Best Festival Films and Hidden Festival Gems 2023

Orange Vests

If there’s one thing Journey Into Cinema hates, it’s consensus. 

This is why this website doesn’t run a top ten films of the year list. Aggregated top tens have the habit of merely restating the films everyone has already seen, instead of pointing the viewer towards new and exciting experiences. They also skew wildly towards British and American fare, with some sites (not naming names) containing zero non-English language films. So, for this year’s round-up, in addition to the exhaustive underseen festival hits list, I decided to ask for something different: everyone’s favourite festival film and a hidden gem they wish had seen more love. As well as instantly shutting out the likes of Barbie (Greta Gerwig, 2023) and Oppenheimer (Christopher Nolan, 2023) — billion-dollar hits that everyone has already seen — it allows contributors to give their love to more esoteric and unique efforts, as well as highlight films they actually saw at a festival. With no repeats among the choices, spanning essay films, romance, re-discovered gems and even genre fare, this consensus-free list shows off the breadth and diversity of yet another fine year for cinema.

Jenny S. Li

Best Festival Film: Past Lives  (Celine Song, 2023, above) Berlinale

The most nostalgically moving romance of the year, softly revealing the classical beauty of modern separation.

Read our review here.

Best Hidden Festival Gem: Carp Leaping over Dragon’s Gate (Xiaolin Yan, 2023) — Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival

A recollection of a mother’s sacrifice for her daughter to thrust her through the examination that will determine the whole family’s fate, the story is dramatic, yet hauntingly realistic.

Fedor Tot

Best Festival Film: Twilight (György Fehér, 1990, above)  — Berlinale

Describing this restoration simply as a Hungarian detective film that uses the same source novel as Sean Penn’s risible The Pledge starring Jack Nicholson doesn’t do anything like justice to it. Watching it in the cinemas is like jumping into the ocean at night with a concrete block around your waist.

Best Hidden Festival Gem: Red Rooms (Pascal Plante, 2023) — BFI 

Absolutely nutty Quebecois cyber-thriller, evidently made by a sick, disgusting mind, which I absolutely applaud.

Joseph Owen 

Best Festival Film: Do Not Expect Too Much From the End of the World (Radu Jude, 2023) — Locarno 

The film follows a day in the life of a production assistant (Ilinca Manolache), as she drives around Bucharest and its hinterlands, combining family errands with a punishing work schedule. Radu Jude is fascinated by different mediations of reality, and by the malleable quality of images more generally, and so are we.

Read Joseph’s review of the film here.

Best Festival Hidden Gem: A Wild Roomer (Lee Jeong-hong, 2023) — Warsaw Five Flavours Festival 

The film paints a slippery portrait of a carpenter (Park Gi-hong), who’s caught in a strange entanglement with his landlord and his landlord’s wife. It is a wry meditation on wealth, aspiration and male mediocrity, where the viewer is kept at a remove — an atonal and seductive mystery.

Nick Kouhi

Best Festival Film: Close Your Eyes (Victor Erice, 2023) — Cannes 

For wistfully commemorating a medium whose afterimages shape what we see with eyes wide shut.

Best Hidden Festival Gem: Notes From Eremocene (Viera Cákanyová, 2023, above) — Berlinale 

For using a rapidly expanding medium to confront the immensity of the post-human world we’re watching unfold before us with eyes wide open.

Read Nick’s coverage of this great essay film here.

Chris Cassingham 

Best Festival Film: Afire (Christian Petzold, 2023, above) — Berlinale 

It’s perhaps Petzold’s most straightforward work, but it continues to resonate all these months later as one of his most personal. A newfound humourous strain weaves itself into what is ultimately quite a cathartic film about facing one’s artistic deficiencies and finding ways to overcome them by engaging with the world around you.

Read Journey Into Cinema’s review of Afire here.

Best Hidden Festival Gem: Mud (Ilya Povoltsty, 2023)  — IDFA 

Mud uses its premise, a documentary about the goings-on in a wellness centre in the Russian countryside, as a metaphor to express with frightening clarity and visually arresting austerity the realities of Russia’s propaganda machine and a society’s eagerness and complete willingness to submit to it.


Redmond Bacon 

Best Festival Film: Vermin (Sébastien Vanícek, 2023, above) — Venice 

Terrifying spiders, a great mixture of old-school and CGI effects, and a bit of class-consciousness also in the mix. What more does a creepy-crawly movie need? 

Read our review here.

Best Hidden Festival Gem: Orange Vests (Yuriy Khashchevatskiy, 1993, feature) — GoEast 

Perhaps my only screaming streamed off VLC player this year, this vital re-discovery of Orange Vests showed me the benefit of checking out old, forgotten movies instead of always chasing the next big thing. A generous look at women in the break-up of the Soviet Union, made in arguably the only democratic time in Belarus’ history, its both a time capsule of a more optimistic era, and deeply relevant today in the face of Russian aggression today. 

Read more about this remarkable film here.


Jared Abbott

Best Festival Film: National Anthem (Luke Gilford, 2023) — SXSW

Best Hidden Festival Gem: Manodrome (John Trengove, 2023, above) — Berlinale

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Jenny S. Li, covering Cannes since 2019, always tries to write well.

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Redmond is the editor-in-chief of Journey Into Cinema.

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Chris is an American freelance film programmer, writer, and critic based in London. He fills the rest of his time working in film distribution.

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Nick Kouhi is a programmer and critic based in Minneapolis, Minnesota

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Fedor Tot is a Yugoslav-born Wales-raised film critic and curator specialising in Balkan cinema, with bylines at WeLoveCinema, Mubi Notebook and Photogenie.

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Joseph Owen, occasional film critic, is a research fellow at the University of Southampton.

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Jared loves movies and lives with Kiki in Berlin.