Barbie, Oppenheimer and Killers of the Flower Moon: The 20 best films of 2023

By Nicholas Barber and Caryn JamesFeatures correspondent
Searchlight Pictures/Warner Bros (Credit: Searchlight Pictures/Warner Bros)Searchlight Pictures/Warner Bros
(Credit: Searchlight Pictures/Warner Bros)

BBC Culture film critics Nicholas Barber and Caryn James pick their highlights of the year, including Barbie, Oppenheimer, Maestro and Killers of the Flower Moon.

Alamy (Credit: Alamy)Alamy
(Credit: Alamy)

The numbers in this list do not represent ranking, but are intended to make the separate entries as clear as possible.

1. Saint Omer

This tough-minded, heart-breaking drama about race, class and motherhood was France's entry to last year's Oscar race, and I'm still mystified as to why it wasn't nominated. Alice Diop puts her experience making documentaries to good use, as she bases her story on the real-life case of a young Senegalese woman in France charged with abandoning her baby on a beach to die. Diop invents Rama, a pregnant novelist who goes to the town of Saint Omer to witness the trial, which plays into her own doubts and fears. As Laurence, the mother on trial, Guslagie Malanda is unnaturally calm, almost frozen in resignation. Kayije Kagame as Rama lets you see her mind racing and her heart pounding as she watches, even though her face is impassive. Diop based her dialogue on court transcripts, but the results go far beyond dry facts on the page to create an enthralling film with two profound and vivid women on screen. (CJ)

Profile Pictures/One Two Films/Nordisk Film Production/Wild Bun (Credit: Profile Pictures/One Two Films/Nordisk Film Production/Wild Bun)Profile Pictures/One Two Films/Nordisk Film Production/Wild Bun
(Credit: Profile Pictures/One Two Films/Nordisk Film Production/Wild Bun)

2. Holy Spider

Ali Abbasi's grisly Holy Spider is based on the true story of a married builder (Mehdi Bajestani) who murdered 16 sex workers in Iran's holy city of Mashhad in 2000 and 2001. Starring Zar Amir Ebrahimi (winner of the best actress award at Cannes) as the determined journalist investigating the crimes, it seems at first to be an atmospheric companion piece to Silence of the Lambs and other big-screen serial-killer dramas. The provocative twist is that some citizens and politicians see the murderer as a local hero on a moral crusade. Behind the generic thrills, Holy Spider is an examination of society-wide misogyny that seems all the more astute in the wake of the Mahsa Amini protests. (NB)

Alamy (Credit: Alamy)Alamy
(Credit: Alamy)

3. Polite Society

A culture clash comedy of manners with a horror meme twist, Nida Manzoor's (We are Lady Parts) film is one of the freshest, most fun-to-watch of the year. Manzoor's first inventive choice is to create an unlikely teenage heroine, Ria (Priya Kansara), a London girl of Pakistani descent, who is determined to become a stuntwoman, adding martial arts flair and action to the movie. Then Manzoor ramps up the stakes, when Ria's older sister decides to marry a rich, handsome man whom Ria suspects is not what he seems. His over-the-top, controlling mother has a sinister smile worthy of a Disney villain. As the outlandish elements pile on, the film gleefully blends all its elements, from Ria's comic schemes to thwart the wedding, to her Bollywood-ready dance scene and nuanced portraits of her understanding parents, creating a smart and thoroughly enjoyable romp. (CJ)

Neon (Credit: Neon)Neon
(Credit: Neon)

4. How to Blow Up a Pipeline

Inspired by Andreas Malm's non-fiction book, this unbearably tense indie thriller introduces a rag-tag group of eco-activists who are planning to bomb an oil pipeline in West Texas. They have all been hurt by pollution, corporate greed, and the climate crisis, and this, they believe, is the only way they can fight back. Cutting between their nervous preparations and the back stories that led them to Texas, Daniel Goldhaber's tightly focused film echoes several classic heist movies – Reservoir Dogs in particular – but it has some crucial differences. The criminals aren't motivated by greed, the details of their amateur bomb-making are fascinatingly specific, and, because they are handling explosive chemicals, they are always in danger of killing themselves by accident. (NB)

A24 (Credit: A24)A24
(Credit: A24)

5. Past Lives

Celine Song's lovely, nuanced first feature is a romance that rejects the clichés of the genre. Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) were best friends, closely bonded forever as children in Korea, until her family immigrated to Canada. Years later, when she is married and living in New York, he re-enters her life. Their reconnection is at first wavering, and their meeting in New York full of deep feeling along with sharp realism, as the film recognises both the allure of a long-ago love for Nora, and the strength of her marriage to Arthur (John Magaro). Through Nora and Hae Sung's deftly portrayed relationship, Song also unveils themes of memory and cultural identity, but it is the love story that dominates and lingers, demonstrating that romance doesn't always lead to a kiss in the rain. Sometimes it is wrapped in a beautiful wistfulness. (CJ)

Toho (Credit: Toho)Toho
(Credit: Toho)

6. Suzume

Suzume is a teenage schoolgirl who discovers that the derelict doors in abandoned towns all over Japan can be used as portals to another dimension. Now it's up to her to stop a destructive monster getting through those doors, with the help of a boy who has been turned into a chair, and a talking kitten that could well be a goddess. Yes, the apocalyptic new anime from Makoto Shinkai (Your Name, Weathering with You) is a dazzling feat of imagination, but the writer-director balances magical fantasy with warmth, humour and deep concern for his country. Suzume's mythical exploits are set in a gorgeously painted, recognisable Japan, and she and her friends are ordinary people with ordinary hopes and regrets – and that includes the boy who's been turned into a chair. (NB)


Universal (Credit: Universal)Universal
(Credit: Universal)

7. Oppenheimer

Christopher Nolan's magnificent film is among the best of his career. He combines all the elements he has brought to other films – the volatile action of The Dark Knight trilogy, the cerebral layers of Memento and the absorbing narrative of Inception – in this character study of the conflicted American hero J Robert Oppenheimer (the flawless Cillian Murphy), the physicist known as the Father of the Atomic Bomb, who grappled with the moral consequences of his actions for the rest of his life. With fiery tension Nolan depicts the first testing of the bomb, and throughout interweaves the drama of Oppenheimer's politically ambitious nemesis, the government bureaucrat Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr), who orchestrated false suspicions of communist involvement that shadowed the scientist's post-war life. Nolan long ago mastered the balancing act between artistic accomplishment and commercial success, and Oppenheimer stands as the finest example of a movie that is both freshly imagined and hugely popular. (CJ)

(Credit: ZIP CINEMA & CJ ENM Co)

8. Broker

Broker is as bittersweet and nuanced as the previous films from Hirokazu Kore-eda (Shoplifters), but it's also his funniest, most crowd-pleasing work: the Japanese writer-director's first Korean production is a romantic road movie reminiscent of Little Miss Sunshine as well as the Coen brothers' crime capers. Song Kang Ho from Parasite plays a Busan launderette owner with an unusual side hustle. With the aid of a big-hearted sidekick, he sells unwanted infants to couples who want to circumvent the legal adoption process, but only after he's satisfied that they are the ideal parents for the child. When one infant's birth mother wants to get involved in the business, and two police detectives start following them, secret motives are revealed, sympathies shift, mysteries deepen and dangers multiply, all the way to the poignant, elegantly plotted finale. (NB)

Les Films Pelléas/ Les Films de Pierre (Credit: Les Films Pelléas/ Les Films de Pierre)Les Films Pelléas/ Les Films de Pierre
(Credit: Les Films Pelléas/ Les Films de Pierre)

9. Anatomy of a Fall

Winner of this year's Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, Justine Triet's drama about a writer accused of killing her husband is a brilliant oxymoron: a film made with remarkable clarity even as it explores a search for truths that may never be found. Sandra Huller plays the accused, also named Sandra, whose husband tumbled to his death from the window of their house in the French Alps. Whether it was accident, suicide or murder is the question driving the plot and its courtroom scenes, but at its heart the film deals with the couple's crumbling marriage and with Sandra's flinty personality. Huller's bracingly original performance makes her enigmatic even while revealing her fierce independence, selfishness, and lies. The elusiveness of truth itself eventually extends to the motives of the couple's 11-year-old son, sympathetic to both his father's memory and his mother's jeopardy, in a film as coolly detached yet as beautiful as its snowy landscape. (CJ)

HBO Films (Credit: HBO Films)HBO Films
(Credit: HBO Films)

10. Reality

In June 2017, FBI agents visited the home of Reality Winner (her real name, unlikely as it may seem), a US Government translator who had leaked a classified document to the press. Tina Satter's ingenious debut film dramatises their encounter, with Sydney Sweeney in the lead role, and dialogue taken wholesale from recordings made at the time. What this means is that the low-key interrogation has the repetitions and hesitations of actual speech, which makes Reality seem close to reality (one of several ways that the title applies), yet also weirdly nightmarish. It's somewhere between an art installation, a documentary, and a nerve-racking horror movie. Some news outlets branded Winner a treacherous radical, yet Satter's haunting film depicts a vulnerable, confused, but brave young woman who is trapped in a bare white room with two men twice her size. (NB)

Apple TV+ Killers of the Flower Moon (Credit: Apple TV+)Apple TV+
Killers of the Flower Moon (Credit: Apple TV+)

11. Killers of the Flower Moon

Martin Scorsese's epic is as ambitious as anything he has done. Drawing on David Grann's non-fiction book about the murders of dozens of members of the oil-rich Osage tribe in 1920s Oklahoma. Scorsese places a jaw-dropping story of a marriage, power and money into an expansive Western landscape and the cultural sweep of the era, in all its violence, racism and ethnic hatred. The film's lead actors are at their stunning best, which is saying a lot. Robert De Niro is stern and callous as the powerful cattle baron William Hale and Leonardo DiCaprio is vibrant as his mercenary nephew, Ernest. In a performance of serene eloquence, Lily Gladstone is Mollie, whom Ernest marries and plots to murder for the money she has as part of the Osage nation. Mollie is the heart of the story, and Scorsese and Gladstone do her real-life story justice. (CJ)

Warner Bros (Credit: Warner Bros)Warner Bros
(Credit: Warner Bros)

12. Barbie

Could Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling bag Oscar nominations for playing plastic toys in a candy-coloured advert for branded merchandise? It's certainly possible, given the success of what has become the highest-grossing film of 2023 so far, as well as the highest-grossing film ever to be directed solely by a woman. And those are just two of its achievements. Barbie was overseen by Mattel, the company which manufactures the dolls, but its director and co-writer, Greta Gerwig, seems to have been granted the freedom to bring her own quirky vision to the screen. She upended expectations not only by commenting on commercialism and the patriarchy (much to the annoyance of some internet commentators), but by leaping into the realms of postmodern, Charlie Kaufman-ish weirdness. Beyond that, Barbie is a genuinely funny feelgood comedy – and how many of those do we see in cinemas these days? (NB)

courtesy of TIFF (Credit: courtesy of TIFF)courtesy of TIFF
(Credit: courtesy of TIFF)

13. American Fiction

In his audacious first film, writer and director Cord Jefferson blends nuanced family drama with a brash, funny satire of racial stereotyping. In a perfectly balanced performance, Jeffrey Wright grounds the film as a novelist and academic so disgusted by the state of the culture and so tired of reductive images of black people that he writes a book playing into every stereotype, only to have his angrily written tease become a bestseller. Meanwhile, he is dealing with his ageing mother, played with poignancy and grace by Leslie Uggams, and his siblings, played by Tracee Ellis Ross and Sterling K Brown, perfectly cast. Loosely based on Percival Everett's 2001 novel, Erasure, the film makes its publishing and academic racists too cartoonish, easy targets, but Jefferson's skill still makes American Fiction one of the year's most bracing comic-dramas. (CJ)

20th Century Studios The Creator (Credit: 20th Century Studios)20th Century Studios
The Creator (Credit: 20th Century Studios)

14. The Creator

What a treat to see an original science-fiction blockbuster, for a change, rather than an adaptation or a reboot of some over-used, decades-old intellectual property. Even better, The Creator works as a self-contained one-off at a time when most films of this kind are blatant attempts to set up franchises. Directed and co-written by Gareth Edwards (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story), it's set in the all-too-near future, when humanity is battling for survival against artificially intelligent robots, and a commando (John David Washington) is given the task of destroying the enemy's ultimate weapon. The likes of The Terminator, Blade Runner and The Matrix had similar premises, of course, but Edwards has crafted a gritty war epic with its own sombre mood, and with hazy imagery that makes even the most far-fetched androids and spaceships look real. He also opts for a sprawling, philosophical plot that mixes doom and gloom with a dash of hard-won optimism. (NB)

Atsushi Nishijima/Courtesy of NEON (Credit: Atsushi Nishijima/Courtesy of NEON)Atsushi Nishijima/Courtesy of NEON
(Credit: Atsushi Nishijima/Courtesy of NEON)

15. Origin

Ava DuVernay's deeply engaging and emotionally wrenching Origin is something only a filmmaker with her imagination and vision could have made. She transforms Isabel Wilkerson's rigorous non-fiction book Caste – which argues that caste, even more than race, subjugates people worldwide – into a personal story about Wilkerson's process of researching and writing the book while grieving the recent deaths of the most important people in her life. Aunjanue Ellis's performance as Wilkerson creates a character both cerebral and heartfelt. And the film always keeps the book's sweeping historical argument in sight, giving it dramatic shape with scenes from a World War Two Nazi book-burning, to untouchables cleaning sewers in 20th-Century India and the 2012 killing of the black teenager Trayvon Martin, which appalled the US. As she did in the series When They See Us, here DuVernay turns reality into an intensely moving drama. (CJ)

Focus Features (Credit: Focus Features)Focus Features
(Credit: Focus Features)

16. The Holdovers

Christmas, 1970. A resentful teenage boy (Dominic Sessa) is forced to spend the holiday without friends or family in his grand boarding school, so it falls to a curmudgeonly classics teacher (Paul Giamatti) and a bereaved cook (Da'Vine Joy Randolph) to look after him. Packed with jokes and colour by its screenwriter, David Hemingson, this warm festive comedy is directed by Alexander Payne. Because of its tone, its relaxed setting and its period setting, it has been compared to various 1970s indie classics, but The Holdovers is also a pleasing throwback to the early 2000s, when it wasn't unusual for the likes of Payne, Richard Linklater and Noah Baumbach to make mid-budget, grown-up comedy dramas about relatively ordinary people. Indeed, Payne and Giamatti collaborated on Sideways in 2004, and The Holdovers could be the most delightful project that either of them has been involved in since. (NB)

Searchlight Pictures (Credit: Searchlight Pictures)Searchlight Pictures
(Credit: Searchlight Pictures)

17. All of Us Strangers

Andrew Haigh had already established himself as a writer-director of great sensitivity with films including 45 Years and Weekend, but All of Us Strangers takes him to a new level. Andrew Scott has never been better or more touching, as a middle-aged writer Adam, who starts a relationship with a younger man, played with energy and vulnerability by Paul Mescal. Writing about his late parents (Claire Foy and Jamie Bell), Adam imagines that he can enter the past and meet them as an adult, although they haven't aged since he was 12. Beautifully filmed to create an ethereal quality, from Adam's childhood home to his austere high-rise London flat, All of Us Strangers is not a ghost story, but an immersion into memory and the painfulness of love and loss that, remarkably, rejects mawkishness and creates piercingly real emotions in the hero's past and present. (CJ)

Atsushi Nishijima (Credit: Atsushi Nishijima)Atsushi Nishijima
(Credit: Atsushi Nishijima)

18. Poor Things

The Favourite was directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, co-written by Tony McNamara, and it starred Emma Stone. Now the three of them have reunited for Poor Things, a raucous adaptation of Alasdair Gray's fabulous comic novel – and it's even more inventive and over-the-top than The Favourite was. Stone plays Bella, a drowned woman who is brought back to life by a Frankenstein-like scientist (Willem Dafoe). As she has no memories of her previous existence, she has no hang-ups or inhibitions either, so she can push aside the conventions of Victorian Europe – or the film's surreal, picture-book version of Victorian Europe, anyway. Stone is magnificently odd as the fearless Bella, and yet somewhere beneath the wackiness of this rollicking fairy tale is a piquant commentary on the ways in which women are tied down by a patriarchal society. (NB)

Studio Ghibli/Courtesy TIFF The Boy and the Heron (Credit: Studio Ghibli/Courtesy TIFF)Studio Ghibli/Courtesy TIFF
The Boy and the Heron (Credit: Studio Ghibli/Courtesy TIFF)

19. The Boy and the Heron

The master of animation, Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki, returns after a decade with another dazzling, majestic work that moves between reality and fantasy and weaves together many strands from his life and previous films. Set during the World War Two period of the 82-year-old Miyazaki's own childhood, the story centres on a boy named Mahito, whose mother is killed by a bomb in Tokyo and whose father works for a company creating Japanese military planes. Like the heroines of Spirited Away (2001) and Howl's Moving Castle (2004), Mahito enters a magical, often terrifying world, where his mother might be calling to him – and where he encounters ominous giant pink parakeets and other dangers. Through the lonely, fearless Mahito, the film explores grief and the fuzzy line between life and death in Miyazaki's unmistakable style, with hand-drawn images of delicate beauty and colours. (CJ)

Netflix Maestro (Credit: Netflix)Netflix
Maestro (Credit: Netflix)

20. Maestro

Bradley Cooper follows his directorial debut, A Star Is Born, with another in-depth account of love in the music business, proving in the process that he isn't just a heart-throb actor who is having a go behind the camera, but a major director in his own right. His vibrant and technically dazzling biopic of Leonard Bernstein is distinctive in several ways, not least in that it ignores some of the composer and conductor's most famous achievements (such as scoring West Side Story) to focus instead on his long and complicated marriage to Felicia Montealegre. Carey Mulligan's sparkling performance as Montealegre is a career highlight, and Cooper is almost as impressive in the central role. He shows just how exhausting and egocentric Bernstein could be, but the film glows with his deep affection for the maestro. (NB)

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