10. Marriage Story
After coming so close to winning this year’s Best Film Oscar with the outstanding Roma, Netflix went from strength to strength. Martin Scorsese returned to the gangster genre to direct one of his best, whilst the likes of Dolemite is My Name and Klaus proving wonderful surprises. But it is Marriage Story that stands out; Noah Baumbach’s powerful, funny, heartbreaking divorce drama. A stellar cast of seasoned pros (Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, Wallace Shawn) is powered by a pair of stars, Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, giving career best turns. This is a hard watch but a rewarding one.
9. The Farewell
Sometimes a film’s impact lies in the telling of a personal story that becomes universal. Lulu Wang’s sophomore effort does just this, telling the true story of her family’s response to a beloved grandparent’s cancer diagnosis. Exploring cultural differences in terms of dealing with illness and death, The Farewell becomes a profoundly moving deconstruction of grief. And its core is a turn from comedian Awkwafina that is quietly revelatory and one of the year’s best.
8. Woman at War
This Icelandic-Ukrainian comedy-drama proved one of the delights of 2019. At the film’s centre is a committed turn from Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir, whose Halla must find a way to balance her secret role as a kick-ass eco-warrior with her public persona. The climate crisis doesn’t feel like a prime source of comedy, but Woman at War finds the laughs in the global tragedy without ever compromising its message. The film leaves you entertained but also fired up to help solve the crisis of our time.
In a slew of films based on iconic musicians’ music (Bohemian Rhapsody, Yesterday, Last Christmas), Rocketman is the work that truly stands out. A musical biopic retelling of the life of Elton John, it is an all-singing, all-dancing rousing watch. Director Dexter Fletcher has the freedom to make the film he wants, and puts in his most ambitious work to date. With a cracking soundtrack and the confidence to explore darker themes (the singer’s sexuality and drug addiction), plus a pair of stonkingly good turns (Taron Egerton and Jamie Bell), Rocketman lingers where other films have faded away.
6. Doctor Sleep
Just pipping Jordan Peele’s wonderfully ambitious Us as my favourite horror film of the year, Doctor Sleep came as a total surprise. On paper, a sequel to one of the greatest works of horror (The Shining) seemed a dubious offering, but in practice the results are magnificent. An intriguing narrative that, for the most part, feels separate from what came before, builds to an emotionally impactful last act. Director Mike Flanagan deftly balances Stanley Kubrick’s style with Stephen King’s substance, whilst still keeping his own voice. Plus Rebecca Ferguson made a fascinatingly charismatic villain, and Doctor Sleep once again reminded us all why Ewan McGregor is such a fabulous actor.
5. Eighth Grade
One of the most exciting new voices to emerge in cinema in recent years, Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade is a tremendous debut. Following Kayla (a wonderfully committed turn from Elsie Fisher) as she traverses through the last weeks at middle school, the film is a harrowing, sobering, heartfelt experience. Burnham’s film captures the confusion and chaos that surround teenagers, without ever losing focus on its lead character. The pool party scene alone is one of the most impactful scenes of the year.
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Each and every element of Olvia Wilde’s debut feels perfect. As a pair of academic superstars seeking a night of freedom and fun before they graduate, Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein explode off the screen, playing off each other and creating two of the most endearing comedic characters of recent years. The soundtrack is a perfectly selected roster of songs, whilst the film is stunningly shot by Jason McCormick. But for all the stylistic brilliance of Booksmart, what sets this as 2019’s best is the heart and warmth that pours into every cell of it. A wonderful film, Booksmart marks Olivia Wilde as a talent to keep an eye on.