How many have you seen - and where do blockbuster behemoths 'Barbie' and 'Oppenheimer' feature in our ranking?
Before the fall festival season starts and the Oscar chatter gets going once again, these are the already-released 2023 films you should cross off your watchlist if you haven’t already.
NB: Todd Field's stunning psychological character study, Tár, or: 'Portrait of a Lady Being Cancelled’, has not been included as we’ve already waxed lyrical on how great it is and how Cate Blanchett’s career-best performance should not have been ignored by the Academy. It feels like a 2022 film at this point, and it's time to give some love to the newbies...
Adapted from her play ‘Is This A Room’, Tina Satter’s Reality is a bone-rattling snapshot of recent US history in the shape of a tense chamber piece. The first-time feature director used unedited original dialogue from FBI recordings and transcripts to re-enact the arrest of 25-year-old NSA contractor-turned-whistleblower Reality Winner (played to perfection by Euphoria’s Sydney Sweeney). The unbelievably named former Air Force linguist printed out classified documents about Russian interference in the 2016 US election and mailed it to the newsroom of The Intercept. She was arrested in 2017 when FBI agents paid her a visit at her home in Georgia, and was given the longest prison sentence ever imposed for an unauthorized release of government information to the media: five years and three months in federal prison. Set almost entirely in the single location of Winner’s home for the taut 82-minute runtime, this minimalist triumph of a docu-drama is claustrophobic, troubling and gripping. The stylistic choice to use visual glitches and literal on-screen redaction which replaces “bleeps” for very eerie and sudden frame disappearances when Winner says something that has been redacted from the original transcript work wonders. These formal choices could have been gimmicky but only heighten the themes of narrative truth and how terrifying dread can lurk behind the mundane.
Mia Goth, we salute you. Two films this year have confirmed the undisputed claim the 29-year old British performer has on this generation’s Scream Queen crown. Both Infinity Pool and Pearl cement the barnstorming run she’s been having recently, and have offered Goth twice the celluloid space to shine. Infinity Pool nearly made the cut, but it’s Pearl that ultimately makes it. The killer prequel to last year’s period slasher X winds back the clocks 60 years. Director Ty West’s centrepiece of his X trilogy – which will be rounded off next year with MaXXXine – sees the young and prospectless Pearl (Goth) dreaming of movie stardom. Even if the bright-eyed woman is stuck in a rural prison while her husband is away fighting in Europe, she soon sees a way out. And nothing is going to stand in her way of her silver screen ambitions. As enjoyable as X was as a straight-laced ode to grainy 70s exploitation horror movies, Pearl is the far superior film. It's The Godfather Part II of the retro slasher world, if you will. Stylistically, it’s pure pastiche, replicating the saturated Technicolor photography of The Wizard of Oz - and it works without feeling like cheap parody. Granted, Goth mileage will vary depending on how you feel about extreme, full-throttle performances. However, her unforgettable climactic monologue is one for the ages. “I’m gonna be a star. One day everyone’s gonna know my name…” All hail the new Scream Queen.
13) Roter Himmel (Afire)
Billed the second part of German director Christian Petzold’s so-called elemental trilogy, which started in 2020 with Undine, Roter Himmel (Afire) follows irritable young writer Leon (Thomas Schubert playing a sort of snobbish Tartuffe) trying to finish his book during a beachside getaway with his friend Felix (Langston Uibel). Forest fires nearby are a looming threat, and the unexpected presence of Nadja (Petzold regular Paula Beer) proves a major distraction for the wannabe scribe. It’s Rohmerian comedy of manners which gradually introduces a meditation on how myopia and self-absorption are the true enemies of creativity. The character of Leon could even be said to represent the role of social media in modern life: obsessing about oneself while the world burns, and how – to paraphrase George Orwell – seeing what is in front of one’s nose is a constant struggle. It’s arguably Petzold’s best film since 2014’s Phoenix, and this year’s Berlinale jury seemed to agree, as the director went home with the runner-up gong, the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize.
12) Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse
It’s not been a great year for blockbuster releases this year, with superhero and franchise fatigue settling in. From Shazam! Fury of the Gods, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, The Little Mermaid, Fast X to The Flash, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny and Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, the high-profile releases have all underwhelmed. Even the deliriously entertaining John Wick 4 was far too bloated for its own good. The only exception to the rule has been Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, the much anticipated sequel to 2018’s Into the Spider-Verse. It builds on the mash-up animation style that made its predecessor not only impressively vibrant but also the best Spider-Man film to date. This time around, the animation is just as imaginative, and the storyline featuring the ever-ubiquitous multiverse trope somehow manages to have a personal dimension within its universal stakes. Directors Joaquim Dos Santos, Justin K. Thompson and Kemp Powers keep things lively and irreverent, and never forget that the big themes and bombastic animation need smaller moments - and the emotional beats haven’t fallen by the wayside. This ambitious sequel is the superhero movie the genre so desperately needed this year - even if it occasionally does feel like an overstretched Part 1 / 2 at times. Still, bring on 2024’s Beyond the Spider-Verse.
11) Rye Lane
People are fond of asserting that the rom-com genre is on life support. Rye Lane proves them wrong. In the debut feature of director Raine Allen-Miller, we see a very modern meet-cute between two twenty-somethings Dom (David Jonsson) and Yas (Vivian Oparah) in South London. They’re not doing too great, and as we follow them for a dramatic 24 hours, their connection grows. An obvious touchstone is Richard Linklater's Before trilogy, but Rye Lane carves out a charming and vibrant space for itself without harking back to Jesse and Céline. It tips its hat to Richard Curtis’ 90s rom-coms (especially with one delicious cameo) but adds a fresh British sensibility and a visual verve to the proceedings. Allen-Miller also refrains from the typical romanticised version of London, choosing to explore areas which often get overlooked. In the space of a taut 82 minutes, she makes a smart and funny mark in a genre often struggles to innovate. Even the most cynical of viewers will be charmed. Oh, and the soundtrack slaps. Hard.
Hlynur Pálmason’s fictional account of a Danish priest sent to a remote region of Iceland in the 19th century is a stark and foreboding watch. There are desolate landscapes, harsh surroundings, all leading our protagonist on a harrowing journey towards a sombre meditation on faith, colonialism and mortality. It’s hard to talk about the film without dissuading people from wanting to see it, as the logline promising existential unease and a palpably austere mood don’t promise a carefree time at the talkies. However, those willing to take the leap and willing to place your faith in Godland will be rewarded by an atmospheric gem that simmers in its moody environment. The film captures Iceland brilliantly and the cinematography ensures you won’t have seen anything quite as epic (or Herzogian) thus far this year. Rejoice!
Acclaimed Japanese animator and filmmaker Makoto Shinkai returned this year with a vibrant environmental disaster movie, following his international hits Weathering With You and Your Name. Suzume is the story of a high-school student who meets a mysterious stranger on his way to seal a magical door in a derelict city, in order to prevent a cataclysmic earthquake. She assists, but accidentally releases a keystone supposed to prevent larger disasters. Thus begins a surreal cross-country adventure to seal more magical Pandora’s boxes, which each have the potential to trigger further natural disasters. The writer-director grapples with the Great East Japan earthquake of 2011 that killed nearly 20,000 people; as such, Suzume exists somewhere between fantasy YA coming-of-age and an emotionally engaging apocalyptic thrill ride, and has something to say about the way we heal in the wake of disasters, and how grief is inevitable no matter how hard we try to fight it. As if that wasn’t enough, the humour and the visual flourishes keep you glued to your seat throughout the runtime. One of the best animated films of 2023 alongside Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.
8) Sick of Myself
Caustic, fun, and at times deeply sad in the way it exposes the loneliness at the heart of being noticed, Sick of Myself is this year’s most vicious satire. This debut feature from Norwegian writer-director Kristoffer Borgli, produced by the same team behind Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World, follows Signe (Kristine Kujath Thorp) and her pretentious conceptual artist partner Thomas (Eirik Sæther) as the couple from hell. Two hyper-competitive and self-aggrandising people trying to break out of their mostly average lives. When that happens for Thomas, Signe becomes intensely jealous and reclaims the spotlight she feels she is entitled to by engaging in a toxic game of one-upmanship - including manufacturing and shamelessly exploiting a “mysterious illness” for social capital. Sick of Myself is a devilish black comedy that hones in on modern society’s rampant self-obsessions. While films like these can tumble into repetitive hectoring on the ills of the modern online world, the film earns its facetted brand of cynicism by never not being astute or tumbling into an oversimplified “Aren’t them internets awful?” routine. Borgli compellingly explores the false allure of fame, all with a degree of recognisability that creeps on discomfort. Sick of Myself sits nicely on the shelf next to Matt Spicer’s acidic influencer comedy Ingrid Goes West and Michelle Savill’s satire of social media fakeness Millie Lies Low, and shines a light on performative victimhood, and how martyrdom-for-likes can be weaponised to achieve (morally bankrupt) celebrity. You won’t be sure whether to cringe or cackle – and the film is stronger for it.
7) Talk To Me
It’s not been a banner year for horror thus far. Thank Pazuzu then for Talk To Me, the Australian debut from brothers Danny and Michael Philippou, who made a name for themselves with their film spoof YouTube videos under the RackaRacka handle. Their indie chiller follows a gang of teenagers who embrace the latest party trend: shake hands with an ominous mummified mitt that allows people to communicate with the spirit world. 90 seconds will trigger an addictive high that dwarfs any drug fix available. Go over that time limit and you’ll get more than you bargained for - as our protagonist Mia (the fantastic Sophie Wilde) soon finds out. The Philippous inject a fresh, punk energy to what sounds like well-trodden ground. Clearly inspired by Flatliners and, if you got further back, W. W. Jacob’s classic horror short story ‘The Monkey’s Paw’, the duo draw as much mileage out of the premise without betraying the original concept or descending into cheap jump scare territory. The admirably realistic violence - courtesy of some impressive practical effects - are filmed and edited for maximum distress, and there’s a feeling of plausibility to the proceedings that is disquieting, as the directors don’t lean too heavily on the possession-as-an-addiction-allegory. They keep things uncluttered, focus on the theme of grief, and portray teenage behaviour realistically. Talk To Me is hands down (so to speak) the strongest and most uncompromising horror offering of 2023 so far.
6) How To Blow Up A Pipeline
Inspired by Andreas Malm’s controversial 2021 non-fiction book, Daniel Goldhaber’s How To Blow Up A Pipeline is an indie eco-thriller that grabs you from start to finish. It is without a doubt one of the tensest films of the year. We follow a ragtag crew of eco-activists who come together to destroy a Texas oil pipeline. So, the title says it all. However, what it doesn’t reveal is that as timely and urgent as this film is, it isn’t what you may be thinking. It’s not a virtue-signalling call to arms or radical propaganda hiding behind a thriller label; it’s also the furthest thing from a controversy-courting exercise. The film is too smart and focused to dip into didacticism and never sacrifices tension to politics, preferring a thoughtful and edge-of-your-seat portrait of what modern eco-activism could look like. As an added bonus, How To Blow Up A Pipeline thrives as a cineliterate riff on the heist thriller genre. A perfectly calibrated gem.
Greta Gerwig’s comedy, adapted from the popular Mattel toy franchise, is the runaway hit of the year. Barbie is continuing her advance towards the $1 billion mark at the global box office and there seems to be no stopping her. By following Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) as she starts experiencing malfunctions and some intrusive thoughts (“Do you guys ever think about dying?”), Gerwig instigates a fish-out-of-water romp that is the furthest thing from a committee-commissioned corporate cash grab under the guise of self-awareness. It’s actually far weirder than anyone could have expected, and while still being a toy movie, its satirical chops somehow allows it to have its pink cake and eat it too. Gerwig, who co-wrote Barbie with her partner Noah Baumbach, leans into the image of the (in)famous doll and asks whether she is a force for good or simply the totem of sexualised capitalism peddling impossible expectations. The script avoids easy hectoring (for the most part) and refuses for Barbie to turn into a vapid '#GirlBoss – The Movie'. It criticises patriarchy and matriarchy effectively, tackles heavy questions with humour, and while some moments lay it on a bit thick, the message remains focused. Yes, many cast members are wasted and the third act does get messy, but hats off to a filmmaker who can take a figure that remains a weak vessel for empowerment (and even less a feminist icon), subvert Hollywood’s typical eye-rolling attempts at feminism, and manage to lovingly craft an entertaining blockbuster that uses a problematic figure to say something about gender roles in today’s society. That's more than Kenough.
4) Polite Society
Following her award-winning comedy show We Are Lady Parts, British writer-director Nida Manzoor made one hell of a leap onto the big screen, with what is the comedy of the year (so far). Polite Society follows British-Pakistani teenager Ria Khan (Priya Kansara) trying to rescue her sister Lena (Ritu Arya) from the arms of a young doctor (Akhshay Khanna) with marriage on the brain – chiefly because of his overbearing Disney villain of a mother (a scene-stealing Nimra Bucha). Ria, who senses something more nefarious is at play, intends to crane-kick patriarchal submission into... well, submission. The end result is a satirical South Asian take on Scott Pilgrim -meets- Get Out that is as entertaining and madcap as that sounds. But it’s also full of heart and its observations on generational divides in Pakistani families are sensitively handled. Even if the outlandish elements threaten to derail things towards the end, you’ll be too busy enjoying the film’s punk exuberance and having a blast to care.
The second half of Barbenheimer feels like the culmination of Christopher Nolan’s career, an impressive epic which more than makes up for whatever Tenet was. Based on Kai Bird and Martin J Sherwin’s non-fiction book ‘American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer’, this exhaustive look at the life of the theoretical physicist who introduced nuclear weapons to humanity (played to perfection by Cillian Murphy) is actually several films rolled into one. Through a fragmented chronology (this is a Nolan movie after all) we’re offered a haunting character study, a courtroom procedural and a McCarthyism thriller. There’s no denying there is a lot of movie here, but through Murphy’s (soon-to-be awards nominated) haunted blue eyes, themes of martyrdom and guilt unfold brilliantly, revealing a film that is, at its core, a horror story. It also functions as a stealthy critique of American exceptionalism and a commentary on how the US has historically chewed up those who perform their function in the name of loyalty and service to their country before spitting them out once the job is done. While imperfect (Nolan’s longstanding inability to write complex roles for women remains alive and well) and at times unwieldy (the sound mixing is better than it was in Tenet, but Nolan needs to retire his technique of using a soundtrack so predominantly), Oppenheimer remains a technically masterful American tragedy. And as for the detonation sequence and that anxiety-inducing hallucinatory scene once the bombs have fallen, they are two of the most memorable sequences of Nolan's career.
2) All the Beauty and the Bloodshed
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed ’s top gong win in Venice last year was a historic one, not only because it was only the second time in the festival’s 79-year history that a documentary won the Golden Lion (following Italian director Gianfranco Rosi’s Sacro GRA, which won the Golden Lion ten years ago), but it was the third time running that a female filmmaker won the Golden Lion, after Chloé Zhao in 2020 for Nomadland and Audrey Diwan in 2021 for the abortion drama Happening. It fully deserved the Golden Lion, and it remains one of this year's release standouts. It presents the portrait of artist Nan Goldin, one of the world’s most important living American photographers and a documentarian of the US’ LGBTQ+ history and New York’s ‘70s counterculture. We witness her campaign against the Sackler pharmaceutical dynasty – the family responsible for America’s OxyContin epidemic. Poitras, an investigative journalist who previously won the Oscar for Best Documentary in 2015 for her blisteringly powerful Edward Snowden doc Citizenfour, manages to dexterously balance the personal and the political, as we follow Goldin, an ex addict, on her passionate quest against the wealthy art patrons who profited from the suffering of others. It’s moving, enthralling, enraging and an utterly essential watch.
1) Past Lives
The movie of 2023 (so far) is without a doubt Past Lives, a quietly devastating film that will tug on your heartstrings in all the right ways. For her debut film, Korean-born Canadian playwright-turned-director Celine Song gave us a nuanced, semi-autobiographical tale of two childhood friends who meet later in life, having been separated when one of their families emigrated from South Korea. Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) and Nora (Greta Lee) reconnect over social media and then in New York, where they confront notions of love, friendship, time and fate. They specifically deal with the Korean concept of “In-Yun,” a sense of providence that touches upon the moments that connect people in their past lives. It could almost be a multiverse-story and ends up as a resonant romantic journey that’s masterfully told and impeccably scripted. Above all though, Past Lives eschews all clichés linked to love-triangles and romantic happy endings you might expect, further shining through its profound observations about life’s intricacies and matters of cultural identity. It’s one of the most captivating debuts in years, a poignant meditation on growing as a person and how the choices we make shape our lives – even if their importance only reveals itself with the necessary passage of time. Expect it to feature prominently on our favourites list by the end of the year.