Another year is now coming to an end and so it's time to reflect on the past 12 months. And what an incredible year it has been for cinema, from Barbenheimer to bold new voices, from indie darlings to spectacular sequels. 2023 really has had it all.
Creating a list of the best movies of 2023 then was a difficult task, but one the Total Film team bravely rose to, with the result showcasing the very best of what the big screen had to offer this year. Sit back, enjoy, and if you haven't seen any of the below movies yet, add them to your watchlist!
Note: Total Film is UK-based and so, the below movies were released between January 1 and December 31, 2023 in the UK. Several releases including Poor Things, The Holdovers, and All of Us Strangers, amongst others, are therefore not included but are available to watch in the US. Some upcoming 2023 releases (such as Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom) weren't screened in time to be considered.
25. Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves took us on a fun, fantasy romp through a magical world, with Chris Pine stealing the show as hilarious bard Edgin – though the stacked cast, including Michelle Rodriguez, Hugh Grant, and Regé-Jean Page, all had their chance to shine in what turned out to be a hilarious, fresh take on the beloved tabletop game. For those well-versed in the sprawling world of D&D, there were Easter eggs galore to feast upon; but even a total newbie could find tons to enjoy in this lively, witty adaptation. Molly Edwards
24. The Boy and the Heron
Hayao Miyazaki’s first film in 10 years, The Boy and the Heron, features everything you’d hope for in a Studio Ghibli picture. From magical creatures to poignant themes – as well as some typically mouth-watering food sequences – it captures the wonder of the animation studio. The story follows Mahito, a 12-year-old boy struggling to settle into a new town following the death of his mother. His lonely life takes a turn for the fantastical when a talking heron appears and leads him on a journey into a strange and dangerous new world. We now know that this likely won’t be Miyazaki’s final film after all, but as an elegiac reflection on loss, it marks a fitting addition to the latter part of this filmmaker’s incredible career. Fay Watson
23. Evil Dead Rise
After a decade of silence, the Evil Dead movie franchise was resurrected from its bloody grave this year with Lee Cronin’s Evil Dead Rise. A newly pregnant roadie decides to visit her sister and her children in their crumbling New York City apartment block, but their reunion gets cut short after a cursed book found in the basement starts to turn everyone into flesh-possessing demons. Vikings' Alyssa Sutherland played the terrifying Maggot Mommy, forcing her sibling and offspring into a primal battle for survival as they face the most hellish night imaginable. In true Evil Dead fashion, there was lots of blood, guts, gore, chainsaws, and of course self-mutilation. That sounds like a typical family reunion by our standards. Megan Garside
22. Asteroid City
Wes Anderson is no stranger to love, loss, and wonky family dynamics, and Asteroid City offered up all three in a metatextual study of grief via a junior stargazing convention in the desert. This play within a movie features Jason Schwartzman and Scarlett Johansson on top form as recently widowed photojournalist Augie Steinbeck and jaded actor Midge Campbell (and the thespians who play them), as well as some stellar performances from the junior stargazers themselves – particularly Jake Ryan, who plays Augie's eldest kid. Add in Jeff Goldblum playing an alien, some singing cowboys, and gorgeous production design, and you've got Anderson at his whimsical, heartbreaking best. Emily Garbutt
21. May December
Drawing inspiration from the true story of Mary Kay Letourneau, an American woman who was convicted of the second-degree rape of a child in 1997 who she then married, the wickedly funny and smart May December wasn't the movie you probably thought it would be. Which is thanks to the incredible screenwriter Samy Burch and director Todd Haynes, who put a clever spin on this infamous, tabloid scandal. Both Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore gave sensational performances, but Charles Melton walked away as an Oscar hopeful being the beating heart of the movie, a child in a man’s body who was thrown into adulthood too soon, stalling his development. There were layers and layers to uncover, meaning multiple rewatches are recommended. Emily Murray
20. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3
This year’s other MCU threequel (AMATW: Quantumania) went big and came up short. James Gunn took the opposite approach - no multiversal madness here - and gave his trilogy (and Marvel tenure) a furry-tale ending. ‘I needed to tell Rocket’s story,’ said the writer-director, who sent his cherished Guardians on a racoon-saving mission that captured the true meaning of family better than any other Vin Diesel flick this summer. Funny/sad, thrilling/harrowing (those heart-of-the-movie flashbacks), it was a hit with punters ($846m at the global box office), critics and even PETA, who bestowed its Not a Number award on Gunn ‘for showing audiences that Rocket Raccoon’s origin story isn’t out of Knowhere’. Matthew Leyland
Ti West’s prequel to his grungy exploitation-slasher X (2022) was an altogether different beast. While that film was set in the late '70s, Pearl takes place six decades earlier, and is described by the director as ‘a demented Disney movie’. It was a technicolor marvel complete with musical numbers, wide-eyed wonder, and a scene where Mia Goth masturbates with a scarecrow. And Goth (who co-wrote with West) was on stellar form, flipping between naive optimism and murderous rage on an axe edge, elevating this from mere backstory to an insane love letter to the dreams and nightmares of the silver screen. The end credits were unmissable, too. Trilogy closer MaXXXine can’t come soon enough. Tim Coleman
18. The Creator
In a crowded market of sequels and reboots, Gareth Edwards’ stunning sci-fi was a rare example of original filmmaking, crafting a fully realized and vividly executed new world. Set in an eerily familiar near future where AI and humans are at war, it was most concerned with the central relationship between John David Washington’s former soldier Joshua and newcomer Madeleine Yuna Voyles’ young simulant Alphie. With its sunset-hued and intimately shot scenes, beautifully lensed by Greig Fraser and Oren Soffer, Edwards’ latest felt reminiscent of his 2010 breakout Monsters, while also being a loving tribute to sci-fis past. ‘The goal was to have it feel like the kind of movies that we grew up loving,’ said Edwards. Fay Watson
17. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed
Best known for documenting queer subcultures in New York City with her photography, artist Nan Goldin is also the founder of advocacy group P.A.I.N., whose mission is to hold the Sackler family accountable for their role in the opioid epidemic. They’re also eminent financial supporters of the arts, and P.A.I.N. carries out demonstrations at galleries and institutions that honor their donations. These protests were captured in Oscar-winning director Laura Poitras’ understated documentary, as well as meetings between members, many of whom are recovering addicts. Goldin put her career on the line to fight for what’s right, and it was powerful to watch. Emily Garbutt
16. The Eight Mountains
A life-long friendship played out with unhurried grace in Felix van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch’s moving tale of childhood pals who reunite in adulthood to build a lodge in the Alps. Initially redolent of Lukas Dhont’s Close, this thoughtful adaptation of Paolo Cognetti’s novel gradually expanded to encompass decades and continents, the contrasting outlooks of nomadic Pietro (Luca Marinelli) and mountain loner Bruno (Alessandro Borghi) coming to embody an existential meditation on that old Clash quandary, ‘Should I stay or should I go?’ Stunning scenery was a given in a film that, unlike some of the year’s bloated bum-numbers, earned every one of the 147 minutes it took to unfold. Neil Smith
15. Women Talking
Sarah Polley’s aching drama about an isolated group of religious women making a life-changing decision was far more than its simple (yet accurate) title suggested. With an excellent cast that included Rooney Mara and Claire Foy, Polley detailed the options of a commune left shattered by a series of violent assaults: do nothing, stay and fight, or journey into the unknown. A state-of-the-nation tale, the film was an examination of the impossible binds that women find themselves in just trying to live their lives. Women Talking was wholeheartedly earnest in its celebration of the powers of female-driven community, something that still feels dishearteningly rare in 2023. Through Polley’s eyes, the future was brighter. Kayleigh Donaldson
14. How to Blow up a Pipeline
Where Fight Club offered anarchy lessons to Generation X, Daniel Goldhaber’s eco-thriller passed the manual to generation Extinction Rebellion. Wanting to fight back against climate change, eight young people assemble to sabotage an oil pipeline in West Texas – with a nervy, ticking-clock plot playing out like a classic heist movie with a DIY fuse. Hats were tipped to Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino, and Robert Bresson in the styling, but the film’s fearless urgency landed both feet in the here and now – making enough noise to earn 23 federal and state warnings, and at least one FBI case file. Few other thrillers have ever felt quite as essential, or as dangerous. Paul Bradshaw
13. Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One
Tom Cruise and writer-director Christopher McQuarrie continued their sequence of impossible missions with yet another example of action cinema at its finest. Whether Cruise was scrapping in the narrowest alley in Venice, jumping off a cliff on his motorbike, or trying to avoid being taken out by a piano (yes, really), the film pushed its stunts to the next level. The ever-inventive McQuarrie also made room for a smart retcon of the IMF’s recruitment policy, alongside plenty of espionage-themed fun (including a long-overdue gag about the International Monetary Fund) and an AI baddie who felt very 2023. Richard Edwards
La La Land writer-director Damien Chazelle polarised the critics with this raucously maximalist ode to the excesses of early Hollywood – think Boogie Nights with, if anything, a little more sex. Though it undoubtedly bombed at the box office, it has ridiculous amounts going for it, from an incredibly game cast (Diego Calva, Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt, Jovan Adepo) to Linus Sandgren’s wildly inventive cinematography and Justin Hurwitz’s scorching jazz score, and the whole thing spins out of control like the best-worst night of your life. Stephen King called it ‘one of those movies that reviews badly and is acclaimed as a classic in 20 years’. We concur. Matt Glasby
11. Rye Lane
If someone said to me, “Your first film will be a rom-com,” I’d be depressed,’ director Raine Allen-Miller joked before the release of Rye Lane. It’s all the more impressive, then, that the filmmaker delivered such a charming debut: an unapologetic love story that pays homage to rom-coms past and will inevitably influence rom-coms future. This romance follows Dom, played by Industry’s David Jonsson, a nervous South Londoner struggling to get over his ex. Crying in a gender-neutral toilet at the opening of his friend’s art exhibition, he meets Vivian Oparah’s Yas, another recent dumpee, and they end up accidentally getting to know each other across a wild, whirlwind day – and maybe, just maybe, they fall in love. Every frame of Rye Lane popped with colour and character, Peckham and Brixton vibrantly coming to life, while the cast added humour and heart to an already special screenplay. The result was a heartwarming and extremely funny flick that celebrated Black culture and instantly secured its place within the rom-com pantheon. Hopefully, Allen-Miller’s not feeling too depressed. Jack Shepherd
Ridley Scott’s study of the military strategist focused not only on the bombastic scope of his war campaigns (which the master of big logistics can essay in his sleep), but also the romance that augmented his drive. Meeting the savvy captain (Joaquin Phoenix, not remotely bothering with an accent) as he led the decisive siege at Toulon in 1793, Scott blended key clashes throughout Bonaparte’s career with the commander’s volatile relationship with his lover-turned-wife-turned-empress, Josephine (another smart performance from Vanessa Kirby). As fascinating a character study of a complex man as a visceral history of military moves and the human cost of ambition, Scott’s multi-camera technique produced astonishing recreations of battles (the Battle of Austerlitz was particularly horrifying) that may be some of the best large-scale action of his career. But the piece only worked if audiences believed in a central performance that resisted cartoon characterisation and easy choices. In Phoenix (by turns whiny, decisive, cruel, impressive, selfish, conflicted), Scott had a leader on and off screen. Jane Crowther
9. Talk to Me
Much like how The Matrix appeared from out of nowhere to steal The Phantom Menace’s thunder in 1999, this Aussie hit appeared before shocked, smiling faces (it’s scary and fun, lots of fun) with smart new twists on the possession movie to render The Exorcist: Believer obsolete. Written and directed by twins Danny and Michael Philippou, whose horror-comedy YouTube channel RackaRacka has won numerous awards, Talk to Me showed what happens when a group of friends find they can conjure spirits in the age of social media. It wasn’t nice. It was intense, gory, and emotional. ‘No wonder the film’s title sounds less like an incantation than a cry for help,’ wrote The Guardian. Jamie Graham
8. John Wick: Chapter 4
With so many franchise blockbusters focus-grouped to death and calibrated to try to please everyone, it was refreshing to watch an expensive, well-crafted action movie that was so unabashedly goofy but still cool, marching to the beat of its own (very loud) drum. The likely finale of the John Wick saga was a maximalist epic, where extravagance and pushing things to breaking point – from the film’s length, to Wick’s physical and spiritual limits, to the neon-lighting budget – were part of its substance. Director Chad Stahelski’s magnum opus was a melting pot of cinematic tributes and reinvention, and Keanu Reeves once again proved that no modern action star is cooler under pressure. Josh Slater-Williams
7. The Fabelmans
'I’ve told this story in parts and parcels all through my career,’ said Steven Spielberg. Sixty years in the making, his movie memoir arrived as a luminous origin story, littered with Easter-egg auto-references and lit up by one unmistakeable authorial trait. Exploring his parents’ break-up, Spielberg didn’t judge. Instead, he showed how his creativity emerged from a desire to take ‘control’ over his fears but attributed its development to the understanding that we can’t always control those feelings that make people human and films humane. Blessed with vibrant turns from Michelle Williams and Paul Dano, the result was Spielberg at his most abundantly generous, glowing with heart and tender art. Kevin Harley
Few could have predicted that a Hollywood tie-in for a plastic doll would emerge as one of the most vital, vibrant films of the year, and yet here we are. Director Greta Gerwig’s battle of the sexes pits Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) against the patriarchy after a visit to the real world sent Ken (Ryan Gosling) down a men’s-rights-activist rabbit hole of brewski beers and mojo dojo casa houses. Robbie may have been born to play the blonde bombshell but, ironically, it was just Ken who stole her thunder, culminating in a stirring rendition of the now-anthemic tune. Behind the product placement lay Gerwig’s existentialist horror story – in Barbie’s toybox-shattering ennui, a universal dread that restricts itself to no one gender. Elsewhere, the film impressed with a strong cast and deeply odd sense of humour, personified by Kate McKinnon’s ‘Weird’ Barbie and Michael Cera as Allan. Between Barbenheimer and the ubiquitous ‘I Am Kenough’ hoodies, the film sparked conversation – and a shortage of pink paint – worldwide. This is Barbie’s world, we’re just living in it. Joel Harley
5. Past Lives
First-time director Celine Song mined her own life for this loosely autobiographical romance about Nora (Greta Lee), a successful playwright, who reconnects with Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), the childhood sweetheart she left behind in South Korea. Song, a playwright herself, infused a deep sense of longing in the wistful immigrant drama about lost love, cultural identity, and the burden of what-ifs. Past Lives found beautiful truths in the emotional intimacy that can exist between two people. The tantalising chemistry between Nora and Hae Sung was electrifying but there was a quiet passion, too, in Nora’s marriage to Arthur (John Magaro). A poignant moment featuring the trio in a bar was based on something that happened to Song, her husband, and a childhood friend. ‘I felt something special was passing through the three of us,’ she recalled. But the act of turning that experience into a film turned it into ‘its own story’. And what a story - like the best romances, Past Lives was hard to forget and left an imprint firmly on your heart. Ann Lee
‘If you’re not risking being terrified, then you should probably hand the job over,’ said Cate Blanchett on playing problematic composer-conductor Lydia Tár in Todd Field’s austere masterwork. Evidently, it was a risk worth taking; so convincing was Blanchett’s lived-in portrayal of Tár that the most common question on Google about the film remains: ‘Was Lydia Tár based on a real person?’ Tár might not be real, but Field, who hadn’t made a film since Little Children in 2006, meticulously researched the world of classical music after finding a home for a character he’d dreamt about for a decade. Cancel culture figured – most notably in a bravura, single-take scene where Tár ruthlessly schooled her snowflake students – but her true transgressions were age-old: lust, greed, envy, and pride. Ambiguity might be key to its stickiness. Was the whole final act a death-rattle nightmare? Was that a ghost, or a symptom of misophonia? And was Tár’s fate the ultimate humiliation, or a liberating new beginning? Tár marched to its own beat, and remains unforgettable for it. Jordan Farley
3. Killers of the Flower Moon
‘I don’t know how many more I can make – maybe this is it. The last one,’ pondered Martin Scorsese while promoting The Irishman in 2019. Fortunately, tempted by David Grann’s non-fiction bestseller about the 1920s Osage murders and given free rein by Apple on budget and runtime, Scorsese relented. It’s our gain. Killers bore all of the director’s hallmarks but with a newfound clarity and depth. Over 206 minutes, Scorsese uncoiled a morally thorny study of greed and gaslighting, punctuated with violence while patiently charting the slow corrosion of America’s soul. For the first time, Scorsese paired his two on-screen muses: De Niro, as a racist hiding behind avuncular benevolence, and DiCaprio, ceding alpha-dog status to play weak and credulous. Meanwhile, even for a director long fascinated by cultural rhythms and rituals, Scorsese’s considered study of Osage life was remarkable, given heft by Lily Gladstone’s formidable performance and the late Robbie Robertson’s ‘indigenous blues’ score. So, will this be Scorsese’s last one? When he’s still confounding expectations and making masterpieces in his 80s, don’t count on it. Simon Kinnear
2. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse
During the astonishing climactic battle scene in Across the Spider-Verse, Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) pushes away Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac) telling him: ‘Everyone keeps telling me how my story is supposed to go. Nah. I’m-a do my own thing.’ It was a moment that captured the fierce spirit of this incredible sequel, which once again pushes the boundaries of animation in astonishing new ways, bursting with imagination, color, and vivacity. However, for all of the vivid spectacle, this was certainly not a case of style over substance as the emotional story also packed a punch. Not only does Miles have to face off against the tough Miguel but he also has The Spot to contend with, a fascinating villain who goes from a laughable joke to a terrifying nemesis thanks to Jason Schwartzman’s pitch-perfect performance. Meanwhile, Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) and the Morales family are also brought into the spotlight, becoming the beating heart of the movie alongside our hero Miles. A jaw-dropping final-act twist pulled the rug completely from under our feet in spectacular, gasp-inducing style, leaving us desperate for a threequel that now has an even higher bar to pass. Game on, Spider-Man. Emily Murray
A historical biopic that played with the pulse-pounding pace of a thriller. A three-hour runtime that zipped by. The greatest ensemble cast in years in support of a towering central performance that dominated the film. A summer-season blockbuster shot partly in black-and-white and dealing with themes of nuclear annihilation. Oppenheimer was as brimming with contradictions as the man himself. ‘A dilettante, a womaniser, a suspected communist, unstable, theatrical, romantic,’ as Matt Damon’s Leslie Groves put it, the genius physicist who would unleash the proverbial fire of the gods by creating the world’s first atomic weapon was as complex a protagonist as writer-director Christopher Nolan has ever dealt with.
Drawing on Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s definitive biography, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the film gave an authoritative account of Oppenheimer’s life across two parallel timeframes (dubbed ‘Fission’ and ‘Fusion’), in color and black-and-white. We followed Oppie from nervy student through to architect of the Manhattan Project, and the fateful Trinity Test. We also saw Oppenheimer’s loyalties scrutinised at a security hearing, which attempted to ascertain whether he was compromised by communist leanings. Playing the brilliant but tormented genius across the decades was Cillian Murphy, who duly delivered the performance of his career. The Peaky Blinders star disappeared into the role with an astonishing, Daniel Day-Lewis-like translucency. A supporting cast with barely an unrecognisable face among them all brought their A-game, but particular stand-outs included Emily Blunt, Robert Downey Jr., and Matt Damon.
There was the palpable sense that every department was firing on all cylinders, out of respect for the intensity of the subject matter, and the vision of the auteur at the helm. Ludwig Göransson’s score was immaculate; Hoyte van Hoytema’s photography thrillingly immersive; Jennifer Lame’s editing scalpel-sharp. They don’t often make them like this any more. Impressively tactile special effects, vast IMAX-scale visuals, rich, complicated characterisation on the grandest scale. It had been a while since ‘adult cinema’ had delivered something so epic. But, as the global box-office take of close to $1 billion showed, audiences were ready for it. Capital C Cinema. Matt Maytum
So, there you have it - Total Film's best movies of 2023. To see what next year has in store for us, check out our guide to the most exciting upcoming movies.
And for more from Total Film's Review of the Year 2023, check out the latest issue.