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“Barbenheimer” tops the best films list for 2023

Peter Howell

Movie Critic

My Top 10 list of the year’s best films is really a Top 11 list.

To recognize the phenomenon that was and still is “Barbenheimer,” the unlikely synergism of comic “Barbie” and atomic “Oppenheimer” as a de facto double feature, I’ve declared them my joint No. 1 film of the year.

“Barbenheimer” revived movie-going thrills that the pandemic — and recent strikes by actors and writers — threatened to destroy. People dressed up in character outfits (yep, even for “Oppenheimer”) and organized marathon same-day viewings. The box office proved their enthusiasm: the two films together generated nearly $2.4 billion (U.S.) in worldwide ticket sales.

And there were many other reasons to get excited about going out to the movies again, in the best year for quality cinema since 2019:

1. “Barbenheimer” (“Barbie” and “Oppenheimer”)

Critics and other know-it-alls doubted the wisdom of opening films about a plastic doll and the father of the atomic bomb on the same day in July. "Barbie” would be too silly, even for the summer season; "Oppenheimer” would be too serious, especially with its butt-numbing three-hour run time. I’m happy to say we were as wrong as wrong can be.

“Barbie” is my biggest cinema surprise of the year, even though I already had high regard for writer/director Greta Gerwig (whose solo directing debut “Lady Bird” was my 2017 top film). She and Noah Baumbach, her co-writer/partner, turn a Mattel toy into a cunning satire of existential angst, patriarchal politics and corporate chicanery. “Barbie” also looks fantastic, in a Malibu-on-acid kind of way. The transformative trek from female-led Barbie Land to the male-ruled Real World is less than legendary, but the stellar performances rule. Margot Robbie charms and surprises as “Stereotypical Barbie,” the blond and blue-eyed teen dress-up model of popular acclaim, and Ryan Gosling seizes every frame he’s in as Ken, Barbie’s beach-brained beau. For 2023, "Barbie” is the most fun you could have outside a toy store. (Available to rent/buy through streaming or on disc.)

"Oppenheimer” is the year’s brainiest biopic and blockbuster. Christopher Nolan directs a starkly realistic depiction of the race by genius physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and his Manhattan Project team to create the atomic bomb and end the Second World War — and possibly the planet if they go too far. Cillian Murphy brilliantly conjures Oppenheimer’s jubilance (and later regret) for creating the “gadget” that will forever threaten humanity. An equally potent Robert Downey Jr. plays the year’s most wily screen villain, Lewis Strauss, a bureaucrat/politician who admires Oppenheimer’s achievements but jealously wants to destroy his reputation through a McCarthyite smear campaign. Nolan's latest triumph is a biopic like none other; it drags us into history’s collective guilt. (Still in some theatres; available to rent/buy through streaming or on disc.)


(Originally published in the Toronto Star.)


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