Here ends one of the most confusing years in cinema history. A combined writers’ and actors’ strike kept the business shut during late summer and autumn. The issues disputed will come back again. A particular pink film broke the record for highest grossing at the Irish box office. Another movie released on the same day suggested that intelligent historical dramas could make more money than the most button-pushing franchise flick. We will talk more about the meaning of Barbenheimer below, but, suffice to say, nobody is yet predicting the end of franchise culture. The second-highest-grossing flick of the year worldwide – Barbie was No 1 and Oppenheimer was No 3 – turned out to be the numbingly undemanding Super Mario Bros Movie.
So that’s all right. The big-budget series are keeping Hollywood alive? It’s essentially business as usual? Well, maybe not. As the year dragged on, trade publications became increasingly concerned about the failure of supposed sure things. Despite excellent reviews and the presence of Tom Cruise, Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One managed “only” $567 million worldwide. That’s a lot of money, but analysts don’t reckon it was enough to turn a profit. Worse still was the performance of Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. Though Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3 was a hit, by the end of the year, with Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania and The Marvels landing softly, even the once-impregnable Marvel Cinematic Universe looked to have been breached. There is a sense of the table being kicked in the air at the end of a drunken wedding. Who knows where the crockery will land?
Away from the marquee, as weary critics kept explaining, the medium was still delivering a host of imaginative and intriguing pictures, including Todd Haynes’s acidly funny May December, a social comedy in the style of an afternoon soap; Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla, which opens towards the end of this month, sees another American original at full power. Younger directors such as Celine Song, with the intoxicating Past Lives; Raine Allen-Miller, with the charming Rye Lane; and Emma Seligman, with the disreputable Bottoms; show that the future is in muscular good health.
Sadly, few of these films are hoovering up cash. The glory days when box-office charts regularly chimed with critics’ lists are now decades past. Meanwhile, each year the venerable film festivals tighten their grip on what we are obliged to call cultural cinema. A full 30 of the 50 best films listed below, including all of the top 10, premiered at Cannes, Venice or Sundance. Plus ca change.
The 50 best films of 2023: 50 to 31
50. Blue Jean
Directed by Georgia Oakley. Rosy McEwen’s title character, a lesbian Tyneside teacher, carefully compartmentalises her life to protect herself under Margaret Thatcher’s government and Section 28.
49. Kokomo City
Directed by D Smith. Searing, moving documentary on life as a transgender sex worker. The monochrome cinematography is highly evocative.
48. My Sailor My Love
Directed by Klaus Härö. James Cosmo and Bríd Brennan boss the screen in a moving but unsentimental Irish drama about an older couple finding unlikely comfort.
47. Women Talking
Directed by Sarah Polley. A clatter of woman voices tease out the dynamics of toxic masculinity in a film that makes a virtue of its claustrophobic containment.
Directed by Lola Quivoron. Anchored by a fierce performance from the phenomenal newcomer Julie Ledru, Rodeo offers a thrilling detour through the underground subculture of cross-bitume (or stunt-bike riding) in Greater Paris.
45. Return to Seoul
Directed by Davy Chou. Ji-Min Park is Freddie, a grown-up French national and one of at least 200,000 South Korean children who have been sent overseas since 1953. An accusatory depiction of intercountry adoption.
44. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse
Directed by Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers and Justin K Thompson. While the Marvel Cinematic Universe encounters a middle-aged crisis, Sony’s unconnected Spider-Verse series follows up a cracking opener with an even more dazzling part two.
Directed by Carolina Cavalli. Actor turned director Carolina Cavalli’s absurdist Gen Z comedy is a riot of zingers and hilarious situations, underpinned by poignant disaffection and possible borderline personality disorder.
42. Marcel the Shell with Shoes On
Directed by Dean Fleischer Camp. Camp and Jenny Slate extend their series of comic shorts about the eponymous ambulatory shell into a charming pocket epic that has much to say about loneliness and belonging.
Directed by Christian Petzold. A hilariously self-absorbed writer develops an unhealthy fixation with the housekeeper (Paula Beer) at his holiday home while ignoring the sounds of squealing pigs and water bombing that signal the resort is about to catch fire.
40. Smoking Causes Coughing
Directed by Quentin Dupieux. This demented spin on Power Rangers casts some of France’s most respected actors in metallic codpieces as they square up to a towering rubber tortoise and swap campfire tales. Goosebumps retooled for Adult Swim.
39. The Eternal Daughter
Directed by Joanna Hogg. In what feels like a spin-off from her Souvenir universe, Hogg sends Tilda Swinton and, erm, Tilda Swinton away for a weekend in the country that ends up summoning spirits of MR James’ ghost stories.
38. Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part 1
Directed by Christopher McQuarrie. With apologies to the fine John Wick: Chapter 4, the latest Mission: Impossible flick punched and kicked its way ahead of the franchise pack in 2023. Why such indifferent box office?
37. Sick of Myself
Directed by Kristoffer Borgli. What if The Worst Person in the world were really about the worst person in the world? Borgli’s Norwegian satire concerns a self-absorbed woman who makes herself sick to win respect and sympathy. Hang on ...
36. Dream Scenario
Directed by Kristoffer Borgli. Honestly, this is just how the voting worked out. Borgli scores an unprecedented two in a row with his sub-Buñuel dramedy starring Nicolas Cage as an unprepossessing man who appears in the world’s dreams, first happily, then terrifyingly.
35. The Deepest Breath
Directed by Laura McGann. Heart-stopping Irish co-production concerning the inexplicably dangerous sport of free-diving. Holds back its emotional pay-off in cunning fashion.
34. Infinity Pool
Directed by Brandon Cronenberg. You couldn’t say Cronenberg’s attack on the super-rich is particularly subtle, but the inventive ways in which it skewers the smug loafers in an exclusive resort is invigorating.
Directed by Tina Satter. A terrific Sydney Sweeney, playing the former US air force member of the title, is questioned by FBI agents in this nail-biting reconstruction of a real-life interrogation.
32. The Killer
Directed by David Fincher. Based on a French graphic novel by Alexis “Matz” Nolent, and bolstered by the voiceover and presence of Michael Fassbender, this entertaining doodle allows Fincher to lean into his chilly gifts for genre.
Directed by Margo Harkin. Impressively wide-ranging documentary about the legacy of Ireland’s mother-and-baby homes. Beautifully shot, and featuring useful contributions from experts, but it is the personal testimonies that register.