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The year in film: “Barbenheimer” and the demise of superheroes

2023 went down as the year the superhero movie died. The genre has spun its last web and assembled its last avenger

Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo in Poor Things, a comedy from Greece’s Yorgos Lanthimos. Photo: Atsushi Nishijima

At this time of year, I try to cast my mind back to the early months of last awards season and it stuns me how I can never remember what all that Oscar fuss was about, let alone the names of the films we talked about for days and months in the speculation-fuelled run up.

It was, of course, the year that the surreal, maverick adventure Everything Everywhere All at Once – which practically nobody over the age of 40 seemed to understand – fended off the more traditional and classic first world war movie All Quiet on the Western Front, while Brendan Fraser, in a humungous fat suit, won Best Actor for The Whale, a film that nobody will ever watch again.

I recall a wonderful night for the Irish, with nominations for the cast of The Banshees of Inisherin (Brendan Gleeson, Colin Farrell, Barry Keoghan— and Kerry Condon) as well the first ever Irish-language nominee, The Quiet Girl, and the short film winner An Irish Goodbye.

That feels like a lifetime ago because the year was dominated from then on by strikes in Hollywood. First the writers of the WGA closed their laptops in May, and then the actors of SAG-AFTRA (which nobody had ever actually called it before) took to the picket lines, shutting down Hollywood production and making the British film industry realise just how colonised it has become, how dependent on American investment, all those studios around London lying dark and dormant, leaving all our fabulous crews and film teams desperate and worried.

Nobody saw that coming – not even AI, which found itself at the centre of the debate and on everyone’s computers while creatives plunged themselves even further into existential crisis about the future of script-writing and acting. And, as the technicians pointed out, if there are no actors, you don’t need cameras, lighting, makeup, or even catering.

Maybe as a reaction to all this, 2023 also went down as the year the superhero movie died. The special effects-heavy, cartoonish, cookie-cutter genre that has dominated the blockbuster and fanboy scene for 20 years looks to have spun its last web and assembled its last avenger. The Marvels was a flop; Antman and the Wasp: Quantumania got stamped on; Shazam 2 disappeared (what do you mean you didn’t even know about Shazam 1?) while Blue Beetle (what? who?) and The Flash, well, blink and you missed that, despite the now infamous advance poster quote about it being the “greatest superhero movie ever”, a quote, it turns out, that came from the studio boss himself.

In the end the most unlikely heroes of all came in the summer of “Barbenheimer”, when what saved the movies was a doll and a nuclear bomb. I did the marathon, yes, seeing Oppenheimer in the morning, on the big, thumping, macho Christopher Nolan IMAX screen, which is fine, except that most of it is set in airless rooms with bombastic people talking about legal procedures and inquiries. Then, to Barbie, and a massive screening in Leicester Square which honestly was not full of cheering and laughing and screaming, but rather full of people scratching their heads, trying to work out what the hell this thing was.

Look, I’m glad they both worked and everyone went to watch them, but neither film is in my favourites list. I like Barbie for being subversive in the post-feminist blockbuster realm, but it’s, well, just not that funny.

So, as ever, it was left to the grand European festivals to pull out the stops. Berlin anointed a documentary as best film, the Golden Bear going to Nicolas Philibert’s On the Adamant, about a floating barge-cum-mental health day centre on the Seine. Cannes gave the Palme d’Or to the brilliant Anatomy of a Fall and the runner-up was Jonathan Glazer’s chilling The Zone of Interest, both films starring the extraordinary German actress Sandra Hüller, who emerges as the best European talent of the year.

Venice brought us Poor Things, with an excellent Emma Stone in a very weird, but brilliant-looking comedy from Greece’s Yorgos Lanthimos, a film that everyone seems to love but which I admit makes me a bit queasy and uneasy about its female protagonist’s sexual antics while supplanted with a child’s brain. I await a feminist backlash as it goes through the coming awards season.

Female film-makers came to the fore in British cinema, actually, with great success for films such as Charlotte Regan’s Scrapper, Raine Allen Miller’s Rye Lane, Luna Carmoon’s Hoard and Molly Manning Walker’s How to Have Sex, all very promising debuts and representing some kind of movement after last year’s Aftersun and Blue Jean, a new wave of challenging, scrappy cinema.

Here’s my list of 10 favourites of the films I saw in 2023:

May December – Todd Haynes’ campy thriller, with Natalie Portman’s best ever performance.

Anatomy of a Fall – Justine Triet’s Palme d’Or-winning courtroom drama – only the dog knows who did it…

Killers of the Flower Moon – top-notch Scorsese must always be noted and this is a great story with some still-daring cinema that no one else could make.

How to Have Sex – captures the heady intoxication of teenagers on a package holiday drinking bowls of blue alcohol, laced with a dark hangover about consent.

Occupied City – Steve McQueen’s four-and-a-half-hour documentary about Amsterdam’s complicity in the Nazi eradication of Jews is a magnificent, intelligent, haunting and hypnotic work.

Getting It Back: The Story of Cymande – exemplary, thrilling music doc about the return of the underrated British jazz funk outfit you think you’ve never heard of.

Earth Mama – Director Savanah Leaf represented Team GB at volleyball in London 2012 and now smashes it with this beautiful film about a black mother in Oakland giving up a baby for adoption.

Talk to Me – a cool, indie horror that scared the life out of me, with a brilliant performance from Sophia Wilde, as kids in Australia muck about with the spirits.

Eight Mountains – lyrical, literary, deeply affecting, gorgeous hymn to male friendship and to a simpler life amid the majesty and moods of the Italian Alps.

High & Low: John Galliano – exciting, probing, bracing doc from Kevin MacDonald about European fashion’s gobby golden boy who got cancelled for addled antisemitic bile. Can he make a comeback?

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