Still from The Lighthouse (Credit: A24)
Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe take the lead in this five-star film, which is “about two men getting sick of each other,” writes BBC Culture’s Nicholas Barber. Co-written and directed by Robert Eggers, The Lighthouse was shot on 35mm black-and-white film, and has an almost square aspect ratio, giving the film a claustrophobic and aged feel that adds to the dramatic intensity of the central performances. “There is nowhere the story won’t go and nothing the actors won’t do," writes Barber.
Still from Little Women (Credit: Alamy)
The second feature film from Greta Gerwig, following 2018’s Lady Bird, this seventh silver-screen adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s seminal and hugely inspiring novel may be the best yet. The star-studded cast includes Saoirse Ronan (nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance as Jo), Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Timothée Chalamet, Meryl Streep and Laura Dern. Caryn James writes: “Greta Gerwig’s wonderous adaptation cuts through the novel’s moralistic surface to mine the themes beneath: feminism, creativity, independence and individuality.
Still from The Irishman (Credit: Niko Tavernise/ Netflix)
Scorsese’s swansong to the genre he helped to define is a glacially-paced epic, with digitally de-aged stars, very little speech for its female roles and forensic attention to detail. At nearly 3 hours and 20 minutes, and spanning 50 years, The Irishman “offers a sharp look at how corruption in politics and business makes its way into US life,” Caryn James writes for BBC Culture. Starring legends of the genre Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci; Christina Newland writes that the film acknowledges the actors’ and director’s advanced years “by taking the gangster film to its most logical extension: old age and death.”
Still from Marriage Story (Credit: Netflix)
Marriage Story tells the story of a painful cross-country divorce with brutal honesty. Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) decide not to get lawyers involved, but that promise is soon broken when Nicole moves back to LA with their young son. It is written and directed by Noah Baumbach, who told The New York Times “this movie is not autobiographical; it’s personal, and there’s a true distinction in that,” in response to questions over whether it was based on his own divorce. “Everyone plays his or her character to perfection,” writes Matt Goldberg in Collider, continuing: “Baumbach’s movie is endlessly compelling not because of hatred, but because of love”.
Still from Jojo Rabbit (Credit: Kimberley French/ Twentieth Century Fox)
This absurdist comedy about a 10-year-old Nazi finding a Jewish teenager hidden in his house is uniquely brilliant. As Nicholas Barber writes for BBC Culture: “It is a film that, even when it isn’t entirely working, astonishes you with its very existence. A feel-good comedy? With children? About anti-Semitism? And Hitler? We won’t be getting many more of those this year.” Written, directed by and starring Taika Waititi (as a cartoonish Hitler), Jojo Rabbit “balances light and darkness remarkably well”.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (Credit: Lacey Terrell/Sony Pictures Entertainment)
A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood
The second film in as many years about universally-beloved children’s TV presenter Fred ‘Mister’ Rogers, A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is warm, wise and sophisticated. This biopic-of-sorts centres specifically on the friendship between an aged Rogers and the journalist Tom Junod, who is fictionalised as Lloyd Vogel, played by Matthew Rhys. But it is Tom Hanks as as the sunny optimist Rogers who is a real draw in a “rich and subtle” performance writes Caryn James. Meanwhile director Marielle Heller “gives the film a distinctive style”.
Still from Hustlers (Credit: Alamy)
Perhaps the starriest film of 2019 (although Cats tried giving it a run for its money), Hustlers’ cast and cameo list includes Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez, Cardi B, Lizzo, Usher, Julia Stiles and Riverdale’s Lili Reinhart. Directed by Lorene Scafaria and based on a 2015 New York Magazine article by Jessica Pressler, Hustlers follows the lives of New York strippers turning the tables on their wealthy Wall Street clients in the wake of the 2008 financial crash. Beth Webb in Empire calls it J Lo’s “role of a lifetime”, adding “it’s the women in this film that summon its sparky, scrappy edge, who implore you to stick with them through the murkiest of times”.
Still from Atlantique (Credit: Netflix)
Mati Diop made history with this debut feature: she was the first black woman to have a film in the official competition at Cannes, where it won the Grand Prix. It has now abeen shortlisted for next year’s best international feature film Oscar. This ghostly romantic drama begins as one thing, and slowly evolves to become something very different. Nicholas Barber wrote that Atlantique is “dreamy yet sensual, fantastical yet rooted in uncomfortable facts, Diop’s beguiling film may even have reinvented a genre.”
Still from 1917 (Credit: Universal Pictures)
Two young soldiers are given a mission that could save the lives of 1,600 others – including one of their own brothers. Sam Mendes shot 1917 in long takes, and they were edited together to give the impression that the whole film is a single, action-packed shot. “I just wanted the audience to be part of every second of the journey with them,” Mendes told Entertainment Weekly. 1917 is “tense, exhilarating and profoundly moving,” writes Caryn James, calling it “one of the most stirring films of the year”.
Still from Monos (Credit: Neon)
Centring on a guerrilla group of teens living in the mountains of an unnamed South American country with a hostage and a cow, Monos is a gritty and devastating thriller about the reality of life for child soldiers. Director and co-writer Alejandro Landes paints a portrait of a miserable existence in the wet and cold working for the mysterious Organisation. Charlotte O’Sullivan writes in the London Evening Standard that “the intensely grisly Monos is the most sensitising film of the year.”
Still from Bait (Credit: Thom Axon/ BFI)
The year's second outstanding black-and-white film set by the sea, Bait is a darkly comic drama about a fishing community in Cornwall, England, and the culture clash between tourists and locals. Mark Jenkin wrote, directed, shot, edited and scored this film, on a small budget and using 16mm film which he hand-processed. Writing in The Observer, Mark Kermode called Bait “one of the defining British films of the year, perhaps the decade”, and it is now the most successful Cornish film ever made.
Jordan Peele’s surreal, laugh-out-loud horror film, which stars Lupita Nyong’o up against her evil twin in a blood-red jumpsuit, toys with what makes us feel most comfortable. “Playfully using classic tropes of the genre while channelling primal fears, Us can make you laugh and cower at once,” wrote Caryn James for BBC Culture. Littered with Easter eggs, Us leaves the viewer wanting more.
Created and released for the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, which landed the first man on the Moon, this stunning documentary is made entirely from archive footage. Directed and produced by Todd Douglas Miller, “the film’s emotional power comes not in the documentation of astronauts in space but in the absolutely incredible footage of the crowds who watched the launch from Earth,” wrote Adrian Horton for The Guardian, calling it “one of the most astounding films about space ever made”.
(Credit: Gabor Kotschy/ A24)
Are you afraid of the dark? Perhaps the scariest thing of all is the daylight Midsommar dares you to contemplate. Set during the Swedish summer solstice, it sees a group of unsuspecting US tourists join a rural community for a holiday of a lifetime – or so they think. Ari Aster’s second feature film after Hereditary, it stars Florence Pugh, Will Poulter and William Jackson Harper. Empire wrote: “After a slow simmer, with the village’s off-ness being ramped up degree by degree, it finally reaches a boil in a climax that makes the famous ending of The Wicker Man look like a documentary on the Fyre Festival”.
Syrian filmmaker Waad al-Kateab made this documentary about her life in one of the last standing hospitals in rebel-held Aleppo, where her husband Hamza Al-Khateab was a doctor treating those caught up in the brutal conflict. During their time there, Waad gave birth to her first daughter, Sama. Unflinching in its portrayal of war in all its gruesome reality, For Sama was described by Variety as “simple in concept and shattering in execution, blending hard-headed reportage with unguarded personal testimony” and “you-are-there cinema of the most literal order”.
(Credit: Columbia Pictures)
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
The ninth film from Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood is set in Los Angeles in the swinging 60s and stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt as a fictional fading actor and his stunt double, and Margot Robbie as the very real Sharon Tate. At nearly three hours long, this marathon love letter to Hollywood’s golden years “could be his late-career masterpiece: uproariously funny, surging with cinematic adrenaline and strewn with delectable period detail,” wrote Robbie Collin for The Telegraph. Just don’t tell anyone the ending.
Written and directed by Lulu Wang, The Farewell tells the story of a Chinese-American woman, Billi (Awkwafina), who is told her grandmother – Nai Nai, played by Shuzhen Zhou – has terminal cancer. However her extended family decide to keep the diagnosis from their sick relation – and plan a wedding to bring the whole family together for one final time. Based on a true story, which gained traction after Wang told it on NPR’s This American Life in 2016, it was praised by RogerEbert.com as “a story about cultural clashes without ever leaning on wacky stereotypes or lazy clichés… The entire film is pretty perfect, actually.”
Winner of the 2019 Palme d’Or, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite “is a black comedy, a social commentary, an action thriller and a bloodbath, all rolled into one,” said BBC Culture’s Emma Jones. The South Korean auteur’s genre-bending seventh feature-film explores the dynamics of class through the intersecting lives of two families, one living in poverty, another in luxury. The son, Ki-woo, becomes a tutor at the rich family’s mansion, and is determined to share his new lifestyle with his parents and sister.
Set over one eventful night, Booksmart follows geeky girls Molly and Amy on the eve of their high-school graduation. The earnest plan of going to the cool kids’ party becomes a hilarious sequence of misadventures in the pursuit of romantic – and platonic – love. Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut shows female friendship in a glorious light, with brilliant supporting characters rounding out this coming-of-age gem. “Booksmart is endlessly funny and outrageous, yet always grounded by its realistic central relationship,” wrote Caryn James for BBC Culture.
(Credit: Nikola Dove/ A24)
Starring Tilda Swinton and her daughter Honor Swinton Byrne, The Souvenir is inspired by the writer-director Joanna Hogg’s youth in 1980s London. Julie, the young film student played by Swinton Byrne, is romantically involved with an older man, Anthony (Tom Burke), who has a thing for opera and drugs. “What is so appealing about it is that Hogg hasn’t made a coming-of-age-film – there are no neat endings to Julie’s journey into womanhood,” wrote Emma Jones for BBC Culture.
(Credit: MK2 Films)
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Written and directed by Céline Sciamma, Portrait of a Lady on Fire transports the viewer back to 18th-Century Brittany in France, where a relationship blossoms between Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) and her new companion Marianne (Noémie Merlant). But Marianne is actually an artist, assigned by Héloïse’s mother (Valeria Golino), to secretly paint her portrait to send to a potential husband. The Guardian called it “a superbly elegant, enigmatic drama that compels a shiver of aesthetic pleasure and fear”.
The Lion King
Donald Glover and Beyoncé star in the photo-realistic remake of the 25-year-old Disney classic, which divided critics’ opinions. The original is widely regarded as being one of the animation studio’s greatest films, and many felt that there was no need for an expensive remake. But “Jon Favreau’s film is funnier than the original, even while it enhances the story’s dark themes,” wrote Caryn James for BBC Culture, nodding to the casting of Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen’s Timon and Pumbaa as “among the film's happiest choices”. Despite the film’s detractors, it became the fourth Disney film this year to make $1bn (£821m) in worldwide box office sales.
Fighting with my Family
A teenage goth girl in Norfolk, UK who grew up in a family obsessed with wrestling is the heroine of this delightful biopic of WWE superstar Paige. Directed and written by Stephen Merchant and starring Florence Pugh, with a cameo from Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson (who also produced it), Fighting with my Family is “so good-hearted in nature that you can't help but get won over by its charm, however familiar it feels at times,” wrote Digital Spy.
(Credit: Sixteen Films)
Sorry We Missed You
Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You follows the life of Ricky Turner (Kris Hitchen), a delivery driver in the north of England who relies on self-employment in the gig economy for income. A father of a teenage boy and an 11-year-old girl, Ricky and his wife Abby (Debbie Honeywood) grapple with the reality of raising a family on precarious incomes. Loach’s first film since winning the Palme d’Or with I, Daniel Blake, Sorry We Missed You was descibed by Variety as an “intimate and powerful drama about what’s going on in people’s everyday lives”.
The 22nd film in Marvel’s incredibly successful Avengers franchise, Endgame was the most hotly-anticipated cinema ticket of 2019. Following on from Infinity War, the Avengers assembled once more to put the universe to rights, and defeat the evil Thanos. Vox called Endgame “a movie steeped in years of lore that still manages to recapture the excitement of watching your very first Marvel experience.” It went on to beat Avatar as the world’s highest-grossing film ever, and was the UK’s fastest-selling digital download film of all time.
Rolling Thunder: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese
Made up of fictional and non-fictional elements, this follow up to Martin Scorsese's previous Bob Dylan film, No Direction Home, it documents the Rolling Thunder Revue tour of 1975-76. Netflix told Variety Rolling Thunder “captures the troubled spirit of America in 1975 and the joyous music that Dylan performed during the fall of that year.” NME wrote: “Scorsese has given us an immersive and unparalleled insight into the era that solidified his legacy. You’ll feel like one of the many hanger-ons who latched on for the ride.”
Love film? Join BBC Culture Film Club on Facebook, a community for film fanatics all over the world.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called The Essential List. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.