The best and worst films of 2023 – in reverse order

Barbenheimer of course features, but most of the year’s finest flicks did not much run box office attendants off their feet

The best and worst films of 2023

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: Part one – 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 female voices tease out the dynamics of toxic masculinity in a film that makes a virtue of its claustrophobic containment.

46. Rodeo

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.

43. Amanda

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.

41. Afire

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 coproduction 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.

33. Reality

Directed by Tina Satter. A terrific Sydney Sweeney, playing the former US air force member of the title, is quizzed 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.

31. Stolen

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.

The 50 best films of 2023: Part two – 30 to 21

30. Joyland

Directed by Saim Sadiq. A married, sensitive daydreamer improbably lands work as a backing dancer for a trans female performer at a Lahore variety club. Tender romance blossoms in this Queer Palm winner.

29. Killers of the Flower Moon

Directed by Martin Scorsese. The great man stretches out in his telling of a complex, shocking story concerning abuses against the Osage people in 1920s Oklahoma. Standout turn from Lily Gladstone.

28. Oppenheimer

Directed by Christopher Nolan. Temporal jumps, dynamic edits and ceaseless camerawork invest meetings and disciplinary hearings with the grammar of high-octane cinema, as Cillian Murphy and his team descend on Los Alamos to develop an atomic bomb. Shame about the female characters.

27. Godland

Directed by Hlynur Pálmason. A feeble Danish priest is dispatched, during the 19th century, to sometime colony Iceland. The doomy tone of Werner Herzog’s calamitous colonial adventures is offset by sublime images.

26. EO

Directed by Jerzy Skolimowski. This contemporary reworking of Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar follows a donkey from the circus to the slaughterhouse, encountering football hooligans, wolves, hunters and a wealthy benefactor along the way.

25. Eileen

Directed by William Oldroyd. Oldroyd follows up Lady Macbeth with a moody, disturbing take on Ottessa Moshfegh’s noirish novel concerning a repressed woman’s eye-opening encounter with a glamorous outsider. Thomasin McKenzie and Anne Hathaway rule.

24. Enys Men

Directed by Mark Jenkin. Jenkin, director of Bait, again uses antique cinema equipment as he lays out the confusing story of a woman encountering vegetative strangeness on a remote island.

23. The Eight Mountains

Directed by Felix van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch. Luca Marinelli and Alessandro Borghi put in mountain-sized performances as long-time friends in the Cannes jury prize-winning epic from the makers of Broken Circle Breakdown.

22. Master Gardener

Directed by Paul Schrader. A reformed white supremacist (Joel Edgerton) falls for the “mixed blood” grandniece (Quintessa Swindell) of landowner and sometime lover Norma (Sigourney Weaver) in the writer-director’s latest provocation.

21. How to Have Sex

Directed by Molly Manning Walker. The plot promises and often delivers fun: three British teenage girls head off for the best boozy holiday ever at a Greek party resort. The drama delivers a nail-biting (and Cannes-winning) consideration of peer pressure and consent.

The 50 best films of 2023: Part three – 20 to 11

20. Barbie

Directed by Greta Gerwig. Well, you know what this is. Gerwig surprised everyone by turning her doll flick into an incisive, imaginative satire that conquered the world. A huge cast is marshalled with great discipline. Biggest film ever in Ireland.

19. The Five Devils

Directed by Léa Mysius. The adventure in time-travelling, olfactory-driven superpowers, LGBTQ romance and family melodrama you need in your life. With the reliably brilliant Adèle Exarchopoulos.

18. Rye Lane

Directed by Raine Allen-Miller. Hip, funny Brief Encounter in Peckham. Allen-Miller shows there’s life in the romcom with a film that innovates but still finds room for a traditional sobby ending.

17. Bottoms

Directed by Emma Seligman. Funniest film of the year? Seligman unleashes anarchy in a high-school comedy that attacks the genre from the most oblique of angles.

16. The Damned Don’t Cry

Directed by Fyzal Boulifa. In Tangier, a teenage boy lives an uncertain existence with his hustler mother. A knot of sex work, colonialism and melodrama worthy of Douglas Sirk.

15. De Humani Corporis Fabrica

Directed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel. Mind-bendingly intense experimental documentary that connects us with our corporality through footage of surgeries and autopsies in France.

14. Beau Is Afraid

Directed by Ari Aster. Can you say “divisive”? Aster’s follow-up to Midsommar takes Joaquin Phoenix on a surreal odyssey to the home of his terrifying mother. Alternately hilarious and disturbing, the picture stretches those cliched Marmite comparisons.

13. RMN

Directed by Cristian Mungiu. This urgent, fiercely intelligent migration drama follows Matthias, a Transylvanian migrant of Roma lineage, to his hometown for Christmas where three imported Sri Lankan workers have created a stir.

12. Fallen Leaves

Directed by Aki Kaurismäki. There is always a great sadness to Aki Kaurismäki’s intimate dramedies, but they also inhabit an idealised wonderland. A romance about lonely, apparently mismatched people.

11. Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret

Directed by Kelly Fremon Craig. Trust the writer-director of Edge of Seventeen, the best teen movie of the past decade, to translate Judy Blume’s seminal novel into a funny, exhilarating coming-of-age gem.

The 50 best films of 2023: Part four – 10 to 1

10. Tár

Directed by Todd Field. A distorting lens of a film that allows the viewer to make what they want of Cate Blanchett’s untrustworthy, possibly abusive conductor. Virtually every scene has generated debate.

9. Anatomy of a Fall

Directed by Justine Triet. Sandra Hüller is tremendous as a German-born, France-based novelist accused of killing her male partner in this knotty, Palme d’Or-winning delve into the French legal system, the nature of truth and the institution of marriage.

8. Holy Spider

Directed by Ali Abbasi. Between 2000 and 2001 Saeed Hanaei, a real-life sexually motivated murderer, strangled at least 16 prostitutes in the holy Iranian city of Masshad. An antidote to the sickening vogue for “hot serial killers” told through the fierce gaze of the Cannes-winning actor Zar Amir Ebrahimi.

7. The Beasts

Directed by Rodrigo Sorogoyen. Galician locals are not impressed when two eco-minded sophisticates, Denis Ménochet and Marina Foïs, set up an eco-friendly farm in this white-knuckle thriller.

6. Close

Directed by Lukas Dhont. Two preteen boys drift apart with tragic consequences. It hardly matters that one can predict where the Belgian director’s second feature is headed; an indelible emotional impact is assured.

5. Past Lives

Directed by Celine Song. Hugely touching, elegantly shot drama following a Korean-American woman as she welcomes a childhood sweetheart to New York 24 years after their last meeting. It doesn’t go where you think.

4. Saint Omer

Directed by Alice Diop. Diop re-creates the 2016 trial of a Senegalese woman who admitted to leaving her daughter to drown, claiming she was under the influence of sorcery. Tremendous performances by Kayije Kagame and Guslagie Malanda reinvent the myth of Medea.

3. Passages

Directed by Ira Sachs. Franz Rogowski is magnetic as a solipsistic lothario who deserts poor Ben Whishaw for misused Adèle Exarchopoulos. Moves at a breathtaking pace towards a queasy conclusion.

2. Priscilla

Directed by Sofia Coppola. Cailee Spaeny brings quiet intensity to the role of Priscilla Presley in a film that, investigating that marriage, allows Coppola to exhibit all her gifts for suave empathy.

1. May December

Directed by Todd Haynes. Todd Haynes returns to his edgy roots with an instant camp classic inspired by Mary Kay Letourneau, the American teacher who was jailed in 1987 for having sex with an underage student. Julianne Moore plays the Letourneau avatar Gracie, the mother of three grown-up children with her husband and former victim Joe (a revelatory Charles Melton). Yes, this really happened. Natalie Portman plays a famous actor who comes to stay with the family to prepare for her role as Gracie in an upcoming movie. Soapy histrionics follow, but Melton’s humanity counterpoints the enjoyable telenovela. This tremendous entertainment apes the thrill of a tabloid cycle and simultaneously lampoons its own trashy magnetism.

The 10 worst films of 2023

10. The Marvels

Directed by Nia DaCosta. Felt like the severed stub of a longer but probably not much better Marvel romp.

9. Heart of Stone

Directed by Tom Harper. We all like Jamie Dornan. And Gal Gadot is ... also in the film. But spare us “I can’t believe it’s not Mission: Impossible”.

8. Empire of Light

Directed by Sam Mendes. This vacuous Oscar bait, a nostalgia piece set in a coastal cinema, has already become a film that never existed.

7. Stars at Noon

Directed by Claire Denis. There is every chance that the delightfully erratic Denis will follow-up this flat-footed Central American romance with a masterpiece.

6. No Hard Feelings

Directed by Gene Stupnitsky. With all solidarity to our comrades in the WGA, the crummiest beta AI could produce a funnier movie than this Jennifer Lawrence vehicle.

5. The Whale

Directed by Darren Aronofsky. Yes, Brendan Fraser won an Oscar for shouldering a fat suit in this glutinous slab of overstretched dinner theatre. There she blows (and indeed sucks)!

4. The Exorcist Believer

Directed by David Gordon Green. What possessed them? Ha ha! Geddit?

3. Luther: The Fallen Son

Directed by Jamie Payne. Hugely optimistic attempt to relaunch Idris Elba’s good detective show as bad film series.

2. Transformers: Rise of the Beasts

Directed by Steven Caple jnr. After making a fine spin-off in Bumblebee, the Transformers people, like the proverbial dog, returned to their vomit.

1. Haunted Mansion

Directed by Justin Simien. Hopelessly confused theme-park-derived horror comedy edges ahead with its shameless attempts to flog you rubbish at every turn. Food, games ... stationery?

The meaning of Barbenheimer

This century’s version of Blur versus Oasis happened largely by accident. It was April 2022 when Universal announced that Barbie, Greta Gerwig’s take on the fashion doll, would arrive, alongside Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, on July 21st the following year. Many thought one or the other would move. As months wore on, however, it became clear that the friendly rivalry was proving mutually beneficial. Social media was merrily promoting both as part of unavoidable memes. Barbie became the highest-grossing film of the year. Oppenheimer made just under $1 billion. Neither result would have been predicted before the happy link-up. So what? We already knew women were a key demographic. We already knew Christopher Nolan had a following. The lesson should be that Hollywood can still make money from original material. (It’s not as if Barbie isn’t its own thing.) The fear is, alas, that the studios will try to fake a similar rivalry for an upcoming summer weekend. It won’t work. Barbenheimer may be the most potent illustration yet of William Goldman’s famous thesis that “nobody knows anything”.

Have we seen the best film of 2024?

Maybe. Who knows? It’s always the case that many films premiering at the big festivals don’t make it to cinemas until the following year. Tár, Close, Holy Spider and The Beasts, from this year’s top 10, were first screened in 2022. So what will occupy that space in a year’s time? Here are five likely competitors we’ve seen on the circuit.

  • Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Evil Does Not Exist finds the Japanese director of Drive My Car probing environmental issues.
  • Wim Wenders returns to fiction form with the charming Perfect Days.
  • Sean Price Williams’s blotchy, mad The Sweet East casts a skewed eye at outsider America.
  • But the two hottest competitors are Yorgos Lanthimos’s Poor Things, a psychosexual fable; and The Zone of Interest, Jonathan Glazer’s bleak adaptation of Martin Amis’s Auschwitz tale. Bet on top 10 finishes.