The votes are in, the ballots counted. The time has come to pick the 20 best films of 2019, as selected by Time Out’s team of dedicated film critics. Does JLo’s turn as a loveable stripper make the cut? What about Todd Phillips’s divisive supervillain origins story ‘Joker’, or Quentin Tarantino’s homage to ‘60s Hollywood? Did we go cult mad with Ari Aster’s ‘Midsommar’, or were we more royally impressed with ‘The Favourite’. And was there really a film released this year about a killer red dress? (Short answer: yes!)
Without further ado, here’s our pick of the best 20 films released in the UK during 2019.
RECOMMENDED: The best films of all time.
The future of guerilla warfare – waged by young people who barely understand themselves, much less their opponents – came to life in Alejandro Landes’s atmospheric stunner, a movie that confronts the viewer like no other this year. Its churning, keening synth score by Mica Levi (‘Under the Skin’, ‘Jackie’) is yet more evidence that we’re in the presence of a potential all-time giant.
If you like your space odysseys brimming with formula-filled blackboards and quantum mechanics, consider this a trigger warning: ‘Ad Astra’ is not that kind of sci-fi. Leave any disbelief at the door, though, and you’ll be rewarded with an often gorgeous, soulful film that’s charged with emotion and bursting with spectacle. Oh, and there’s a bit where Brad Pitt goes full ‘Moonraker’ in a space buggy.
This film could easily have been another vehicle for JLo to push her celebrity (hey, she is doing the Super Bowl in 2020). Instead, as Ramona, a veteran stripper with a heart of gold, she gave us the performance of her career and a pole dance to Fiona Apple’s ‘Criminal’. Writer-director Lorene Scafaria draws out the humanity from a stellar cast, while weaving in implications of power, exploitation, materialism and corruption. The film inspires both pathos and horror at the misadventures of a group of women pushed to extremes in a world that worships the bottom line.
Rescuing south London’s estates from grim hoodies-with-handguns depictions, this British drama is a compassionate and timely look at life as a British-Nigerian foster kid (the Bifa-winning Sam Adewunmi) coming up the hard way. It’s exceptionally well-crafted by south Londoner Shola Amoo and loosely based on the writer-director’s younger years. Amoo subverts lazy cultural assumptions and gives us a very different London to look at.
Jessie Buckley announced herself last year with indie thriller ‘Beast’ but this stomping musical drama was the best showcase yet for her formidable talent. She plays Glaswegian working mum Rose-Lynn Harlan, who’s on parole and struggling to make ends meet but clutching a burning ambition to make it as a country singer. There are echoes of Sissy Spacek in ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’ in a performance with real edge and passion.
A swooning romance peppered with jarring moments of institutionalised racism, Barry Jenkins’s ‘Moonlight’ follow-up may have been set in the early ’70s but it spoke to modern America just as surely as contemporary race dramas like ‘The Hate U Give’ and ‘Monsters and Men’. For a novelist of such epic standing, James Baldwin has rarely been adapted for the screen, but Jenkins and his cast – Stephan James and newcomer KiKi Layne, especially – bring real poetry to his prose.
At the end of a summer of luxuriantly budgeted blockbusters came a movie that, at first glance, seemed to have been made for pocket change. There’s no third-act smackdown or even much of an origin story underpinning this super-low-budget, lovingly-crafted Cornish shanty – just analogue vibes and a seaside setting that tapped into anxieties around gentrification and changing ways of life. Massive props to director Mark Jenkin for making something that felt as old as the sea and as fresh as an ocean breeze, all at once.
No one is making movies like the British retro-stylist Peter Strickland, who cops the grammar of early-’70s exploitation cinema – all zooms and blurs and synth squiggles – and infuses it with modern-day pain. His fourth feature represents a continuing evolution: It’s the most sensitively acted and smartest film you’ll ever see that also includes sex with mannequins.
Stand-up comedian Bo Burnham made his name as a YouTube protégé in the days before YouTube protégés could grow rich on the clicks. Who better to run the rule over the insidious impact of social media on school-age teens? But ‘Eighth Grade’ was anything but a hectoring cautionary tale. Instead, with newcomer Elsie Fisher bringing a mix of soul, awkwardness and fragile can-do spirit as vlogger Kayla Day, the film is a lovely reminder to keep it real, no matter how cringe-inducing that can be.
Inspired by a Haruki Murakami short story, Lee Chang-dong’s seductive mystery about a young Korean man who dreams of becoming a writer and his relationship with an old school friend subtly touches on the current social, economic and cultural divisions within Korea. At its heart is a slow-burn enigma, which unfolds with grace and precision, resulting in a highly impressive and beautifully executed film that leaves you visually fulfilled and emotionally bereft.
If he’s as good as his word, Quentin Tarantino has only one film left to make before he jacks in filmmaking for ever. As this love letter to late ’60s LA proves, he’d be going out on top form. With Margot Robbie as a sylph-like Sharon Tate, Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio teaming up for a lovably insecure on-screen bromance and all the usual QT patter, it offers a nostalgic fantasia to get totally lost in.
Asif Kapadia followed up the majestic one-two of ‘Senna’ and ‘Amy’ with another vibrant, seriously cinematic doc that’s far more emotional and affecting than it has any right to be. Using unseen U-matic footage, it follows Diego’s journey from Napoli folk hero to coke-addicted outcast. Even if you can’t forgive Maradona for that handball, you at least come away hating him in a gentler, more understanding way.
Aside from finding out that he shops in Morrisons, my favourite Antonio Banderas fact is that his first ever piece of direction from Pedro Almodóvar in ‘Labyrinth of Passion’ was to stare at the crotches of passers-by. Eight collaborations on, Almodóvar gave him a bit more to do in this gorgeous memoir of a waning filmmaker looking back at his life. With any luck, it’ll win him an Oscar and he’ll be able to upgrade to Waitrose.
It was the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landing and this doc arrived to remind us what a bastard-mad feat it was. The massive rocket boosters and vast, trundling launchpad were eye-popping on the big screen – and that was before anyone had gone anywhere. Director Todd Douglas Miller lets his incredible Nasa footage do all the talking. The descent onto the moon is pure hold-your-breath cinema.
For some, ‘Joker’ represents a reckless empowering of incels that rips off Martin Scorsese’s back catalogue; for others, it’s a minor masterpiece that speaks hard truths about the age we live in, and boasting a massively on-form Joaquin Phoenix. For my money, it’s a bleak watch but made with real craft and stonking set-pieces that build on, rather than rip off, ‘Taxi Driver’ and the like. Could have done without that Gary Glitter track, mind you.
This collaboration between Syrian director Waad Al-Kateab and Brit filmmaker Edward Watts is one in the eye for any filmgoer who thought they’d seen it all before. No one had witnessed anything quite like this ultra-visceral verité doc charting the siege – and slow death – of Aleppo at the hands of President Assad. It’s a requiem and a howl of defiance, all at once.
With 2018’s ‘Hereditary’, horror movie auteur Ari Aster made the night a place of terror and gory shocks. This year, he returned with a quite brilliant, sun-dazed horror film that managed to put us off daylight too. Cheers, Ari. What next? ‘Awful Shit Goes Down at Dawn’? ‘Boo! It’s Sunset’?
If eighteenth-century England was half as much fun as this regal romp, you’d say to hell with all the itchy skin complaints and move back there. ‘The Favourite’ plays like ‘The Crown’ on nitrous, with courtly manoeuvres worthy of Molière. Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz are pitch-perfect, but Olivia Colman steals the show.
Four decades on from bumping into Derek Jarman in a Soho café and being lent a camera, Joanna Hogg delivered her masterpiece: a human drama that embraced all the pains of growing up, addiction and heartbreak. Derek would have been proud.
Like ‘Kramer vs Kramer’ vs Kramer from ‘Seinfeld’, this marital-breakdown masterpiece has just enough lols to leaven the tears. And there are plenty of those, with Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson dazzling in Noah Baumbach’s semi-autobiographical tale. After all its cheesy romcoms, Netflix delivered perhaps the ultimate anti-romcom.