It's been a huge year for cinema. A saga over 40 years in the making came to an end. The Avenger defeated their biggest foe. And Cats... happened...
Whether you enjoyed the mega-franchise movies that dominated the box-office or the smaller tales told by indie-filmmakers, the Total Film team has watched them all. Below, we've rounded up the best movies of 2019, with our writers working tirelessly to bring you a list as definite as possible. Of course, there was a hard battle over the number one choice. But, in the end, there was one clear winner – a movie that resounded most with everyone who voted.
Before we head into our list, a quick note. Total Film's critics are based in the UK, and so we only looked at released that were available in the country. That means the likes of The Lighthouse, Parasite, and Uncut Gems – all movies that have won our hearts – do not feature on the below list. Without further ado, here the best movies of 2019. Enjoy!
25. If Beale Street Could Talk
Director: Barry Jenkins
What is it? Two lovers are ripped apart by an unjust justice system.
Why you should watch it? The novels of James Baldwin were shamefully under-explored during his lifetime. So Moonlight director Barry Jenkins’ faithful interpretation of his 1974 love story goes some way towards addressing this slight. The story begins in Harlem, the home of both 19-year-old, pregnant Tish and 22-year-old Fonny, her childhood friend turned lover. Tish longs to build a home with Fonny, a talented sculptor who’s in prison after being wrongfully arrested. Jenkins swaddles the young lovebirds’ burgeoning romance in a ravishing soft-focus shimmer that makes their later meetings amidst the grubby greens of a prison visiting room all the more heartbreaking. While not quite on Moonlight's level, this powerful tale was rightfully an awards contender earlier this year.
24. Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Director: Marielle Heller
What is it? Melissa McCarthy forges autographs to pay rent.
Why you should watch it? Swapping her trademark pratfalls for literary crime and daytime drinking, Melissa McCarthy is a dowdy and determined revelation in this engaging true-life tale of author Lee Israel’s audacious '90s scam. Don’t mistake director Marielle Heller’s rich, melancholy character study Can You Ever Forgive Me? for a Life of the Party-style middle-aged makeover movie. Jeff Whitty and indie queen Nicole Holofcener's tack-sharp script is nicely nuanced about gay mid-life loneliness and last chances, with Heller wrapping a smoke-stained New York of dingy bars, bookstores, and chilly streets around the pair. The real delight, though, is in McCarthy and Richard E. Grant’s bitingly rude and funny fraudsters, two cynical losers finding refuge in one another. Grant injects a mix of charmer and rotter into Jack's hustling, but it's McCarthy’s prickly, vulnerable and bravely egotistical Lee who seals the film’s deal.
23. Honey Boy
Director: Alma Har’el
What is it? Shia LaBeouf plays his own father in striking autobiography.
Why you should watch it? The feature debut of documentary and music-video director Alma Har'el, Honey Boy is written by Shia LaBeouf, who draws on his own life (and plays a version of his own father) to tell the story of a child actor. The film takes place across two timelines, with Noah Jupe playing LaBeouf equivalent Otis in 1995, and Lucas Hedges playing the 2005 version who is working through his problems in therapy. It's an inventive, empathetic and emotional piece of work: LaBeouf gives one of his best performances as Otis' overbearing dad, and Jupe matches him every step of the way. One standout scene sees Otis watching a clip of his own show on TV at home, admiring the idealised on-screen father-figure that his own could never live up to. By turns funny, fascinating and heartbreaking, Honey Boy is artfully directed, but never at the cost of its humanity.
22. Pain & Glory
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
What is it? Aged director Mallo deals with past pains.
Why you should watch it? Pain and Glory frequently feels like the summation of a life's work. Pedro Almodóvar directs a movie that pulls from his own life, telling the tale of a famous filmmaker named Mallo. However, unlike Almodóvar, the character – played by Antonio Banderas – has stepped away from cinema after suffering through a laundry list of chronic afflictions, exhaustively detailed during an early animated montage. One day Mallo is informed that the Spanish Cinematheque are planning to screen a restored print of Sabor, one of his less celebrated films from the '80s, and the event’s planners want him to do a Q&A with the leading actor, who Mallo hasn’t spoken to for 30 years. Things erupt in Mallo's life, as former lovers return and the pains of growing old are brought to the forefront.
21. Apollo 11
Director: Todd Douglas Miller
What is it? Awes-inspiring documentary about the moon landing.
Why you should watch it? Launched to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, this utterly immersive documentary strapped you in the shuttle with Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. Sticking with the timeline of the mission, and offering nothing in the way of narration, context or interviews, it was as close as you could get to going into space without undergoing astronaut training. What made the biggest impression was the stunning archive footage (some of it 70mm), which looked absolutely pristine on the big screen: eliminating the distancing effect that graininess can bring to period docs, it felt akin to time-travel. As breathless a spectacle as you could hope to see on the big screen, Apollo 11 also managed to extract seat squirming tension from one of the most famous events in human history.
20. Toy Story 4
Director: Josh Cooley
What is it? Woody and Buzz go on another adventure.
Why you should watch it? No one needed another Toy Story movie after the trilogy ended perfectly in 2010, but 4's greatest trick was not sullying that legacy one jot, and finding further fun and feels in Woody’s story. In the hands of a lesser studio, it could've easily been a cynical cash-in, but everything about Pixar's Toy Story 4 was handled with care, from Woody's continued arc, to the new characters (Forky and Duke Caboom earn their place on the shelf next to the franchise's best), to the best-in-class animation: the antique-store setting takes the medium to its next level. Hitting the right notes for kids while also doubling down on the existential angst, Toy Story 4 was as funny and moving a film as you were likely to see last year.
19. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
Director: J.J. Abrams
What is it? The trilogy of trilogies comes to an end.
Why you should watch it? There are few Star Wars fans who would say you shouldn't see Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. This is, after all, the final instalment in the Skywalker saga, bringing a story that's been 40 years in the making to an end. Admittedly, there are many problems with some of the revelations. Yet, there's also so much to love. Seeing Rey, Finn, and Poe adventuring around the galaxy is a joy to behold. New characters Zorri Bliss and Babu Frik are scene stealers. Lando's return is a fantastic addition to the series. Best of all, without going into too many spoilers, there are some incredible moments that will send shivers down everyone's spines. This may not have reached the heady heights of The Last Jedi of The Force Awakens, but it's a blast nonetheless.
18. The Souvenir
Director: Joanna Hogg
What is it? Aspiring filmmaker gets caught in toxic relationship.
Why you should watch it? British writer/director Joanna Hogg made her most personal drama to date with The Souvenir. A semi-autobiographical portrait of aspiring filmmaker Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne, daughter of Tilda Swinton), who gets involved with wrong’un Anthony (Tom Burke) – a sophisticated Foreign Office employee wrestling with addictive demons – it was an achingly honest depiction of detrimental codependence. The politics and culture of early '80s London provided a rich backdrop for a strikingly intimate drama (much of the film is set in Julie's Knightsbridge flat, based on Hogg’s own student digs) that bristles with repressed emotion, Hogg's exposition-free elliptical structure treating the audience with rare intelligence. Work is already underway on a sequel; if it can match the quality of the first chapter, it’s not to be missed.
Director: Brian Welsh
What is it? Scots fight for the right to rave in the '90s.
Why you should watch it? Few films blend tones like Brian Welsh's coming-of-age dramedy set in an impoverished town in Scotland at the fag end of the rave scene in 1994. Just as its black-andwhite visuals at once screamed social realism and acted as a flipbook of nostalgic photographs, so the movie juggled politics (the shadow of Thatcher, the passing of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act) and the personal (two teenage mates embark on an odyssey to an illegal rave) with great mirth and melancholy. Welsh said it was "too much" when Total Film compared his movie to Withnail & I, Trainspotting and This Is England, but acknowledged, "I knew it would be a film people identify with – it deals with friendship, and how the purity of youth gets fucked over as you get older."
Director: Jordan Peele
What is it? A family are haunted by themselves.
Why you should watch it? Jordan Peele's Get Out follow-up didn't quite have the cultural impact of his debut (not much does), but Us was another triumph, further proof that the writer/director can probe into a thought-provoking examination of the United States in 2019 (that ambiguous title is no accident) and provide satisfying Saturday-night thrills. The secrecy shrouded plot concerned the Wilson family, who are terrorised by a group of boiler-suit-wearing doppelgängers, who have a connection to mum Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o) and her childhood experience at a fairground. Nyong'o was astonishing in the dual role, terrifying as 'Red', the 'Tethered' alter ego who speaks in a blood-chilling rasp while fixing you with a soul-tearing stare. Savagely funny, genuinely creepy and littered with Easter eggs that demand close attention and repeat viewings, Us confirmed Peele’s modern-master status.
15. John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum
Director: Chad Stahelski
What is it? Hitman John Wick runs for his life.
Why you should watch it? "You got a couple of choices [with sequels]," says director Chad Stahelski. "You can try to blow more shit up… or you expand." Parabellum had its cake and wolfed it. Chapter 3 opened up Wick's world – from a none more noir-like New York to the white heat of the Moroccan desert – and broached his backstory, without sacrificing any forward momentum. The most ruthlessly paced, action-crammed, taciturn-badass-on-the-run threequel since The Bourne Ultimatum, this was set-piece heaven. Or hell, given the infinite array of injuries: blade-to-the-eyeball, hooves-to-the-head, dog-to-the-bollocks… Audiences lapped it up, the film easily out-grossing its predecessors put together. Chapter 4 was swiftly announced; good news, though it’ll really have to go for baroque to top this.
Director: Lee Chang-dong
What is it? A mystery thriller where the less you know the better.
Why you should watch it? Released at the start of 2019 (The Favourite aside, it's the earliest calendar entry on this year's list) Burning’s staying power is a testament to its indisputable qualities. An enigmatic, South Korea-set slow burn, it's the story of country boy Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) who falls for firecracker Hae-mi (Jun Jong-seo), only for her to be snatched away by Ben (The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun), a charming sociopath with a predilection for burning greenhouses to the ground. A mystery-thriller that prioritises thick atmosphere and dense thematics over run-of-the-mill jolts, Burning was intelligent and honest in its depiction of South Korea's ruinous socio-economic divide and complex politics. It took director Lee Chang-dong eight years to complete Burning following 2010's acclaimed Poetry; let’s hope the wait isn't as long next time.
13. Little Women
Director: Greta Gerwig
What is it? A woke adaptation of a classic American tale.
Why you should watch it? Adapted numerous times for big and small screen, Louisa May Alcott's wholesome tale of four sisters growing up during the Civil War in 19th-century New England hardly seemed in need of another interpretation… until Greta Gerwig had a go at it. Injecting fresh nuance into themes of ambition, artistic commerce and equality – while still satisfying audience expectations of Victoriana cosiness, Christmas scenes and hoop skirts – Gerwig's tale of the March sisters (led by a spirited Saoirse Ronan) deftly married chocolate-box nostalgia with the moxie of Lady Bird to create a lively, dramatically satisfying crowdpleaser. And it managed to make Amy (superbly essayed by Florence Pugh) a viable contender to Ronan's Jo for the heart of boy-next-door Laurie (Timothée Chalamet). That's no mean feat, especially as his delightful performance will do nothing to do quench the thirst of his fanbase.
12. Minding The Gap
Director: Bing Liu
What is it? A documentary about skateboarding that’s so much more than that.
Why you should watch it? To say Bing Liu's years-in-the-making documentary is about skateboarding is like saying that Hoop Dreams is about basketball. As with Steve James' seminal 1994 doc, Minding The Gap starts with some kids – in this case, skaters Liu, Zack Mulligan and Keire Jackson – and ripples outwards to paint a portrait of a community and make keen observations on race, class and manhood in modernday America. It's heartbreaking stuff, as Liu discovers he and his friends all share backgrounds of abuse, and Mulligan looks set to repeat the cycle of addiction and violence as himself becomes a father. But it's also exhilarating, with Liu's impressive skills as a cameraman growing before our eyes as he captures the every flip and face-plant. For these guys, skating isn't just an escape. It's survival.
11. Knives Out
Director: Rian Johnson
What is it? A wonderful Agatha Christie-esque whodunit.
Why you should watch it? The title was a fair description of some attitudes that greeted Rian Johnson’s last film, Star Wars: The Last Jedi. But if the writer/director was feeling bitter, it didn’t show in this infectiously playful murder mystery. It was centred on very recently dead novelist Harlan Thrombey's (Christopher Plummer) mansion, where surprises just kept coming out of the gorgeous woodwork – one of the nicest being Daniel Craig hurling himself into the role of detective Benoit Blanc, with an accent as ripe as the name. Genuine star power (see also: Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette…) twinned with word power (Johnson's tangiest script since Brick) to produce a treat you could call 'old-fashioned', were it not for a subtext that felt very now. A devilishly funny poke at entitlement that would have been criminal to miss.
10. Ad Astra
Director: James Gray
What is it? Brad Pitt, afflicted by Daddy issues, travels through space.
Why you should watch it? James Gray's contemplative sci-fi can be summed up simply as 'Apocalypse Now in space', but even comparison to one of the finest films ever made does Ad Astra a disservice. Balancing impossibly huge existential questions (what if extraterrestrial life doesn’t exist?) with a profoundly intimate study of loss and longing for an absent father, it was a masterful cosmic epic featuring a movingly introspective, and rarely-better, Brad Pitt. Best known for street-level crime thrillers and intimate character pieces like The Yards, We Own The Night, and Two Lovers, Gray proved an adept world-builder with Ad Astra, constructing a grounded, plausibly tactile space-faring future. A chase sequence on the moon was Fury Road in low gravity, while director of photography Hoyte Van Hoytema found beauty in the infinite void at the end of the galaxy. Simply mesmerising.
9. The Favourite
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
What is it? A queen is courted by two younger women.
Why you should watch it? It scooped hardware galore at the beginning of this year and with good reason. Yorgos Lanthimos' fish-eye lensed tale of court intrigue may have been a period piece but its focus (on three women), style (Sandy Powell's monochrome punk costumes) and verve (ducks on leads! Cake vomit! Use of the word 'vajuju'!) made it fresh, modern and pertinent. Following a fallen 18th-Century noblewoman (Emma Stone) as she social-climbed through the court of Queen Anne (Oscar-winning Olivia Colman) and vied for the monarch’s favour against Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), The Favourite tracked female relationships, sexism, power play, grief and ambition in a bawdy, delicious 'fact-adjacent' romp that was a tart clapback to the usual male-dominated awards contenders. "Sometimes a lady likes to have some fun," purred Lady Sarah during a key scene. Well, indeed.
Director: Ari Aster
What is it? A group go on a deadly trip to a European festival.
Why you should watch it? No, Ari Aster's follow-up to Hereditary wasn’t as scary, but then it wasn’t trying to be, favouring pitch-black humour and an atmosphere of dread over outright terror as a group of American students (Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, Will Poulter, William Jackson Harper) accompanied a Swedish pal (Vilhelm Blomgren) to his ancestral home for a sun-soaked nine-day ritual celebrating the summer solstice. Of course, anyone who'd seen The Wicker Man had a good idea where things were going, but again, that was the point. "The idea was to meet the inevitable in a way that feels a surprise and cathartic… a catharsis that people have to wrestle with after the fact," Aster told Total Film. "We were going for a feeling of awe as opposed to a feeling of horror." Job done.
Director: Olivia Wilde
What is it? Two bookworms go on a night out.
Why you should watch it? The best directorial debut of the year. Olivia Wilde smashed all expectations with her sensational teen comedy, and launched Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein on their way to stardom. The pair played best friends Amy and Molly, two studious seniors who decide to make up for their lack of partying with one wild night before graduation. Rude, funny, and immensely touching, it was a film with empathy to spare: every character was treated with kindness, and stereotypes were trashed with gusto. Behind the raucous laughs, there was a touching paean to friendship, and the night itself felt like a genuinely life-changing odyssey for them and us, featuring inventive flourishes (the animated doll interlude), hilarious supporting characters (special shoutout to Billie Lourd) and a banging soundtrack.
6. Eighth Grade
Director: Bo Burnham
What is it? A teenage YouTuber deals with modern anxieties.
Why you should watch it? Talk about a social-media presence: roughly 100 fake Instagram and Twitter accounts were created for Bo Burnham's breakout. But Eighth Grade’s commitment to authenticity went far beyond the shiny surface. "I so believe that the experience of being 13 is different from the memory of being 13," says the writer/director. "This story is about the things you forget." Fresh out of eighth grade herself when shooting started, Elsie Fisher brought startling empathy to Kayla, the super-shy student struggling to gain friends and YouTube followers. Moments of cringe comedy – involving bananas, pool parties and bumbling dads – were underpinned by a compassionate, unpatronising take on adolescent anxieties. Among its biggest fans was '80s teen queen Molly Ringwald – what further endorsement do you need?
Director: Todd Phillips
What is it? The origins of a Batman villain.
Why you should watch it? Who'd have thought the guy who made The Hangover trilogy had it in him? Todd Phillips proved that comic-book movies don't need spandex and superpowered scraps to dazzle with his dark, disturbing Joker origin story. Taking cues from the movie-making heroes of his youth – Lumet, Forman, and especially Scorsese – Phillips gave the genre its first fully fledged character study, one set in a politically fraught, socially fractious and frighteningly relevant Gotham. The choice was inspired, but Phillips' masterstroke was casting Joaquin Phoenix as the nascent Clown Prince of Crime. A once-in-a-generation talent giving a once-in-a-lifetime performance, Phoenix was astonishing as Arthur Fleck, engendering powerful sympathy for a tragic outsider, until his monstrous actions could no longer be defended. A powerful, provocative stunner that was no laughing matter.
4. Marriage Story
Director: Noah Baubach
What is it? A couple go through a difficult divorce.
Why you should watch it? Noah Baubach channelled his own split with Jennifer Jason Leigh into this mournful, funny, forensic study of the disintegration of a relationship through divorce – the ring of truth in every bitten accusation, defeated appeal and tearful confession made for a tough but cathartic watch. The couple at war were NY theatre director Charlie (Adam Driver) and movie actor Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), whose initially amicable split spiralled when they involved LA lawyers: her courtroom maven (Laura Dern) vs his seasoned rottweiler (Ray Liotta). Amusing and heartbreaking in equal measure, with career best performances from the two leads, Marriage Story managed to be an unflinching look at the emotional, financial and parental destruction of legal uncoupling as well as a celebration to the love that went before it. Universally relatable and likely to attract multiple gongs come awards season.
3. Avengers: Endgame
Director: The Russo brothers
What is it? The Avengers assemble to bring back their fallen friends.
Why you should watch it? While staunch auteurs (Scorsese, Coppola, Loach) groused about superhero cinema, audiences declared that they loved it 3,000, making Endgame the highest-grossing film of all time (ending Avatar's nine-year reign). True, the Russos' time-hopping epic may not have packed quite the same punch as Infinity War (Total Film's movie of 2018), but it still provided satisfying closure to an 11-year storyline. This was a film that managed to look backward, forward and sideways (branched realities ahoy!) without getting hopelessly overcomplicated or losing a sense of fun. And yet – listen up, Marty – the most enduring image wasn’t the scores of superheroes emerging from Catherine-wheel portals (though that was pretty sweet) but that of two slow-dancing sweethearts. "[Cap’s] a World War 2 soldier who has finally come home," says co-writer Stephen McFeely. "It took a long time, but he got there..."
2. The Irishman
Director: Martin Scorsese
What is it? Scorsese directs another gangster masterpiece.
Why you should watch it? Robert De Niro gave his best performance for 20 years. Al Pacino, ditto. Joe Pesci was so good it made us mourn for the performances lost to his retirement. And Martin Scorsese once more proved he's the don of gangster pictures as he fashioned a decades-spanning epic centred on the titular Frank Sheeran (De Niro), an assassin for the Bufalino crime family and his role in the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino). "It's a film about how Frank balances what he is as a human being with what he does in his life, which ultimately overwhelms him," said Scorsese, and The Irishman went places that Casino, GoodFellas and Mean Streets never dared, eschewing all glamour to chronicle the emotional and spiritual cost of such a life. Devastating.
1. Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood
Director: Quentin Tarantino
What is it? A fading TV star and his stuntman accidentally cross paths with the Mansons
Why you should watch it? Quentin Tarantino scored the biggest opening weekend of his career with his most personal film to date, and it went on to become the highest-grossing (English language) original of the year. Weaving together fact and fiction, Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood told the story of fading TV idol Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio on electrifying form) and his trusty stuntman/dogsbody Cliff Booth, as Dalton makes one last bid to resuscitate his career in 1969 Hollywood.
Tarantino created a setting alive with texture, one you marinated in as the characters shot the shit, worked on film sets, and crossed paths with the Manson Family (the Spahn Ranch scene is a masterclass, almost working as a standalone horror short). The level of in-world detail was impressive, even by QT's standards, with faux films, fake featurettes and ersatz ads, and the bonkers climax was among the most exhilarating sequences seen on screen last year. But what really resonated was the depth of feeling, as Dalton confronted his own mortality and Sharon Tate (a luminous Margot Robbie) got the fairytale ending she was denied in life.