2023: A year in film

31st December 2023

I was very pleased that one of the biggest cultural events of 2023 was the world’s most unlikely cinematic showdown. Christopher Nolan’s dark biopic of J. Robert Oppenheimer, head of the Manhattan Project and creator of the atomic bomb – if the device could be said to have a single father – faced off against Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, based on the hugely successful toy franchise. Both released on the same day, it seemed as if everyone was gripped by Barbenheimer fever; for example my local independent cinema sold cocktails themed around the two films.

This largely internet banter-based event, which was heavily memed, showed that cinema can still lead our cultural conversation and helped make both films a huge success; both being critical hits and drawing some of the biggest audiences this year. There is still an appetite in the twenty-first century for everyone to be brought together by films, so long as the filmmakers can capture the audience’s imagination.

Sadly, this year’s comic book inspired superhero films didn’t capture audiences’ attention as much as these other two Hollywood blockbusters. James Gunn returned to helm a third Guardians of the Galaxy film, which was funny, spectacular and moving. It rounded out the series on a high by making the unusual choice to focus on Rocket Raccoon’s back story.

Another helping of Marvel’s source

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse was as visually striking as the first and threw even more bizarre and unusual Spider-people at the audiences to make a gripping psychedelic roller coaster ride, which was hands down the best animated film of the year. The Marvels splashed Marvel’s signature source of humour and epic action to thoroughly entertain those who saw it. A special shout out must go to young talent Iman Vellani, who stole the show from established stars Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson.

Unfortunately, the latter didn’t deliver at the box office and was part of a wave of financially underperforming superhero films. Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania forgot all the charm of previous Ant-Man films and was full of empty special effects and not much else. Even Paul Rudd’s charm couldn’t save this film.

DC had yet another poor year with slow box office and bad reviews for both The Flash and Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom. Their other films, Blue Beetle and Shazam: Fury of the Gods, flew so much under the radar that they might as well have been the sort of art house film that is only shown once at the ICA.

Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One

Other franchises didn’t fare much better this year and anyone who thought that 2023 would be the year that the dominant form of blockbuster cinema would move away from superheroes was sorely disappointed. Fast X underwhelmed, despite a great turn from Jason Momoa as a new villain, Indiana Jones 5 didn’t wow audiences (although it was much better than Indy 4) and the Chris Pine vehicle Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves came and went without heralding the dawn of something different.

Even my beloved Mission: Impossible franchise underperformed at the box office with their epic new instalment Dead Reckoning Part 1. Despite a positive critical reception and the film excelling at the franchise’s USP of stunning practical stunts from Tom Cruise, a large cinema audience was unmoved. Aside from lacklustre box office numbers, the other trend of 2023 was the film split into two halves, with Mission, Spider-Man and Fast movies all ending on sudden cliffhangers.

Non-franchise science fiction also had a so-so year, following the success of the sublime After Yang and breathtaking Everything Everywhere All At Once last year. The Creator told a predictable robots are people too sci-fi story and was pedestrian at best; it didn’t push any boundaries in theme, writing or performance. Foe was at least tonally unusual, blurring the line between science fiction and a bleak family drama, however a lack of chemistry between leads Saoirse Ronan and Paul Mescal let the whole film down.

Strikes and streaming wars

2023 was also the year of the actors and writer’s strike, leading to many hotly anticipated films being postponed, including Dune: Part 2. Hollywood grinding to a halt over a payment dispute shows that the future of film is very much uncertain and that Hollywood isn’t immune from the economic and political pressures brought about from the lean times we are living through. The strikes seem to have been resolved, the future of the medium remains in flux; even though the menu of Hollywood blockbusters hasn’t changed much in style or substance compared to fifteen years ago.

One thing that couldn’t be said of cinema fifteen years ago is the significance of films distributed by streaming services, which pass briefly through the cinema as a sort of extended trailer ahead of their release on streaming services. Netflix had huge success with David Fincher’s psychopathic procedural The Killer, in which Michael Fassbender delivered a brilliantly cold performance. The Killers of Flower Moon brought together Martin Scorsese’s original muse of Robert De Niro and new muse of Leonardo DiCaprio for a powerful, long, slow burn about how money can destroy a community.

Lower profile streaming films of the year include Netflix’s They Cloned Tyrone, a modern take on the sci-fi blacksploitation film, with great dramatic and comedic performances from John Boyega, Jamie Foxx and Teyonah Parris and Extraction 2, in which Chris Hemsworth continues his revitalisation of the muscle man action movie. Also very entertaining was the animated graphic novel adaptation Nimona, and the Taron Egerton lead Tetris, which managed to make electric drama out of the process of extracting the rights to Tetris from the Soviet Union.

Banshees of Inisherin

Everything Everywhere All At Once deservedly swept the board at the Oscars and showed that a sci-fi film can get the recognition of Hollywood’s most prestigious prizes. It was also great to see Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan and Jamie Lee Curtis walk away with acting gongs for their great performances, and Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert get the director’s prize for bringing this wonderful feat of imagination to life.

Other films to round up many Oscar nominations include the darkly engrossing Cate Blanchett starring Tar and the black comedy The Banshees of Inisherin, which featured great performances from Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Barry Keoghan and Kerry Condon. Ruben Östlund returned with another hard-hitting political satire in Triangle of Sadness, this time taking aim at the ultra-rich yacht set and influencer culture. Steven Spielberg made the poignant The Fabelmans, which managed to swerve saccharine to tell a moving story about Spielberg’s own childhood and the power of cinema.

British film had a strong year, with Emerald Fennell’s sophomore film Saltburn, which riffed on Oxford privilege, British nobility and The Secret History to tell a story that was as enthralling as it was filled with unexpected twists and had a great performance from Barry Keoghan, cementing his place as one of the best actors working today. Rye Lane also charted the Millennial dating experience and was the funniest film of the year.

Polite Society

Polite Society picked up where Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg left off with their Cornetto Trilogy to blend a suburban drama about a young woman from a Pakistani/British family in Tooting following her dream of being a stunt woman with a high concept sci-fi action story involving cloning. It was both funny, spectacular and moving. Polite Society showed that originality is alive and well in British cinema.

American independent cinema also had a strong year. Wes Anderson assembled another all-star cast for his atomic-age alien contact drama/theatre creative process story/family grief story Asteroid City, which brought the signature Anderson weirdness and genuine emotion about loss and grief.

Past Lives was a quiet revelation, an incredibly moving understated story about the immigrant experience and a friendship that bridges the divide between cultures to explore the difference between Koreans, Korean-Americans and Americans. The Nan Goldi documentary All The Beauty and All The Bloodshed was arresting and had an urgent message about the effect that big pharma money has on the art world.

AI, Westerns and more superhero films

The future of cinema remains uncertain. Hot takes about AI and the future of work dominated our discourse this year and Hollywood might be on the verge of another technical revolution even greater than the effect that computers have already had on film production. Or everything could stay the same for another few decades.

Franchise blockbusters, mainly superhero based, mainly from Marvel, still dominated our cinematic diet this year and the relative failure of non-superhero films shows that nothing else is waiting in the wings to take over. Despite an underwhelming box office from The Marvels and Aquaman, we may still be a while from a sea change in cinema. Remember that Westerns dominated Hollywood for the better part of forty years and were only toppled from their top spot when wider culture changed and Hollywood was left behind. The story of superhero franchise cinema may well only be at its middle.

Looking ahead to next year, we can see many superhero or other franchise films are slated for release, showing that not much is likely to change. There is Madam Webb, Joker 2, Sonic 3, Venon 3, Kraven the Hunter and a new Lord of the Rings film, The War of the Rohirrim. That is on top of high-profile nostalgia cash in films such as Gladiator 2 and the Mean Girls musical. Marvel is taking a break to rethink things after their poor box office this year and is only releasing one film, Deadpool 3, with Ryan Reynolds and Hugh Jackman.


There are also other hotly anticipated sequels; such as the delayed Dune: Part 2, another Daniel Craig led Knives Out film and George Miller returning with Anya Taylor-Joy in Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga.

Despite the surprises of Barbenheimer (not that surprising that two high profile Hollywood films with mega stars like Robert Downy Jr, Florence Pugh, Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling was a big hit) and a slight faltering from the superhero franchises, it looks like 2024 might be a lot like 2023 in the cinema.

With strikes this year, streaming wars continuing and AI lurking on the horizon change seems inevitable. Although I have predicted that for a while and if the change is happening, it’s happening slowly. Then again, one day we may wake up in a different cinematic world.

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