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10 Arts and Culture Favorites From 2023

A charming South London rom-com, a retrospective of an African cinema giant and a handful of plays about death and illness are among picks by THR’s arts and culture critic.

A strange thing happens to me at the end of each year. Tasked with compiling a list of cultural favorites, I find myself drawing a blank. It’s as if I haven’t spent the past 365 days watching films, binging various TV shows, listening to albums or attending theater productions to prepare for this very moment.

On the heel of a deadline, I usually fire off some texts to friends — some desperate, all pleading. Is there anything you’ve watched this year that deserves more attention, I ask. What’s the best song you’ve heard? The best movie you watched? The best series?

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Other than outsourcing a bit of my job, the questions end up being a good exercise in perspective. They reorient my attitude toward the compilation process. I begin to recognize the importance of reflecting, even casually, on a year’s worth of culture. I get excited about what’s to come, and make a list of upcoming TV, movies and theater (which I’ll surely abandon halfway through next year).

But mostly, I’m reminded of just how much can still be discovered in a world where people are using art to find new modes of self-expression. It sounds a bit Pollyannaish, but that doesn’t make it any less true. 

Here are some works, in alphabetical order, that rearranged my point of view and got me energized about the process of stumbling upon new pieces of art and culture.

Christian Petzold’s barbed drama about four people vacationing in Germany near the Baltic Sea starts off as a kind of inverted romantic comedy, in which the protagonist doesn’t inspire much adoration. Leon, a cranky writer struggling with his next novel, hopes spending time with his friend Felix at Felix’s summer home will help with his writer’s block. To Leon’s visible frustration, their planned vacation is interrupted by the presence of Nadja, a nurturing and free-spirited woman, and her lover Devid. As Afire unfolds, it models narrative cinema I’m eager to see more of in 2024 — stories embedded with the stakes of our current climate disaster. Petzold shapes his film into a harrowing environmental drama: Encroaching wildfires threaten the security of our group and nothing, not even money, can protect them.

Annie Baker’s Infinite Life and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ The Comeuppance 
Few playwrights have managed to capture my attention like Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and Annie Baker, whose respective writing styles nail the tempo and preoccupations of modern American life. Both debuted works this year that address grief, pain and a contemporary existentialism, so it’s fitting to consider them as a unit. In Jacobs-Jenkins’ The Comeuppance, which ran this spring at the Signature Theater, a group of friends pre-game before their 20th high school reunion, a year after the most dismal wave of the pandemic. Death — both the idea of it and a physical manifestation — haunts their gathering as the friends, now approaching 40, must confront old wounds and changed selves. Infinite Life is a rich, almost surrealist production in which death also looms. Baker’s spare play, co-produced with National Theater at the Atlantic Theater Company in New York, observes five women at a holistic clinic as they face how their bodies, ravaged by different diseases, have failed them. Together, Baker and Jacobs-Jenkins invite cathartic meditations about our social maladies and the struggle to shape meaningful lives with our limited time in this world. 

Arca’s Mutant;Destrudo 
Venezuelan artist Arca’s work can’t be assigned to a single medium, let alone a single genre. In addition to composing some of the haunting score for Netflix’s Reptile, the musician put on a phantasmagoric, four-day sonic experience at the Park Avenue Armory in New York this year. Mutant;Destrudo, which followed her 2019 series at The Shed, Mutant;Faith, was an improvisational concert directed by an uninhibited artist. Arca’s body was at once an instrument and a canvas: She tapped her feet, covered in thigh-high white boots, to create a sonorous beat, and slinked through the crowd wearing a kind of bondage bikini affixed with glittering bits of fabric. Her voice — whether belting the lyrics of her popular track “Prada” or offering cues for the set — functioned as an anchor, guiding the crowd through what can only be described as a transformative experience. 

The Bear Season 2
The extremely gratifying second season of The Bear offers a heavy shift in perspective as Jeremy Allen White’s Carmy tries to transform his late brother’s gritty sandwich shop into a world-class restaurant. Each episode of Christopher Storer’s anxiety-inducing culinary drama and family portrait plants viewers into the life of a different character as they learn a new skill or take greater personal risks. Ayo Edebiri’s Sydney, Ebon Moss-Bachrach’s Richie and Lionel Boyce’s Marcus each have adventures outside the restaurant this season. They are all evocative, especially Marcus’ solo episode in Copenhagen, but I couldn’t help but be especially moved by Liza Colón-Zayas’ Tina and Edwin Lee Gibson’s Ebra, veterans who must attend culinary school with an army of eager younger chefs. Their arcs testify to the challenge and rewards of stretching oneself at every stage of life.

Cauleen Smith’s intimate debut feature about the friendship between an intrepid Oakland art student and a woman escaping an abusive relationship got a 4K restoration and theatrical release this year thanks to Janus Films. Smith’s feature premiered at Sundance in 1999 to significant critical acclaim, but the buzz didn’t translate to distribution or more opportunities for the director. Its “official” release introduces a new generation to an exemplar of 90s DIY filmmaking, and offers a compelling, non-condescending portrait of a young woman negotiating how she and her community are seen. 

Public Obscenities  
It’s rare that I can use a year-end list to endorse a theater show that people still have a chance to see. Shayok Misha’s revelatory and affectionate bilingual play Public Obscenities premiered at SoHo Rep in New York earlier this year, and is transferring to TFANA’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center (also in New York) in January 2024. The intimate family drama takes place in Kolkata, India, where Choton, a Bengali academic, has returned with his boyfriend Raheem, a Black cinematographer, to interview queer locals and spend time with his widowed mother. The play features inventive production, with subtitles, videos and photographs artfully projected, to tell a moving story about cross-cultural connection, the secrets we keep and what it means to be seen. 

Robert Ouyang Rusli’s catalog
Brooklyn-based artist Robert Ouyang Rusli’s catalog isn’t extensive, but it’s filled with lush tones and mellow hits. They’ve scored Miles Warren’s tender debut Bruiser, which premiered on Hulu earlier this year, and Andrea Walter’s 2019 film Empty by Design. Rusli, who also works under the moniker Ohyung, released two songs this year, both composed for Julio Torres’ forthcoming debut film Problemista (A24 postponed the movie’s release after its SXSW premiere because of this year’s strikes). “Monument to Possibilities” is hopeful and hymn-like and “Huele a Fraude” is an ebullient synth pop record featuring Ouyang and vocalist Stefa Marin Alacron. Both tracks teem with an infectious and optimistic energy, signaling Rusli’s talent and striking style. 

Rye Lane 
Every year brings a fresh round of conversations declaring the death of the romantic comedy: The genre is suffering from a lack of direction, chemistry and compelling narratives, etc., etc. But the eagerness to eulogize ignores offerings like Rye Lane, Raine Allen Miller’s energizing rom-com that premiered at Sundance this year and was released on Hulu in March. Named after a vibrant market in Peckham, the movie tracks the fateful encounter of Yas (played with incredible verve by Vivian Oparah) and Dom (Industry’s David Jonsson in fine form), two people in their 20s recovering from harsh breakups. Their will-they-or-won’t-they narrative takes place over 24 hours and channels the slightly awkward but clever charm of a Nora Ephron classic. Miller’s exuberant direction complements Nathan Bryon and Tom Melia’s wry screenplay, which uses Yas and Dom’s love story to construct a vivid and lively portrait of South London.

Sembène at Film Forum 
In the fall, Film Forum in New York put on a two-week retrospective of Ousmane Sembène’s work commemorating his centennial year. The Senegalese director, best known for his 1966 debut Black Girl, is a titan of cinema and one of the few African directors to find enduring mainstream success. But, as I wrote in a column about the New York African Film Festival this year, critical acclaim doesn’t translate to access. Film Forum’s program sampled from 40 years of Sembène’s work, from a new 4K restoration of Emitaï, his radical 1971 film about a village protecting themselves from French colonial theft, to his haunting debut feature and 2004’s Moolaadé, a Cannes prize-winning feature about a woman protecting young girls from genital mutilation. Although the series is over, most of the titles can be streamed on Criterion, which offered their own retrospective earlier this month.