As we wrap up our year-end coverage, IndieWire looks back at the people, projects, and ideas that defined 2023 — and what’s coming next.

If the antihero was the poster child for peak TV, then the downright off-putting and repulsive heroes of the story were ambassadors for film in 2023. Expulsion, waste, and self-destruction — bodily and psychic — were on the minds and in the guts of many of this year’s most divisive and in some cases beloved movies.

We’ve all seen the social media tagline that such and such “changed my DNA.” In a moment in which postures of self-deprecation and flagrant wallowing in our own soupy misery define internet expression, it’s only natural that the movies would respond — and the quote-unquote repulsiveness of such characters is borne out of a desire to transform, and maybe become, in the words of Radiohead, something happier, better.

Two independent films on my top 10 list of the year, Kristoffer Borgli’s “Sick of Myself” and William Oldroyd’s “Eileen,” dared us to look away from female leads bent on degrading themselves in order to become something new. The heroine of “Sick of Myself,” Signe (Kristine Kujath Thorp), is an insecure barista who wills herself into a disfiguring illness just to get attention. Meanwhile, Thomasin McKenzie’s title character in Oldroyd’s film abuses her body through disordered eating and bad hygiene as a rebellion against arrested development and societal expectations of femininity, self-care for the bland soul. On the male side, in “Saltburn,” Barry Keoghan’s wannabe bon vivant slurps up Jacob Elordi’s cum-spiked bathwater in part out of a desire to become Elordi’s character as much as to ingest him.

“Sick of Myself” is a direct rebuke of the very social media standards that make us all unhappy: Signe turns herself into a loathsome creature, facially marred by a rare disease caused by taking too many over-the-internet Russian anxiety pills, but her bulbous pustules and cast-out status are the very things that make her special. She winds up becoming the poster girl for an inclusive beauty brand touting all shapes and sizes and deformities before she ultimately becomes even too ugly for that.

It’s not novel to say that in this political moment, our bodies, how they’re displayed and how they comport sexually or otherwise in the world, are under siege, so I’ll just pack that boilerplate in here before asking, how did the movies react, and in a moment of heightened censorship?

Take Ira Sachs’ “Passages,” slapped with an NC-17 rating by the MPA presumably for an extended anal sex scene (shot tastefully but still a vigorous sequence nonetheless) between Ben Whishaw and Franz Rogowski’s characters? Rogowski’s character is on his own path of self-annihilation, albeit one more psychologically while wreaking havoc through behavior that the same MPA probably deemed morally despicable. He’s a narcissistic film director blowing up everyone’s lives around him with sex and cheating, seducing and destroying the characters (his husband, played by Whishaw, and new third-wheel lover, played by Adele Exarchopoulos) as much as he repels the audience. He ends the movie lost, confused, with no revelations, alienated from everyone — itself its own form of transformation when at the end of the day you at least know where you stand, which is alone.

More queer movies stepped up to the plate to alienate us elsewhere. In Josh Sharp and Aaron Jackson’s queer song-and-dance satire “Dicks: The Musical,” a pair of grotesque Sewer Boys — hirsute, viscous underground-dwelling creatures named Whisper and Backpack, they sort of look like half-human half-monkeys dipped in flesh-eroding acid — were, in the words of Nathan Lane’s recently out dad who keeps them as pets, “gay culture.” Because why not?

Gay culture can mean anything in 2023, literally anything including a pair of impish and seemingly separated-at-birth drainpipe dwellers. And the label’s general catch-allness works partly to undermine “gay culture’s” gravitas as a now turnkey label tossed as carelessly around as “camp,” while also empowering it as a now-dominant mode of interpreting the world. Is humanity’s disgust with itself becoming the parlance of niche queer moviemaking, maybe the only corner of the cinematic universe that can really speak it?

You could argue that the years 2021 and 2022 in movies signaled a healing after All We Went Through, an open call for compassion and inclusion and a window unto the inherent goodness of humanity when you look at Best Picture winners like the fuzzy-feeling “CODA” and “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” Even this year’s Best Actor winner “The Whale,” in which Darren Aronofsky tried to elicit our repulsion for a writing teacher’s (Brendan Fraser) eating disorder through the filmmaker’s typically excessive cutting and body horror preoccupations, was ultimately about one man’s spiritual redemption.

There was less redemption and more hopelessness to be found in this year’s darkest films, where bodily obsession becomes a war against social decorum or, in the case of “Beau Is Afraid,” an Oedipal-scale guilt trip written and directed by Ari Aster.

Joaquin Phoenix’s Beau Wasserman is so afraid of having sex because of a supposed family curse that causes death upon first orgasm that this guy has never ejaculated in his life, his testicles the size of grapefruits. Even worse, that Oedipal father he has to confront after wending his way through the gamut of horrors to get back to his mother is a giant literal penis monster chained in the attic. Ari Aster’s “nightmare comedy” is a nightmare of the body as a container for all our familial anxieties, a network of generational pain that, without an outlet, ultimately leaves you drowned.

If the now-pejorative and meaningless designation of “elevated horror” signaled a mutation of otherwise maligned genre tropes into the art movie space, then body horror, too, is crawling its way out of its Cronenbergian closet and into broader narrative spaces. “Beau Is Afraid,” with its gigantically distended, swinging set of testicles that eventually find their release in Parker Posey, is one such movie.

But what a year in body horror it was regardless, with another Cronenberg, namely son Brandon, turning a pretty rote biological function (ejaculation, i.e. the Alexander Skarsgård cumshot courtesy of Mia Goth) into ominous symbolism in “Infinity Pool,” a psychotropic horror movie that imagined commodifying the very decaying states of being I’ve described: here, criminals can pay to be cloned and watch themselves die (in viscerally brutal fashion) to evade execution. Becoming something new by dying and becoming something almost like yourself in turn is its own kind of eerily resonant transformation in depressed and self-destructive times.

Hardly the far-cry from body horror Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli masterpiece might seem from a bird’s eye view, “The Boy and the Heron” twisted its titular grey bird, a piece of Japanese folklore known to evoke creeped-out feelings of melancholy and disgust in Japanese people, into a grotesque but endearing figure. The heron is a gatekeeper to a magical world and psychological transformation for the central boy, trying to fathom the loss of his mother as he’s drawn into an “Annihilation”-esque alternate landscape.

Inside the heron literally lives a homunculus of a man with the power to shapeshift, and when combined, the chimeric effect of animal and human makes for one of the most visually repellent creatures in Ghibli history. Even a movie seemingly meant for children — and “The Boy and the Heron” certainly is not just that, as animation’s greatest advocates will have you know — couches repulsiveness in its DNA to tell a moving and universal story of metamorphosis.

But coming back to the movie whose heroine I’d argue was the true repugnant superhero of 2023, perhaps less universal but better for it: Thomasin McKenzie’s “Eileen.” Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel, which she adapted here with her partner Luke Goebel, featured prison secretary Eileen as a perverse, even scatologically fixated creature. (Basically, in one scene in the book, she shits her brains out in her church, and she’s also perennially constipated due to the constant consumption of laxatives.)

That’s all, understandably, sanded down here, because as Moshfegh posed to IndieWire, “I don’t think anyone wants to see anyone on the toilet. … We want to watch a movie while we’re sitting on the toilet.” But Eileen’s predilection for the perverse is on display in the movie in how she blossoms in the light of Rebecca St. John (Anne Hathaway), the femme-fatale-styled new psychologist in town who brightens Eileen’s dull existence in a cold, wintry 1964 Massachusetts where Eileen lives with her drunk father.

Rather than running away from true colors, Eileen only doubles down on her repellant nature — this is a girl who picks at and considers swallowing a pubic hair she finds on a bar of soap because she believes it belongs to Rebecca. Her taste for destruction gets realized in a crime Eileen never knew she had in her, and in the end, she’s able to escape her boring, miserable life because of it.

In 2023, isn’t it pretty to think so?

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