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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

The Ten Best Films of 2019

This year we reviewed close to 150 films — and this devious South Korean masterpiece and hard-to-watch Australian thriller are among the absolute best.
By Sarah Ward
December 20, 2019
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The Ten Best Films of 2019

This year we reviewed close to 150 films — and this devious South Korean masterpiece and hard-to-watch Australian thriller are among the absolute best.
By Sarah Ward
December 20, 2019
  shares

Cinema is one of humanity's greatest artistic inventions — and the joy of sitting in a darkened room, locking your eyes on the screen and becoming immersed in the movie in front of you will never grow old. But, now that the medium is well into its second century, it's worth acknowledging a bleak truth: most movies are average. It's a numbers game, really. With thousands of new films hitting screens and streaming platforms each and every year, they can't all be masterpieces. They're not all rubbish either, which is why so many sit in the middle. Some are watchable trash, others are almost better than okay, but a whole heap fall between those two points.

If you're thinking "hang on, isn't this an article about the best films of the 2019?", you're not mistaken — the two topics are related. When a movie isn't average, it stands out. When it's something special, magnificent, glorious and astounding, it sticks in your mind for days, weeks, months and more. In fact, the best films are even more exceptional because they've found the perfect blend of components to soar far beyond the standard. They're the movies that make you excited when you leave the cinema, even if you've just been put through the emotional wringer or scared out of your wits, because you're ecstatic that these films exist.

2019, like every other year, had its share of great, excellent and outstanding movies — and with all of the above in mind, we've picked our best. We could've gone on, so apologies to the films that barely missed the cut. The Souvenir, If Beale Street Could Talk, Midsommar, Vox Lux and Ad Astra are all worth seeking out. So are Knives Out, BooksmartWeathering with You, Apollo 11 and Hustlers. But we could only choose ten, which is a tiny fraction of the 550-plus movies that released on Australasian screens this year — and our favourites are the absolute opposite of average.

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PARASITE

2019 may be the year that the best film of the past 12 months wins cinema's top two awards. At the Cannes Film Festival in May, Bong Joon-ho's Parasite nabbed the Palme d'Or — and the twisty thriller is one of the frontrunners to be named Best Picture when the Oscars roll around in February. If it scores the latter as well, it'll be the first movie since 1955 to win both — and only the second film ever. Parasite deserves to earn that feat, but it'll still remain an astonishing, smart and supremely enjoyable picture if it doesn't. Following the intersection of two South Korean families — one wealthy, entitled and oblivious to their privilege, the other unemployed and scraping by however they can — this is a precisely layered feature that unravels an engrossing mystery while making a decisive statement about class disparities. The puzzle-like social satire is also written, shot and acted to perfection by the Okja and Snowpiercer helmer, with Bong regular Song Kang-ho leading a dynamite cast.

Read our full review.

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THE NIGHTINGALE

Back in 2018, after The Nightingale first screened for media at the Venice Film Festival, it hit headlines. Barely a handful of people had seen it, but word of its tough nature spread quickly — as did news of vocal reactions and walkouts. Such reports would only continue as the film toured the festival circuit overseas and in Australia; however Jennifer Kent's second feature after The Babadook wants to evoke that response. Tracking an Irish convict (Aisling Franciosi) on a quest for revenge against the British soldier (Sam Claflin) who brutally took away everything she loved, and following her trek through Van Diemen's Land with an Indigenous guide (Baykali Ganambarr), this isn't meant to be an easy watch. Clawing through the misogyny, racism and oppression baked into Australia's history, and the violence with which it has been dispensed, should leave a visceral impact. Making a different kind of horror movie, Kent uses every tool at her disposal to put viewers in her protagonists' shoes, including a boxed-in 4:3 aspect ratio that stares at assault, death and more front-on. The results don't just leave an imprint — they leave a scar.

Read our full review.

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PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE

In a film that's sumptuous and striking from start to finish, Portrait of a Lady on Fire's approach to its love story stands out. This is a subtle, slow-burning movie that simmers with restraint and yearning as its central women fall for each other, but it's also bold and uncompromising in depicting what society demands of their lives — and how the expectations placed upon them are incompatible with their happiness. In the 18th century, artist Marianne (Noémie Merlant) has been commissioned to paint the portrait of bride-to-be Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). With Héloïse reluctant about both her nuptials and being immortalised on canvas, Marianne must pose as her new companion, study her closely as they spend time together and paint in secret. As romance blooms within Celine Sciamma's (Girlhood) radiant, exquisitely detailed frames, her equally luminous feature explores both the freedom they find in each other's arms and the stark reality of their future.

Read our full review.

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PAIN AND GLORY

It's impossible to look at Antonio Banderas in Pain and Glory and not think of the man who put him there. Pedro Almodovar has directed the Spanish actor to many of his top performances over the past four decades, and here he gives him a formidable task — with Banderas virtually playing a fictionalised version of the filmmaker. His character, Salvador Mallo, looks like Almodovar and even wears his clothes. He's also a director and, via a collaboration with a star from his past, he's in the process of taking stock of his life in a new project. The result is a rich and deep exploration of choices made, dreams forgotten, paths followed and possibilities lost, as rendered with Almodovar's usual bright, expressive colour palette. Penelope Cruz also features in flashbacks to Mallo's childhood, playing his mother, but it's the marriage of Cannes Best Actor-winning Banderas and Almodovar in reflective mode that makes this gorgeous, heartfelt, bittersweet movie a piece of cinematic perfection.

Read our full review.

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US

As a filmmaker using genre to lay bare society's oppressive ills — and to entertain audiences with audacious and ambitious horror stories in the process — Jordan Peele is now two for two. Just a couple of short years ago, Get Out felt like a breath of fresh air with its smart and savage tale of racial alienation. That feeling remains with his second feature, Us, which simultaneously splashes in the same thematic pool and rides its own narrative wave. Focusing on a family of four, a summer vacation to Santa Cruz and sinister lookalikes who start stalking their every move, Peele finds a new way to ponder America's divisive reality both historically and at present, all while making an immensely unnerving addition to an already unsettling genre: the doppelgänger movie. Playing dual roles, Lupita Nyong'o puts in one of the year's very best performances as the matriarch doing whatever it takes to fight for both her family and her freedom, while many of the film's meticulously crafted visuals are pure nightmare fodder.

Read our full review.

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HIGH LIFE

Not only sending Robert Pattinson into space with a baby, but marking the first English-language film by acclaimed French director Claire Denis (Let the Sunshine In), High Life was always going to stand out. Pattinson plays Monte, who's caring for an infant alone on a space station when the film opens. Sci-fi history dictates that this was never going to be a cosy situation, with said intergalactic vessel hurtling towards a black hole. While flashbacks fill in the story, they never tell the expected tale. In a film that also stars Juliette Binoche as a twisted doctor experimenting on convicted criminals — and features a masturbation chamber called The Box — nothing was ever going to fit a nice, neat template. Belonging to the contemplative side of space-set sci-fi, High Life is unflinching in its depiction of the dark, cruel side of human nature, with its haunting and distinctive portrait of our species at its worst not easily forgotten amongst its weighty existential musings.

Read our full review.

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BURNING

On cinema screens Down Under, 2019 has been an exceptional year for South Korean movies by acclaimed auteurs. Parasite has earned so much deserved attention that it's easy to forget that it was the second of this year's big-name theatrical releases from the country — and the second to explore class and gender divisions in a thrilling manner, too. The first was Burning, the visually detailed and emotionally loaded masterpiece by Lee Chang-dong that's based on a short story by Haruki Murakami. Here, society's inequities come to the fore in a blend of contemplative mystery, intricate character study and exquisitely observed examination of human relationships. It all starts when part-time deliveryman Jongsu (Yoo Ah-in) crosses paths with his former neighbour Haemi (Jun Jeong-seo), feels a connection between them, but finds himself pushed to the side when she returns from an African holiday with the wealthy Ben (Steven Yeun) by her side.

Read our full review.

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ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD

Three words: Rick fucking Dalton. In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Leonardo DiCaprio is fantastic as the 60s TV cowboy who pines for a career renaissance; however, he's just one of the film's stellar components. As the stuntman and driver that Dalton relies so heavily on, Brad Pitt oozes complicated cool. As Dalton's neighbour Sharon Tate, Margot Robbie sits at the heart of the film — and demonstrates that dialogue isn't the only indicator of an excellent performance. Jumping back to 1969, and to the summer that the Manson family famously wreaked murderous havoc, Quentin Tarantino plays with real-life details, but he's in the revisionist mode that served Inglourious Basterds so well. The end product is an intricate, mature, laidback and thoroughly enjoyable film that's also purposefully shaggy, and invites audiences to not only ponder its perspective on weathering seismic personal and cultural shifts, but to enjoy the time spent hanging out in its world.

Read our full review.

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MARRIAGE STORY

Noah Baumbach makes movies about unhappiness, whether he's following titular New Yorker in a state of arrested development (as seen in Frances Ha), a middle-aged couple at a crossroads (While We're Young) or dysfunctional adult siblings sorting through their issues (The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)). And, although Marriage Story commences with odes of love penned carefully and thoughtfully, the film's once blissfully wed protagonists Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) are far from content. Rather, in a story that spans both US coasts, they're divorcing. In the process, they're locked in a bitter custody battle over their young son (Azhy Robertson). Sharp, naturalistic and devastatingly astute, this always-empathetic drama follows the pair's efforts to adjust to their new status quo — with Driver in particularly blistering form as a New York-based experimental theatre director expending all of his energy on a fight that his heart might not be in.

Read our full review.

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THE IRISHMAN

Only the very best filmmakers can continually return to the same domain, but still make each new visit feel like something new. Martin Scorsese is one of them, as The Irishman illustrates. On paper, it seems like a typical Scorsese-directed movie. It's about gangsters, it stars Robert De Niro, and it even coaxed the great Joe Pesci out of retirement. As anyone with even a passing interest in cinema knows, that's Goodfellas and Casino territory. But with this lengthy epic, the masterful auteur shows that he's not one for needlessly repeating himself. Based on the life of truck driver-turned-mob hitman Frank Sheeran (De Niro) and his time working for union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), this potent saga may revisit familiar themes — but, as pieced together with patience and impeccable performances (especially from Pesci), its portrait of two forces constantly fighting for supremacy, even to their own detriment, is also keenly relevant today.

Read our full review.

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These are our ten favourite films of 2019, and we listed ten other standouts above as well. But we've also put together a list of the best films hardly anyone saw this year — y'know, the ones that sort of went in and out of cinemas without much fanfare but definitely deserve a watch.

Published on December 20, 2019 by Sarah Ward

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