck them dry. Until it’s available to stream, ask your CompSci flatmate to burn you a copy.  

Rye Lane (Directed by Raine Allen Miller, 82m) 4/5

The colours and compositions of Rye Lane put everything else happening in modern rom coms to shame. Dom and Yas have the chemistry these films live or die on, and they have it in spades. Their day-long meet cute takes them across South London as they  confront each other’s pasts and decide what they want from their futures. The dialogue is whip-smart and the cinematography is playful. This film pays respect to a lineage of British screen romance, from Richard Curtis films like Love Actually to successors like this year’s What’s Love Got to Do With It. But it dumps the nauseatingly upper-class blandness of those movies for something living and breathing. Curtis’ films are about romantic grand gestures, and while Rye Lane has its share of those, it’s got much more to say about the smaller and more deeply-felt rhythms of getting to know another person. It’s available on Disney Plus.   

Things Could Always Be Worse (Directed by Joel Haver and Trent Lenkarski, 41m) 3.5/5

If you’ve seen Joel Haver’s name before, it was probably underneath one of a hundred short form comedy videos you’ve scrolled past in your YouTube recommendations this week. He’s at the centre of one of the platform’s best-kept secrets: the ‘folk filmmaking’ movement. That is, a loose group of creators who make feature-length movies with no budget and post them for free. Haver’s films are defined by a sense of community and improvisation. Things Could Always Be Worse is a collaboration with his friend Trent, shot entirely during the 2023 Oscars. The movie follows Joel and Trent (as lightly fictionalised versions of themselves) getting trapped in Joel’s bedroom over a long weekend. It’s a tense premise, but the big joke of the whole thing is how relaxed it feels. You spend time with these guys, getting a sense of who they are and why they’re friends. It’s a breezy, funny little picture and a reminder that you don’t need permission to make things with the people you love. Find it on YouTube for zero dollars. 

A Thousand and One (Directed by A.V. Rockwell, 116m) 3.5/5

A.V. Rockwell’s moving, richly-performed melodrama is also a portrait of a vanished Harlem. The film charts the disintegration of a damaged family across a decade, reflected in the systems of state violence which gentrify their city and lock them in cycles of poverty and trauma. The photography is clean, precise, and unsentimental, with a stillness and naturalism that allows a lot of room for the actors to breathe. Newcomer Josiah Cross has a climactic monologue where you can watch decades of little sorrows break across his face like a wave. It’s a story of love’s power to transcend circumstances, but more importantly it’s about people building a life even after that power fails. Find it from your preferred less-than-legal sources.  

The 10th Annual ‘On Cinema’ Oscar Special (Directed by Eric Notarnicola, 210m) 3.5/5

These past 12-ish years, alt comedy legends Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington have been busy making On Cinema. It’s a multimedia performance art project, a soap opera, a satire of lazy internet criticism, and a study of two broken men who ruin everything. It’s the funniest thing I’ve ever seen online. Each year they pull out all the stops for a special Oscar night broadcast with special guests and shocking twists. Consider this your invitation to start exploring the On Cinema mythos—from episode one, or, if you’re all about jumping in the deep end, from this 10th anniversary spectacular. On Cinema’s greatest strength is also its biggest weakness. Individually, the pieces are good, not great, but they achieve greatness by rewiring your brain as you dive deeper. You might love it, you might hate it, but I guarantee it’s the most fun you’ll ever have watching a grown man weep while dressed as Pinnocchio.  


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