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The 30 best films of 2019

Counting down our favourite feature-length releases from the past 12 months.

Our best of 2019 list has been put together with you in mind, dear reader. These are not simply the movies we most enjoyed watching this year, or the ones we think will stand the test of time. In most cases, they’re artist-driven works which we feel offer something new or else have something important to say, and which deserve our support. In short, these are the films we think really matter.

As ever, we’ve chosen from feature-length releases which came out either in the UK or US this calendar year, be it theatrically or via an online streaming platform. There are a handful of films we love which aren’t due out on these shores until early 2020, such as Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite and Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire – look out for those in cinemas and in next year’s ranking.

After you’re done perusing the below countdown, as well as the accompanying video by Luís Azevedo, we’d love to hear which films have made the biggest impression on you in 2019. Share your personal list with us @LWLies.

30. Support the Girls

What we said: “Because director Andrew Bujalski is working in a neorealist genre, it doesn’t come as any real surprise that neither work nor her marriage become easier for Lisa (which doesn’t mean that the ensuing turn of events isn’t heartbreaking – expectation isn’t always consoling). It’s what she does in the face of her insurmountable difficulties that reveals the director’s deep understanding of what it means to be a cog in the machine of our cruel 21st century economy.”

Read our full review

29. Alita: Battle Angel

What we said: “Alita operates as a welcome balm to the current wave of glossy studio blockbusters. It offers a stern rebuke to the continuing (and, frankly, deeply depressing) Marvelisation of action movies, taking a fairly standard hero-must-rise storyline but stripping away all the turgid self-importance, the visual flatness, the vulgar iconography and that constant eye on core brand values.”

Read our full review

28. Too Late to Die Young

What we said: “The film doesn’t really run with a traditional narrative, it’s timeline consists of Sofía’s daily life, her romantic clinches, her periods of silent reflection, cigarettes in the bath listening to shoegaze, and her attempts to move back to the city to live with her mother. It’s an unshowy, yet sensual performance, depicting a young woman’s attempt to secure personal happiness amid the happy maelstrom of this infant civilisation out in the forest.”

Read our full review

27. Madeline’s Madeline

What we said: “A less honest and bold filmmaker would have been satisfied with presenting art as the sure way to salvation and self-actualisation. But Josephine Decker, who worked in an experimental theatre setting with her entire crew for several months in preparation, understands that making art is as confusing as life itself, with potential for misunderstanding and abuse of power at every turn.”

Read our full review

26. Chained for Life

What we said: “Chained for Life isn’t a patronising, didactic morality tale about portrayals of the marginalised in cinema’s history. The interplay of the various egos comfortably places it in the company of François Truffaut’s Day for Night or Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Beware of a Holy Whore, two highlights of the small genre of movies set on film sets where cast and crew from different places on the pecking order try to make the best of chaotic situations.”

Read our full review

25. Eighth Grade

What we said: “Burnham’s comedy credentials translate into scenes which show his adolescent growing pains, but the film belongs to young Elsie Fisher, and Josh Hamilton who plays her supportive (if not terminally embarrassing) father. There’s a tenderness that underwrites Eighth Grade’s comedy, ensuring we always laugh with Kayla rather than at her.”

Read our full review

24. Her Smell

What we said: “So many films have told of destructive male geniuses, and it’s refreshing to see a woman granted the space to be more than a figure of tragedy. An infinitely frustrating but unquestionably compelling presence, Becky is in control of her own destiny and her own downfall, and Her Smell rejects all notions about the music industry being a place of unending excess and glamour.”

Read our full review

23. Knives Out

What we said: “Rian Johnson shifts the whodunnit goalposts at every opportunity, so at the point you think you know where all this is headed, you really don’t. Knives Out is less interested in the insta-gratification of collaring the culprit than it is airing out a lot of dirty laundry.”

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22. Transit

What we said: “Petzold’s two previous offerings, Barbara and Phoenix, showed how Germany’s troubled recent history still leaves traces on circumscribed lives, yet here he’s not just joining the dots between then and now, he’s creating an audacious overlay where past and present co-exist. It’s not quite as blunt as proclaiming that yesterday’s Holocaust is today’s migrant crisis, yet Petzold is certainly keen for us to consider the commonalities for those unfortunates on the receiving end.”

Read our full review

21. Bait

What we said: “While the narrative is anchored in contemporary concerns about the loss of regional culture and traditions, the analogue equipment and old-school editing techniques Jenkin employs give the film a distinctly archaic look and feel. High-contrast cinematography, overdubbed dialogue and extreme close-ups combine to immersive effect, creating the impression of discovering a lost relic of early cinema that’s been freshly salvaged from an old shipwreck.”

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20. The Nightingale

What we said: “A director does not win feminist points by cancelling out a sexist element in their film with an engineered “clapback”. The Nightingale is a refreshing, necessary reminder that sexual violence isn’t just a trendy topic that exists solely in the abstract, but is primarily something experienced which cannot be reduced to a film trope or easily prevented in real life.”

Read our full review

19. What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?

What we said: “Roberto Minervini has spoken openly about how close he is to the people he films, and here once more he takes the time to build a genuine, life-long rapport with various citizens of Louisiana and Mississippi. He is determined to preserve the dignity of his subjects, and collaborates with them at every stage of the filmmaking process. He uses long takes which function not as a forceful agitator but rather as a catalyst: his role is to generate moments that speak to a wider reality.”

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18. Ray & Liz

What we said: “Photographer Richard Billingham restages scenes from his formative years and brings to life the photographs of anarchic domestic discord and desolation that won him the plaudits of the artworld cognoscenti in the mid-’90s. He does so with triple measures of bracing honesty and lacerating tenderness, all chased with a teacup shot of treacle black humour.”

Read our full review

17. Marriage Story

What we said: “The film’s successive and collective triumphs, though, really belong at Noah Baumbach’s door. Gone is archness and intellectualism that threatened his previous work as writer/director, replaced with a tenderness and emotional truthfulness so generous and empathetic that he’s finally earned contention as one of the greatest American filmmakers of his generation.”

Read our full review

16. La Flor

What we said: “‘A sort of musical with a touch of mystery,’ is how Mariano Llinás describes episode two, a jaw-dropping piece of Almodóvar-ian melodrama with a subplot featuring a secretive cabal of scientists who seek the life-giving properties of a rare scorpion’s poison. Throw in multiple allusions to Hitchcock’s Vertigo and you’re not even half way there.”

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15. Judy

What we said: “It’s a fascinating look at a woman who is too depressed to be depressed, steamrollered by a lifestyle that has never allowed for normalcy. Her body has been honed for Hollywood, and she’s unable to convert it back, to use it for family matters and relaxation. It’s not a maudlin film, but a very sad one – chiefly down to Judy’s eternal optimism and good humour in the face of so much tough luck.”

Read our full review

14. Atlantics

What we said: “At the point where Atlantics appears set to double down on this Gothic-tinged romantic mystery, set against a backdrop of poverty and oppression, it swerves off into another, more enticing direction. Diop not only handles this big tonal shift with immense grace, she also manages to weave it back into the fabric of her original tale, because she obviously cares deeply about these people and their stories.”

Read our full review

13. Our Time

What we said: “It’s an intimate film about the tenderness of vanity, interested mainly in subtle body language and obscure nuance. Scenes are stretched to breaking point and beyond for maximum discomfort. Yet the story unfurls on a grand canvas which includes timpani concertos, sweaty hate-sex, scenes of a bull goring a donkey, and the advantages of having some Genesis albums loaded up on the stereo of your Range Rover.”

Read our full review

12. Amazing Grace

What we said: “There is something vaguely seedy about the fact that, following Franklin’s death in August 2018, the green light for a valedictory release was instantly flashed, perhaps going against her admittedly obscure wishes. But when the final product stands with its shoulders in the clouds within the pantheon of sublime concert films, it’s tough to be too irked about any bureaucratic wheeler dealing that went on in the background.”

Read our full review

11. Ad Astra

What we said: “James Gray lands the big finale with visual and emotional elegance. Ad Astra is a lament to the things we won’t see or the ideas we won’t understand in our relatively meagre lifetimes. These astronauts pray to God before their vessels blast off, and it’s both strange an exciting to see a film where humanity retains its spiritual belief in a future dominated by science, discovery and cold rationality.”

Read our full review

10. Pain & Glory

What we said: “Over the course of the film Almodóvar builds a complex picture of a gifted but fickle artist whose glory days look to be long behind him. We also discover that Antonio Banderas’ Salvador suffers from chronic back pain and occasional choking fits, which further explains his sudden urge to reconcile his former triumphs and tragedies.”

Read our full review

9. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

What we said: “A good amount of time is dedicated to depicting the minutiae of these lives and demonstrating the gulf that separates star from stunt man. Flashbacks show how far the pair have come against the shifting tide of the Los Angeles landscape. Foremost, Quentin Tarantino has composed a love letter to Tinseltown, in all its dirty sexy glory.”

Read our full review

8. The Lighthouse

What we said: “Eggers has cast The Lighthouse with the instincts of a silent filmmaker, deploying two actors with distinctive, remarkable faces. For all their talents and traits, Pattinson and Dafoe are both champion sourpusses, their expressions drawn and glum, and on Eggers and Blashcke’s film stock of choice, the crags and pores and lines scored into their skin are accentuated, giving these familiar features a weathered texture.”

Read our first-look review

7. For Sama

What we said: “Sight unseen, the film might come across as a trite plea for global peace in the name of ‘the children’, and it does fit that bill in many ways. Though trite it is not, as Waad Al-Kateab (along with co-director Edward Watts) mute any unwarranted sentimentality by focusing purely on what’s there and what’s happening, forcing the viewer to constantly ask of themselves: are you comfortable with all of this?”

Read our full review

6. Little Women

What we said: “The way the film is shot, and the way the actors are blocked within the frame, and how they play off of one another, and how they interact with the sets, and the speed and volume at which they talk, all serve to heighten a sense of romantic realism. The lived-in aspect of the film, and the feeling that we are experiencing mere highlights (and lowlights) of these rich, eventful lives, is how this love is articulated.”

Read our full review

5. The Irishman

What we said: “Seeing Robert De Niro miraculously returned to a state of youthful vigour not only brings back memories of all those sensational moments in Mean Streets, The Godfather: Part II, Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, Goodfellas et al, it serves as a sobering reminder of our own mortality.”

Read our full review

4. High Life

What we said: “Robert Pattinson is amazing, delivering a sophisticated, emotionally discriminating performance that is rooted in small physical processes. Claire Denis is a director who rewards collaborators that give themselves to her – mind, body and soul. She honours vulnerability by framing and magnifying it on screen.”

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3. Uncut Gems

What we said: “Sandler’s funny, of course, but he’s also cuts an incredibly tragic figure. He’s frustrating, yet somehow you sort of feel for him, despite all his manifold ‘faults’. It’s such a finely-calibrated performance, it feels like you could watch if for hours; better still, it helps to gain a real feel for the world in which this character functions. The outrageous, ostentatious behaviour all feels rooted in something real, something raw.”

Read our first-look review

2. A Hidden Life

What we said: “Malick’s message is clear: vanquishing evil requires individuals to take a stand, to recognise what is right and what is wrong. So beware of false prophets; never stop holding on to love and hope; above all, don’t let hate in. For Franz and Fani, the path to salvation begins and ends in Radegund, high up in the mountains. Given the uncertain, deeply polarised times we live in, what could be a more beautiful and poignant sentiment than that.”

Read our first-look review

1. The Souvenir

What we said: “Burke and Swinton Byrne’s piercing performances are the film’s crowning glory – their natural chemistry is the beating heart of The Souvenir. Joanna Hogg’s decision to withhold plot details from her cast, and in the case of the latter, not provide a shooting script at all, creates a sense of expert fragmentation. Realisations come slower to Julie than they do to us, the all-seeing audience, as we gain a sense not only for Julie’s naiveté, but the deep ache of wanting someone to so desperately match up to an image built in your mind’s eye.”

Read our full review

Published 20 Dec 2019

Tags: Alex Ross Perry Andrew Bujalski Aretha Franklin Benny Safdie Bo Burnham Brad Pitt Carlos Reygadas Christian Petzold Claire Denis Dave Eggers Dominga Sotomayor Greta Gerwig James Cameron James Gray Jennifer Kent Joanna Hogg Josephine Decker Josh Safdie Mariano Llinás Mark Jenkin Martin Scorsese Mati Diop Noah Baumbach Pedro Almodóvar Quentin Tarantino Renée Zellweger Rian Johnson Richard Billingham Robert Rodriguez Roberto Minervini Terrence Malick Waad Al-Kateab

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Little White Lies was established in 2005 as a bi-monthly print magazine committed to championing great movies and the talented people who make them. Combining cutting-edge design, illustration and journalism, we’ve been described as being “at the vanguard of the independent publishing movement.” Our reviews feature a unique tripartite ranking system that captures the different aspects of the movie-going experience. We believe in Truth & Movies.

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