Barbie, Oppenheimer, The Creator and Suzume: 20 of the best films of 2023 so far

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)

2. Close

Lucas Dhont follows his award-winning debut, Girl, with another delicate yet emotionally shattering coming-of-age drama that is so naturalistic you could mistake it for a fly-on-the-wall documentary. Its heroes are Léo (Eden Dambrine) and Rémi (Gustav de Waele), two 13-year-old boys who enjoy an intimate friendship in bucolic Belgium. But when they enrol in a new school, peer pressure stretches their relationship to breaking point. Superhumanly sensitive to the pains of being a teenager, Dhont understands that it doesn’t take overt bullying to make young people feel as if they are under unbearable attack. The boys’ classmates’ casual questions are enough to change them forever. (NB)


3. John Wick: Chapter 4

The latest instalment of the artful action-filled franchise with Keanu Reeves as the assassin we root for has no competition for the year’s best mainstream, commercial film so far. With a multi-million-dollar price on his head, Wick channels his inner James Bond, globe-trotting through Paris, Berlin and Osaka, trying to avoid being killed. This entry is bigger and splashier than the previous Wick entries, and director Chad Stahelski makes it every bit as visually stunning and entertaining, with action full of martial arts, guns and swords. Reeves’ likeable persona helps attach us to a character who long ago lost count of the bodies he has sent on their way. Ian McShane is ever a delight as Wick’s urbane colleague, Winston, and the film gives us one more chance to see Lance Reddick, who died recently, as the concierge, Charon. (CJ)


4. 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)


5. The Worst Ones

Sometimes non-professional actors can seem extremely unnatural on screen, but the opposite is true in this sharp, serious yet light-handed fiction about children and adolescents in a run-down neighbourhood in northern France. The conceit of the meta-drama is that real students are being recruited to play fictional variations of their own stories on screen. That is exactly the process the directors Lise Akoka and Romane Gueret, former casting directors, employed in making The Worst Ones, whose title refers to the bad reputation of the kids who are cast. The two children and two adolescents who star here are captivating, with built-in screen presence, as they deal with and laugh at the callous, middle-aged man directing them. Winner of the top prize in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes last year, The Worst Ones has an unpretentious ease yet becomes a thoughtful look at the exploitation and voyeurism of filming real lives. (CJ)


6. EO

When a Polish circus is shut down, one of its performers, a donkey, is sent to live in an equestrian centre. But he doesn’t stay there for long. Instead, our long-eared hero trots across Europe, through a series of different episodes in different genres, as if he is guest-starring in a variety of other films. What unites his picaresque adventures, which were inspired by Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, is their anguish at man’s inhumanity to man (and man’s inhumanity to donkey), and their startlingly psychedelic camerawork, editing and music. Jerzy Skolimowski, the director of EO, might be 84, but he has never been more engaged or energetic. We won’t see another film this year that is so extravagantly bizarre, yet so sweet, loving, and mischievous. (NB)


7. Return to Seoul

Davy Chou’s small-scale film is deceptively ordinary in its premise. Freddie, a Korean woman in her mid-20s who was adopted as an infant and raised in France, travels to Seoul and reluctantly looks for her birth parents. But as it goes on, the story leaps ahead two years, then five, and depicts Freddie’s morphing sense of identity in unexpected, thoroughly convincing turns. Is she French or Korean; is her look that of a grunge student or a glam businesswoman; does she want to find her mother or not? Park Ji-Min is vibrant and keeps us off-guard as Freddie, and Chou offers a fresh and bracing style. He sets the story in ordinary spaces – narrow streets, offices, restaurants – with a polished look and intimate feel. The original English title better captures the film’s exciting swirl of identity: All the People I’ll Never Be. (CJ)


8. Infinity Pool

The latest entry in the burgeoning “rich people have a bad time on an island” sub-genre, Infinity Pool shimmers with reflections of Triangle of Sadness, Menu and Glass Onion, although it’s murkier and more toxic than any of them. Alexander Skarsgård stars as a struggling author who visits an exclusive beach resort with his wealthy wife. He discovers too late that the country has a policy of immediate execution for certain crimes, and his holiday from hell gets bloodier, and more jaw-droppingly strange, from then on. It’s true that both the character and the film lose their way, but this whirlpool of extreme cinema proves that its co-star, Mia Goth (who is just as impressive in Pearl), is one of the most extraordinary actresses of her generation, and that its writer-director, Brandon Cronenberg, is talented enough in his own right that we should probably stop comparing him to his dad, David Cronenberg. (NB)


9. 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)


10. 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)


11. Showing Up

Michelle Williams and Hong Chau, both Oscar nominees from last season, star in Kelly Reichardt’s slice-of-an-artist’s-life, set at an art college in Portland, Oregon. Williams plays Lizzy, who works in the college office by day and in her own time creates modest, lovely clay figures of women in slightly contorted poses. Chau adds humor as her self-absorbed neighbour and landlord, who creates room-sized installations. As they both prepare for their openings, Lizzy also grapples with her womanising father (Judd Hirsch) and emotionally troubled brother (John Magaro). Williams has starred in some of Reichardt’s best films, including Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff, and she creates another vivid, richly developed character here, an ordinary woman without wild dreams of fame, who is simply devoted to art as a way of life. Reichardt’s films are sometimes painstakingly slow, but the absorbing, light-handed Showing Up is a happy exception. (CJ)


12. 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)


13. 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)


14. 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)


15. The Lesson

Richard E Grant plays a famous but fading British novelist, Julie Delpy is his unhappy wife and Daryl McCormack is the young would-be novelist who comes to stay at their glorious country house to tutor their teenaged son. You might think you know where this story is going, but the director Alice Troughton and writer Alex MacKeith take unexpected turns in a twisty noir about betrayal, revenge and ambition. The three lead actors are at their unsurmountable best, keeping us off guard. And Troughton’s stylistic approach is brilliant. She gives the film an enticing, light-filled beauty – rolling lawns and a house filled with dazzling contemporary art – even as the characters’ hidden agendas and secrets are shown to be darker and more devastating than that beautiful surface would suggest. Troughton has directed television for years (including episodes of British war thriller Baghdad Central) and her first feature is a self-assured triumph. (CJ)


16. 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)


17. 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)


18. 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)


19. 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 diving 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)


20. 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)