2019 has been an unforgettable year in cinema for a myriad of reasons. The work that has shone the brightest, though, is that which has explored timely and timeless issues with belief and bravado. This list reflects what I’ve experienced to be the year’s best, and regardless of your thoughts on my ranking should prove a guide to some of the most provocatively pertinent work recently unleashed on audiences.
Director: Brian Welsh
Beats is a throwback, but rather than being a rehash it’s an ideal example of one. The journey is a return the 1990s, both in terms of being a reflection upon the era and also recalling the likes of Trainspotting and Human Traffic. This leans more towards the hedonism-celebration of the latter but is enriched by its insights on life, being a coming of age story, a consideration of the value of raving, and a beautiful celebration of friendship and fun. It’s a film that is glorious escapism, not because it avoids reality but because it so perfectly draws from it.
It is a celebration of party culture but mounts a rigorous, welcome defence so invigorating and informative that it’ll inevitably draw people on board who’ve never experienced a rave. It posits that raving is an escape from the minutiae of life and the politics that drive it — elevating raving beyond merely fun but becoming an important act of resistance. Of course, it brilliantly also presents the joyous surprises of the best night out. It’s such a well rounded, deeply felt and considered film that it makes for escapism of highest order.
9. If Beale Street Could Talk
Director: Barry Jenkins
This is an adaptation of a classic work that holds immense power; a vivid rendering of the story for the screen. If Beale Street Could Talk‘s title refers to the shared, implicitly negative experiences of black people throughout the US, but as well as speaking to that truth it has broad, fascinating depths. There is some tragedy in the false imprisonment of a central character, but beauty, tenderness, and sometimes melancholy can be found in a multifaceted work that pays tribute to multifaceted lives.
All of the film’s elements represent collectively a truly exceptional tonal mastery. Its score and aesthetics represent this almost completely as if it were a silent film, the music simultaneously bringing sadness and triumph and the visuals luscious and also meditative. The film’s brilliance comes from the perspective that heart and realism aren’t seperate, that lives aren’t all one thing, and to have a complex reflection of life as a black American is ever-necessary, affecting, and important. The material might be historical is here timeless in its content and its unique construction.
8. Knives Out
Director: Rian Johnson
Rian Johnson is known for gleefully idiosyncratic works, and this is no exception. This is, as seems standard for his work, on some level a homage, but is much more than that when more than a cursory glance is taken. It is, for one, something that features a bevy of great actors putting in surprising performances. The surprise isn’t simply related to expressive or unsually complex characters but is related a consistent richness of themes that positions this as a blockbuster of major merit.
This is definitely not just an ordinary murder mystery, as the deep themes suggest, layers of purpose and playfulness making this more than a puzzle box. Narrative twists and turns take a greater significance and characters become more interesting thanks to the meaning within; there are human stakes and characterisation that make the mystery not just entertainment but compelling drama. Of course, Johnson’s script also has humour, humanity, and so do the vibrant performances. This is masterful filmmaking, making for probably the best genre spin of 2019 and definitely an admirably ambitious, important story where pleasure and purpose go hand in hand.
Director: Nicolas Pesce
This seemed like a curious release at first, a Western adaptation of a challenging and long-ago released Japanese novel. This story is an unusual one, focusing on a man (Christopher Abbot) desperate to release his violent urges by killing a prostitute (Mia Wasikowska); a dark concept that also has wit and heft in the source material. Nicolas Pesce has made a bold move in bringing it to the screen, but he uses his skill to make a loyally brilliant adaptation that still has his own flair.
Pesce masters the basics and then adds elements that deepen the narrative and its experience. A close quarters tale is crucial to creating the central cat and mouse intrigue and the simple staging allows for this; added references to giallo and visual quirks then bring layers of meaning that could only be on the screen. Similarly, the characters are made fascinating by their actors, the ever watchable Mia Wasikowska a particularly fiendish highlight. It’s a work that’s fun, intelligent, and bold enough to perfectly translate rather than reshape an unusual tale that’s as punchy as ever.
6. Fighting with my Family
Director: Stephen Merchant
A few years have passed since the wonderfully joyous Eddie the Eagle — and here has arrived an ever greater and more ambitious sports quasi-biopic. This follows Soraya (Florence Pugh), known in the ring as Paige, who comes from a family of British wrestlers and whose skill and spark lead her towards the WWE. It lifts itself far above being just heartwarming, though, bringing in a dose of social realism that provides, yes, great immersion, but also great meaning.
The approach of this is an antidote to the condescendingly manufactured drama of music biopics like Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman. Florence Pugh and Jack Lowden, the latter Paige’s aspiring brother Zac, bring honest performances that attest to the often uncomfortable complexity of people. The balance of the wholesome and the more difficult realities of life make this a fist-punching film that’ll make you think, too, and definitely one of the year’s highlights.
5. Mary, Queen of Scots
Director: Josie Rourke
This isn’t just another historical drama, even a well constructed one; this look at the eponymous individual and her cousin Elizabeth is refreshingly contemporary in its themes. Patriarchy constrains the monarchs in the form of suitors and treacherous advisors, the women’s political and personal goals constantly thwarted. Powerful actors bring the humanity of these individuals to life and drive this unexpectedly unforgettable tale.
Humanity is the factor that elevates this to a work with social relevance and thrilling drama. It has the traditions of its genre: a steady camera joined with the balance of the glum and glamorous. Its aesthetics are unquestionably pleasing, but the subversions of well written characters dealing with real issues gives everything a greater edge of reality. Its undoubtedly not the first to give such familiar parts of history a complex, contemporary look, but the approach us here handed so well that it makes your eager for more works made with such skill.
4. Sorry We Missed You
Director: Ken Loach
Ken Loach has returned with another incisive, unrelenting look at an issue that’s major in 2019 and doesn’t look set to resolve soon. It’s focused on the destabilising ripples resulting from zero hour contracts and generally uncertain, uncaring working lives; something of a companion piece to benefits-focused I, Daniel Blake. The subject here, however, perhaps has a connection to a broader set of people, and has that film’s same alarming incisiveness.
It’s deeply troubling and affecting for how it presents an utterly believable downward spiral. The film doesn’t create a gap between work and life, the former bleeding into the latter and increasingly, compoundingly, wreaking havoc on the lives of the family at the story’s centre. The empathy for the characters sells this: naturalistic performances and glimpses of humour give this a rounded reality and a sense of human tragedy.
There is evidently great craftsmanship in order to clearly and effectively put forward an important message. It explores the story with a precision that brings to light all the unimagined complexities and repercussions of a zero hours contract; things that are generally encountered in a piecemeal fashion through the news. This narrative not only allows us coherent overview of the situation but tugs at our common humanity, and this perfect approach to a pressing contemporary issue makes it one of the year’s most important films.
3. Her Smell
Director: Alex Ross Perry
Something uniquely special has happened here: the creation of an extraordinarily visceral work that’s simultaneously, inextricably, a deep dive into moral purpose. It portrays a rockstar in the throes of abuse of herself and others, melding with horror and leaving us wondering if there’s any hope of redemption. It’s terrifying, enlightening, and unique in all its elements — and it’s the result of a visionary creative team that has the bravery to push things so far.
Few works offer such perfectly pitched cohesion and such purpose beneath it. It’s a discordant, swirling nightmare at its start with crashing, twisting music, an unpredictable Elizabeth Moss, and a roving, unsteady camera capturing the horror. But the film does change, too, and the adaptation makes us feel these changes; we feel the difference between peace and chaos with such feeling that their moral value doesn’t need to be spoken.
There is no major release this year that is comparable to this, its immersive nature entirely its own. It brings you fully into its horrific, claustrophobic world, giving personal morality the importance that it deserves by virtue of how powerful its effects feel. Alex Ross Perry has overseen a work that gives life to ethics in a way rarely seen, one that speaks to the self-reflection of 2019 and is hard to imagine seeing competition that can combine such emotive viscerality and real purpose in the decades to come.
Director: Todd Phillips
There aren’t many films that inspire responses as strong as Joker, and it’s something that has to walk a risky line. It’s dealing with the creation of one of pop culture’s most notorious villains, risking glamorising evil in the process, and is inspired by Scorsese’s critically adored Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy with an obviousness that has been perceived by some as derivative. Todd Philips, creator of the critically mauled The Hangover films, took on this challenge and has produced one of the most bracing, confident creations of the year.
Essential to the success of everything is the intelligence that powers the great shocks and surprises. It has a strong message about the awfulness of society but also an inextricably linked look to the haunting awfulness of responding to that; and there’s remarkable skill in making the impact of both so raw. A score both string and growlingly industrial, a camera tight and unshowy, and unguarded performances are the key parts of affording the story’s descent into madness the unfamiliar feel of all-consuming horror.
This is a film that isn’t given the credit it deserves despite is cohesive, discomfiting brilliance. Few films are able to pull you into their worlds so effectively, scenes pushed to their limits so that you can never predict where the journey will take you. Its striking quasi-melodrama straddles the cinematic worlds of blockbuster and arthouse works with an effective precision, then, and this lays down the gauntlet for other filmmakers. It certainly shows the benefit — financially and creatively —of treating audiences with intelligence, and with its intensity is even better than it’s more demure spiritual predecessors.
1. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Director: Celine Scammia
Celine Scammia’s latest is undoubtedly a work of great beauty. It’s an exploration of lesbian romance, a story of a painter and her subject who fall in love. It might sound like it could be a lascivious work since gazing is at its centre, but it strips away the objectifying male gaze, and replaces with a female perspective. It becomes a far richer film with Scammia’s eye: one with not only incredible artistry but explorations of love that feel fresh. It’s a film that has had a massive appeal already and it’s easy to see why, structurally this being a genuinely game-changing work.
Nuance runs perfectly throughout the film, particularly in its trust of the audience to understand that subtlety. Imagery is, as the title suggests, a key part of the story, but whilst there’s a pleasingly painterly look to things the boldness is that we’re encouraged to observe everything like art. We get a sense of these women slowly getting to know each other, their increasing intimacy suggested by glances, changing manners, and specific framing. Artifice is at a minimum, exposition and music stripped away for the most part to encourage us to really see and therefore really invest in, really understand, the evolution of love.
This is one of the greatest films of 2019 and even the decade, redefining romance on screen so that it’s not just merely sensory. It’s a film where you’re left awed by it’s ability to speak of the connections between people and of shifting inner lives without really saying much directly about them. The core romance is so wonderful, too and, of course, has thematic depth alluded to with a careful, only gently indicative hand. You’re begged most by the evident craftmanship and subtle purpose to rewatch, making this a tenderly, authentically beautiful pirce that satisfies as entertainment, as a work that defies conventions, and as something that should shake its industry.