There it is – the credits are rolling on 2023, another year packed with incredible movies. The last 12 months have seen stirring and spectacular cinematic feats unfold across our screens – rollocking adventures, searing historical dramas, side-splitting satires, nerve-shredding horror films, tearful farewells and joyous gatherings. Looking back on the best films of 2023 offers another reminder of the breathtaking breadth of the current cinematic landscape – an array of new voices, legendary names, and visionary artists working at the top of their game, delivering stories and characters that transported us to all-new worlds. It’s like Tom Cruise said: “Movies. Popcorn.”
With a new year ready to begin, Team Empire gathered to vote on the best films of 2023 – and, as ever, we’re going from UK release dates, any film that received an official launch here from 1 January until 31 December. The list is comprised of Top 10s submitted by every member of the team, with each vote assigned points rankings and aggregated into the official Empire Top 20 list you see below. Looking over it all, it’s hard to argue: cinema is in a very special place.
20) Society Of The Snow
Christmas. Such a jolly holiday, fun and festive and heart-warming. The perfect time, then, to release J.A. Bayona’s Society Of The Snow, a devastating film which clobbers you with trauma after trauma, ripping your nerves to pieces. But! This exceptionally bleak dramatisation of the aftermath of a horrendous plane crash actually is fantastically heart-warming. And there’s certainly a lot of snow. Perfect Christmas content, then. It is, though, a lot: in 1972, a plane transporting 45 people crashed in the Andes. Over the next 72 days, the survivors – stuck in an impossible situation, with little hope of getting through it – faced the most extreme physical and spiritual hardship imaginable. In portraying their ordeal, though, Bayona gives us a film that illustrates what human beings are truly capable of. It’s incredibly inspiring, and emotionally exhausting. And it may well put you off flying for life. But it will fill your heart. A towering, powerful piece of work.
19) Blue Jean
On Tyneside in the late 1980s, closeted PE teacher Jean (an extraordinary Rosy McEwen) is trying to navigate the end of the Thatcher years, when Section 28 legislation forbade the “promotion” of queer sexualities in schools. When a new student, Lois (Lucy Halliday), arrives at Jean’s school and then turns up in the local lesbian bar, Jean tries to become a mentor to her — only for the delicate balance of her hidden lives to be undone. Georgia Oakley’s debut is a meditative, layered piece of work which peels away at the defences Jean has put up around herself to survive in a hostile Britain, and McEwen is electrifying, carrying almost every frame. The grainy feel and melancholy palette add to the oppressive period setting, but there is queer joy to be found here, too – in the scenes in which Jean is surrounded by her community, as she eats takeaway with her girlfriend, and, ultimately, when she embraces who she is.
Ti West’s X arrived last year as a slasher with much on its mind — chewing on notions of old age, sexual repression, and bodily autonomy delivered in a straight-up ‘70s murder-spree. 1918-set prequel Pearl is even better, West and Mia Goth teaming up to dig into the psychological morass of X’s homicidal octogenarian in her younger years. The result is a film presented in an early Technicolor visual palette, with over-cranked colours and throwbacky sound cues — not just a stylish gimmick, but a reflection of the movie-life that Pearl herself wishes she was living. As her obsession with becoming famous (and getting her rocks off — notably, at one point, with a scarecrow) reveals a dark undercurrent in her psyche, the reality of her mundane life closes in — leading to a load of blood-letting. It’s beautifully crafted, with fascinating characters and an astonishing performance from Goth, whose expression during the closing credits will go down in cinematic history. Pearl herself says it best: she’s a starrr.
17) Anatomy Of A Fall
A gripping courtroom drama that makes multiple references to 50 Cent’s ‘P.I.M.P’, Anatomy Of A Fall above all else showcases the immense talents of Sandra Hüller (catch her next in Jonathan Glazer’s chilling The Zone Of Interest). Its premise is simple: a troubled marriage ends with the suspicious death of the husband after falling from the attic window of their family chalet. A heated case ensues, in which Hüller’s Sandra protests her innocence, while her partially blind son is caught in the crossfire. And don’t get us started on prize-winning pooch Messi, who won the Palm Dog at this year’s Cannes for his role as Snoop the family hound. The film is at once a masterful puzzlebox and a suspense-fuelled character study, and Justine Triet and Arthur Harari’s razor-sharp writing keep you enthralled until the final act.
16) The Fabelmans
One thread of Steven Spielberg’s career in his autumn years has been a yearning to wander through his own past. Ready Player One paid tribute to a pop culture period when he was king, and West Side Story allowed him to play in a storyworld he’d loved as a kid. The Fabelmans, though, is the closest he’s come to a proper cinematic autobiography. Mitzi and Bert Fabelman take their boy Sammy to see The Greatest Show On Earth at the pictures, and light a fire in him to tell stories of his own. Soon he’s making 8mm movies, and after the family moves to Arizona and traumas start to pull them apart he seeks more and more solace in them. It’s a lovingly done coming-of-age movie suffused with what we’re obliged to call ‘That Spielberg Magic’, its sweetness undercut with real, piercing sadness.
15) Women Talking
A group of women quite literally, well, talking in a barn may not sound thrilling, but take our word for it — Sarah Polley’s adaptation of Miriam Toews’ novel is an emotional rollercoaster. Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley and Rooney Mara head up an excellent cast playing Mennonite women that have been suffering ongoing sexual assaults at the hands of male members of their colony, who must decide whether to forgive their abusers, or leave their home for good. This is confident, no-frills filmmaking from Polley, who keeps the setting and cinematic flourishes to a minimum, allowing the devastating dialogue, strange sense of humour, and outstanding performances to shine through, communicating the violence of the crimes against the women without ever doing so in an exploitative way. A slow, quiet burn that will shake your soul.
14) Marcel The Shell With Shoes On
What this existential exoskeleton lacks in shoe size, he makes up for in heart. Dean Fleischer Camp’s boundary-pushing stop-motion animation is a winning blend of visual splendour and worldbuilding, and the creative talents of Jenny Slate, whose voice fills our small calcified warrior with wit, warmth and wisdom beyond his years. Don’t be fooled by the film’s seemingly twee set-up; Marcel is undeniably cute but the film, which is co-written by Slate, treads a thoughtful path through loss, pain, and a quest for identity. That it was able to muscle its way onto an Oscar nomination list alongside animation from Guillermo del Toro (a staunch and vocal Marcel fan), DreamWorks and Pixar, only goes to show that with its scrappy spirit and ambition, this high entry on our list has touched the masses. You might say that we, too, fell for Marcel.
13) Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 3
This is how you say goodbye. For years, we’ve been awaiting James Gunn’s final farewell to the intergalactic A-holes he transformed into household names a decade ago – and it was worth every second. Tonally, Guardians 3 is a brilliant balancing act: it’s deeper, darker, sadder than any of the previous outings of Star Lord and friends, containing some of the most upsetting material in the MCU; and yet, it’s still the colourful, cosmic Guardians we know and love, off on one last adventure together to save Rocket Raccoon. For a while now, it’s been clear that the misanthropic rodent was the character Gunn most connected with – and here he becomes the narrative drive, hovering between life and death as the circumstances of his creation are unearthed. Beyond the incredibly emotional performances and killer needle-drops (from the ‘Creep’ opening, to the ‘Dog Days Are Over’ finale), Guardians 3 also boasts the best action of Gunn’s career in the ‘No Sleep Till Brooklyn’ corridor fight. Any chance of an encore?
12) Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves
While D&D’s big screen legacy has traditionally been nothing for bards to write songs about, that all changed when John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein signed up for this immensely enjoyable and altogether less serious dungeon crawl (fun-geon crawl?). With their Game Night faces on, the pair successfully equipped this irreverent high fantasy heist caper with a screenplay of +2 charisma and a cloak of greater chuckling. From Hugh Grant’s scheming villain (think Phoenix Buchanan if he had a Red Wizard of Thay at his beck and call) to Regé-Jean Page’s absurdly literal paladin, and Sophia Lillis’ shape-shifting druid (the focus of a an exhilarating, form-flipping chase sequence), Honor Among Thieves is populated by an almost obscenely likeable clutch of cut-throats and rogues and boasts a gag-rate that hits more times than a level nine magic missile.
11) Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning
The run-up to release was all about that stunt, fevered reporting about Tom Cruise’s daredevil mountain/motorcycle interfacing. In the movie itself, though, that moment — as grandiosely bananas as it is — is just another beat in a long series of knuckle-whitening thrills. McQuarrie and Cruise, the Hitchcock and Stewart of adrenaline, have now got this stuff down to a fine art. And even though the film struggles slightly to differentiate itself from previous instalments, there’s a calm mastery at work here that forces you to submit, from the Hunt For Red October-riffing opening sequence, to a high-tech airport cat-and-mouse game with multiple cats and multiple mice, to the train-set demolishing finale. Lord knows how they intend to top all this with the story’s concluding chapter, but only a fool would (dead) reckon against them. Let’s just hope Mark Gatiss, in the most ‘Is that Mark Gatiss?!’ role ever, gets more to do next time around.
10) Talk To Me
How does it feel watching Talk To Me? Well, half of it is a pure cinematic high, gripping you by the hand before dragging you into its wildly kinetic world. But in its most painful moments – and boy, does it have those – it also feels like your head being repeatedly slammed onto a table while a nefarious soul corrupts your very being from the inside. So, an instant horror classic then. Director brothers Danny and Michael Philippou arrive fully formed with their feature debut, transferring the anything-goes anarchy of their YouTube work into a film that is remarkably controlled, teeming with life – and thrumming with death. Sophie Wilde is exceptional as teen Mia, who gets more than she bargained for when she and her friends mess around with a spooky hand that can channel lost spirits. When it – inevitably – goes horribly, nightmarishly wrong, you’ll be wishing for it all to stop, but desperate to see it to the bitter end.
9) Rye Lane
When London gets romanticised, it always tends to be the same bits of the capital. Snooze. Raine Allen-Miller’s debut feature brings some Before Sunset vibes south of the river and reinvents the British romcom in the process. Over a day and night spent around Peckham and Brixton – shot with real wide-eyed love by Allen Miller, who moved to Brixton aged 12 – weepy sadsack Dom (David Jonsson) and peppy, impetuous Yas (Vivian Oparah) meet-cute in a gender neutral bog and wander around comparing love-scars before planning a caper to get Yas’s copy of A Tribe Called Quest album The Low End Theory back from an ex. On the way, there’s a cameo from a certain member of Brit romcom royalty which is delicious in more ways than one, and a soundtrack which bangs very, very hard. Dazzlingly inventive and with wit and energy to burn, Rye Lane is smart, sharp and very funny.
8) Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret
Deep breaths, everyone — this one blindsides you. Whatever your knowledge, or memory, of Judy Blume’s (and excuse us but it is practically the law that we have to use the next word) seminal 1970 novel about a 12-year-old American girl’s coming of age, this is an absolute heart-smashing gem from writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig. Are You There God? brings you in to Margaret’s (Abby Ryder Fortson, a future superstar) little world – where cup-sizes and impending menstruation mean everything – from the start, charming and enchanting you, making you feel like you’re one of the family until, at the end, when it’s time to let go, you can’t bear to leave. And know this: if you feel this isn’t the subject matter for you, that you’re not the demographic, you do yourself a disservice — this is a wonderful, fully-realised, perfectly executed piece of work that gets you right in the guts. A beauty.
Sublime! What better way to describe Greta Gerwig’s Barbie movie in just one word? Packed with pure invention, comedy, drama, dancing, and tons of heart, this is not the film based on the iconic doll that we were expecting – but one that absolutely delivered as one half of the summer’s oddest double-bill. Margot Robbie simply is stereotypical Barbie, a perfect feminine creation enjoying her life in the matriarchal Barbie Land, until the anxiety and fear from the woman playing with her in the real world – America Ferrera’s Gloria – starts to seep in, and turns everything upside-down. Robbie is exceptional, Ryan Gosling is having perhaps the most fun anyone’s ever had on screen, and the whole cast of Barbies and Kens commit entirely to this heightened, hilarious world. And, underneath that pink, plastic exterior lie genuinely moving musings on being a woman, a mother, a partner, and a human. Like we said: sublime.
Time, is the thing. And even though TÁR was released in the UK all the way back in January, its impact lingers on. Cate Blanchett gives an all-time best performance as Lydia Tár, a conducting maestro on the cusp of the biggest recording of her career — but it all falls apart when her past indiscretions and controversial teaching techniques catch up with her. Forcing you to sit in the glorious, uncomfortable nuances of themes like gender politics, power dynamics and cancel culture, Todd Field’s epic character study is brimming with stuff to make you think, as well as plenty to make you feel — seeing Lydia’s mastery of her conducting craft is a thing to behold. Come for the long takes and impeccable writing, stay for the standout movie song of the year: ‘Apartment For Sale’.
5) Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse
Into The Spider-Verse should have been an impossible bar to cross – but the minds behind Miles Morales’ animated adventures somehow pushed it to even greater heights with the sequel. Across The Spider-Verse is a bold, brilliant blockbuster that feels lightyears ahead of the competition — boasting mind-boggling animated action, whip-smart gags, and touching character beats. This time, Shameik Moore’s Miles is sent careening across the multiverse, hurtling through Mumbattan, Nueva York, and darker dimensions beyond that — assembling a new band of Spider-pals (Daniel Kaluuya’s Spider-Punk and Karan Soni’s Pavitr Prabhakar are the standouts) while deepening his bond with Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld). There’s spine-tingling spectacle (Miles’ escape from Spider Society), achingly emotional moments (Rio’s speech about watching her son grow up), and art styles to literally take your breath away – most notably, the blossoming watercolour splashes of Gwen’s world. An audacious work of art, and a top-tier superhero story to boot.
4) How To Have Sex
British independent cinema is in the rudest of health right now, and Molly Manning Walker’s feature debut is a standout example. An energetic drama about the trials and tribulations of teenage girldom and female friendship, it follows Tara (an outstanding Mia McKenna-Bruce) as she goes on a pivotal holiday to Malia with friends Skye (Lara Peake) and Em (Enva Lewis). They drink, they dance, they drink again – but when things heat up with their hotel neighbours, Tara is pushed to (and beyond) her limits. It’s a riveting, emotional, stomach-churning story of one girl’s discomfiting experience with sex and consent, but has had such an impact because of how deeply it resonates with so many. The highs and lows of the trip are executed in equal measure, euphoric club sequences and drunken laughter giving way to quiet, sombre reckonings. It’s a sign of incredible things to come from Manning Walker and McKenna-Bruce alike.
Christopher Nolan’s oeuvre is full of dark and terrible machines, from the chrono-portals of Tenet to the dream-tech of Inception. This summer saw the master of science-fiction become the master of science-fact, Nolanising history by zeroing in on the story behind a real-life weapon more horrifying than anything he’s depicted yet. Oppenheimer may be based on fact, but it pulses with genre thrills and suspense, ratcheting up the tension as a team of scientists create something unthinkably powerful: maybe even a world-killer. The true brilliance, though, is what Nolan does in the film’s back half, after the Trinity Test comes to its white-hot conclusion. The seemingly noble race to create the atomic bomb over – like Raiders Of The Lost Ark, a Nolan favourite, our hero is trying to obtain a weapon of mass destruction before the Nazis – ‘Oppie’ is left marinating in his own guilt and confusion, attacked in a closed-room hearing (and mocked in the Oval Office) by the same people who had been cheering him on. Headed up by a mesmerising Cillian Murphy (surely no actor can do more by simply staring at puddles), the vast ensemble make big and tiny moments alike pack a punch. A colossal feat of filmmaking, a profound, complex slab of storytelling, and Nolan’s most mature film yet.
2) Killers Of The Flower Moon
Every second of Scorsese’s latest opus thrums with purpose. His telling of the story of the Osage Murders – the 1920s killings that saw the oil-rich Native American Osage people systematically slaughtered by White Americans intent on inheriting their headrights – is a supremely powerful piece of work, unflinching in portraying the callous capitalistic history of the United States with clear resonances in the present day. While the headline event is Scorsese finally uniting Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro in one of his features – as the cowardly Ernest Burkhart and his sinister scheming uncle ‘King’ Hale, respectively – it’s Lily Gladstone who looms largest. Her Mollie Burkhart – an Osage woman, wife of Ernest, watching her family members fall one-by-one around her – is a force of nature, Gladstone imbuing her with equal parts fight and fear. There’s undeniable care and conscientiousness and controlled rage in the storytelling here, proving the filmmaker still in his prime at 81. And the final reel will knock your socks off.
1) Past Lives
If you wanted to be reductive, Past Lives is essentially just a love triangle movie. But there’s so much more to it: Celine Song’s extraordinarily powerful film finds its impact in its understatement. In one of the most memorable scenes, Arthur (John Magaro) reflects on the more bombastic alternate version of this story: “Childhood sweethearts who reconnect 20 years later and realise they were meant for each other. In this story I would be the evil white American husband standing in the way of destiny.” His wife, Nora (Greta Lee) dismisses him with an easy, familiar smile. “Shut up,” she laughs.
This is a film self-aware enough not to go down such an obvious route. Instead it finds its own rich authenticity across a decades-spanning story. Yes, there are childhood sweethearts — Nora, who emigrated to the US from Korea as a child, and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), who stays in Seoul — and yes, there is unspoken chemistry between the two, when Hae Sung visits her, now married, in New York. Their scenes together hold a strange, electric tension. But there’s a relative ordinariness to the characters’ lives, and each of the three respond to the complex situation that arises thoughtfully and generously. They are recognisably human.
This is a drama in which not much happens, in which people simply talk and catch up and occasionally exchange meaningful looks, in which there is no dramatic bust-up or fights or explosions. But with gorgeous performances from the three leads, sumptuous yet minimalistic cinematography from Shabier Kirchner, a swooning score from Christopher Bear and Daniel Rossen, and an astonishingly confident steady hand from debut writer-director Song, Past Lives leaves an impact as deep as an asteroid crater: a quiet film that rings loudly in your ears, long after the moving finale.