The countdown

The 20 biggest culture moments of 2023

Louis Chilton looks back on a turbulent 2023 in the world of arts and lifestyle

Saturday 30 December 2023 06:00 GMT
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Headline-grabbers: (clockwise, from left) Rihanna, Gwyneth Paltrow, Prince Harry, Phillip Schofield, Matthew Perry, Taylor Swift, Brian Cox and Russell Brand
Headline-grabbers: (clockwise, from left) Rihanna, Gwyneth Paltrow, Prince Harry, Phillip Schofield, Matthew Perry, Taylor Swift, Brian Cox and Russell Brand (Getty)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

Editor

What a year. The last 12 months have been packed with the full gamut of the human experience – tragedy, comedy, horror – and that’s just within the world of culture.

With the Covid pandemic no longer dominating headlines, and the political sphere engulfed in perpetual turmoil, people have been turning to the world of the arts for an escape.

Whether it’s bizarre movie sensations at the box office or TV shows that gripped the nation, 2023 has had its fair share of drama.

While some of the year’s biggest talking points have been welcome distractions – the rise of the unprecedented “Barbenheimer” phenomenon, for instance – 2023 has also seen several heartbreaking deaths, including Sinead O’Connor and Friends star Matthew Perry.

The year also had its share of scandals, with several high-profile celebrities coming under fire for a variety of personal transgressions.

Here’s a rundown of the 20 biggest cultural moments of 2023, from the monumental to the frankly bizarre…

1 January – Jeremy Renner escapes death

On the first day of the year, Avengers star Jeremy Renner is nearly killed in a freak snowplough accident outside his home in Nevada. The seven-tonne vehicle crushed the actor, breaking more than 30 bones, with Renner requiring multiple surgeries after being rushed to hospital. He subsequently documents his recovery on social media.

Jeremy Renner attends the premiere event for the Disney+ original series ‘Rennervations’ in April
Jeremy Renner attends the premiere event for the Disney+ original series ‘Rennervations’ in April (Getty/Disney+)

10 January – Spare is released

Prince Harry releases his tell-all memoir Spare, in which the self-exiled royal opens up about public scandals, royal racism and sibling spats. Ever wanted to know about Harry’s drug use? His formative sexual encounters? Obviously not, but it’s all there in print anyway. The Firm walks away with something of a black eye, courtesy of the family’s black sheep.

12 February – Rihanna’s surprise guest

The Barbadian musician takes the spotlight for the prestigious Super Bowl halftime slot. Eschewing the tradition of bringing on A-list surprise guests, Rihanna instead shares the headlines with her unborn second child, revealing to the world that she is heavily pregnant. Wrote Mark Beaumont at the time: “An event that was once the annual home of big-name guest collaborations and gargantuan gimmicks – remember Katy Perry riding in on a giant golden tiger surrounded by floundering shark dancers? – has been refined of late into one eye-catching concept taken to stadium-sized extremes.”

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Don’t stop the music: Rihanna at the Super Bowl
Don’t stop the music: Rihanna at the Super Bowl (AP)

19 February – Ariana DeBose does the thing

An immediate inductee into the all-time pantheon of terrible, cringe-inducing awards show presentations, West Side Story star Ariana DeBose’s 2023 Baftas rap is truly a sight to behold. It’s like staring into the sun. Or swabbing your ears with sheet metal. It is wrong magic, a kind of rizzless razzle-dazzle. The lyrics themselves are a work of gnomic abstraction: “Angela Bassett did the thing… Jamie Lee, you are all of us!” What does she mean? What thing? WHAT THING?

March – Gwyneth Paltrow hits the slopes

In one of the more bizarre and exotic examples of celebrity legal shenanigans, Paltrow faces legal action over her role in a 2016 skiing accident. Retired optometrist Terry Sanderson sues the star for $300,000, eventually losing the case after it was deemed that the crash – in which he skied into Paltrow from behind – was solely his fault. Months later, a musical is staged in London re-enacting the events of the trial.

Now you ski me: Gwyneth Paltrow in court in March
Now you ski me: Gwyneth Paltrow in court in March (Getty)

13 March – Everything Everywhere bags all the Oscars

Independent multiverse comedy drama Everything Everywhere All at Once sweeps the Oscars, taking home seven awards across most of the major categories. The film, starring Michelle Yeoh, is estimated to be the most-awarded movie of all time.

May – A dark day for This Morning

ITV’s flagship midmorning chat show is rocked by scandal as host Phil Schofield is revealed to have had an affair with a younger ITV employee. Amid a media firestorm, Schofield steps down from the series, with embattled co-host Holly Willoughby following suit months later.

Disgraced: Phillip Schofield on ‘This Morning’
Disgraced: Phillip Schofield on ‘This Morning’ (ITV)

1 May – Chris Pratt’s ‘hideous’ photo

Around the time of the 2023 Met Gala, Guardians of the Galaxy star Chris Pratt shares a photograph of his crusty toenail on Instagram. The image goes viral in all the wrong ways, with Pratt’s mother-in-law Maria Shriver among those expressing bafflement at the celebrity over-share.

7 May – Coronation concert

King Charles has ascended to the throne, and to mark the occasion, a random assortment of music stars old and young perform at Windsor Castle. There’s Katy Perry! Lionel Ritchie! Take That! What it lacks in cohesion it makes up for in pageantry, with the UK’s jolliest flag-wavers out in force. “There’s absolutely no clear theme to the evening,” Roisin O’Connor wrote at the time. “Take That are suddenly engulfed by a flock of Katy Perry lookalikes, resplendent in their very own Quality Street wrappers. A giant whale made up of colour-coded drones swims through the sky. Tom Cruise offers Charles a spot as his wingman. It’s no Glastonbury, sure. But it was a lot of fun.”

28 May – Succession succeeds

The most acclaimed TV series in a generation comes to a corruscating conclusion, following 10 weeks of absolutely flawless Event TV. Who takes over the crown from big daddy Logan Roy (Brian Cox)? I’m not going to reveal here but it was a conclusion that was as devastating as it was satisfying.

TV tyrant: Brian Cox’s Logan Roy in ‘Succession’
TV tyrant: Brian Cox’s Logan Roy in ‘Succession’ (HBO)

25 June – Goodnight, Yellow Brick Road

“Crocodile Rock” hitmaker Elton John brings his career to a coruscating close with a headline set at Glastonbury Festival, his final performance in the UK. While rumours of a cameo from Paul McCartney ultimately prove false, the night remains a worthy celebration of one of the 20th century’s defining pop musicians. “I want to thank you for 52 years of loyalty,” he told the crowd. “I will never forget you. You’re in my heart and my soul.”

July – NPC fever

Truly one of those internet trends that makes you think “we’re done for as a species. Yeet me into the sea”, July sees the rise of the TikTok NPC. The phenomenon sees creators abandon all autonomy, instead embracing the life of a “Non-Player Character” and responding to viewers’ prompts with a stock phrase or action, repeated on loop for hours. Watch at your own peril.

21 July – Barbenheimer detonates

Cinema is saved! Or it seems that way at least, as the cinematic sensations of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer and Greta Gerwig’s Barbie work in tandem to produce one of the all-time biggest box office weekends. The notion of a “Barbenheimer” double bill somehow catches on, with hordes of people dressing up as Barbie (or, in some cases, nuclear physicist J Robert Oppenheimer) to attend the tonally disparate films.

Things are looking up: Cillian Murphy in ‘Oppenheimer’
Things are looking up: Cillian Murphy in ‘Oppenheimer’ (AP)

23 July – Bye bye Birdie

Less than a year after controversially taking over as CEO of the social media website Twitter, tech billionaire Elon Musk controversially decides to overhaul the brand’s identity, changing the name and logo to simply “X”. Mockery abounds on Musk’s platform, with many users likening the new logo to that of a pornography website.

28 August – The Cattrall returns

Kim Cattrall makes a sensational return to screens as her Sex and the City character Samantha, in the season two finale of the sequel series And Just Like That… Reports downplay the suggestion that a more extensive return could be on the cards for season three but for the time being, the mere sight of Samantha again enlivens a shaky and divisive sophomore season.

Same Samantha: Kim Cattrall as Samantha in the ‘And Just Like That...’ finale
Same Samantha: Kim Cattrall as Samantha in the ‘And Just Like That...’ finale (HBO)

16 September – Dispatches broadcasts investigation into Russell Brand

Comedian and YouTube conspiracy theorist is accused of rape and sexual assault by multiple women following a joint investigation by Channel 4’s Dispatches, The Sunday Times and The Times. Brand denies all allegations.

28 October – The world loses a Friend

Matthew Perry, the actor who brought joy and laughter to millions as Friends’ resident sarcasm-monger, dies at the age of 52. In the week following his death, later revealed to be caused by acute effects of the anaesthetic ketamine, Perry’s co-stars share a series of heartbreaking tributes to the late actor and drug treatment activist.

Gone too soon: Matthew Perry was among the stars to leave us this year
Gone too soon: Matthew Perry was among the stars to leave us this year (Getty)

November – The death of Marvel

If nothing else, 2023 may mark the year the world lost interest in superhero movies. Following a run of underperforming blockbusters across various franchises, including Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, The Flash, Shazam! Fury of the Gods, and Blue Beetle, Marvel caps the year off with The Marvels, the expensive follow-up to Captain Marvel that manages to set a new low for the once-dominant cinematic universe. Is this the end of the superhero boom? Quite possibly. A month later, Jonathan Majors, the actor set to play the villain in multiple forthcoming Avengers films, is dropped by Marvel after being found guilty of domestic assault.

4 December – Grand Theft Auto VI is revealed to actually exist

More than a decade after the release of the record-breaking Grand Theft Auto V, the public is given the first look at the forthcoming GTA VI. There’s still maybe two years to go until the game is actually released but the two-minute trailer was enough to send the internet into a full-blown tizzy.

Finally: ‘GTA 6’ is announced with a 2025 release date
Finally: ‘GTA 6’ is announced with a 2025 release date (Rockstar Games/AFP/Getty)

6 December – Swiftly does it

In many ways, 2023 was the year of Taylor Swift. Over the course of the year, the consummately brand-ified singer-songwriter released two bestselling albums, Speak Now (Taylor’s Version) and 1989 (Taylor’s Version), as well as a hit concert film. Her love life has also been a constant talking point, with a high-profile fling with The 1975’s Matty Healy proving divisive among her fanbase. But it was on 6 December that Swift finally spoke out publicly about her ongoing romance with NFL football player Travis Kelce, with the duo well on their way to becoming America’s No 1 power couple.

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