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Best of the ‘Bs’ in 2023

by TYLER WILSON/Coeur Voice Contributor
| September 16, 2023 1:00 AM

We’re talking about “B” movies, not “B-movies.” As in movies from 2023 that start with the letter B.

OK, this is all just a silly way to talk about two very different movies.

Obviously, the biggest (and probably best) “B” movie of the year is “Barbie,” which is the top earner at the box office and a likely Oscar contender alongside its unlikely summer blockbuster partner, “Oppenheimer.”

Two other strong movies this year that start with B are “Bottoms” and “Beau is Afraid.” The acerbic high school comedy “Bottoms” is now in theaters while the Ari Aster tragi-comic/horror odyssey “Beau is Afraid” is available on digital rental platforms, following its spring theatrical release.

“Bottoms” comes from writer/director Emma Seligman, who made a splashy directorial debut in 2020 with the comedy “Shiva Baby,” starring Rachel Sennott. That movie took awkward comedic moments to the cringe heights of peak “The Office.” With “Bottoms,” the humor takes the form of heightened reality a la the beloved cult comedy “Wet Hot American Summer” (although not quite as obviously outlandish).

It doesn’t take long for “Bottoms” to reveal the brazen absurdity of Rockbridge Falls High where best friends PJ (Sennott, also a co-writer on the film) and Josie (Ayo Edebiri of the breakout FX/Hulu series “The Bear”) attend. Living in a world in which all life revolves around the school’s big football game against rival Huntington High (who are violently attacking members of Rockbridge), the friends exist at the bottom of the social food chain. That is, until they hatch a plan to create a female Fight Club where they can woo and hook up with hot cheerleaders. Football star Marshawn Lynch plays a teacher who reluctantly agrees to be the club’s adviser.

Teen sex comedies live-and-die by their tone, and a healthy dose of wit is required to balance out the debauchery. With its sometimes-ridiculous world-building (why is one of the students in Lynch’s classroom in a steel cage? You’ll find out later), “Bottoms” establishes a fresh, unpredictable story that still relies on three-dimensional characterizations. The action might be cartoonish (and occasionally twistedly violent), but the characters show depth (even tiny-brained Quarterback Jeff, played by Nicolas Galitzine). For example, Lynch’s one-liner spouting teacher is struggling through a painful divorce, informing his wild swings of support for the fight club.

More than anything, “Bottoms” is consistently hilarious, anchored by the charismatic Sennott and Edebiri.

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“Beau is Afraid,” meanwhile, is a sorta-comedy of the cringe variety, though it comes mixed with heavy doses of terror and disturbing psychological thrills. Its three-hour runtime and reputation as being a relentless experience kept me from settling into seeing it during its brief theatrical run. At home, the pause button provides opportunity to escape poor Beau’s horrifying journey into his own worst fears. With writer/director Ari Aster (“Hereditary,” “Midsummar”) at the helm, the horror elements should come as no surprise.

The film stars Joaquin Phoenix as Beau, a middle-aged schlub struggling with seemingly infinite sources of anxiety. After leaving his city apartment (located on the streets of the “Try that in Small Town” music video) to attempt a visit to his distant-but-controlling mother (Patti LuPone), Beau receives devastating news and experiences a series of horrifying, often dreamlike traumatic experiences. That includes an extended stay with a seemingly compassionate couple (Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan) who attempt to adopt Beau to take the place of their killed-in-military-action son. Other interludes include Beau’s encounter with a traveling theater troupe in the forest, a reconnection with a long-lost love (Parker Posey), and the reopening of long-sealed wounds stemming from the absence of Beau’s father.

The plot shouldn’t be taken too literally, as there’s a strong argument to be made that the world Beau experiences are manifestations of his worst internal fears. However you make sense of Beau’s experiences on the road, it all filters through the guilt and shame he feels regarding his lifetime relationship with his mother. Beau is the type of person to say “I’m sorry” to the crazed murderer stabbing him in the stomach.

“Beau is Afraid” is intentionally exhausting, and its whimsical diversions into horror won’t hit well for those looking for a more straightforward narrative. Nevertheless, it’s another creative big swing from Aster, who seems to be fearless when it comes to challenging his audiences with uncomfortable-but-engrossing imagery.

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Tyler Wilson can be reached at twilson@cdapress.com.