Matt at the Movies: Barbenheimer
Matt reviews the cultural phenomenon we didn't know we needed as both "Barbie" and "Oppenheimer" make his mid-year top 10
It’s July 30.
We’re over two weeks into the SAG AFTRA actors strike and almost two months into the WGA writers strike. It’s the first time since 1960 both guilds have been on strike simultaneously, putting the brakes on new content from Hollywood and beyond.
With actors staying away from any new advertisements, interviews, and online promotions for struck work, many studios are pushing the release dates of major ensemble films like “Dune: Part Two” to 2024 as studios prepare to wait out the strike. Those close to the negotiations say both sides are still miles away from each other on several key issues from Artificial Intelligence to health care benefits.
At this rate, at least one (and probably both) of the unions will be on strike for months.
On top of the strikes, superhero movies - the popcorn and butter of today’s movie industry - are drowning. Right-wing groups are leading Astroturf movements, inflating ticket sales to bolster their current culture war fixations with movies like “Sound of Freedom.”
Ladies and gentlemen, it’s not looking great in the world of cinema.
Enter two of Hollywood’s premier directors: Oscar-nominated millennial Greta Gerwig and visionary blockbuster film-bro favorite Christopher Nolan.
At first glance, it seems the only thing both “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” have in common are their release dates and the quality of their creative teams. One is a story about a toy/doll/pop culture mainstay, and the other is a biopic about one of the 20th century's most important figures.
It doesn’t seem to jive, but “Barbenheimer” became a vibe.
Cinephiles, social media Stans, and casual movie-goers started asking the same questions. Why would I see both these movies? Should I see them both? On the same day? In what order? Do I break up the day with lunch or power through? Should I dress up? Friends or solo? What type of screen and viewing is optimal for each?
Even Tom Cruise got in on the joke/trend/phenomenon as he was promoting “Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part One.”
Matt at the Movies wasn’t going to miss this 100-year storm, either.
I am become Barbenheimer, destroyer of sequels.
Box office tracking for the films was hopeful but still modest, with “Oppenheimer” projected close to $50 million and “Barbie” expected to open in the low $100 millions.
My wife and I attended the early Thursday preview of “Barbie” as we had to strategically plan to see “Oppenheimer” in IMAX later in the evening.
So did “Barbenheimer” become part of the cultural zeitgeist and save Hollywood if even for a few fleeting weeks in the midst of this strike?
Both films blew past projections and tracking numbers. Here are some of the records:
4th largest combined domestic box office weekend of all-time ($302m), and only without a Disney movie or sequel.
$511, worldwide total in sales combined.
1st weekend with two movies both grossing over $80m domestically
Largest domestic opening weekend for a female director (Gerwig) ever.
Largest domestic opening of the year (“Barbie”), supplanting “Super Mario Bros.”
Largest global opening ever for a biopic (“Oppenheimer”) with $174.2m.
At least 200,000 confirmed double feature same-day purchases … a.k.a. the “Barbenheimer.”
Not only was each film an absolute treat to watch, but also both demonstrated films can stand on their own without needing to compete. “Barbie” was very much an adult movie in terms of themes and humor, but could also be enjoyed by six-year-olds who want to have fun while dressing up. We chuckled throughout as the movie explored the impossibility of living up to Barbie's standards while successfully navigating an often male dominated society in the real world.
Surprisingly, the existential questions of purpose raised by Gerwig’s film overlapped with those contemplated by J. Robert Oppenheimer as he built the first atomic bomb in Los Alamos, New Mexico during World War II. Multiple story lines were woven together in Nolan’s adaptation of the sprawling 700-page Pulitzer Prize-winning “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer.” Both Gerwig and Nolan conducted deep character studies of the most contradictory subjects possible.
Both knocked it out of the park.
We saw mothers and daughters dressed in pink having the time of their lives attending “Barbie” while the theater was abuzz to discuss how Nolan pulled off such an epic story once again with “Oppenheimer.” Peruse your social media feeds to see friends and celebrities alike taking part in the double feature phenomenon.
Both films received an “A” CinemaScore grade, so this was more than just an online fad over actual substance. Not too shabby for a film about a doll and a three hour, R-rated biopic examining the life of a scientist.
Below are our Matt at the Movies Breakdowns of both films:
“Barbenheimer” was an absolute success and one of the most fun days at the movies I can remember. Let’s hope studios take note of the importance of good talent when they get back to the negotiating table. So where did each land on Matt at the Movies mid year top ten? Let’s find out below.
Matt’s Barbenheimered Mid-Year Top Ten
Asteroid City, Joy Ride, Sizu, Broker, The Pope’s Exorcist
#10 - The Covenant
Guy Ritchie has a knack for elevating what would be middling movies to real action packed thrill rides. After The Gentlemen and Wrath of Man which were both delightful gangster romps, he tells the story of an interpreter in Afghanistan who puts his life on the line to save an American sergeant played by Jake Gyllenhaal. As Gyllenhaal’s character comes back to repay his debt there are intense action scenes and a heartfelt connection for the two main characters' survival. It is currently available to rent on demand.
MatM Score: 7.5/10
#9 - John Wick Chapter 4
What seems like it could be the final chapter in Keanu Reeves’ run as the titular character, he left with a bang. This global martial arts ballet features as much choreography as a Fosse production with a body count that rivals any action film created. The shots and cinematography as Wick and his associates traverse Jordan, Osaka, Paris, Berlin, and New York City to earn his freedom from the all-powerful High Table organization. Donnie Yen, Hiroyuki Sanada, and Bill Skarsgård are excellent additions in what features the last performance from the late Lance Reddick. Keanu is solemn and steadfast as he will do whatever it takes to bring down this shady underworld. Available on demand or Starz network starting September 26th.
MatM Score: 7.5/10
#8 - Past Lives
Writer/Director Celine Song makes her debut with a film about two childhood friends growing up in Seoul, Korea who’s connection spans decades as the main character Nora, played impressively by Greta Lee, moves to another continent. It’s a real sliding doors type of film where the possibility of what could be and what is makes your heart ache at times. When Jung Hae Sung makes a trip to visit Nora in New York City after decades and several years into her marriage, both sparks and sadness unleash for these lifelong friends. If you are a fan of Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love, this will hit you just as hard. Darkhorse for both Greta Lee and Celine Song for acting and screenplay at this years Oscar’s. This film will likely be available soon on demand and on Paramount+ where most A24 titles end up.
MatM Score: 8/10
Every time I think my crazy uncle Tommy can’t outdo himself, he rides a motorcycle off an actual cliff to prove me wrong. The seventh installment of this four billion dollar franchise peaked my interest at #5 on my 2023 preview list and did not disappoint. Ethan Hunt is on a crash course with artificial intelligence as his IMF team must secure a dangerous weapon from falling into the wrong hands. Hayley Atwell makes her debut as a thief who becomes entangled with Ethan and they have a wonderful cat & mouse rapport. Their action sequences at Abu Dhabi airport, racing through the streets of Rome, and on a train in the Alps provide not only style but amazing set pieces on the grandest of scales. This movie is still in theaters currently and should be viewed on the largest screen possible. 8/10
#6 - No Hard Feelings
My favorite comedy of the year so far. Click here to read about it and the state of adult comedies in Hollywood. This movie is still currently in theaters.
MatM Score: 8/10
#5 - Beau is Afraid
The most divisive and anxiety-inducing movie from horror master Ari Aster. Read about his self proclaimed Jewish Lord of the Rings adventure by clicking here. Beau is Afraid is currently available on demand.
MatM Score: 9/10
#4 - BlackBerry
It may not end up as the best movie of the year about a product but this low budget indie packs some great performances specifically from Glen Howerton. Read our review here. This film is currently available on demand.
MatM Score: 9/10 on rewatch
#3 - Barbie
This movie had me curious as product placement can go the way of Air (meh) to BlackBerry above. Oscar nominees Greta Gerwig and her life partner Noah Baumbach wrote a script that blew me out of the water for such an inane topic. Margot Robbie plays the lead version of Barbie in a world of Barbies representing the matriarchy of Barbieland. In this perfect existence Robbie’s Barbie seemingly malfunctions and has the existential question of what happens when you die? This sends her on an otherworldly adventure as she leaves Barbieland for the “Real World'' to find answers.
Surprising her on this journey is Ryan Gosling, as Ken, who pines for the admiration of Barbie which is the only thing that gives him joy. Shout out to the other main Ken, Simu Liu, who plays off Gosling’s energy so well. As the two make it to the real world there are many internal crises as Barbie comes to grips with her role in society. Ken however discovers the patriarchy, horses, and other “cool guy” stuff that sends him back to Barbieland on a mission to take control of life for all Kens. Barbie is helped by a mother daughter team who are also trying to contemplate what it means to be a woman in today’s world.
There are many jokes throughout both openly and subversively that mock the current status of a male dominated society we live in today that had me laughing. These same jokes also brought a bit of melancholy that they even needed to be said although quite necessary. The confrontation of the Kens towards the end of the movie was absolutely epic and I hope this movie earns all the money and accolades it can come awards season. Great work Greta, Margot, and all the Barbies who built this wonderful world. Poor Ryan it seems will never be #Kenough.
MatM Score: 9/10
#2 - How to Blow Up a Pipeline
A wild ride of Gen Z climate activists who’ve been plagued by corporate greed and decide to fight back with some eco-terrorism. Read our review here. This film is only available on demand at this time.
MatM Score: 9/10 on rewatch
#1 - Oppenheimer:
On my 2023 Matt at the Movies preview, I had Oppenheimer as my #1 most anticipated film. Between the topic (the race for the Bomb), ensemble cast, Christopher Nolan direction, IMAX excitement, and amazing high-waisted wardrobes I couldn’t be more jazzed. My instincts proved correct about this three hour journey through the trials and tribulations of American theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer.
Biopics are often the vehicle for actors winning Oscars. I think that trend will continue this year as Cillian Murphy cemented a new ceiling for acting in the 2023 race that seems impossible to catch (Looking at you Leo!). Robert Downey Jr., Matt Damon, Florence Pugh, Emily Blunt, and a litany of other top rate actors fill the screen from the first frame. Multiple Oscar winners make small cameos and character veterans like David Krumholtz steal scenes as they chew through this dialogue heavy Nolan script that reminds you of prime Aaron Sorkin bravado.
The story as most Nolan fare combines multiple timelines of Oppenheimer’s life from up university upbringing, making a name for himself at Berkeley and Caltech, the entirety of the Manhattan Project, and the fall from grace during the McCarthy Red Scare post World War Two. All the visuals were made practically without CGI and the Oscar winner Ludwig Göransson score echoed throughout the theater during our IMAX viewing. Three hours seemed both too long and not long enough to explore the complex nature of what he had created.
This film took the time to look at the human side of Oppenheimer and his many faults. It also looked at the ethos of the scientific community and how the politics of war can lead to history altering decisions. Look no further than the attacks on the healthcare officials and scientists over the past several years from those who make McCarthyists look like Nobel Prize winners. Oppenheimer seemed to know that their creation of the atomic bomb would lead to a new age but also that its power would be out of his hands as well.
The gravity of the situation, paired with the literal and figurative fallout, left me with questions I thought about for days, even after my second viewing. To me that’s the mark of a great movie.
MatM Score: 9.5/10 on rewatch
(Editor’s note: we believe Matt has already seen “Oppenheimer” twice, but how does he do it? That’s the real question at the intersection of physics, existentialism, epistemology and eschatology here.)
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