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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

The best genre movies of 2023


“No One Will Save You” (Sam Lothridge/20th Century Studios)

We look at the finest in science fiction, horror, action and international films, all available to stream.



Science Fiction


Environmental disaster and artificial intelligence run amok have emerged as the major science-fiction concerns of our time. Compared to those, gray, almond-eyed aliens in flying saucers, hellbent on destroying humanity, feel like a throwback to simpler times. But “No One Will Save You,” Brian Duffield’s genre exercise, is deceptive.


Kaitlyn Dever plays Brynn, a demure semi-recluse who turns out to be surprisingly adept at fighting back the murderous visitors. The movie uses the suspenseful logistics of physical survival to grab viewers; Duffield has a terrific command of economical action filmmaking. But that is not the reason I’ve been mulling over this nearly dialogue-free movie since it premiered on Hulu in September: The story is actually about psychological survival.


An outcast in her small town, Brynn is haunted by a traumatic event in her past, and when she fights for her life, her battle plays like an extreme version of a coping mechanism. I’ve read several theories about the ending, but the entire movie is coded, with the aliens’ retro appearance being a major clue. Under its straightforward exterior, “No One Will Save You” is a melancholic look at what Brynn does not just to live, but to live with herself. — ELISABETH VINCENTELLI


Stream “No One Will Save You” on Hulu.



Horror


My two favorite horror movies this year took apples-and-oranges paths to clock me in the face and rip out my heart.


“The Outwaters” starts as a lighthearted found-footage account of four friends on a trip to the desert. But almost an hour into the film, a silhouetted figure appears in the dark distance, and that’s when writer-director Robbie Banfitch shifts into gut-punching high gear with a frenzied maelstrom of screams, grunts, creatures and guts. The result is an experimental fever dream, a sustained and visually stunning sensory assault — I could smell fear — that’s singularly thrilling. Turn up the volume for a true razor’s-edge experience.


Paul Owens’ low-fi “LandLocked” delivers equally brutal blows but with softer gloves. It’s about a young man (Mason Owens, the director’s brother) who finds a VHS-era camera in his family’s old home that lets him glimpse his past wherever he points the lens. (Owens used his real-life family’s tapes as footage.) Even in empty rooms, demons long thought to be buried instead lurk, and in the film’s most terrifying passage, one monstrously emerges. It’s an assured, understated and deeply creepy slow-burn study of memory, loss and, most meaningfully, fatherhood. — ERIK PIEPENBURG


Stream “The Outwaters” and “LandLocked” on Tubi.



Action


At first glance, Aatami Korpi (Jorma Tommila), the silent, bruising figure in the Finnish World War II exploitation film “Sisu,” wouldn’t strike you as an activist. After all, he is a stoic prospector who, at the outset of writer-director Jalmari Helander’s film, discovers a mother lode of gold. But the action genre is often where bold political statements are made through simple symbolic figures. So when a vicious SS tank commander, Bruno Helldorf (Aksel Hennie), learns of Korpi’s riches, what arises is a Finnish anti-imperialist story with elements of female empowerment.


Helander interweaves these themes through common action tropes. There is the cadre of Finnish female prisoners of war held by the Nazis who will eventually become the kind of army familiar to the exploitation genre, ultimately, winning their bodily freedom. The retired Korpi is also an unstoppable killing machine so feared by the Russian army, it nicknamed him the Immortal. Helldorf throws everything at Korpi: tank shells, bullets and a minefield. Korpi remains unbowed. His repeated return from near-death scenarios is a wonderful gag that marries comical violence with thematic heft, turning “Sisu” into this year’s sharpest resistance film. — ROBERT DANIELS


Rent or buy “Sisu” on major platforms.



International


For me, this year in international cinema is defined by two images: one of red fumes filling the skies above a German forest in “Afire,” and the other of blindingly blue waves towering over a Tahitian beach in “Pacifiction.”


“Afire” is a horror-inflected summer comedy about vulnerable masculinity and bemusing desire from Christian Petzold, known for his postmodern period melodramas (“Transit,” “Phoenix”). “Pacifiction” is a woozy thriller about modern-day colonialism from Albert Serra, the Catalan filmmaker with an acclaimed oeuvre of formally stringent, often historically perverse films (“Liberté,” “The Death of Louis XIV”). Both movies move away from their directors’ usual obsessions with the past. They are animated, instead, by a trembling anxiety about the apocalyptic stakes of the present.


In “Afire,” forest fires spurred by climate change spell doom for a group of four young lovers. In “Pacifiction,” a nuclear threat lurks in the ocean, the dark waters barely concealing the machinations of imperialist powers. If the elements rise dramatically to the heavens in both, it’s less to inspire awe than caution — a warning that the forces we have knowingly, venally wreaked upon the world and on one another may just consume us all. — DEVIKA GIRISH


Stream “Afire” on the Criterion Channel and “Pacifiction” on Mubi.

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