The Best Films of 2019
All the major players are in position for the upcoming ‘streaming wars’ which will further define the shape of cinema over the next decade. Seeing the likes of Scorsese and Bay relying on Netflix to fund their projects suggests the shape of things to come, but just as importantly, for the time being the quality of work being released in 2019 was just as strong as ever.
The writers at The Digital Fix have offered up their top 5’s for the year, with a mixture of prestige releases, memorable documentaries, standout foreign language films and smaller independents that may have gone under the radar for some. The lists are based on films released in UK cinemas and streaming platforms in 2019.
1. Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood (Read our review here)
Quentin Tarantino finds the grace, and sincerity, of his first films with this melancholic evocation of the year that killed the hippie dream. Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood is an ode to cinema which sees Brad Pitt at the peak of its charisma and gives us one of the most pleasurable endings of recent years.
2. The Irishman (Read our review here)
Martin Scorsese signs an epic testament to a genre he helped define for the last 30 years whilst creating a shattering evocation of the passing of time and the regrets which result from it. For his first collaboration with Scorsese, Al Pacino is magnificent with a performance which dominates the moving Robert De Niro/Joe Pesci reunion.
3. Midsommar (Read our review here)
After a stunning debut, Ari Aster definitely imposes himself as a genuine talent to follow with a rich, and totally controlled, blinding nightmare which will haunt you for days.
4. Ne Zha
China enters the big leagues with a 3D animated film of mesmerising beauty which convokes old legends to create a genuinely touching anti-hero story. Can’t wait for the sequels!
5. Dragged Across Concrete (Read our review here)
After two uppercuts, Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99, S. Craid Zahler resuscitates the spirit of Sydney Lumet and William Friendkin’s cinema with a hard-boiled crime drama which transfigures Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn.
1. Marriage Story (Read our review here)
Noah Baumbach’s second film for Netflix is rooted in his own divorce, but manages to be even-handed as Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson’s marriage comes apart. Brilliantly written and acted, funny and moving, with Driver’s singing a Sondheim song towards the end one of many standout scenes.
2. The Irishman
Made for Netflix when studios wouldn’t back it, Martin Scorsese’s epic about Frank Sheeran, who claimed to have killed Jimmy Hoffa, is a late-career film, more reflective, less hyperkinetic and violent than many of his earlier films, a story of moral choices and their price. Scorsese’s film harks back to the cinema of an earlier era, while making use of up-to-the-minute technology.
3. The Nightingale (Read Gary's review here)
A tough watch but a very impressive one, Jennifer Kent’s second feature is a revenge story which is very clear-eyed that colonisation of a country is carried out on the bodies of others. As in The Babadook, Kent centres the film on a woman traumatised to the point of near-madness, given a ferocious performance from Aisling Franciosi.
4. Ghosthunter (Read Gary's review here)
In a year when many fine documentaries were released, I’m going for Ben Lawrence’s film. Made over seven years, about Sydney security guard Jason King, who runs a ghost hunting business on the side, and has to confront his own demons of the non-supernatural kind. Moving, and at times challenging and quite disturbing.
5. Rocketman (Read our review here)
There have been several music biopics over the last few years, and no doubt more to come, but Dexter Fletcher’s film about Elton John stands out. It’s a genuine musical, not just a drama with music, and unlike Bohemian Rhapsody, say, doesn’t sanitise aspects of its protagonist’s life and sexuality. A standout performances from Taron Edgerton.
1. The Farewell (Read our review here)
Awkwafina proves herself to be a formidable dramatic actress in this bittersweet film about a Chinese-American woman reuniting with her family in China, as she struggles to keep her grandmother's terminal diagnoses secret from the woman herself. Hysterically funny at times and tear-jerkingly beautiful at others, it provides a fascinating look at how we deal (and don't deal) with death.
2. Burning (Read our review here)
Lee Chang-dong's adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s short story is a slow and hypnotic film, masterfully bringing you into Jongsu's world before the enigmatic and mysterious Ben (Steven Yeun) throws it all into disarray. The cinematography is some of the best of this year, but it's Yeun's unnerving performance that will haunt you long afterwards.
Just a year after the harrowing Hereditary, director Ari Aster is back with another - and altogether different horror classic. Aster proves he's one of the most interesting directors working today in this hallucinatory story of grief, toxic relationships, and terrifying cultists - helped in no small part by Florence Pugh's unforgettable and audacious performance.
4. Little Women (Read our review here)
Another Florence Pugh movie made it into my list this year; this time supporting Saoirse Ronan in a lavish adaptation of the 1869 novel. Greta Gerwig's imaginative direction brings out the best in her stellar cast, with Ronan and Pugh's captivating performances in keen competition with Timothée Chalamet's charming physicality and arresting appearances by the likes of Chris Cooper and Louis Garrel.
5. If Beale Street Could Talk (Read our review here)
Flitting between different points in their relationship, this movie tells the story of a pregnant African-American woman fighting to clear the name of her boyfriend after he is falsely imprisoned. It doesn't sound like an easy watch, but Barry Jenkins' loving direction finds a perfect balance of tragedy, comedy and beauty, creating one of the most convincing on-screen romances in years.
1. Shazam! (Read our review here)
Bigmeets Superman and with Chuck’s Zachary Levi killing it in the lead role, Shazam! is a reminder that DC superhero movies can be fun too. A film with plenty of heart, lots of solid humour and some ridiculous action sequences, Shazam! was probably the most entertaining superhero movie of the year.
2. Avengers: Endgame (Read our review here)
This had a huge amount riding on it and it delivered a satisfying conclusion to the MCU saga so far. The time travel was a bit of a head scratcher and Black Widow’s fate was frustrating, but from the greatest hits montage of our favourite heroes travelling into the past, to big set piece of a finale, Avengers: Endgame had everything.
3. Joker (Read our review here)
The ties to the Batman mythology were largely superfluous, but it was all about the slow descent into madness and Joaquin Phoenix was phenomenal. Joker wasn’t always easy viewing, but Phoenix’s portrayal was captivating as his crippling mental health issues were exasperated by a series to terrible circumstances. If Phoenix doesn’t win awards for this role, it will be a crime.
4. Knives Out (Read our review here)
Rian Johnson’s whodunnit was a sublime dark comedy that didn’t play to expectations. Knives Outboasts an electric cast, particularly Daniel Craig’s hilarious performance as southern sleuth Benoit Blanc. It has a sharp script to match the performances and some dark comic moments that keeps the audience on their toes to the very end. A film that deserves all its hype.
5. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (Read our review here)
A satisfying and entertaining conclusion to the Skywalker saga with Ian McDiarmid scene stealing as the returning Emperor Palpatine, demonstrating just why he was always the big bad of the Star Wars universe. The narrative is puzzling, Kelly Marie Tran is wasted and the first half wizzes by and feels a little rushed. But JJ Abrams delivers spectacle, grandeur and emotion with conviction.
1. The Wild Pear Tree (Read our review here)
Nuri Bilge Ceylan delivers another long Chekovian slow-moving epic that achieves a rare intimacy and insight into human nature and behaviour, generational and social change, the importance of nature and the environment in determining who we are - as well as thoughtful considerations on the nature of art, literature and spirituality - everything that defines and makes us human (released in Northern Ireland this year)
2. The Favourite (Read our review here)
More accomplished than any of Yorgis Lanthimos’s works to date, The Favourite still has a delightful touch for the eccentric and absurd, the historical reality boosted by slightly heightened behaviours from the terrific acting performances. A perfect balance is achieved between the comedy, the vicious rivalry and the often touching human drama to create sumptuously funny entertainment.
Not unexpectedly for a work based on a Haruki Murakami story, Burning operates on a number of levels, playing with literary references, metaphors and techniques and a certain degree of self-reflexivity. But Lee Chang-dong's adaptation brings this to the screen rather brilliantly the mysteries and ambiguities of life and human behaviour.
4. Chambre 212
Christophe Honoré's greatest achievement this year was directing a stunning reinterpretation of the opera Tosca at Aix-en-Provence. But in Chambre 212 he developed some equally creative ways to make another woman's journey to self-realisation through encounters with ghosts of her past consistently inventive and amusing, music again playing a revelatory role that elevated the film to the level of sublime.
5. Bait (Read our review here)
Shooting in 16mm using unconventional filming techniques might appear like an unnecessary affectation, but the results are completely absorbing in Mark Jenkin’s impressive low-budget feature, the images seared into your memory. It succeeds in capturing a claustrophobic sense of a small Cornish fishing community that feels its traditions and way of life threatened by change in the modern world.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
The finale to the Skywalker saga is a messy, disjointed affair. It makes choices I disagree with and retcons as much as it embraces of the events in The Last Jedi. But despite all of this, it's the closure to a film series as old as I am, one that has influenced my life and been there through all of my highs and lows. For that reason alone it appears in this list.
Ari Aster set a high bar with Hereditary, but one that was quickly bettered with Midsommar. Featuring a brilliant performance by Florence Pugh and one of the most unsettling storylines of the year, it's a film that will be talked about for decades.
A solid conclusion to the events of the previous 21 films, Avengers: Endgame was bombastic, noisy and ultimately pretty damn satisfying. It provided a fitting ending to a number of character's stories and set up a nice clean slate for what is yet to come.
Wild Rose (Read our review here)
Jessie Buckley is brilliant in the title role. A rags-to-riches story that gives the relative newcomer her breakout role and ultimately became one of the most enjoyable and warming films of the summer.
1. The Report (Read Chris's review here)
Scott Z. Burns’ fastidious, rigorous examination of the US government’s ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques in the wake of 9-11 is as rewarding as it is difficult. Adam Driver delivers a compelling performance as whistleblower Daniel J. Jones, a single moral centre point in a film rife with complicit charlatans. Dark, depressing and stirring, this is a perfect film for our times.
2. Toy Story 4 (Read our review here)
The sequel we never knew we needed: Pixar’s conclusion to the much-loved series gave long-time fans incredible catharsis, while providing children of all ages an entertaining, effortlessly funny and beautifully animated adventure. Come for the characters you know and love, stay for a sentient Spork having an existential crisis.
3. Vox Lux (Read Chris's review here)
Brady Corbet dons his Lars Von Trier cap in this sharp, spangled evils-of-fame tale starring Natalie Portman as a Sia-like popstar. Portman lights up the screen and a gorgeous score from the late Scott Walker surges beneath the sumptuous surface. It’s proven to be divisive, but whether it has you sighing with exasperation or tapping your feet, it rewards endlessly on reflection.
4. Knives Out
Writer-director Rian Johnson makes a playground of who-dunnit tropes and the foibles of trust fund America. Standout performances from Ana De Armas, Chris Evans and Jamie Lee-Curtis (plus Daniel Craig, carving a fine slice of southern-fried ham) make this an irresistibly good time at the movies.
5. Apollo 11 (Read our review here)
Ingenuity and feats of heart-stopping awe are thrown into pin-sharp relief in this incredible documentary featuring new found footage of the first Moon landing. Restored 70mm film and minimal voiceovers from those involved meld brilliantly, making this retelling of mankind’s greatest journey one of the most undeniably cinematic events of the decade.
1. Marriage Story (Read Alistair's review here)
Noah Baumbach strips away the cynicism and the quirk that defines so much of his filmography for this deeply personal story, inspired by his own divorce from Jennifer Jason Leigh. How good is it? It made this working class viewer look past the privilege on screen to be deeply moved by the quiet trauma caused by divorce.
2. Under the Silver Lake (Read our review here)
2019’s most misunderstood film, director David Robert Mitchell’s seedy Los Angeles noir is a timely takedown of conspiracy theories and the people whose meaningless lives they give a sense of purpose to.
Another film about an unexpected disappearance, Lee Chang-Dong’s adaptation of a Murakami short story adds a newfound sense of mystery. It’s the best arthouse thriller since Michael Haneke’s Cache.
4. Knives Out
One of the most purely joyful experiences at the movies this year, Rian Johnson’s tribute to Agatha Christie manages to pick apart and poke fun at the conventions of the murder mystery genre - while being the best example of a film in that genre for years. Daniel Craig has never been better.
5. Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood
I really liked it on first viewing, but a second viewing elevated OUATIH to top tier Tarantino. The director’s most laidback movie since Jackie Brown, the film possesses an unexpected melancholy as it examines the lives of three people on the peripheries of fame, realising they may not get the celebrity status they always wanted.
1. The Irishman
The weight of time hangs heavy over the heads of all involved in this genre-ending epic. The cast face up to their own mortality and we are also asked to say our goodbyes. Scorsese ruminates on a career spanning five decades and puts a seal on an era of cinema we will sorely miss.
2. The Last Black Man in San Francisco (Read Steven's review here)
The first few minutes of Joe Talbot and Jimmy Fails’ ode to their home city is enough to lift your spirit. Set in a slightly heightened reality, it is still grounded enough to touch base with thoughts on race, friendship, masculinity, identity and gentrification. One listen to Emile Mosseri’s melancholic score will be enough to break your heart.
3. For Sama (Read Steven's review here)
Even amongst a growing collection of Syrian-based documentaries, co-director Waad Al-Kateab’s story is devastating in every way. Yet amongst the tragedy and heartache lies a reminder of the resilience of the human spirit, and the remarkable courage shown by people in the face of extreme adversity. It’s an extremely tough watch, but an essential one owed to Al-Kateab’s courage.
4. If Beale Street Could Talk
How do you follow up a film like Moonlight? You do justice to an already beautifully written book by James Baldwin by turning it into a timeless and beautifully cinematic love story. It demonstrates how Jenkins’ filmmaking has matured even further and embraces the hope and joy of his characters in a world designed to break them down.
5. Birds of Passage (Read Steven's review here)
Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra take a traditional gangster saga and turn it inside out with their unique perspective on the Colombian drug trade. Yes, there’s guns and violence, but also indigenous tribes, naturalistic symbolism and surreal dreamscapes captured within DP David Gallego’s vibrantly warm and rich colour palette. It’s as close to a spiritual western as you can get.
1. High Life (Read Andy's review here)
French auteur Denis's first English language film is a scuzzy, libidinous slice of sci-fi that sees a group of death-row prisoners – including Robert Pattinson – shot into space and experimented on by Juliette Binoche’s unhinged fertility doctor. Eye-wateringly violent, queasily atmospheric, and Binoche’s extraordinary “Fuckbox” scene is a genuine WTF moment.
2. Once Upon A Time... In Hollywood
QT tackles the Manson Family and the murder of Sharon Tate in his best film since Jackie Brown. What begins as a perfectly curated, sun-drenched homage to Tinsel Town’s past, featuring terrific performances from Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, becomes both haunting elegy and blistering exorcism in its final, jaw-dropping act.
3. The Irishman
Friendship, guilt, betrayal, and masculinity are all put under the microscope in Scorsese’s sweeping mobster epic. Beautifully paced, powerfully acted (De Niro and Pacino haven’t been this good in years) and surprisingly melancholic, the film’s digital de-ageing technology works a treat and Joe Pesci – out of retirement for one last hurrah – steals the entire thing.
4. Her Smell
Elisabeth Moss gives one of the year's bravura performances as Becky Something, a booze and drug-addled rocker on the verge of a breakdown. Perry’s film – which transports us right into the broiling epicentre of Becky’s fractured psyche – was under-appreciated both in the US and here in the UK, where it went straight to VOD.
Eight years after the magnificent Poetry, Lee returned with this haunting adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story. The plot is a Schrödinger’s cat puzzle, in which we are invited to ponder the fate of a carefree young woman, Lee ratcheting up the tension before providing a gut-punch finale to take the breath away.