First Watch: December 2023

Hayao Miyazaki, Yorgos Lanthimos, Tony Scott, Zac Efron, Todd Haynes, Michael Mann, Bradley Cooper, and more...

First Watch: December 2023

Some thoughts on movies I watched for the first time last month, more or less in descending order of enjoyment or appreciation...

The Boy and the Heron

aka: How Do you Live?

For whatever reason, I'd never really connected with the whole Hayao Miyazaki/ Studio Ghibli oeuvre – mainly through lack of exposure, as much as anything, I suppose. The one or two films of his I'd seen previously just didn't hit me like I'd hoped, but that was years ago. Then the filmography kept growing and it just seemed daunting to dive into.

Well, I think I've now been at least lightly Miyazaki-pilled because the acclaim for his latest (and quite possibly last?) film was enough to make me get off the proverbial fence and check it out. And I found it to be a profoundly moving work about grief, longing, regret, etc. And all the surrealist symbolism really worked on me in a way I didn't expect after not finding deep connection with those elements in his previous work.

So yeah, I think it's one of the best movies of 2023 and now I'm looking forward to finally digging into his previous work in a meaningful way.

Poor Things

The quickest way to describe Yorgos Lanthimos' latest film is maybe to call it Steampunk Grotesque Barbie. And I don't mean that glibly since, to my mind, there are actually a lot of parallels between the two films being released only months apart that almost certainly points to something in the zeitgeist.

Emma Stone, Willem Dafoe, and Mark Ruffalo all give great performances, but the entire cast is great. And it's interesting to see Lanthimos make a turn from stories that largely follow people either stuck in or trying to get into cloistered microcosms to one that follows someone trying to get out of one.

True Romance

This has long been a blindspot for me and I'm not sure how it took me 30 years to watch a movie directed by Tony Scott and written by Quentin Tarantino, but I'm glad I finally did! I guess this is what happens when you decide to get a 4K Blu Ray player and start getting into physical media again 😄

The Holdovers

It's kind of surprising that it took 19 years for Paul Giamatti and Alexander Payne to work together again after Sideways. But this film, clearly inspired by 1970s Hal Ashby movies, was well worth the wait. Giamatti and Da'Vine Joy Randolph are really excellent and will likely both be nominated for Oscars – perhaps even win. I wasn't as taken with newcomer Dominic Sessa, but it's not like he's bad or anything and overall, I think any weakness on his part is more than covered by the other two sides of the triangular main ensemble. And yep, I can totally see this becoming a staple holiday season watch for plenty of people.

The Iron Claw

I know very little about wrestling – professional or otherwise – but that hardly matters even if the movie is very much about wrestling and wrestlers, so long as its as deeply character and performance driven as this is. Zac Efron as the quiet heart of the movie is hardly recognizable under the bulk he put on for the role or minus the usual more high octane energy he's often brought to other roles. And he is tremendously good as the center around which the flashier performers revolve. Jeremy Allen White, Harris Dickinson, and Holt McCallany are all particularly impressive in their supporting turns. In fact, the only weak links, really, are the females characters, which is no fault of either Maura Tierney nor Lily James, but rather of those roles being just a bit underwritten – a shame, really, since both are great actors who could have just used ever so slightly better material.

That said, though, as a portrait of a whole range of masculinities from brotherly to toxic, The Iron Claw is certainly worth a watch – and delivers a couple of the most memorable/impactful scenes I saw all year.

May December

Todd Haynes + Julianne Moore? Historically, when they work together, they don't miss. And the trend continues here. Moore is great, as are Natalie Portman and Charles Melton. The tone of the film, which deals with a couple who got together when she (Moore) was an adult and he (Melton) was a middle-schooler and the actress (Portman) who's arrived to meet and observe them in preparation for her role in a TV movie telling their story, is definitely a tricky one – but incredibly intriguing. Honestly, I don't know that it totally worked for me on first viewing, but I don't think that means it doesn't work. All that is to say this is the type of movie that probably takes at least a couple of viewing to totally click. Because it's obviously much deeper than it appears on the surface. So, I look forward to watching it again at some point and connecting with it in a deeper way.


Like May December, I won't be surprised if this one clicks more on future viewing. That said, though, I didn't really get the same feeling as I watched it that there was certainly something more there that I was just not connecting with. It's pretty damn straightforward. And there are moments that truly impress – particularly one horrifying racing incident that I literally exclaimed out loud at in the theater and won't forget anytime soon. But I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a bit underwhelmed by this, especially knowing to be Michael Mann's long-gestating passion project.


Between this and A Star Is Born, Bradley Cooper is clearly a great director (and also actor, duh), but man I wish the script for this was better. Each scene is internally impressive, but the whole thing lacks a throughline and feels disjointed and unfocused. And the weird decision to position the film as if it's actually more about Leonard Bernstein's wife, Felicia (Carey Mulligan), when it... actually... isn't... is... ... ... perplexing.

Still, it's worth a watch and the image of a Snoopy parade balloon passing through the background of one of the keys scenes will be seared into my memory for quite some time.

Squaring the Circle: The Story of Hipgnosis

If, like me, you've ever looked at some of the classic/iconic albums of the 70s (mainly, though not exclusively) and wondered how the hell they came up with that image/concept, well, this is the music doc for you. It's pretty straightforward in style and format, so yeah, if you're into the topic, it's definitely worth the time.

Leave the World Behind

It's pretty hit or miss from scene to scene, but it rounds the curve headed towards the finish line at full speed. And it gets by quite a bit on the tension created by its probably-correct supposition that we're only a couple of easy domino pushes from full on catastrophic societal meltdown if someone just tries in the right way. Oh, and I'm not sure I've ever really seen Julia Roberts play such a semi-villain – even if her villainy comes and goes.

Clear and Present Danger

I don't think any Tom Clancy adaptation will ever live up to The Hunt for Red October. It's weird though because, while I think Harrison Ford's take on Jack Ryan is at base better than Alec Baldwin's, I can't imagine Ford giving the same energy as Baldwin in that earlier movie. The other big difference is THFRO really has some pulpy teeth to it (John McTiernan directed it, after all), whereas CAPD, while being extremely well-made in that way that movies just aren't seemingly ever made these days, is rather anodyne by contrast. Still, pretty solid overall if you like this kind of fake-smart 90s thriller/action movie.


Adam Sandler as a lovable lizard and Bill Burr as his turtle buddy in an animated movie made by a team that includes the guy who literally is Triumph the Insult Comic Dog (only one of many well-known comedic things he's known for, of course). And it teaches kids to try and be themselves? Yeah, I watched this with my two year old. And yeah, it was entertaining enough for me to enjoy while she was just happy watching a lizard for 102 minutes.


Sylvester Stallone is an executive producer on this documentary about his life and career, so it's unsurprising that it hardly seems like a 100% objective work. It's just never easy to take a documentary completely seriously when you know every moment of it probably had to get a stamp of approval by its subject. That said, I did learn some things about him, even if I'm sure there are other sides to the stories that aren't presented here.

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