It’s December, the month film critics share what they think are the best films they’ve watched this year. A quick scan of outlets like Variety, Indiewire, Roger Ebert.com, and Film Comment reveals a couple of common picks ranging from the popular and therefore obvious – Oppenheimer, Poor Things, Barbie, Asteroid City, Killers of the Flower Moon – to the truly independent and under the radar – like Pawo Choyning Dorji’s The Monk and the Gun. The Bhutanese filmmaker had received praise for his last film, Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom, about a yak in a classroom. Monk and the Gun is about a monk and a gun, and the American gun collector who wants to take it from him.
My personal favorite this year was Monster, a new film from Hirokazu Koreeda, a Japanese director known for intimate, Ozu-esque stories about unusual families living in a highly homogenous society. You might have heard of his previous film, Shoplifters, which I believe was Japan’s Oscar-entry for the year it was released. Monster is about a single mother struggling with her son – a simple premise Koreeda explores to the fullest.
Also of note is Wim Wenders’ Perfect Days, another film from Japan, though not from a Japanese filmmaker. Wenders is best described as quiet and contemplative, with Perfect Days revolving around a man who cleans Tokyo’s public toilets for a living and is perfectly content with this.
For this list, I’m not going to focus on films and TV shows that graced this year’s highly exclusive film festivals. Not because they aren’t good, but because most of them are inaccessible. The following picks were released during various points in the past and, as a result, are available for viewing on YouTube, Netflix, Amazon Prime and MUBI – which is where I watched them.
Phantom of the Paradise
This is a film by Brian De Palma, a prolific and fiercely original filmmaker hailing from a generation of prolific and fiercely original filmmakers who today is best known for making such culture-redefining films as Carrie and Scarface. A satire of the music industry that draws on classic texts like Goethe’s Faust, which is about a scholar selling his soul to the devil in exchange for beauty, pleasure and happiness, the film follows a self-serious pianist’s rivalry with the biggest producer of his day. It also has a killer soundtrack.
Fiona and Cake
Growing up in a country without Cartoon Network, I did not watch any Adventure Time as a child and only got into it as an adult after aimlessly following the YouTube algorithm. The surreal visuals and plot make the original fun enough, but this HBO Max spinoff is on a whole different level. This is, in part, because it’s more geared towards adults and adolescents.
Memories of Murder
Do you remember Parasite? This 2003 film (at least, I think it was 2003) put South Korean director Bong Joon-ho on the map for cinephiles inside and outside his home country. The story – of three detectives with different but ultimately unsuccessful methodologies chasing a serial killer who goes after young women – is based on real events that dominated Korean news for a decade. Memories of Murder is engaging even for casual viewers, but it’s during attentive replays that its genius really shines.
A group of young Japanese women with names and character traits reminiscent of the dwarfs from Snow White stay at a haunted countryside mansion that starts murdering them in the night. Technically House is a horror movie, but it’s really more of a comedy. With poor visual effects and awkward acting, it often comes across as one of those so-bad-that-it’s-good movies. Still, make no mistake: House was meticulously put together.
Clarkson’s Farm: Season 2
Available on Amazon Prime, it’s the second season to a show starring Top Gear and Grand Tour host Jeremy Clarkson. Though I love both car shows to bits, I didn’t expect to enjoy Clarkson’s Farm when it premiered, much less call it the superior show of the three. Aside from being incredibly funny, the show offers an informative look into the economic nightmare that is modern-day farming, a profession threatened by climate change and petty, incompetent bureaucracy.
Clone High: Season 1
At some point during the year my YouTube feed filled up with people talking about how awful and disappointing the long-awaited second season to Clone High was. Struck by the strong emotional bond so many people appeared to have with this animated show I’d never heard of, I decided to check out the original and was positively surprised. Produced by the guys that went on to make shows like Scrubs and Into the Spiderverse, Clone High sucks you in with its premise – teenage replicas of famous historical figures attending high school – and keeps you hooked with its endearing character writing.
Banshees of Inisherin
The most recent of all the entries on this list, Banshees of Inisherin came out in 2022. Set in a small town on a small island off the coast of Ireland, its plot is deceptively simplistic: a dim yet well-meaning man (played by Colin Farrell) goes to pick up his drinking buddy (played by the guy that played Mad-Eye Moody in the Harry Potter films) only for said buddy to tell him he doesn’t want to be friends anymore. Hidden underneath this script is an allegory about the Irish Civil War, but the surface-level dialogue is great as it is.
A common misconception about me is that I dislike Christmas. In reality, I don’t have any gripe with Christmas at all. It’s Christmas songs and, by extension, Christmas movies I cannot stand. There’s nothing inherently wrong with Mariah Carey or Home Alone, but seeing and hearing these things year after year after year just becomes so damn tiring and irritating. If you’re looking for a Christmas movie you probably haven’t seen before that’s also well-made, give Tokyo Godfathers a chance. It’s an animated movie by Satoshi Kon, a Japanese animator who, prior to his early death, could give Hayao Miyazaki a run for his money. It’s about three homeless people in Tokyo trying to return an abandoned baby to its family.