What to Watch

20 Best Films of 2023 (So Far)

With the year at the halfway point, our writers choose their favourite films, from daring documentaries to box office bombs

To mark the year's halfway point, our writers voted for their ten favourite films of the year so far (according to UK release dates): the higher up an individual list a film appeared, the more points it was awarded, with the total number of points deciding the final order here. With that criteria in mind, here are our picks for the best films of 2023 (so far). Note: our poll was conducted before the release of Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, so you won't see it included here.

Words: Tom Barnard, Jack Blackwell, Rory Doherty, Steph Green, Jordan King, Anna McKibbin, Alistair Ryder, Adam Solomons, Fedor Tot, Jasmine Valentine, Laura Venning


20. Skinamarink

The cutting edge of horror has always been a fertile meeting place between modern filmmaking techniques and the inherent anxieties of contemporary life. Between last year’s We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, and The Outwaters and Skinamarink this year, something is afoot – a shift rooted in digitally-distorted textures and scuzz, creepypasta internet culture reaching over into cinema, away from the neon-lit “nice”-ness of so-called elevated horror made popular over the last decade. Whilst World’s Fair and Outwaters are rooted in found footage horror, Skinamarink takes the opposite direction, reducing all activity to nothing more than a house without walls or windows, and two little girls lost in the darkness. It’s an intense, psychologically-draining experience, with one foot firmly in avant-garde experimental cinema and another in supernatural horror – the tiny handful of absconsions towards contemporary jump scares are genuinely pants-shitting, though for the most part the film encourages you to be most fearful of the strange fuzz of pixels shifting in the dark. Fedor Tot


19. Reality

Premiering in a small sidebar strand of the Berlinale with a debut director at the helm, little was known about single-room thriller Reality ahead of its screening for the press. What resulted was a film of unexpected sophistication and power, with Sydney Sweeney delivering a powerhouse performance as the inaptly named whistleblower “Reality Winner,” who was sentenced to five years in prison. With the film’s script taken almost verbatim from the audio transcript recorded by two FBI agents as they confronted the young NSA translator, the resulting drama is stilted and bizarre in a way that works fully in its favour; this is a rare film that doesn’t suffer from being adapted from a play – rather one that uses its claustrophobic environs to astute cinematic effect. With an intriguing approach to multi-media layering, from jagged jump-cut editing to inserting real-life photographs and transcript snippets throughout, Tina Satter cements herself as a new talent to watch out for. Steph Green


18. Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves

There has always been within me some deep, hidden desire to play Dungeons & Dragons, though the lack of knowledge as to how to actually go about it – and no willing participants – means that I've never taken the plunge. I'm grateful for the should-have-been-terrible-but-actually-quite-good new Dungeons & Dragons movie, then, because it does exactly what a movie like this should do with an established yet seemingly impenetrable IP: makes you feel like you're in on the joke. This is a movie that could have taken the position of being wholly snarky about its deeper lore, alienating the uninitiated to the point of self-imposed exile. Yet somehow it manages to feel dense and light at the same time, striking exactly the right mid-point between parody and sincerity without reverting to the insufferable Deadpool-like wink-winking that has plagued many a modern blockbuster. Perhaps the biggest surprise about this movie's existence is that it leaves you with a sense that another one might not be such a bad idea. Tom Barnard


17. The Whale

Brendan Fraser might have cried a great deal while accepting the 2023 Academy Award for Best Actor, but his victorious turn as reclusive teacher Charlie in The Whale has in turn made audiences spill tears by the bucket. In the wake of the film’s release and its triumphant romp on the awards circuit, there’s been plenty of debate about the film’s morality, but regardless of where viewers fall, Fraser’s sheer volume of emotion and tender nuance is something to behold. Another 2020s flick taking place inside a single location, Fraser and his peers Sadie Sink and Hong Chau supply exactly what the setting demands, with both women meeting Charlie’s often thwarted selfish thinking with vulnerable reflection and piercing frustration. If that wasn’t enticing enough of a watch, Samantha Morton’s fleeting role as ex-wife Mary reminds us why she continues to be the unsung hero of Hollywood. Jasmine Valentine


16. Return to Seoul

What does it feel like pilgrimaging to the place that made us, even though we have no idea how? How do we react to the ways it changes us; do we ever make peace with having no control over what parts of us will stick? Such ideas flow through Davy Chou’s Return to Seoul, an equal parts electric and sombre search for identity for Korean-born French woman Freddie (Park Ji-min), who spontaneously returns to her birth country to locate her biological parents. It makes for a volatile but vibrant character study as Freddie tries to figure out why the place that wanted nothing to do with her still has such a hold over her. In part, it’s an excavation of the “finding yourself abroad” sub-genre, which has for too long been the playground of white Westerns channelling Orientalist tropes. Thoroughly unique and quietly radical, Freddie’s story will grip you and take you for the ride. Rory Doherty


15. Infinity Pool

A mind-mangling nightmare from Brandon Cronenberg, Infinity Pool proves definitively that the son of David is far more than merely Cronenberg Jr.. Sure, body horror and humanity’s obsession with moral and self mutilation occupy both father and son’s work, but Brandon puts the gross into engrossing with a refreshing contemporary sensibility that’s as slick as it is sick. Here we meet James (Alexander Skårsgard), a creatively blocked writer whose luxury resort break wildly derails upon meeting actress Gabi (Mia Goth). Following a horrific accident, the pair are introduced to the world of body-doubling, a cheap way for rich wrong-uns to absolve their dirtiest deeds and indulge their darkest desires – think deepfake tech taken to its furthest extremes. Cue a skin-crawling study in self-disintegration and the (literal) cost of corruption, shot in a haze of hellish and hedonistic imagery by Cronenberg. This whole dystopic fever dream wouldn’t work, however, without Skårsgard and Goth, whose fearless, borderline feral performances elevate the entire viewing experience. Jordan King


14. Asteroid City

Though it might not be as wrenching as The Royal Tenenbaums, as funny as Grand Budapest Hotel, or as mind-bogglingly intricate as The French Dispatch, Asteroid City is still top-tier Wes. Commanding another army of superb all-star performances, Anderson doubles down on his deliberately (and, in this case, rather literally) alienating styles to sneakily deliver one of his most emotionally grounded films about the ways in which we look for meaning in our own lives and choices. Funny, sweet, sad, and sexy (absurdly so when you consider its 12a rating), Asteroid City embodies all the best instincts of the auteur behind it, delivering a satisfying rebuke to the baffling critique that his films are sometime too identifiably his. After months of tedious “spoofs” of Anderson’s work generated by the terminally artless and their AI tools, what a pleasure it was to see his actual, inimitable, mastery on the big screen. Jack Blackwell


13. Godland

Trekking through the impossibly harsh Icelandic landscape with a makeshift church and camera strapped to his back, Lucas, a Danish priest, makes a Herzogian odyssey into the heart of darkness (whiteness?) in the stunning Godland. It is an icy and furious picture of epic, ascetic scope, splitting open the cruel cavern of European colonialism and the hypocrisies of religious dogma and expansionism. But there’s so much more at play than what’s on the surface; homoeroticism, hubris, rage, lust, despair, anchored by two remarkably steely performances in Ingvar E. Sigurðsson and Elliott Crosset Hove (the latter of whom channels a particularly piquant unlikability). The ratio is almost square, mimicking Lucas’ unyielding orthodoxy, and you’ll be hard challenged to find landscapes or still life shots more beautiful this year than those captured by cinematographer Maria von Hausswolff – textured, tangible and richly coloured in a way that nature, no matter how brutal, always is. Steph Green


12. Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret

The best coming-of-age movies are never the ones solely centred on the children. Which isn’t to say there isn’t anything of note within the study of Margaret Simon (Abby Ryder Fortson), an eleven-year-old navigating the awkwardness of middle school life in her newly adopted New Jersey Town – the various tween traumas are so vividly realised, it’s easy to understand why this material has been engaging young readers for half a century. But the masterstroke of Kelly Fremon Craig’s adaptation of Judy Blume’s beloved novel is the way it reflects the transformations in her life alongside those of her wider family unit, in particular her mother’s (Rachel McAdams, never better) adaptation to small-town living. Blume’s source material has long proved controversial for the frankness in how it weaved taboo subjects like religion and menstruation into a powerful family story. It’s the casualness with which Craig’s film tackles the same subject matter that ensures this deserves to have the same foothold within popular culture for decades to come. Alistair Ryder


11. Saint Omer

A work of sustained mystery, ambiguity and political power, Saint Omer ought to be written about repeatedly in the years to come as a palimpsest of how cinema can engage with structural inequality, ideology and moral greyness. And yet, its cinematic language is so simple and stripped-back. Much of the film simply shows us either Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda), a woman accused of killing her newborn baby sitting in the dock listening to other witnesses or giving her own testimony; or Rama (Kayije Kagame), an academic watching the trial, looking on in silence. Within this no-frills grammar, though, director Alice Diop produces an incredible dissection of modern European womanhood, intersecting with race, post-colonial thought, and Greek mythology. All of this told without an ounce of polemics, trusting in the viewer to pick apart the wreckage of this tragedy on their own. The final scene, set to Nina Simone’s “Little Girl Blue” is devastating in its emotional simplicity and directness. Fedor Tot

10. John Wick 4

When a franchise balloons in budget and in running length with each instalment, it’s often cause to run for the hills. Not so with John Wick, which comfortably meets every step forward in action and ambition. What started as a simple revenge mission for Keanu Reeves’ hitman has now turned into a continuous onslaught of baddies and henchmen: a positively Sisyphean task literalised in the film’s epic final showdown at the Sacre Couer in Montmartre, with Reeves continually pushed down the steps and forced to scamper back up. It’s an evocative, mythos-laden image that underlines the meaty poetry that exists beneath the series’ brawny exterior. Reeves – a capable martial artist himself courtesy of the intense training he undertook for The Matrix many moons ago – is in fine shape as ever, but it is the variety of styles elsewhere that makes John Wick 4 such a rewarding action film: the balletics of newcomer Rina Sawayama, the bulky thunder of Scott Adkins, and of course, the supreme technique of Donnie Yen. Fedor Tot


9. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

Writers Phil Lord, Christopher Miller and Dave Callaham took the best lesson from Black Panther to treat second album syndrome here: make your villain reasonable. Ethical tensions, it turns out, are just as cinematic as a fist fight, although Across the Spider-Verse has plenty of both. Oscar Isaac threatens to steal the show as Miguel O’Hara, a night watchman Spider-Man with more than one world on his shoulders. But with great power, as it happens, comes resentment, and O’Hara is far from impressed by Miles Morales (an excellent Shameik Moore returning), who in Into the Spider-Verse saved the whole shabang and still kept it cool. The ecstasy of youth doesn’t last forever, and Across the Spider-Verse does an excellent job of keeping a deft touch while mulling the deepest questions. What I didn’t see coming was the cliffhanger ending, which works brilliantly (it helps not to know they commissioned two films back-to-back). A stellar second entry to what’s looking like a high-standard series. Adam Solomons


8. Rye Lane

Big screen depictions of London often draw on pallid 20th-century tones, relegating the city’s cold, grey skyline to lifeless period pieces. In Rye Lane, director Raine Allen-Miller redraws London in bold, brilliant colours. Here, the surrounding city feels tactile in her grasp, grimy and sparkling and near. Yas (Vivian Oparah) and Dom’s (David Jonsson) relationship is forged through their shared understanding of South London, and the film finds smart ways of positioning the city around them. Oparah and Jonsson’s report is wonderfully specific, sharp, affectionate, and wholly indicative of their characters and their lived experiences. With Yas’ bubbly, haphazard attempt to misdirect from her painful past, and Dom’s more reserved, inviting warmth, the film is able to propel itself towards its grand final set piece. After an influx of airless rom-coms, Rye Lane feels like a wind to sweep over a stuffy, summer day, reinvigorating the genre and reimagining the city. Anna McKibbin


7. Knock at the Cabin

After the devilish thrills of Split and Old, it’s clear that keeping things small and silly is the best way for M. Night Shyamalan to channel his sincere, curious questions about the beauties and tragedies of human existence – but we still didn’t expect to be as blindsided as we were by his latest. Adapting Paul Tremblay’s novel The Cabin at the End of the World (and making some controversial changes, according to that book’s fervent followers), Shyamalan made a religious horror reminding us of how unforgiving and cruel faith can be, showing a gay couple’s love being tested by apocalyptic zealots (led by a trembling, timorous Dave Bautista) who invade their home, preaching the end of the world. The film proved divisive in how it asked its queer characters to sacrifice and survive, but Shyamalan’s personal and creative history with the experience of the othered is precisely what makes the film so overwhelming. Rory Doherty


6. Suzume

Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name appeared to be the film he’d never be able to top, but the arrival of Suzume hedges the bet that Shinkai’s reign over anime continues to strengthen. Supposedly ending his unnamed environmental disaster trilogy following 2019’s Weathering With You, Shinkai takes the Japanese trope of high school student and molds it into a well-rounded heroine that seldom exists in the genre. Suzume’s adventurous quest with Souta is a considered and thoughtful journey that pries open friendship, identity, and self worth, yet is compellingly unique in its Shinkai-coded epic visuals and refreshing narrative structure. Nods to Hayao Miyazaki films take the form of subtle Easter eggs and laugh-out-loud jokes, while Suzume herself bridges a new cultural gap by forming brand partnerships with the likes of McDonald's. In essence, Suzume is the modern girl’s hero — and gosh does the art form need her. Jasmine Valentine


5. How to Blow Up a Pipeline

Forget the high octane antics of Fast and Furious’ tenth outing – the boldest and bravest ensemble on screen this year so far is the ragtag group of environment activists of How to Blow Up a Pipeline (and they’d be sure to slash Vin Diesel’s tyres). Based on Andreas Malm’s non-fiction book of the same title, the film is neither an instruction manual nor a sermon. It’s an electrifyingly tense thriller that almost functions as a heist as the gang, led by Ariela Barer’s impassioned Xochitl, sabotage a Texas oil pipeline. Cinematographer Tehillah De Castro shoots on 16mm that makes the low winter sunlight on the desert landscape glow, and the interweaving stories of how each character came to be risking their lives for the cause are compelling – especially that of Sasha Lane’s terminally ill Theo. How to Blow Up a Pipeline acts as both a gripping piece of entertainment and a rallying cry for action on the climate disaster.  Laura Venning


4. The Fabelmans

Cast members say Steven Spielberg was his usual, amiable self on the set of The Fabelmans. Actor James Urbaniak quotes him saying after filming the tense prom scene, light as a feather: “…fucking cut.” Spielberg has always been a man of contradictions – Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List in the same year? – and The Fabelmans is his greatest single expression of that yet. A master of spectacle who has always kept his knotty personal life far from the screen, Spielberg with his latest film showed us everything and more. His mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams) dancing naked while Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle) watches transfixed; his father Burt (Paul Dano) being cucked by his best friend Bennie (Seth Rogen); Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch) radicalising Sammy to be an artist by saying he’ll never love again. Even more significantly than that, The Fabelmans reframes Spielberg’s entire career, even the nature of creativity itself, as a doomed treatment for childhood trauma. And that’s all before Sammy skips off into the sunset. A masterpiece. Adam Solomons


3. Babylon

Babylon got a fair bit of stick on its release, the majority of which essentially said that director Damien Chazelle was trying too hard to be an edgelord with his defecating, coke-snorting epic about the early days of Hollywood. But who else is making three-hour-long big swings that culminate with the entire history of cinema swirling at you, while a Justin Hurwitz score goes hog wild in the background? In a time where so much cinema feels safe and staid, Babylon is a pleasingly anarchic endeavour in which Tobey Maguire plays a little nightmare freak and Margot Robbie fights a snake; the four sides of the frame can barely contain the sheer chaos flailing within. But look beyond all the hedonism – which isn’t really all that wild, in the grand scheme of things – and the film is less a celebration of cinema than a melancholy treatise on whether all this pleasure is even worth it. One to re-watch and mull over. Steph Green


2. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed

Laura Poitras uses the opening scenes of All the Beauty and the Bloodshed to capture a compelling, if predictable, portrait of an activist. Nan Goldin and her fellow members of Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (P.A.I.N.) are scattered across the Sackler Wing of the Met, all chanting “Sacklers knew/their pills would kill!” with banners aloft. Over the course of the film, though, the director complicates this recognisable documentary lens. Goldin’s own familial history, artistic output and experience with the AIDS crisis are braided together to craft something that feels appropriately complicated – as epic, all-encompassing, and anticlimactic as living itself. It is rare that depictions of activism feel so clarified, with the director’s camera positioned to absorb the disparate ideas around the subject. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is not just an achievement in filmmaking, it is a testament to this era and the history that led us here. Anna McKibbin


1. Tár

What more can be said about the deservedly lauded Tár? It’s simply dazzling – a film that deftly defies easy classification and exemplifies a Kubrickian clarity of vision, while letting the audience navigate its moral maze all by themselves. It’s telling that it’s been viewed both as a conservative screed against “cancel culture” and a left-leaning damnation of those in positions of power (especially in the arts) exploiting those who are young and in awe of their supposed creative genius. Cate Blanchett delivers a career-defining performance as Lydia Tár, chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic orchestra, somehow both rigid as a board and as graceful as a ballet dancer in her exquisite suits; charming, ruthless, and with a fractured sense of self. At its heart, Tár makes the most sense as a ghost story, a horror film, a haunting by hubris, a self-imposed fall about the loss of cultural cachet being a fate worse than death for its self-obsessed protagonist. Laura Venning

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