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Beyond Barbenheimer: 2023 in Review

Ryan Gosling as Ken and Margot Robbie as Barbie . Photo: courtesy of Warner Bros.

Amidst delays of film releases related to the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes, as Hollywood struggled to recapture its pre-pandemic levels of box-office returns (between $10 and 11 billion annually), who could have predicted that 2023 would end with a domestic tally of $9.03 billion? “Only 88 movies debuted in theaters in 2023,” Variety recently reported, “compared to 108 in 2019 when ticket sales reached $10.5 billion.” Yet, with Universal Pictures leading the charge, last year proved to be Hollywood’s “highest-grossing year since COVID upended the movie theater industry—far above 2022 ($7.46 billion) and 2021 ($4.56 billion).”

The film-phenomenon that will likely be most closely identified with 2023, and remembered long after the new year, is the summer of “Barbenheimer,” a portmanteau that by this point needs no explanation. Wonka, a prequel to Roald Dahl’s children’s novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964, adapted in 1971 and again in 2005), was the biggest box-office hit of the holiday season, capping another year of sequels (Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 and Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania), remakes (Disney’s The Little Mermaid), and reboots (Universal’s The Super Mario Bros. Movie). Last year was also a major moment for auteur cinema, notably Martin Scorsese’s three-and-a-half-hour epic Killers of the Flower Moon and Hayao Miyazaki’s The Boy and the Heron, the latter director’s first film in ten years (both directors, incidentally, are in their early eighties). The oddest trend was the cycle of what Ann Hornaday and others called the “corporate biopic” (Air, BlackBerry, Flamin’ Hot, The Beanie Bubble, and Tetris), in which “the brand is the star.” Of course, the real star of 2023 was Taylor Swift; Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour has earned more than any concert film to date. But maybe the most surprising development of all was the commercial success of the sleeper film Sound of Freedom, one of the highest-grossing independent productions ever and a right-wing cause célèbre.

Ranking my ten favorite films from 2023, a few examples of what I’ve mentioned above appear on the list. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, a franchise film, crept up to #2. May December, the latest from American auteur Todd Haynes, made the cut at #9. And Barbie, the highest-grossing film of the year, landed squarely at #5. However, what I hope the following list shows is the far greater range of films that received a wide release in 2023 that are worth seeking out: a dark comedy about the memeification of Nicolas Cage in our collective unconscious; an urgent social-justice documentary about the opioid crisis in the U.S.; mid-budget, character-driven dramas by first-time-feature directors, aimed at adult audiences; blockbuster genre films made outside the U.S.; and an experimental horror film that scared me more than anything I’ve seen in almost a decade.

10. Dream Scenario 

A man reads a book titled, "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers"
Nicolas Cage as Paul Matthews in Dream Scenario (A24)

In one of the most remarkable performances of his career, Nicolas Cage plays an unremarkable biology professor who begins inexplicably showing up in people’s dreams. Dream Scenario may not break new ground as a satire on celebrity culture (it actually works better as a character study), but its surrealist-inspired vision is imaginative, and its comic observations are wincingly hilarious.

9. May December

Two women sit side by side next to a mirror that reflects one of them, creating a doubled image
Julianne Moore as Gracie (left) and Natalie Portman as Elizabeth (right) in May December (Netflix)

Viewers expecting a new film in the league of Todd Haynes’s Safe (1995), Far from Heaven (2002), and Carol (2015) might be slightly disappointed by the director’s return to woman’s film melodrama (I couldn’t help feeling that it stopped short of the emotional catharsis to which Haynes appeared to be building). What seems almost indisputable, however, is the monumental talent on display in May December: Julianne Moore as the subject of scandal à la Mary Kay Letourneau, Natalie Portman as an actress shadowing her to prepare to play her in a film, and Charles Melton as the man caught between their power struggle. It’s like looking into an infinity mirror of endlessly fascinating reflections.

8. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed 

Activists protest at museum
P.A.I.N. protests at the Guggenheim Museum in All the Beauty and the Bloodshed (NEON and HBO Max)

Photographer Nan Goldin, who documented New York’s post-punk scene and queer subcultures during the Gay Liberation Movement, went on to establish the advocacy group P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) in 2017 after recovering from her addiction to OxyContin, an opioid she was prescribed. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed tells the story of her life and career alongside her recent protests against the fine-arts institutions that benefitted from the support of the Sackler family, the owners of the pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma that manufactured OxyContin (ironically, these institutions included the very museums that exhibited Goldin’s work).

7. Aftersun 

A man holds a camcorder
Paul Mescal as Calum in Aftersun (A24)

Both All the Beauty and the Bloodshed and Aftersun were technically released in 2022, but were not widely distributed until 2023. The less you know about Aftersun going into it, the better. Director Charlotte Wells, in her feature debut, presents the film as footage shot with a MiniDV camera, recording the summer holiday in Turkey that an eleven-year-old girl from Edinburgh (Frankie Corio) takes with her father (Paul Mescal) sometime during the late 1990s. Stay with it and the film will break your heart.

6. Past Lives 

A man and woman sit in front of a carousel
Teo Yoo as Hae Sung (right) and Greta Lee as Nora Moon (left) in Past Lives (A24)

Two childhood friends living in Seoul, South Korea, Na Young and Hae Sung, are separated when the former immigrates to Toronto with her family. They later reconnect on Facebook and resume their friendship through regular video calls. When Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) visits New York City, where Na Young (Greta Lee) is living as a writer with her husband and goes by the name Nora Moon, the two friends reunite for the first time in twenty-four years. I can’t imagine anyone not falling in love with Past Lives, a meditation on changing relationships across temporal and geographic distance and cultural difference, and the roads not traveled, but I suppose such people are out there. What a career we have to look forward to with first-time director Celine Song. NB: Sharon Van Etten’s end-credits song “Quiet Eyes” is the best original song I heard in a film last year.

5. Barbie 

A woman sheds a single tear
Margot Robbie as Barbie in Barbie (Warner Bros.)

What is there left to say about Barbie after the flurry of commentary it has generated since its July opening? It’s a parody of the Western feminine beauty norms and patriarchal capitalism that the Mattel fashion doll embodies. It’s a celebration of Mattel’s Barbie as an alternative to baby dolls—a pop culture icon created by a woman, for girls, to show that they could grow up to pursue a variety of lifestyles and careers. It’s an existential drama disguised as a wacky comedy about living dolls facing a crisis of identity. If Greta Gerwig doesn’t quite pull off having it every which way, she very nearly does, and you have to admire her commitment to visual ingenuity and sheer weirdness. Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling are solid gold as Barbie and Ken, respectively.

4. The Three Musketeers, Part I: D’Artagnan 

A woman smiles coyly
Eva Green as Milady in The Three Musketeers, Part I: D’Artagnan (Samuel Goldwyn Films)

If Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One and Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny underperformed at the box-office (partly a result of the amount they had to recoup on such inflated budgets), John Wick: Chapter 4 affirmed that action/adventure remains a bankable genre in Hollywood, especially with pre-sold properties. But the swashbuckler that stateside audiences missed was The Three Musketeers, Part I: D’Artagnan (Part II: Milady is scheduled for a release this year), a rousing, handsomely mounted adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’s nineteenth-century novel and the first French film adaptation since 1961. For people who complain that “they don’t make ‘em like they used to,” here’s a movie for you that’s a hell of a lot of fun.

3. Skinamarink 

An ominous-looking toy
A typically creepy shot in Skinamarink (IFC Midnight and Shudder)

Skinamarink won’t be for everyone, as it rejects conventions of linear storytelling and moves at a pace many will find “too slow,” but there are few films I’ve seen that have so relentlessly instilled such a feeling of tension and dread with nightmarish imagery alone. The film’s power comes from the mere suggestion of what lies under the bed or in the darkness behind a door opened ajar, and even the uncanniness of screen media itself. Shot on a $15,000 budget in Canadian writer-director Kyle Edward Ball’s childhood home in Edmonton, Alberta, the film comprises little more than grainy, security-style footage of domestic interiors in which windows and doors to the outside have suddenly disappeared. The main characters, mostly unseen, are two children who awaken to find themselves alone in the house.

2. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse 

Spider-Man and Spider-Gwen hang upside down and look at the New York City skyline
Spider-Man (left) and Spider-Gwen (right) in Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (Sony Pictures)

We may have seen the hegemony of the superhero film finally collapse last year, with Shazam! Fury of the Gods, The Flash, Blue Beetle, and The Marvels all bombing at the box-office, and Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom fighting to stay afloat. Hopefully Hollywood learns the right lessons from this downward trend. The animated feature Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, the sequel to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, was one of the few unqualified commercial triumphs and critical darlings to emerge from the genre in 2023 and portends a glimmer of optimism for what’s still possible when filmmakers are tuned to the right wavelengths: an arrestingly beautiful feat of technical innovation and a wildly creative flight of fancy.

1. Godzilla Minus One 

Godzilla approaches a train, seen in the reflection of a window, as a woman on board stares in horror
Minami Hamabe as Noriko Ōishi in Godzilla Minus One (Toho International)

Godzilla Minus One is the sort of movie that reminds me of what the great filmmaker Samuel Fuller tells Jean-Paul Belmondo’s character in Pierrot le Fou (1965) when asked to define cinema. “Film is like a battleground,” Fuller says, “love…hate…action…violence…death. In one word: emotions.” Whether you’re a longtime Godzilla fan or have never before seen a Godzilla flick, this is a movie for people who love movies. Produced by Toho Studios, marking the 70th anniversary of the character’s first appearance onscreen, it is set in the immediate aftermath of World War II and concerns a disgraced kamikaze pilot who leaves his chosen family to help fend off a certain irradiated prehistoric reptile from attacking Japan. You may just stand up and cheer by the time the credits roll.

Written by Will Scheibel

Will is a film critic and historian based at Syracuse University, where he is Associate Professor in the Department of English. He is the author of GENE TIERNEY: STAR OF HOLLYWOOD'S HOME FRONT (Wayne State University Press, 2022) and, with Julie Grossman, co-author of the "TV Milestones" volume TWIN PEAKS (Wayne State University Press, 2020).

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