The 50 best films of 2019

In a year in which the future of cinema – of independent filmmaking, and collective film-watching – seems more fraught than ever, our poll of 100 S&S contributors has produced a list of 50 outstanding reasons for movie watching.

Here below the reflections of past masters jostle with bold experiments from new voices – capped by a triumphant top movie that finds its British female director both looking back and moving forward.

In our January 2020 issue we spotlight some of the themes and stories that have defined the cinema of 2019 – from post-#MeToo movies to the fortunes of the European arthouse, as well as expanded cinema and a countdown of the best TV of the year. 

Updated:

 

The list

50. The Mule

Clint Eastwood, US

The Mule (2018)

The veteran director plays an aged drug trafficker in a pointed critique of American values and racial discrimination.

We said:

“It’s rare for a film about a Mexican drug cartel and the impossibility of the American Dream to be either disarming or funny, but Clint Eastwood has delivered one that is consistently both… The film refuses to make firm judgements about those who break the law to get by… The true villains who emerge – unsurprisingly, to anyone familiar with Eastwood – are those who are part of a bureaucracy or who want to implement one.”

— Violet Lucca, S&S, March

Where to see it: Available on DVD, Blu-ray and digital platforms.

 

49. The Favourite

Yorgos Lanthimos, UK

The Favourite (2018)

A bold and bawdy royal farce set in 18th-century England, with Olivia Colman as a whimsical, infantile Queen Anne, and Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone as rivals for her affection.

We said:

“Proves that Lanthimos can put his mordantly idiosyncratic stamp on even this staidest of genres. How many other historical costume dramas, for a start, would include the likes of ‘Wanking Man’, ‘Fastest Duck in the City’ and ‘Nude Pomegranate Tory’ in their cast-list? The Favourite offers rich, ribald, often lethally vicious period farce.”

— Philip Kemp, S&S, January/February

Where to see it: Available on DVD, Blu-ray and digital platforms.

 

48. Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream

Frank Beauvais, France

Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream (2019)

Composed entirely of hundreds of brief excerpts from other films, set to a narration, Beauvais’s found-footage work is a diaristic narrative that touches on a romantic breakup, the death of his father, world events and more, fusing personal crisis and global emergencies.

Where to see it: Not currently on home cinema platforms.

 

47. If Beale Street Could Talk

Barry Jenkins, USA

If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

This languorous James Baldwin adaptation is a lovingly observed story of two young people who come together in 1970s New York, before being torn apart by rough justice.

We said:

“Jenkins – like so many beloved black filmmakers and black writers, including Baldwin, in his era – is often called upon to consider how white audiences might interpret narratives of black life. In some ways, this question has troubled black artists and intellectuals for ages: how to speak to black people, of black things, while white people are also listening. But Jenkins is on record here and elsewhere, naming If Beale Street Could Talk as an insistently ‘black’ film: ‘There have been comparatively so few films made by and about black people. I’m glad to live in a time where that is rapidly changing.’”

— Kelli Weston, talking to Barry Jenkins, S&S, March

Where to see it: Available now on DVD, Blu-ray and Amazon Prime Video.

 

46. Rose Plays Julie

Christine Molloy & Joe Lawlor, Ireland/UK

Rose Plays Julie (2019)

An adopted Irish girl tracks down her birth mother and learns about her birth father, in this eerie psychological drama.

We said:

In an online piece for S&S in October, Molloy and Lawlor wrote: “Rose Plays Julie is our third narrative feature. We always imagined the process would get easier as you make more films, but there are always new challenges. We began developing Rose Plays Julie back in 2013. 2013? That’s quite a sobering date to write.”

Where to see it: The film does not yet have a confirmed UK release date.

 

45. Rocks

Sarah Gavron, UK

Rocks (2019)

A sweet but gritty London-set film that follows a Nigerian-British girl burdened with adult responsibilities when her mother leaves the family home.

We said:

“A compassionate, finely observed portrait of a young woman’s gradual breaking down, as the usual buffers, including brotherly love and friendships, strain under her crushing responsibility.”

— Ela Bittencourt, S&S online, October

Where to see it: Released in UK cinemas in April 2020.

 

44. Honeyland

Tamara Kotevska & Ljubomir Stefanov, Macedonia

Honeyland (2019)

A documentary about Macedonian beekeeper Hatidze Muratova and her mother, who subsist on honey sales and are the only inhabitants of a Balkan mountain village.

We said:

“A painful allegory of rapacious capitalist greed destroying the environment. Culled from some 400 hours of footage, the luminous Honeyland is both a study of Hatidze’s serene endurance in ancient conditions and a cautionary eco-documentary.”

— Graham Fuller, S&S, October

Where to see it: Available on DVD and YouTube, Google Play and Prime Video.

 

43. Holiday

Isabella Eklöf, Denmark

Holiday (2018)

This punishing debut feature set on the Turkish riviera follows a young woman named Sascha as she learns the ropes of being a gangster’s girlfriend.

We said:

“If the lack of warmth in this film makes it a punishing watch, its unsentimentality is also its strength. Since Eklöf and her co-writer Johanne Algren show us almost as little of Sascha’s inner life as of her backstory, we’re not directed in how innocent, how deserving or how culpable to find her. It’s left to the viewer to read the Rorschach blot of her behaviour. A provocation, then; but a stark, disciplined and genuinely confronting one.”

— Hannah McGill, S&S, September

Where to see it: Available to stream on YouTube and GooglePlay.

 

42. I Lost My Body

Jérémy Clapin, France

I Lost My Body (2019)

A severed hand fends off rats and pigeons as it scuttles through Paris in search of its owner, in Jérémy Clapin’s touching, very special animation.

We said:

“Animated features still tend to fall within a limited number of genres, yet I Lost My Body confounds them all. The world the film creates is at once grittily urban and cosmically strange; the story is adult, yet devoid of the usual ‘mature’ themes of politics and war. The result is a work of sophistication and emotional weight – an utterly surprising tale of love in its different forms.”

— Alex Dudok de Wit, S&S, December

Where to see it: Available on Netflix.

 

41. Hale County This Morning, This Evening

RaMell Ross, US

Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018)

This poetically fragmented documentary offers an intimate view of a small African-American community in Alabama.

We said:

“In breaking away from traditional linear form and allowing reflection, Ross has created a filmic experience just as fluid as lived life can be… Ross’s work may be situated as a tangent in a new aesthetic tradition, a wave of black American filmmakers operating between art and film spheres, confronting the political reality through personal and new nonfiction languages.”

— Luke Moody, S&S, January

Where to see it: Available on DVD, Blu-ray and Amazon Prime Video.

 

40. Ray & Liz

Richard Billingham, UK

Ray & Liz (2018)

Thatcher’s Britain provides the backdrop for this autobiographical study of a family torn apart by poverty and neglect.

We said:

“For all that Ray & Liz has contemporary relevance, it is a deeply personal work. These are hard scenes to watch, but they also brim with emotive detail and, on occasion, humour: this is less a film angry at neglect by Ray and Liz as one that’s trying to understand them amid their neglect by society.”

— Ben Nicholson, S&S, April

Where to see it: Available now on DVD, Blu-ray and digital platforms, including BFI Player.

 

39. Joker

Todd Phillips, USA

The Joker (2019)

This Venice-winning origin story for Batman’s nemesis soars past its ideological confusion on a cascade of Scorsese references and a killer performance from Joaquin Phoenix.

We said:

“Right-on in one moment and uncomfortable in the next… there are real moments of shock, degradation and exhilaration in the film, and certainly this is true of its performance from Phoenix, who is magnetic.”

— Christina Newland, S&S, November

Where to see it: Still on wide UK release.

 

38. Eighth Grade

Bo Burnham, USA

Eighth Grade (2018)

First-time writer-director Bo Burnham’s perceptive dramedy about lonely 13-year-old Kayla’s last week in eighth grade.

We said:

“Drops us dextrously into the relentless social Darwinism of early adolescence. Rather than a cautionary tale, or a knowing Mean Girls takedown, it is an exquisitely detailed close study of the tensions, longing and growing pains of its ordinary, socially anxious heroine… Tenderly observed, endearing and oddly harrowing, it’s a coming-of-age film that honours rather than exploits the daily ordeals of early adolescence.”

— Kate Stables, S&S, May

Where to see it: Available on DVD, Blu-ray and Amazon Prime Video.

 

37. No Data Plan

Miko Revereza, USA

No Data Plan (2019)

Filipino director Miko Revereza’s poetic documentary chronicles a three-day journey across America, from Los Angeles to New York, aboard an Amtrak train, weaving in reflections on Revereza’s mother’s life as an undocumented worker in the States, and more, as we watch the changing landscape go by. It offers a timely, dreamlike meditation on exile, belonging and home.

Where to see it: Not currently available on home cinema platforms.

 

36. America

Garrat Bradley, USA

America (2019)

This brilliant half-hour film constructs an alternative history of African-American representation on screen, interspersing footage from Bert Williams’s 1913 film ‘Lime Kiln Club Field Day’ with new short films shot by Bradley in New Orleans that illustrate a person or event in African-American history that has also become invisible. The film took the Short Doc Award at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2019.

Where to see it: Available to stream at festivalscope.com

 

35. Zombi Child

Bertrand Bonello, France

Zombi Child (2019)

A film that resurrects the idea of the undead to examine slavery, colonialism and the pomp of the French state.

We said:

“Bonello’s imaginative, unapologetically cerebral drama returns to the roots of the undead myth in the Haitian figure of the ‘zombi’. Zombi Child is unmistakably Bonello’s work, [in keeping with] the highly conceptual films that have established him as one of French cinema’s most provocative writer-directors.”

— Jonathan Romney, S&S, December

Where to see it: Available to stream on Mubi.

 

34. Synonyms

Nadav Lapid, Israel, France

Synonyms (2019)

The Berlinale Golden Bear winner follows a young Israeli expat trying to shed his identity in Paris.

We said:

“Nadav Lapid’s astounding third feature has chutzpah to spare, but it is backed up with the necessary aesthetic and philosophical rigour, eschewing black-and-white polemics to achieve a nuanced, probing and productively confrontational engagement with its contentious central theme.”

— Giovanni Marchini Camia, S&S online

Where to see it: As yet no UK distributor.

 

33. Ash Is Purest White

Jia Zhangke, China

Ash is Purest White (2018)

The director explores the masculine codes of his country and his own previous work in this self-referential film about Qiao, a woman in love with a mobster.

We said:

“Continues Jia’s ongoing study of China’s social and economic changes this century… Mesmerisingly played by Jia’s regular star Zhao Tao, Qiao is not just one woman, but passes through multiple guises. The gun-toting heroine of her action moment is just one fleeting persona: beyond it is a core of tenacity and integrity strengthened and purified, ash-like, in the white-hot crucible of solitude and adversity.”

— Jonathan Romney, S&S, May

Where to see it: Available to stream on BFI Player.

 

32. Booksmart

Olivia Wilde, USA

Booksmart (2019)

Olivia Wilde’s riotous first feature as director follows the efforts of two super-swots to attend their first party.

We said:

“In a long line of teen comedies mostly set over the course of one evening, Booksmart celebrates the intimacy of women’s closest early friendships while acknowledging their transience… Wilde has mounted a sparkling display on the film’s modest framework, conjuring memories of Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan (1985).”

— Graham Fuller, S&S, July

Where to see it: Available on DVD, Blu-ray and Amazon Prime Video.

 

31. Knives Out

Rian Johnson, USA

Knives Out (2019)

A remix of the country-house detective mystery which bends a knee at the altar of Agatha Christie, and is a hoot.

We said:

“It’s a blast: a finely tuned romp which, although it takes the conventions of the genre very seriously, has no such reverence when it comes to its own filmmaking approach. Overacting is positively encouraged and the production design is littered with wittily repurposed instruments of death.”

— Wendy Ide, S&S online

Where to see it: Still on general release.

 

30. In Fabric

Peter Strickland, UK

In Fabric (2018)

This exuberantly designed costume horror about a cursed red dress critiques consumerist weakness with a sadistic ruthlessness.

We said:

“In its gleeful sadism and self-conscious verbal and visual overkill, the film might risk being written off as a display of style over substance. But style as confidently thought through, inventive and accomplished as this is an impressive – and thoroughly diverting – achievement, and deserves to be appreciated for its own sake.”

— Philip Kemp, S&S, July

Where to see it: Available on DVD, Blu-ray and digital platforms.

 

29. I Was at Home, But…

Angela Schanelec, Germany

I Was at Home, But… (Ich war zuhause, aber…, 2019)

The Berlin School director’s unclassifiable film follows the mother of a missing boy who suddenly reappears.

We said:

“Gorgeously shot and sound-designed to immersive perfection – a confident doubling-down on the uber-distinctive style Schanelec has evolved over her two-and-a-half-decade directorial career. It is also calmly, radically mystifying, the kind of film through which there appear to run seams of subterranean logic, but follow any one and you’ll only find yourself dangling off its edges.”

— Jessica Kiang, S&S online

Where to see it: As yet no UK distributor.

 

28. Varda by Agnès

Agnès Varda, France

Varda par Agnès (2019)

The late French master narrates her life works in this free-floating journey back through her career.

We said:

“It offers a gorgeous trip down memory lane and an impeccably presented primer – one that very much smacks of the official version. It may feel whimsical and off-the-cuff, but this filmic collage is as carefully structured as the director’s other works. As ever, Varda is a great raconteur: as warm, witty and convivial as we have come to expect, with never a bad word to say about anyone. A lovely, late-autumn work, a joy from start to finish.”

— Catherine Wheatley, S&S, August

Where to see it: Available on BFI DVD and Blu-ray, and to stream on BFI Player.

 

27. Ad Astra

James Gray, USA

Ad Astra (2019)

This majestic space opera follows Brad Pitt’s ice-cool astronaut across the cosmos in search of his lost father.

We said:

“Lent ballast by Pitt’s lean, terse and detailed performance. [Gray] has re-enchanted the idea of space travel precisely by demythologising it. A production -design-attentive filmmaker sensitive to capturing the sedimentary layers left by the passage of history, Gray has in Ad Astra created a shockingly (and deflatingly) feasible future that extends in a straight line from the present day.”

— Nick Pinkerton, S&S, October

Where to see it: Released on disc and digital platforms on 20 January 2020.

 

26. The Hottest August

Brett Story, USA

The Hottest August (2018)

A ‘dystopian sci-fi documentary’ in which New Yorkers talk about their lives and hopes for the future in a time marked by political division and climate change.

We said:

“An absorbing social study about hopes, dreams and our current climate. It’s 2017, an abnormally hot summer. Story talks to New York locals: there is a sense of uncertainty in the air… It’s as if the film is trying to describe human existence to an audience from the future.”

— Sophie Brown, S&S online

Where to see it: Not currently available on home cinema. See thehottestaugust.com for information on screenings.

 

25. The Farewell

Lulu Wang, USA

The Farewell (2019)

Lulu Wang’s hit probes culture-clash anxiety, as first-generation Chinese-American Billi travels to China to visit her ailing grandmother.

We said:

“Benefiting from the novelty of being an American independent film shot on location in China, The Farewell anchors itself in its star’s rightly acclaimed performance.”

—Vadim Rizov, S&S, October

Where to see it: Coming to home cinema in early 2020.

 

24. A Hidden Life

Terrence Malick, USA

A Hidden Life (2018)

The true story of the life and death of a devout Catholic and World War II Austrian anti-fascist objector, who in 1943 refuses the oath of loyalty to the Führer, thereby setting himself on a path to execution.

We said:

In keeping with critical reactions to Terrence Malick’s recent work, the film met with diverging opinion when it premiered in Cannes, with Nick James judging it “above the clouds in the worst possible way” when he reviewed it online for S&S. A full review will appear in our next issue.

Where to see it: Released in UK cinemas on 17 January 2020.

 

23. Transit

Christian Petzold, Germany

Transit (2018)

An adaptation of Anna Seghers’s World War II novel, which shadows a runaway from the Third Reich in modern-day Marseille to conflate the continent’s moral failings past and present.

We said:

“The unresolvable then-and-now perspective leaves us uncertain whether we’re watching a 1940s drama filmed without period illusionism, like a classic play in modern dress, or a parallel-world vision of the Europe we know – in light of which, Transit might be read as a dystopian warning of a future that, with the rise of the European right, could be approaching for much of the continent.”

— Jonathan Romney, S&S, September

Where to see it: Streams on Curzon On Demand, YouTube and Google Play.

 

22. Border

Ali Abbasi, Sweden

Gräns (2018)

A Scandinavian folk fantasy that probes issues of identity through a twisted combination of procedural crime drama and animalistic romance.

We said:

“Hugely inventive, barely categorisable… Border is a misfit in more ways than one: a story of characters trying to find their place in a world where they don’t seem to belong; a film that uses bizarre mythological or supernatural elements in a mundane modern-day setting; and a work that seems archetypally Scandinavian in its imagery and sensibility, although it’s made by an Iranian-born director.”

— Jonathan Romney, S&S, April

Where to see it: Available on Blu-ray, and to stream on Mubi.

 

21. Beanpole

Kantemir Balagov, Russia

Beanpole (2019)

The 28-year-old director’s extraordinary second film depicts the febrile friendship of two nursing women in a World War II Soviet hospice after the Siege of Leningrad.

We said:

“While Beanpole’s subject matter is lacerating, and the film doesn’t exactly pull punches, Balagov’s mode is not miserabilist. There’s a deep and inviting poetry to the director’s mise en scène throughout, and his storytelling is unimpeachable for its reserve and delicacy… this gifted young director’s psychological acuity and formal control over his sprawling story mark him as a valuable artist.”

— Caspar Salmon, S&S online

Where to see it: Look out for selected screenings in UK cinemas.

 

20. Martin Eden

Pietro Marcello, Italy

Martin Eden (2019)

An adaptation of Jack London’s novel about the struggles and seach for identity of a young writer, Marcello’s film transposes events from the US to 19th-century Naples, and mixes drama and archive footage with a dazzling inventiveness.

We said:

“Easily the most stylistically distinctive film in competition [in Venice], shot on 16mm and seamlessly incorporating real archive material both as mise en scène and as dream material… Luca Marinelli plays the lead, and pulls off the difficult trick of playing against type as a handsome lunk in the role of the tortured unpublished writer.”

— Nick James, S&S, November

Where to see it: Released in UK cinemas in spring 2020. 

 

19. Hustlers

Lorena Scafaria, USA

Hustlers (2019)

Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu steal the show as pole-dancers in a retelling of a real-life strip club heist.

We said:

“Hustlers is both a callback to the ditzy gold-diggers of the 1930s and a high-energy, montage-heavy crime caper in the Scorsese vein, as these likeable good-gals turn the tables on Wall Street’s most lascivious wolves. Wu is an endearing lead, and Lopez’s charisma only seems to elevate her co-star rather than dwarf her. It’s those two intense lead performances and Scafaria’s sizzling script that make Hustlers such a pleasurable dance.”

— Pamela Hutchinson, S&S, November

Where to see it: Comes to UK DVD/Blu-ray and digital platforms on 6 January.

 

18. Happy as Lazzaro

Alice Rohrwacher, Italy

Happy as Lazzaro (Lazzaro Felici, 2018)

A magic-realist fable of modern servitude, ancient bonds and timeless miracles, focused on a beatific innocent.

We said:

“In the wide, green eyes of actor Adriano Tardiolo, Rohrwacher finds a gaze that sheds all cynicism, a guileless anchor for her devastating exploration of the false promise of progress and the elusive possibility of collective happiness. Alongside the realist commitment is a conflicting impulse: Rohrwacher’s embrace of temporal elasticity creates an aura of fantastical confusion.”

— Erika Balsom, S&S, May

Where to see it: Available on DVD/Blu-ray and home cinema platforms, including BFI Player.

 

17. The Lighthouse

Robert Eggers, USA

The Lighthouse (2019)

A two-hander set in the claustrophobic confines of a 19th-century lighthouse that channels the spirit of Herman Melville.

We said:

“Both actors are superb – Robert Pattinson giving his most anxious, intense and physical performance to date, while a leathery-faced, Triton-bearded Willem Dafoe milks the clichés of his old-salt character… The film takes us into a spiral of madness and throws on its dream imagery in crashing waves. What keeps this nightmare vessel afloat, along with the performances, is the film’s phenomenally inventive style.”

— Jonathan Romney, S&S online

Where to see it: Set to be be released in UK cinemas on 31 January.

 

16. Midsommar

Ari Aster, USA

Midsommar (2019)

A summer festival in Sweden becomes a daylight nightmare for Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor in Ari Aster’s psychedelic folk-horror.

We said:

“Ari Aster’s debut Hereditary (2018) was a clever ghost story of great freshness and menace. His follow-up does without the attics or ghosts – it’s a hallucinogenic folk-horror along the lines of The Wicker Man (1973). The incontrovertibly supernatural is absent. But there is instead a lurking, a supernatural imminence that flickers around the edges of the action, as if something ghostly might manifest at any point.”

— Roger Clarke, S&S, August

Where to see it: Now available on DVD, Blu-ray and digital platforms.

 

15. For Sama

Waad Al-Kateab, Edward Watts, UK / Syria

For Sama (2019)

A mother-and-daughter’s-eye view of the devastation of Aleppo, al-Kateab and Watts’s documentary is a stirring cry of pain and protest.

We said:

“One of the most powerful and essential films of recent years. Co-directed by former Aleppo resident and self-taught video journalist Waad al-Kateab with Emmy-winning filmmaker Edward Watts, it’s a first-person account of what it means to live smack-bang in the middle of an active war zone. Told squarely from a female perspective, it also offers a viewpoint rarely seen in films about conflict.”

— Nikki Baughan, S&S, October

Where to see it: Now available on Channel 4’s All 4 platform.

 

14. Marriage Story

Noah Baumbach, USA

Marriage Story (2019)

Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver play divorcing spouses struggling to take care of their son in Noah Baumbach’s drama.

We said:

“Baumbach directs his actors with a deep understanding of intimate relationships. Fights with significant others so often dissolve into laughter when someone shouts something ridiculous, then melt back into unyielding fury in a few moments. Audiences might expect a mercilessly bleak view of married life, but there’s humour both physical and situational here, and a sprightly touch that is the Baumbach way.”

— Christina Newland, S&S, December

Where to see it: Available to stream on Netflix UK.

 

13. Monos

Alejandro Landes, Colombia

Monos (2019)

Landes’s surreal, unsettling war story follows a squad of adolescent guerrillas fighting for an unknown cause in an unnamed country.

We said:

“One of the year’s most extraordinary films. Its feverish visuals rupture any sense of surface realism, creating a disarming, almost surrealist universe where anarchy takes hold. The action sequences and morbid humour ensure that the tone remains hard to predict. The ghosts of a political situation that is never articulated hover over a narrative whose mysteries remain, right up to the film’s final moments.”

— Maria Delgado, S&S, November

Where to see it: Still on limited release. On Blu-ray and digital platforms in 2020.

 

12. Uncut Gems

Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie, USA

Uncut Gems (2019)

The Safdie brothers turn in another compelling and grisly New York City pulp crime thriller, with a career-best Adam Sandler as a wheeling and dealing jeweller.

We said:

“Uncut Gems has an edgy, propulsive, bebop beat: it’s falling over itself to tell the tale, the kind of morbid barroom anecdote you can imagine the hoods from Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas sharing… Scorsese, Toback, Reisz, Ferrara… the Safdies don’t look out of place in this company. Uncut Gems is a prime slab of concentrated pulp storytelling in 135 New York minutes, gripping and remorseless.”

— Tom Charity, Uncut Gems review: the Safdies chase Adam Sandler’s gambler into the discomfort zone

Where to see it: Released in UK cinemas on 10 January 2020 and on Netflix soon after.

 

11. High Life

Claire Denis, France

High Life (2018)

This extraordinary sci-fi venture exiles Robert Pattinson’s convict to space alongside Juliette Binoche, and probes the outer reaches of human taboos.

We said:

“Uncompromising and enigmatic, High Life relinquishes nothing of the philosophical and visual force, the difficulty and seductiveness, that have made Denis’s films among the most compelling of contemporary cinema… High Life is less a view askew on the present than it is a film of primal impulses and archaic crimes, brimming with existential dread.”

— Erika Balsom, High Life review: Claire Denis probes the outer reaches of human taboos

Where to see it: Available now on DVD, Blu-ray and digital platforms, including BFI Player and Curzon on Demand. 

 

10. Vitalina Varela

Pedro Costa, Portugal

Vitalina Varela (2019)

The director’s latest feature concerns the same group of  impoverished Cape Verdean immigrants familiar from his previous films, and follows Vitalina Varela as she moves from Cape Verde to her deceased husband’s shack in a bairro on the outskirts of Lisbon.

We said

“Varela’s performance is elemental, forged in fire. It never ceases to astonish just what miracles Costa is able to wrest from non-actors, or more accurately, coach them to wrest from themselves, but this is probably the most formidable performance, and the most potent screen presence, as yet in his work.”

— Kieron Corless, Locarno 2019 report: films forged in fire

Where to see it: Released in UK cinemas in March 2020.

Further reading: Vitalina Varela review: Pedro Costa serenades his haunted heroine

 

9. Us

Jordan Peele, USA

Us (2019)

The director’s follow-up to Get Out is an allegorical portrait of the state of the Union, set in a sun-kissed California peopled with evil doppelgangers the ‘Tethered’ – an ingenious vision that offers a tantalising array of interpretations.

He said

“Horror movies are one of the ways we can face our fears in a relatively safe environment. That’s a catharsis. I like to provoke; I want to say the thing that is left unsaid.

“Right now, my country is going through an obsession with the outsider, and the fear of the invader and the Other. This is a movie about the fact that maybe we are our own worst enemy.” 

Jordan Peele, speaking to Simran Hans

Where to see it: Available now on DVD, Blu-ray and digital platforms.

Further reading: Us review: Jordan Peele raises the damned

 

8. Bait

Mark Jenkin, UK

Bait (2019)

Jenkin’s brilliantly original, hand-cranked black-and-white 16mm feature debut centres on the tension between a Cornish fishing community and the holidaymakers gentrifying their village, and proved a commercial as well as a critical hit.

He said:

“Somewhere within you, you have to believe that there will be an audience for your work, but the nature of the film industry is such that so many great films slip the net, so I feel incredibly blessed that it’s had the response that it’s had. I do pinch myself; I sometimes imagine I’m going to wake up and it turns out I fell down some stairs after a disastrous Berlin premiere and this has all been a self-indulgent fantasy.

“When I started making the film I imagined it as a story about a very specific part of Cornwall – I worried even that people from other parts of Cornwall might not get it. But it’s resonated wherever I’ve gone with it, which given the subject matter is also a bit of a depressing thought – that alienation through gentrification is so universal. Ultimately, I think the success of Bait has to do with how specific it is, how it’s set in a place I really understand but taps into a universal feeling of unrest.”

— Mark Jenkin, talking to James Bell in our January 2020 issue

Where to see it: Still in select cinemas around the UK, Bait is now on available on BFI DVD and Blu-ray, as well as to stream on BFI Player.

Further reading: Bait first look: Mark Jenkin heralds the new weird Britain

 

7. Atlantics

Mati Diop, France, Senegal

Atlantics (2019)

Mati Diop’s take on the migration crisis blends the real and the supernatural into a tenderly ethereal tale of injustice, exodus and abandonment in a dystopian modern-day Dakar.

We say:

“Atlantics is wonderfully perplexing and full of unexpected shifts – moving through the registers of Loachian realism, young romance, supernatural fantasy and even a comic detective story, with a harassed policeman forever finding himself overcome by mental blanks and fevers when he’s supposed to be on the case. There’s also social satire, sometimes caustic, sometimes sweet-natured, and a potent thread of feminist protest. Atlantics couldn’t be a more fitting film for our changing times… But this is also a work of considerable textural magic.”

— Jonathan Romney’s take on the film in our January 2020 issue

Where to see it: Available now on Netflix.

Further reading: Atlantics review: mysterious fable of class, migration and heartbreak

 

6. Pain and Glory

Pedro Almodóvar, Spain

Pain and Glory (2019)

In this reflective feature Almodóvar finds an avatar in Antonio Banderas, who gives a terrific performance as a director at the end of his career looking back on his life with the help of the occasional narcotic high – although the film is as much about Spanish politics as it is about his life and work.

He said

“‘The reason why a film makes such an intimate connection with an audience is always a mystery,’ Almodóvar told me when I told him his film had made S&S’s top ten poll. ‘In the case of Pain and Glory, the viewer leaves moved or, more accurately, transfixed, at a loss for words. As a director, it’s a wonderful feeling, and I believe it’s down to me displaying a more direct, humble and intimate part of myself in the film. And that is something present-day spectators are not used to.’

“Almodóvar remains one of the most distinctive filmmakers of the past 50 years and Pain and Glory, perhaps more than any of his earlier films, offers insights into a passion for cinema – ‘I cannot imagine not making films’ – that has shaped his entire body of work.”

— Maria Delgado, talking to Pedro Almodóvar, in our January 2020 issue

Where to see it: Released on DVD and Blu-ray on 13 January.

Further reading: Pain & Glory review: Pedro Almodóvar makes an art form out of reminiscence

 

5. Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Céline Sciamma, France

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu, 2019)

The director’s rapturous and radical costume romance between a painter, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), and her unwilling subject Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) finds a halcyon space without men for its young lovers. Here’s what women’s freedom circa 1770 looks like.

She said

“I wanted to explore what a love story with equality looks like rather than how the male gaze has told lesbian love stories. Our power dynamic is different. It’s good news for cinema. It means it’s a new ride for the viewer… People often ask me how I do the female gaze. But it’s not that hard not to objectify women. It’s not about restricting creation.” 

— Céline Sciamma, talking to Isabel Stevens in our January 2020 issue

Where to see it: Released in UK cinemas on 28 February.

Further reading: Portrait of a Lady on Fire first look: Céline Sciamma conjures an oasis of female freedom

 

4. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Quentin Tarantino, USA

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)

A luminous meta-western that sees Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt play a fading star and his stunt double whose rambling exploits in late-1960s Hollywood run into real-life tragedy when they cross paths with Sharon Tate and the Manson family.

We say

“Does this one feel less pushy of Tarantino’s overbearing talent because any evidence of an authorial personality at all is refreshing in the corporatised Hollywood of 2019? Maybe, but then, too, Tarantino has never managed a film as relaxed as this one, channelling the amiable, lackadaisical pacing of Rio Bravo and the Los Angeles drive-time dead-air of Jacques Demy’s Model Shop, all while never stiffening into rictus-like homage. Even the film’s climactic bloodbath feels like a long, smooth exhale…” 

— Nick Pinkerton’s take on the film in our January 2020 issue

Where to see it: On DVD, Blu-ray and digital platforms from 9 December.

Further reading: Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood review: Quentin Tarantino unleashes his nostalgic fetishes

 

3. The Irishman

Martin Scorsese, USA

The Irishman (2019)

A triumphant, decades-spanning mobster epic that centres around Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), the man who in this telling shot union boss Jimmy Hoffa, is both a richly elegiac account of the true toll of a life of violence, and thrilling evidence of the late style of a master director.

We say

“Fascinating as this conspiratorial political saga may be, the movie’s spiritual journey is what hits hardest. And while The Irishman has naturally been seen as a continuation of Scorsese’s mob movies, it’s just as important to see it in the context of his films about religious belief… going right back to Mean Streets, Charlie holding his finger over a naked flame: “You don’t fuck around with the Infinite.” I can’t think of another Scorsese movie so steeped in pain and regret, save for The Age of Innocence (1993), and De Niro’s playing in certain scenes is as wrenching, nuanced and perfectly calibrated as anything he has ever shown us.” 

— Tom Charity’s take on the film in our January 2020 issue

Where to see it: Available now on Netflix.

Further reading: The Irishman review: De Niro and Scorsese say goodbye to the goodfellas

 

2. Parasite

Bong Joon-ho, South Korea

Parasite (2019)

This global critical and commercial hit fuses home-invasion thrills with a searing critique of social inequality in a rip-roaring comedy about a con-artist family who spy easy prey in a well-to-do household.

We say

“Bong Joonho might have already been the most internationally beloved Korean New Waver, but Parasite, an acid-tongued satire in classic Bongian style, appears to be the one Bong movie that jazzes all the people all the time. It has gone through the roof. Maybe the closest we have today to a social-issue attack dog in the Sam Fuller mode, Bong is also a gripping mainstream storyteller, and his best films, of which Parasite is one, depict the tense lines of force in Korean society in often uproarious ways that anyone anywhere can feel in their guts.” 

— Michael Atkinson’s take on the film in our January 2020 issue

Where to see it: In UK cinemas from 7 February.

Further readingParasite first look: Bong Joonho builds a wicked bridge over the class divide

 

1. The Souvenir

Joanna Hogg, UK

The Souvenir (2018)

Joanna Hogg’s delicate and exquisite melodrama set in 1980s London tells the story of film student Julie, who is trying to hone her creative voice while in the grip of an intense and obsessive relationship with a mysterious older man named Anthony.

We say

“Here on the Sight & Sound team, we’ll confess to being as surprised as you may have been when we totted up the votes and realised that Joanna Hogg’s magnificent The Souvenir had triumphed in this year’s poll of 100 of our regular critics (60 of them men, 40 women). We were surprised only because it has been a year in which louder, more obviously established auteur voices not least Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and Pedro Almodóvar – had released much-acclaimed films which had dominated the critical airwaves to such an extent that we feared Hogg’s film would be squeezed out of contention. 

“Happily, that hasn’t been the case. The Souvenir is a deeply autobiographical account of the personal and artistic coming of age of an aspiring young filmmaker in 1980s Britain; it is both a great film about filmmaking and the pursuit of the artistic life – and the struggles to find one’s true voice that can come with that life – and a moving tale of doomed love in the fine tradition of romantic melodramas from Max Ophuls outwards.

“It’s heartening that such a distinctive, uncompromised vision by a British female director has triumphed. At a time when the kind of personal cinema Hogg represents seems to be under threat, The Souvenir’s success feels defiant and vital.”

— James Bell, introducing the year in cinema in our January 2020 issue. Isabel Stevens also talks to Joanna Hogg about the film’s success and reception, and gets a glimmer of insight into her current work on The Souvenir: Part II.

Where to see it: Out now on Blu-ray and DVD and available to stream on BFI Player.

Further reading:

  • Sight & Sound: the January 2020 issue

    Sight & Sound: the January 2020 issue

    The 50 best films of 2019 and the themes and stories of the year – from queer and post-#MeToo movies to the fortunes of the European arthouse,...

See our poll issue

  • The 100 Greatest Films of All Time

    The 100 Greatest Films of All Time

    In our biggest ever film critics’ poll, the list of best movies ever made has a new top film, ending the 50-year reign of Citizen Kane.
    Wednesday 1 August 2012

See our Greatest Films of All Time poll

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