The Twin Geeks’ Best Movies for the First Half of 2023

A collection of our highest-scoring reviews from the first half of the year, this selection shows the growth in opportunity for diverse directors and new waves in inclusive vanguard filmmaking. These films are about cultural movements, calls to action, the process of making art, and expansive new ways of telling stories. Cinema is always changing and nothing embodies this quite like the list of great new movies we’ve seen this year. What are your favorites for the first half of the year?

Enys Men

Enys Men. Dir. Mark Jenkin.

It exists as part of a wider cinematic history, with clear reference points, but it is never anything else than utterly unique. It shifts between genres: is it science fiction? is it horror? is it just character drama? is it psychological study? is it a Matryoshka doll of period pieces within period pieces? It is, fundamentally, its own thing. A completely chilling and transporting watch where lichen becomes a jump scare. It is all from the filmmaking, this astonishing filmmaking that exhibits mastery of mise-en-scène. Everything matters and everything is left to the viewer. An expression of raw cinema that affects in the way only cinema can: an overwhelming barrage of visual and aural ideas that speaks right to your soul. — STEPHEN GILLESPIE

Past Lives

Past Lives. Dir. Celine Song.

The elasticity of time, both as a permanent and inescapable stasis that keeps us locked in our liminal memories and as a languid, meandering cosmic thread that floats and intersects with a million others. We exist trapped in moments, stuck in these definitional instants that refract through every fiber of our being. When these moments intersect, colliding instants in separate existences, they may define or redefine each person in very different ways. For some, one of these instants may be a short lived moment of quiet joy. For others, it may become a burdening weight. It may be quickly forgotten, or it may be what drives the next 24 years of a life. These collisions are happening constantly – everywhere around us, little sparks, little definitional moments, imperceptible but infinitely impactful ripples woven through the fabric of the timeline of our lives. Past Lives begins with a gentle zoom across a dimly lit New York bar, slowly pushing towards protagonist Nora. At the very end of this long, gentle zoom, she looks right into the lens. Right at you. She gives a slight, but knowing smile. In that magical instant, you collide with the film. — VAUGHN SWEARINGEN

Showing Up

Showing Up. Dir. Kelly Reichardt.

It is hard to make a gorgeous movie without any superfluous aspects or ornamentation but Kelly Reichardt is the best working filmmaker we have who is doing this on a consistent movie-by-movie basis. Her films, still, are imbued with style and genuine curiosity for the characters in them. As is the trend in Reichardt’s works, after her debut feature shot in her native Southeastern section of America, the film is also tenderly about and informed by the Pacific Northwest. Reichardt’s quiet visual poetry sings for the natural calm-going beauty of the region. These are tender evocations built out of an understood sense of place and how the people in this territory live their lives. If you are from the region, all of her films are like watching someone you know, and often yourself, as you are a product of nature, too, and the films understand what that can mean about a person. It’s not even about reliability or the function of our need to be represented by the screen, but a deep understanding of what art can be and how making it is about the people who make it but also the people they show it to. That is a complete conversation. — CALVIN KEMPH

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. Dirs. Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, & Justin K. Thompson.

The world melted down to expressive watercolor brushstrokes, a pastel dream of being caught between worlds while trying to reconcile with loss. Halftone spliced into an iridescent rainbow through chromatic aberration, distant from the only people who once understood you. Sketched lines flooded with vibrant cultural bliss, punk zine scraps and loosely scribbled marker pasted together into effortless anarchic cool, unformed futures unraveling across a blank canvas, parchment splattered with technical design, a sanitized and spotless city constructed by architectural precision. Endless possibility, the true and beautiful freedom of animation used to all of its most stunning potential. — VAUGHN SWEARINGEN

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Dir. Kelly Fremon Craig.

Where a film like Little Women (2019) gets so much (very deserved) plaudits, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is its unassuming equal. The scope is smaller but both are so well put together, so astutely observed. Both are stunning acts of adaptation, finding the best parts of their respective books, books that loom large in the cultural consciousness — and they also manage to put that cultural impact on screen. This film just does this all more quietly. It is so affecting, an accessible work that will play to all ages — and that will speak differently. Perhaps its real comparison point is something like Ozu, a richly textured work about families and the societal structures they live in. A film that gives so much room for the viewer, is so subtle and contains such rich meaning. — STEPHEN GILLESPIE

Infinity Pool

Infinity Pool. Dir. Brandon Cronenberg.

When the dust settles and the sun begins to hang lower in the evening sky, pattering rain marking the end of the sweltering summer, it seems an end must come to the phantasmagoric hedonism. Back to reality, to what the rest of the world recognizes as normality, back to the cacophony of existence, back to a world that presupposes some kind of façade of consequence for the wealthy, back to waking up and facing yourself in the mirror every day only to be reminded that you are just a miserable parasitic larva sucking the life from a woman who married you out of some twisted notion of spite. Maybe it’s all you’re meant to be. Maybe there’s no going back. It’s all the same. Let the blood and the acid and the scent of death wash all over you. You found out, and you’ll never be rid of it. — VAUGHN SWEARINGEN

The Last of Us

The Last of Us. HBO.

A long time ago, in the distant year of 2013, The Last of Us released for the PlayStation 3. It was a phenomenal game with a captivating story alongside its visceral action. Between The Last of Us and the Uncharted series Naughty Dog had all but defined the cinematic video game experience, creating a benchmark that other developers would be striving to surpass for years to come, for better and for worse. I had expected the TV series to be a familiar tour of post outbreak America, hitting the expected story beats, just without a controller in hand. The first episode did just that, with an extra helping of character depth, filling in some of the missing little details. The second episode did just that, giving names to characters that didn’t have them in the game, while also reducing the scale of the action. The third episode showed why expanding on an already familiar tale could find itself in amazing, unexpected places. — NICK VRACAR

How to Blow Up a Pipeline

How to Blow Up a Pipleline. Dir. Daniel Goldhaber.

In the face of a climate catastrophe, something must be done. How to Blow Up a Pipeline, which favours radical action (but also just uses radical action as an excuse to make a stunning thriller), presents a group of (mostly) young adults that are fed up with conventional responses. In a world, this world, where traditional activism has started to feel inactive – futile efforts to chip away at a greater system that profits off of the climate crisis – there is a need to do more. This is event forward filmmaking: characters are initially defined by purpose, the title (adapted from a non-fiction book of the same name into a fictional story inspired by its ideology) makes it clear what is going on and this structure defines the film’s approach to storytelling. Event first; context later. This creates an immediacy befitting of the film’s stakes – it takes this stuff seriously, it (like the characters) is mad as hell and it is not going to take it anymore. — STEPHEN GILLESPIE

The First Fallen

The First Fallen. Dir. Rodrigo de Oliveira.

Os Primeiros Soldados does not have to play by the American standards of the AIDS story. Characters do get sick and die but the film has no interest in upholding the kind of misery porn that often circulates Western films about serious pandemics. While we can attribute our current situation to the film, it is an important reminder that while we have vaccines for COVID already, there are no AIDS vaccines. The film seemingly entered development before this was a factor but you have the context a film is released into. It all makes the film all the more wonderful in its specificity, understanding it’s characters journeys as the focal-points of the story, while also never diverting from its purely queer journey. It believes and honors its characters and is a film with great empathy and feeling. This is a film about true Soldiers. — CALVIN KEMPH

John Wick: Chapter 4

John Wick: Chapter 4. Dir. Chad Stahelski.

There’s seemingly no end to the dizzying heights this film can reach – featuring setpiece after setpiece that feels more impossible and impressive than the last, with a sequence circling the Arc de Triomphe that puts Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018) to shame and a top town, twin-stick shooter style oner that’s as shatteringly stunning to watch as it is to attempt to deconstruct how it was done at all. Through every neon light, shattered pane of glass, bullet torn through flesh, and bone bruised by brutal falls and tumbles, there isn’t a single point of John Wick: Chapter 4 that feels like it isn’t living up to the atmosphere it perpetuates. It is constant, unending chaos in the most glorious fashion and it earns every minute of its runtime by accelerating beyond itself into the entire history of action, feverishly reverent to the operatic beauty of its forefathers and furiously committed to leaving its own mark on the lasting legacy of the genre. Assuredly, it accomplishes that and so much more. This is the past, present, and future of action. Bathe in the blood and the neon, John Wick is most definitely back. — VAUGHN SWEARINGEN

Double Fine PsychOdyssey

Double Fine PsychOdyssey. Dir. Paul Owens.

Process laid bare is inherently fascinating. You don’t need to know Double Fine or have played this game to watch this. You just need to be interested in art. This is a vital document of how the sausage is made, a kind of necessary reading for those (like myself) who feel the need to comment on art, and claim a kind of authority. It is a portrait into the humanity that underlies creation, but is all to easy to ignore. This is engrossing stuff, so carefully crafted to keep you utterly engaged while constantly teaching you about art, artists and the art of process. — STEPHEN GILLESPIE


Wanton. Dir. Victor Dubyna.

Wanton is terrifying, a harrowing expansion of all the disgust and fury we keep so tightly locked inside, displayed with an energy that threatens to rip you apart just the same, but its powerful ability to get under your skin turns the reflexive nature of it back onto you. The words are distorted and flooded with angst, the images are gritty and disturbing, but eventually the terror is replaced by understanding, when these same notions clanged and shattered against the walls of your mind. When the fear took hold, when the doubt drowned out everything else, when the loss of self to an ever-artifacting digital self-image became an unbearably painful knot in the stomach. A stunning, blindingly intense journey of expression, a sensory overload of anxiety and fear, a complete release of kaleidoscopic audiovisual experimentation that screams and spits through the hazy memories and binary corruption while it whispers every lingering uncertainty and introspective reflection. — VAUGHN SWEARINGEN

Is That Black Enough for You?!?

Is That Black Enough for You?!? Dir. Elvis Mitchell.

The aesthetics of Black cinema often find popularity elsewhere. This is a focal point of Elvis Mitchell’s documentary about the history of Black film. It is a truth that repeats throughout: Black film breaks the mould, or establishes bold conventions, only for those expressions to find mainstream success in the movies of white filmmaker’s, or to just become synonymous with these later points as opposed to their origins. This documentary gives you the real story, a beautifully constructed tour through cinematic history that both celebrates and argues for the unique ‘canon’ that is Black film. — STEPHEN GILLESPIE

I’m A Virgo

I’m A Virgo. Dir. Boots Riley.

What’s obvious to us is that Boots Riley is a premier talent. Since his days from the very-left-leaning rap act The Coup — incredible discography full of funky West Coast hip-hop sounds from the ‘90s — his work is established in what we would like to flatter ourselves to be, something like our collective idealism for politics. That is, very far left, progressive on all issues to the degree that it may burn some bridges, and outspoken in his praxis in a way the best artists can be. — CALVIN KEMPH

Return to Seoul

Return to Seoul. Dir. Davy Chou.

We never know. We could never know. Chou almost makes it a point that it isn’t our right to know. Unlike the stylistically similar portrait of drifting decades Millennium Mambo (2001), we don’t get a smoothly reflective narration of Freddie’s thoughts. We are just given a lens held at the same distance she holds even her closest friends or partners, always with the volatile energy that we could be cut off completely at any moment if she so wished. This fringe image of who she is and why she leverages her fears and anxieties in the way that she does eloquently selects what we do and do not deserve to see, key moments in the middle of it all cut off before we get the full picture, merely a floating impression and an ambiguous idea of what might have transpired. It’s better that way. Just listen as the gentle notes escape into the foggy air. It’ll always be hazy, some things there’s no fixing. But maybe someday we can slow down and start to understand the notes before we play them. — VAUGHN SWEARINGEN

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