The end of the calendar year is here and what a 12 months it has been for cinema as international film shoehorns its way into the award season conversation.
While big-name productions from the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese and Todd Phillips arrived to critical acclaim, Hollywood also caught a glimpse of the very best artist pictures Spain, France and South Korea can produce with emphatic effect.
With social and political themes running through a number of different wide-ranging topics in 2019’s cinematic offering, it was also the year that streaming services stepped up their influence on the industry and propelled their status of film producers to the very highest level.
Here, Far Out Magazine writers Monica Reid, Calum Russell and Lee Thomas-Mason define the very best of the year.
See the full list, below.
25. 63 Up – Michael Apted
The remarkable unremarkable.
This is likely the end of the fascinating series that has documented the lives of 14 British schoolchildren from the ages of seven—63, and it finishes with a suitable smile.
The series, since 28 has become increasingly sombre and reflective, with this one no different, following each participant with sentiment and grace, but crucially without dispirit.
Where the programme began as a way to outline and define one’s life in the context of their social class, the Up-series has been elevated into something far more significant. That which is telling about each participant is their appreciation for their family and friends. No matter their background.
24. Booksmart – Olivia Wilde
A coming-of-age story for a different generation, a different gender and a different perspective from the unfortunate cinematic norm, Olivia Wilde’s take on the end of high-school life is highly refreshing.
Wilde carves out a distinctive niche for the film, rejecting an emulation of the genre infamous ‘Superbad’, with an attentively sentimental coming-of-age tale with two fantastic lead performances from Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein, anchoring the tale in a tangible reality.
23. La Belle Epoque – Nicolas Bedos
Given its out of competition premiere at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, Nicolas Bedos’ French romantic comedy La Belle Epoque offered a witty, unique take on a somewhat tired genre.
Starring the likes of Daniel Auteuil, Guillaume Canet, Fanny Ardant and more, the film tells the story of a man in his 60s whose longterm marriage is severely on the rocks. Combining elements of romantic time travel, Bedos’ story sees the couple working on rekindling their love in a sexy, imaginative way.
22. Antigone – Sophie Deraspe
Talented Quebec filmmaker Sophie Deraspe was cinematographer as well as writer and director of this surprising film, which is this year’s Canadian submission as Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars. It is a present-day retelling of Sophocles’ tragic play, in which the dutiful Antigone sacrifices herself for her brother, Polynices, choosing to follow her own innate moral code rather than law or convention. In Deraspe’s version, Antigone and her family are refugees from an unspecified country; the film offers quiet commentary on this fact without allowing politics to disrupt the narrative.
The updating of the story is clever, particularly its take on social media and public perception, as young people adopt Antigone’s cause in a popular art-based movement… and Antigone’s mother supports her daughter with a simple yet powerful public gesture. The performance by Nahéma Ricci in her first lead role as Antigone (chosen by audition from among hundreds) is understated but forceful and is responsible for much of the film’s impact.
21. Red Joan – Trevor Nunn
The biography of Joan Stanley who, at age 87, was accused of spying for the Soviets as a young university student in the 1930s.
Told mainly in flashback, the fascinating tale of personal and political loyalties is energised by the performances of Dame Judy Dench as elderly Joan, and Sophie Cookson as young Joan.
20. Eighth Grade – Bo Burnham
A visceral, and crucially, contemporary account of school-life and teenage struggles. In a world so rapidly evolving, childhood has changed too, with cinema being slow to address this change. Those making films about young people are usually seasoned Industry fathers in their ’40s and are subsequently painfully out of sync with contemporary childhood. The 29-year-old comedian and performer Bo Burnham instead provides an ingenious perspective of modern children, representing them with deft accuracy.
The industry has lacked a voice for young people, especially a voice heralding the troubles of young-life in a world complicated and weighed down by social media, and all the blemishes such a complex mechanic brings to childhood development. Burnham provides this with wit, charm and love.
19. Non-Fiction – Olivier Assayas
The complicated, contentious subject of changes in cultural media, the rise of the internet, and their effect on our thinking processes and on the nature of information and truth, is tackled in a creative, funny way in this multiple-story film.
The many, interacting characters represent different perspectives on books, media, and knowledge, and the conflicts and changing ideologies are set out through their conversations and the interplay between them. Audacious, playful, and full of cheeky meta moments.
18. Sorry We Missed You – Ken Loach
The director of I, Daniel Blake, which dramatised the human cost of commonplace bureaucracy, returns with another slice-of-life production that reveals the pain and injustice behind certain aspects of the present-day economy.
Loach is incredibly skilled at conveying, clearly but without bathos, the frustration, exhaustion, and futility of people for whom financial stability is always out of reach, and its effects on family life; but his particular target in this film is the relatively new concept of employment by ‘zero hour contract’ or ‘independent contractor,’ which gives firms the benefits but none of the responsibilities of employers.
The main character seeks out this form of labour as a solution, only to find himself trapped in a brutally unfair system. A harshly realistic and heartrending film.
17. Jojo Rabbit – Taika Waititi
There is both wild comedy and sharp satire in this gonzo take on fascism, shown from the perspective of a little boy living in Germany during WWII and his imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler.
“The most striking part of the reimagined story is the choice to expand the character of Hitler himself – or rather, a fantasy image of Hitler,” Far Outs’ review comments. “In Leunens’ novel, teenaged Johannes sees Hitler as a distant authority figure; he occasionally gazes at Hitler’s photograph, wondering whether the revered Feuhrer would approve of his actions. Jojo Rabbit takes this connection to Hitler much further.”
One of the most boldly original films in years.
16. Bait – Mark Jenkin
A film which feels like its washed up on a cornish shore, covered in seaweed, tarnished by barnacles and then run through a projector. It carries the story of a county seen but never heard, reverberating the echoes of a once flourishing history, but which is now quaint and forgotten.
Shot on grainy, unpolished 16mm clockwork film, Bait feels part of Cornish history, a film by the people and for the people, textured, handmade, heartwarming, humorous and wholly original.
15. High Life – Claire Denis
The brilliant writer and director Claire Denis has produced a one-of-a-kind work of science fiction, in this grim tale of life sentence prisoners granted the option of permanent work aboard a space ship sent to study a black hole.
Opening on only two passengers, a man and a baby girl, the film gradually reveals how they came to be there through extended flashbacks. The enigmatic, often gruesome story is not for every taste, but the film is a dark, striking work of art.
14. The Farewell – Lulu Wang
Rising star Awkwafina plays Billi, a young Chinese-American woman whose family finds a way to say goodbye to Billi’s dying grandmother, without letting the old woman know she is dying.
A sweet but astute family comedy-drama.
13. A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood – Marielle Heller
This story of children’s entertainer and philanthropist Fred Rogers, and his life-changing friendship with a repressed and angry man, is loosely based on journalist Tom Junod’s 1998 profile of Rogers.
The article was an enormous success partly because the author released his preconceptions and adult pride, and let himself accept Rogers’ genuine warmth and his unusual view of life; and Heller’s film does the same, challenging the viewer to find and cherish his inner child.
Featuring excellent performances by Matthew Rhys as semi-fictional writer Lloyd Vogel, and Tom Hanks as Rogers, the film uses unconventional techniques, including periodic bending of the fourth wall, to reach the audience.
12. Honeyland – Tamara Kotevska, Ljubo Stefanov
Directed by Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov, Honeyland arrives as North Macedonia’s entry for the Best International Feature Film at the 92nd Academy Awards—and duly deserved.
Having already won three awards at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, Honeyland offers an eye-opening glimpse into another world as the story follows a beekeeper working in what is fast becoming an endangered tradition.
11. Burning – Chang-dong Lee
A contemporary thriller classic, Chang dong-Lee’s Burning follows the relationship of two childhood friends when one goes travelling and returns with a mysterious new acquaintance.
Burning feels like a solvable puzzle, with all the hints and clues, but no clear solution, no right answer. The perfect blend of peppered clues and paranoia forms the protagonist to make up a story, an idea that is never necessarily proven.
Chang-Dong-Lee agonisingly teases with subtle shift-focus’, red herrings and sly looks. They could mean nothing at all. They could mean everything. It’s truly a cinematic enigma.
10. Little Women – Greta Gerwig
Little Women arrives as Greta Gerwig’s eagerly-anticipated follow-up to Lady Bird and, once again, she’ll be in the Oscars running.
The coming-of-age period drama written and directed by Gerwig includes the likes of Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Timothée Chalamet, Laura Dern and Meryl Streep as they attempt to successfully adapt Louisa May Alcott’s novel of the same name.
Gerwig’s effort marks the eighth time in history a filmmaker has attempted to put their own unique spin on Alcott’s 1868 novel which explores the lives of the March sisters who are living in the aftermath of the American Civil War—and she duly delivered.
9. Joker – Todd Phillips
Comic-based films are brought to a new level with this bleak revisioning of Batman’s Gotham City and the origin story of one of its best known villains and raised still further by Joaquin Phoenix’s confident and daring performance.
“It is Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker that really makes the film,” Monica Reid writes in a five-star review. “Phoenix is weirdly brilliant from beginning to end, giving a performance which is by turns heartbreaking and frightening.”
“From the first moment of Joker, it’s clear that this is no ordinary comic book based movie.”
8. Portrait of a Lady on Fire – Céline Sciamma
Portrait de la jeune fille en feu, a French historical drama written and directed by Céline Sciamma, tells the story of a forbidden affair between an aristocrat and a painter commissioned to paint her portrait.
Already nominated for the prestigious Palme d’Or at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, Sciamma’s thought-provoking screenplay is destined for success as she delivers a powerful, intense and contemplative romantic story.
7. The Irishman – Martin Scorsese
What more can be said about The Irishman that hasn’t already said? Arguably the most eagerly anticipated film of the year and, despite the long-running time and short theatre run, Martin Scorsese duly delivered.
Getting the whole gang back together, Scorsese’s epic brings the likes of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci back together on a set for what is likely to be the final time. The film follows Frank Sheeran, (played by De Niro), a truck driver who becomes a hitman involved with mobster Russell Bufalino (Pesci) and his crime family.
Now, as he prepares himself for an Oscars run, Scorsese has hinted that The Irishman may well be his final film as a director—and what a film.
6. The Lighthouse – Robert Eggers
A moody, mysterious black-and-white film, somewhat in the style of Eggars’ 2015 hit, The Witch, but with an even more intense and ominous tone. When two lighthouse keepers are isolated by a storm on a remote rock, they gradually fall into madness.
The grim reality, fantasy, and hints of the supernatural become mingled as the men decline. The boldly eccentric collaboration of Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in the lead roles is electrifying.
5. Marriage Story – Noah Baumbach
Commenting on Marriage Story feels like commenting on a relationship of a good friend, you almost feel like you shouldn’t get involved, but through only 135 minutes of cinema Noah Baumbach binds you so closely into a relationship so much so that you can feel the heartache and mourning. So delicately positioned, Baumbach’s screenplay floats into nonexistence, like in many of his previous works, replaced by raw character and dialogue which slips out of mouths and straight into the realm of reality.
At its most basic, Marriage Story chronicles the divorce of a couple from their amicable separation to its sour completion of signatures, though this is a disservice to the meticulously layered characters of both Adam Driver and Scarlett Johanssen. In many ways, this is one of the greatest contemporary love stories.
4. Pain and Glory – Pedro Almodóvar
A truly brilliant Spanish drama directed and written by Pedro Almodóvar who called on Antonio Banderas, Asier Etxeandia, Penélope Cruz and more for his own romantic take on filmmaking.
Already the highest-grossing Spanish film of the year at the box office, Pain and Glory will be representing the country at the 92nd Academy Awards in the category of Best International Feature Film which looks a hotly contested competition.
3. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – Quentin Tarantino
The hotly-anticipated Tarantino picture arrived with big expectations and an even bigger budget—but it duly delivered. With an all-star cast involving the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie and more, Tarantino’s modern fairy tale tribute to the glamorised golden age of Hollywood captured the hearts of many.
With a major Oscar campaign underway, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has managed to live up to his stellar reputation with his latest effort, a picture Far Out described as “complex, riveting and darkly comical” in its review.
2. Uncut Gems – Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie
Is Adam Sandler actually going to win an Oscar? Is this the moment Hollywood raises a collective glass and cheers’ his acting skills? Quite possibly, yes.
Uncut Gems, the crime thriller directed by Josh and Benny Safdie—who co-wrote the screenplay with Ronald Bronstein—tells the story of Howard Ratner, a Jewish jeweller, who runs a store in New York’s Diamond District while struggling to pay back gambling debts including money owed to his brother-in-law Arno, a loan shark.
In what looks a shoo-in for inclusion at the 2020 Oscars, Sandler’s work has raised eyebrows has he delivers an undeniably sensational performance as Howard Ratner. Sandler’s brilliance, coupled with Darius Khondji’s exceptional cinematography, delivered a masterpiece.
1- Parasite – Bong Joon Ho
Rising South Korean director and screenwriter Bong Joon Ho, whose previous work includes films such as Okja and Snowpiercer, achieves a new high with this ingenious con game story which doubles as a biting commentary on wealth and social class.
Having been handed its world premiere at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, Parasite has been quietly and consistently whispered around discussions of major critical acclaim as the topic of the Academy Awards’ coveted ‘Best Film’ category begins to circulate Hollywood.
“Parasite is remarkable partly because it is so strikingly original; it doesn’t remind the viewer of any other film or category and doesn’t seem to mimic or borrow from anything else,” Far Out film writer Monica Reid said in her five-star review. “It is difficult even to classify; Bong has referred to it as a tragi-comedy, but it does not fit easily into any particular genre, defying categorisation and evading film conventions as easily as its storyline continually defies expectations. What’s more, while Parasite is a slightly challenging film, it avoids becoming a clever but inaccessible work of art; it is one of the most engrossing and watchable films of the year.”
An impoverished family uses trickery to find work in a wealthy household. Unpredictable and full of plot twists, and absorbing from start to finish.