Best Films of 2019
- Emma Simmonds
- 20 December 2019
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
The votes are in, our critics have spoken: find out what made our best films of 2019 list
This time, it's not just a year but a decade that comes to a close. A decade that has seen films as vital and varied as Phantom Thread, Moonlight, Mad Max: Fury Road and Boyhood top our annual critics poll. 2019 certainly gave its predecessors a run for their money; our reviewers' individual lists drew from a more diverse pool than in recent memory, reflecting a year in which eye-catching filmmaking was in abundant supply.
Post Me Too, women's stories are flourishing – our top ten skews slightly in favour of female protagonists. And if politics seems to have lurched toward populism, cinema gives us hope, offering a kinder, more nuanced perspective on humanity. It's something that those which narrowly missed out on our list perfectly illustrate: The Farewell delivered a poignant, culturally fascinating take on saying goodbye to a loved one; Sorry We Missed You examined the impact of austerity and the decimation of workers' rights; Burning looked at jealousy and longing; The Souvenir at a toxic relationship; Pain and Glory gave us insight into the aging process and artistic legacy; Wild Rose considered rehabilitation; Capernaum poverty; and Ad Astra fatherhood.
Sometimes cinema was searing (Destroyer, Monos, The Nightingale and, yes, Avengers: Endgame), sometimes it was subtle (The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Ordinary Love) but it was almost always worth the price of admission. With streaming services such as Netflix soaring, long may the theatrical experience continue to thrive.
Yes, it attracted and probably courted controversy – which turned out to be no bad thing given its billion-dollar box office haul – but Joker is a class act. The winner of the Venice Film Festival's Golden Lion, it could have been another comic book origin tale but writer-director Todd Phillips digs deeper, and his 70s-inspired film boasts a gobsmacking central performance from Joaquin Phoenix as the ignored and unstable Arthur Fleck. Read our review.
Speaking of outstanding leading turns, Lupita Nyong'o gave us the most multi-faceted performance of the year, playing an uptight mother and her deranged doppelganger in Jordan Peele's follow-up to Get Out. Confirming Peele's gift for celebrating and subverting horror tropes, it's an ingenious and instantly iconic nightmare that once again takes America to task. Read our review.
Actress Olivia Wilde absolutely smashes it with her directorial debut; a ballsy, full-throttle teen party flick which positions sidelined geek girls at the forefront of the fun. Lady Bird's Beanie Feldstein is hysterically funny as a brainbox control freak, Unbelievable's Kaitlyn Dever is her partner in crime. Read our review.
7. For Sama
Our favourite documentary of 2019 is as hard to watch as it is essential to witness. Shot and co-directed by Waad al-Kateab (collaborating with Edward Watts), it's a story for and about her young daughter, who was born in war-torn Aleppo. Heart-wrenching and incomparably illuminating, it's perhaps the most important film here. Read our review.
6. Marriage Story
A look at what remains after love has left a relationship, Noah Baumbach takes a partly personal journey through divorce with funny and bittersweet results. Channelling Woody Allen and John Cassavetes, Marriage Story is buoyed by outstanding work from Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, who have an incredible platform to do their thing. Read our review.
5. Little Women
Formidable talent that she is, Greta Gerwig's crack at Little Women (the eighth such adaptation) sneaks in at the last. With a glittering cast (from Saoirse Ronan to Florence Pugh, Laura Dern to Meryl Streep) and a marvellous reverence for the material, it's a film chock-full of Christmas spirit that really earns its Boxing Day release date. Read our review.
4. Eighth Grade
Debut helmer Bo Burnham and actress Elsie Fisher turn the modern teen experience into a kaleidoscope of hope, heartache and humiliation as we follow an introverted middle schooler negotiating her final week of eighth grade. Written and directed with humour and real dynamism, it's a film that radiates compassion from every frame. Read our review.
3. The Favourite
It wasn't quite our collective favourite when it came down to it, but what an impression this one made when it was released all the way back in January. Bagging Olivia Colman a rightful Oscar for her hilarious, painfully human portrayal of Queen Anne, it's the most wonderful, wickedly weird take on 18th century court shenanigans. Read our review.
2. The Irishman
Netflix certainly backed the right horse when it gifted movie maestro Martin Scorsese a budget of more than $150 million for the story of the crooks who encircle Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa. Returning the director triumphantly to the gangster genre, it reunites him with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci and only goes and throws Al Pacino into the mix. Read our review.
1. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
1969's Los Angeles is brought to vivid life in Tarantino's epic nostalgia-fest, which won him back fans after the relative divisiveness of The Hateful Eight. This had its detractors too but was lavished with praise following its Cannes premiere. As confident, idiosyncratic and, yes, brilliant as he's ever been, Tarantino had a hand from a trio of charismatic blondes (Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie) as he delivered humour, horror and an absolute sucker-punch of an ending. Read our review.
Contributors: Nikki Baughan, Jo Berry, Kevin Harley, Eddie Harrison, Allan Hunter, Karen Krizanovich, Demetrios Matheou, Katherine McLaughlin, James Mottram, Emma Simmonds, Anna Smith, Matthew Turner, Sophie Willard