From the raw For Sama to the rip-roaring Rocketman, top-notch films from around the world graced the big screen. The Observer’s film critic introduces his 10 best movies of 2019
Read the Observer critics’ review of 2019 in full here
2019 was the year that Netflix movies came of age, and ageing actors were made young again. At the 91st Oscars in February, the bland Green Book beat the superior BlackKklansman to the best picture award, although Spike Lee won his first competitive Oscar in the adapted screenplay category. Rami Malik scooped best actor for his portrayal of Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody, but best actress Olivia Colman (The Favourite) stole the evening with one of the funniest and most self-deprecating acceptance speeches ever (complete with raspberry-blowing).
More significantly, Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma won for cinematography, direction and best foreign language film, despite naysayers’ complaints that Netflix-backed movies were essentially made-for-TV films. That attitude is now history: in the forthcoming awards season, the platform has several contenders, including Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story and Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman.
The Irishman marked a watershed moment for “digital de-ageing”, with innovative technology allowing Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci to play characters much younger than themselves. We’ve seen de-aging elsewhere (from Captain Marvel to Gemini Man), but never this unobtrusively. Alongside the release of its first original animated feature, Sergio Pablos’s Klaus, Netflix also picked up distribution rights for I Lost My Body, which made history when it took the top prize in the Critics’ Week section at Cannes in May. More family-friendly releases – Frozen II, Toy Story 4 and a weirdly photorealist rehash of The Lion King – may have dominated the box office in 2019, but I Lost My Body was my favourite animated film of the year.
Other Cannes firsts included Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (which opens here in February) becoming the first Korean film to win the Palme d’Or; while French-Senegalese film-maker Mati Diop was the first black female film-maker to direct a Palme d’Or contender with the Grand Prix winner Atlantics. The Cannes best actor award went to Antonio Banderas for his career-best turn in Pedro Almodóvar’s semi-autobiographical Pain and Glory.
A range of high-quality films from around the world graced UK cinemas in 2019. From Colombia we had Birds of Passage, an arresting tale of gangsters and spirits from the creators of Embrace of the Serpent. Writer-director Nadine Labaki earned an Oscar nomination with Capernaum, about a young boy’s struggles in Lebanon. Meanwhile, Icelandic actor Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir excelled in Woman at War, a jet-black eco-warrior comedy featuring onscreen musical accompaniment with drums, accordion and sousaphone.
This year also saw a plethora of brilliant film scores. Standouts included Clint Mansell’s ethereal Out of Blue soundtrack; Anna Meredith’s mesmerising electronica accompaniment to Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade; Alex Weston’s unexpectedly quirky music for The Farewell; and Mica Levi’s otherworldly score for Monos. My favourite score was by Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir, who lent real depth to one of 2019’s most successful and controversial releases, Joker.
Great scores weren’t confined to drama: Nainita Desai provided excellent understated accompaniment to For Sama, an astonishing documentary about life under siege in Aleppo, filmed by Syrian citizen-journalist Waad al-Kateab. Matt Morton’s music took audiences into space in Apollo 11, a documentary released on the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing. More down to earth (although no less ecstatic) was Amazing Grace, the long-delayed film of Aretha Franklin’s two-night performance at the New Temple Missionary Baptist church in Los Angeles in 1972.
This year also proved to be remarkable for talent grown closer to home. In April, Irish actor and singer Jessie Buckley shone in Tom Harper’s Wild Rose, about a single mother living in Glasgow but dreaming of country music stardom in Nashville. In May, Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman channelled the spirit of Ken Russell as it turned Elton John’s life into a rip-roaring pop fantasia. June saw the release of Dirty God, boasting a star-making turn from feature first-timer Vicky Knight. And in July, Only You was an extraordinary feature debut from writer-director Harry Wootliff.
As summer turned to autumn, Joanna Hogg gave us The Souvenir, in which Honor Swinton Byrne and Tom Burke excelled in a close-to-life story of a relationship built upon deceit. From writer-director Shola Amoo came another autobiographically inspired work, The Last Tree, about a British-Nigerian boy being uprooted from an idyllic rural childhood to face life on the mean streets of London.
My favourite film of 2019 was Bait, the breakthrough feature from Cornish film-maker Mark Jenkin. An authentic portrait of tensions between locals and tourists in a once-thriving fishing village, it was shot with clockwork cameras on grainy 16mm stock, which Jenkin hand-processed in his studio in Newlyn.
I hope Bait gets the recognition it deserves at the Baftas, alongside films like Ordinary Love, in which Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson play a couple facing her diagnosis of breast cancer.
As for the Oscars, it would be good to see nominations for Rian Johnson’s whodunnit Knives Out, Jordan Peele’s chiller Us, and Greta Gerwig’s literary adaptation Little Women, all of which injected new life into die-hard cinematic genres.
Mark Jenkin’s masterpiece is one of the defining British films of the decade.
An extraordinary fable of child soldiery from Colombian-Ecuadorian film-maker Alejandro Landes.
3. Ordinary Love
Co-directors Glenn Leyburn and Lisa Barros D’Sa work wonders with Owen McCafferty’s superb sceenwriting debut.
A full-blooded rock-musical fantasia with a standout turn by Taron Egerton.
5. Only You
Josh O’Connor and Laia Costa shine in this perfectly realised tale of love and longing.
6. If Beale Street Could Talk
Regina King earned a best supporting actress Oscar for Barry Jenkins’s gem, which opened here in February.
7. For Sama
A searing portrait of life during wartime from Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts.
Jordan Peele uncovers America’s hidden underclass in this scissor-sharp chiller.
9. Out of Blue
Carol Morley sets out to “rescue the characters from the pages” of Martin Amis’s source novel.
10. The Souvenir
Joanna Hogg’s most personal film to date, part two of which is due in 2020.
Mektoub My Love: Canto Uno
Abdellatif Kechiche’s leering arthouse indulgence should have been called Mektoub My Arse.