Best of the Year: Top 20 Films of 2019

Counting down the top 20 films of 2019, from Lulu Wang's The Farewell and Martin Scorsese's The Irishman, to Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story and Bo Burnham's Eighth Grade.

As the cinematic year has drawn to a close, it’s time to reflect on the best films of a year that saw established auteurs like Martin Scorsese, Noah Baumbach, Pedro Almodovar and Quentin Tarantino return with new films, as well as hotly anticipated sophomore efforts from Ari Aster and Greta Gerwig, and thrilling debuts from Olivia Wilde and Bo Burnham. The usual disclaimers apply to this list: it’s based on 2019 UK release dates, so some awards season heavy-hitters weren’t considered (Parasite,  1917, Jojo Rabbit etc).

Without further ado, the top 20 films of 2019…

20. Booksmart

Actor Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut is a warm, funny and keenly observed depiction of female friendship, and a crowd-pleasing coming-of-age comedy that feels fresh and timely.

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19. Le Mans ‘66

James Mangold’s well-oiled motor racing yarn is big, slick Hollywood storytelling at its finest, with engaging lead performances from Matt Damon and Christian Bale.

18. Pain & Glory

Delving into his past to explore bygone relationships, professional conflicts and his own burgeoning sexuality, Pedro Almodovar delivers an elegiac slice of autobiography, with a sensitively sketched performance from Antonio Banderas as the Spanish auteur’s on-screen avatar.

17. Dolemite Is My Name

Don’t call it a comeback. Eddie Murphy’s rollicking star turn in Craig Brewer’s bawdy and wildly entertaining biopic of blaxploitaton star Rudy Ray Moore is the actor’s best in years, finding pathos in the role while exploiting every ounce of his star wattage.

16. Wild Rose

Jesse Buckley is sensational as a would-be country western star trying to escape her grim Glasgow life in Tom Harper’s tearjerking crowd-pleaser, an affecting rise-to-stardom narrative by way of a gritty, kitchen sink drama.

15. Hustlers

Charting the rise and fall of a group of strippers who made a fortune scamming sleazy Wall Street types, Lorene Scarafaria’s delicious caper is slick, playful entertainment with a bitter, downbeat edge, enlivened by a magnetic star turn from Jennifer Lopez.

14. Midsommar

Ari Aster’s masterful sophomore effort is a morbidly funny and gruesomely violent horror film but also a shrewdly observant exploration of grief, mental health and relationships, with Florence Pugh’s harrowing performance one of arguably three star-making turns from her in 2019.

13. Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Devoid of cheap sentiment and overblown histrionics, Marielle Heller’s deeply lived in drama is an affecting and quietly heartbreaking portrayal of loneliness, alienation and unlikely friendships, enlivened by the spiky chemistry between the excellent leads Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant.

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12. Mid-90s

Jonah Hill’s directorial debut is a largely plotless slice-of-life centered on a young teenager finding an escape from his fractious home life in the mid-90s skating scene in LA. Hill captures the time and place perfectly, while also exploring – with sensitivity and insight – the intense bonds that can be forged as a teen and how fleeting they can be.

11. Little Women

For her second film, Greta Gerwig assembled a who’s-who of Hollywood’s top young stars (Ronan! Pugh! Chalamet!) for a warm and moving adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel. Though largely faithful to the source, Gerwig still manages to make it feel unmistakably her own, focussing on the tight bond between the March sisters as they navigate love, loss, sacrifices, ambitions and responsibilities in Civil War-era New England.

10. Knives Out

Rian Johnson’s witty and playful caper is an inventive take on the murder-mystery genre, focussing on the murder of a wealthy author, his family of inheritence-hungry hangers-on, a gentleman detective and the maid stuck in the middle of it all. Fun and engrossing with a political bent, Johnson crafts a whodunnit that adds a fresh spin on some tired genre tropes.

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9. Fighting With My Family

The unlikely rise to stardom of professional wrestler Paige, who made it all the way from a local, family promotion in Norwich to the WWE Hall of Fame, provides the subject matter for Stephen Merchant’s shockingly good underdog sports movie. Funny, warn and spirited, Merchant’s crowd-pleaser smartly blends the magic of pro-wrestling with witty comedic moments and well-observed family dynamics, with a magnetic performance from Florence Pugh at its center.

8. Ordinary Love

One of – if not the – most moving films of the year, this low-key drama written by Belfast playwright Owen McCafferty focuses on a middle-aged couple coping with the wife’s cancer diagnosis. Far from the grim watch that synopsis might suggest, the film is as heartwarming as it is heartbreaking, at times just as funny as it is intensely painful, with the superb leads Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson bringing heart and nuance to this warm and honest portrait of a loving relationship tested by illness.

7. Minding the Gap

Bing Liu’s heartbreaking Oscar-nominated documentary follows himself and two friends Zack and Keire as they attempt to transition from skateboarding teens into full-blown adults. With beautifully shot skate footage eventually giving way to an exploration of masculinity, male friendship, parenthood and what it means to grow up, all lent a disarming intimacy by Liu’s own closeness to the subject.

6. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

With his ninth film Quentin Tarantino rewrites history again, this time blending the real and the fantasy as he transports us to Hollywood at the tail end of the swinging sixties, following Leonardo Di Caprio’s fading star and his loyal stuntman, played by Brad Pitt. Both men are superb: Di Caprio prideful and insecure, Pitt at his coolest and most endearing, and spending time with them over the course of this languid, poignant, tense, funny and immensely watchable exploration of male friendship and the lasting effects of violence.

5. The Farewell

Based on her own grandmother, Lulu Wang’s immensely personal sophomore effort centres on a Chinese family concealing a cancer diagnosis from their elderly matriarch. Wang manages to strike a perfect balance between the absurd comedy of the situation and the intense emotional weight of it all, carefully coordinating the guilt, tension and old resentments at the heart of this family get-together. Written and performed with sensitivity and warmth, Wang’s poignant film finds universal feelings through an extremely specific story.

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4. Eighth Grade

Comedian-turned-director Bo Burnham’s debut feature might just be the most relatable coming-of-age story in decades. Avoiding the usual teen movie tropes, the film centers on a shy, introverted middle-schooler, played wonderfully by endearing newcomer Elsie Fisher. Burnham manages to tap into the painful and cringeworthy aspects of teenage life in a thoughtful, insightful way, perfectly capturing the embarrassment, shame and self-doubt that we all experience at some point in our life, and articulating it with a cool wit and unfaltering empathy.

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3. If Beale Street Could Talk

Adapted from James Baldwin’s novel, Barry Jenkins’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning Moonlight is both swooning romance and searing examination of racial injustice, focussing on a young mother-to-be fighting to free her partner, who has been wrongly accused of rape. Powerfully acted across the board – including a quietly brilliant, Oscar-winning turn from Regina King – and shot with a woozy beauty, the film is a lyrical and achingly romantic ode to love and hope.

2. The Irishman

So good is Martin Scorsese’s wintry gangster epic, that it instantly demands consideration for a top five spot in the director’s impressive oeuvre. Taking in loyalty, corruption, family, legacy, and regret, the film feels like an elegant capper on Scorsese’s career, examining and reckoning with his past work while delivering something thrilling and new. With a trio of powerhouse performances from Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci, It’s perfect gangster movie alchemy, but this is very much a change of pace from Scorsese’s past work, ditching the coked-out energy for something more sombre and melancholy, underpinned by a real strain of tenderness and poignancy.

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1. Marriage Story

In recent years, Noah Baumbach has been gradually moving away from the acerbic archness of his earlier work and towards something more genuine and empathetic. Marriage Story feels like his masterpiece, the culmination of what he has been working towards with his latest work. The film seamlessly flits from scenes of farcical comedy to moments of almost unbearable emotion and all of it rings true of the central couple (Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson) as they navigate what begins as a fairly amicable break-up, but becomes increasingly fraught. Driver and Johansson both give arguably the performances of their respective careers, culminating in a devastating showdown scene that is mesmerising, painful and completely authentic, illustrating the way people who love each other can say the most hurtful things. It’s striking that Baumbach manages to find new levels of feeling and emotion in a milieu that he has explored in the past, and he manages to represent both sides of this divorce with fairness and empathy, showing the flaws and mistakes by both parties. Baumbach has some classics in his back catalogue – 2005’s The Squid and the Whale the best among them – but Marriage Story feels like a new level of maturity, and the best work of his career.

Honourable Mentions

Some other highlights from the year included Jordan Peele’s thrilling Get Out follow-up Us; Ken Loach’s searing indictment of the gig economy Sorry We Missed You; documentarian Asif Kapadia’s deep dive into the life of Diego Maradonna; Adam McKay’s comedic Dick Cheney biopic Vice, with a transformative turn from Christian Bale; Jonathan Levine’s sweet, hilarious romcom Long Shot, starring the unlikely pair of Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron; poignant Laurel and Hardy biopic Stan & Ollie; Scottish rave culture throwback Beats; and Marvel’s huge franchise capper Avengers: Endgame.