These are challenging times for cinema – not because good films aren’t still being made, but because the business that supports their production is being fundamentally challenged. That shift is nowhere more evident than in our film experts’ pick of the top 10 cinema releases of 2019.
Two of the movies were made for Netflix, but they make our list because they also got a short cinema release. That’s great for fans who want to see the best filmmaking on the big screen, but it’s not so great for the operators of those big screens – many of whom refused to screen them because the Netflix model of a narrow release window threatens the economic model that underpins their business (if all the distributors made their films available for only two or three weeks before they turned up on streaming platforms or TV, many cinemas would soon go broke).
Such is the moment of existential crisis in which the business finds itself.
And yet, what an age of riches. Two of the films on our list are Australian, with a third making our supplementary half-dozen “honourable mentions”. Five of our top 10 are wholly or partly in languages other than English. Our experts’ picks cover a range of genres, from documentary to comedy, history to contemporary, crime to art, to affairs of the heart.
This is not a list of the “biggest” films of the year; many of these movies barely troubled the box office, which in itself speaks volumes about the state of the industry. Many of the truly great movies have been and gone before most potential viewers are even aware they existed. In part, that’s why this list exists: it’s a prompt for the adventurous as they seek out something beyond the usual suspects for their summer viewing.
A note on this list, though: it is a group effort, and so it involves a degree of compromise. No one contributor has seen all the films released during the year (it’s close to impossible; somewhere north of 500 films got a cinematic first release in 2019) so each has nominated their top 10 films of the year from those they have seen.
Each of those films was assigned a score – from 10 points for number one, to one point for number 10. The scores were tallied and we have a winner. It’s not an exact science, of course. But then, where would the fun be if it were?
10. The Australian Dream
Ian Darling’s The Final Quarter offered a lacerating examination of the booing that surrounded AFL champion Adam Goodes in the last years of his celebrated career. This, the second documentary on the subject, similarly probes the festering racism behind it and the devastating impact on Goodes personally, but also broadens the story. Written by Indigenous journalist Stan Grant and directed by Daniel Gordon, it frames the attacks as part of a wider story of racism in this country. To Indigenous Australians, Grant says, the booing sounded “like a howl of humiliation that echoed across two centuries of dispossession, exclusion, segregation”. GM
9. Birds of Passage
A gripping modern tragedy, this is the story of what happened when the drug trade took hold in an Indigenous group in north-eastern Colombia in the late 1960s. It’s from Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego, who made Embrace of the Serpent four years ago, and they did extensive research with the Wayuu people, whose lives changed forever when American buyers came looking for their marijuana. The Wayuu play most of the roles in a film that’s part ethnography, part crime drama. Powerfully cinematic and elegiac, this is one of the most original films of the decade. PB
8. The Sisters Brothers
French maestro Jacques Audiard nails the Western genre in this story of two 19th century assassins (Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly) sent into the wilderness to find a runaway scientist with a fail-safe formula for finding gold. The trigger-happy but oddly innocent brothers soon join forces with the scientist and a rival assassin to pan the wild rivers, shadowed by the sense of doom that colours any modern story of how the West was won. Flopping in the US, Audiard’s magisterial vision was soon dubbed “the best film of the year you have never seen”. SB
7. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Quentin Tarantino’s latest is a Hollywood movie buff’s delight. While it’s ostensibly an account of the events surrounding the Manson murders in 1969, the plot takes off on a parallel scenario of Tarantino’s own making. Its imperfect heroes are a pair of battered Hollywood survivors – Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a floundering B-picture player and his driver and stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) – and Tarantino uses them to construct an affectionate spoof of everything that entertains him about the film industry’s seamier side. While there is violence, its effect is diluted by parody and a giddy sense of the ridiculous. SH
6. Never Look Away
Based loosely on the life of artist Gerhard Richter, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s film is a fitting companion to his Oscar-winning The Lives of Others. Both show the post-war trauma of a divided Germany. This one covers four decades in the life of an East German painter. He crosses to the west during the 1960s, where his father-in-law’s past as a Nazi doctor is unknown. The characters are swept along by great tides – the bombing of Dresden, the repression of East Germany, the callous modernity of West Germany. Through it all, he tries to convert turmoil into paint on canvas. PB
5. Marriage Story
This is a divorce story played out with a poignant sense of inevitability by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson as couple who haven’t entirely extinguished their love despite the manipulations of their lawyers, advice from friends and family, and a rising tide of bitterness over child custody. They both give superb performances, enhanced by the precision of writer-director Noah Baumbach’s script and the impressive support of a cast headed by Laura Dern and Alan Alda. Baumbach is an expert when it comes to the delicate relationship between pathos and humour. SH
4. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Set on an isolated French island in the 18th century, this feature from French writer/director Céline Sciamma is a precise and piercing study of how love can momentarily overcome any barriers, but also instil memories and a sense of loss that will never dissipate. When portraitist Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is hired to paint the reticent Heloise (Adèle Haenel), whose marriage is being arranged, their encounters reveal enveloping desire, covert traditions, and a reconfiguration of the period romance. “Do all lovers feel like they’re inventing something,” Heloise asks Marianne, and with the end always in sight of their beginning this remarkable movie renders you spellbound. CM
3. The Nightingale
It’s little wonder people stormed out of The Nightingale: the first 20 minutes of Jennifer Kent’s colonial-era revenge tale are among the most harrowing you will ever see on screen, featuring degradation, rape and murder. Not that it’s exactly sunny after that, with Irish convict Clare (Aisling Franciosi) setting out to track the perpetrators of this violence with the aid of a reluctant Aboriginal tracker (Baykali Ganambarr). Set in 1825 Tasmania, this is an utterly unflinching look at white Australia’s origin story, in which dispossession, violence and class provide the parchment on which the myth of the lucky country is writ. Yes it’s hard to watch, but it’s the most honest and important Australian film in years – and a cracking thriller to boot. KQ
2. The Irishman
Much of what Martin Scorsese knows about cinema and the world in general has been poured into this mournful yet terrifically stylish gangster epic, starring a digitally rejuvenated Robert De Niro as the anti-heroic Frank Sheeran, an associate of union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) and supposedly an expert hitman for the mob. The film gives itself ample time to show the wages of sin, yet Frank is an artist in his field – and his life as we see it is not so different from any other, too full of scattered contradictory moments to be summed up in a moral like “crime doesn’t pay”. JW
Korean writer-director Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer) has found only moderate success working in the West, which makes it all the more satisfying that this satiric parable filmed in his homeland is his biggest international hit to date. The theme is class struggle, framed to yield a maximum of provocative ambiguity: a poor family hatch a plan to take advantage of their wealthy employers, and do so successfully until the tables turn once again. Bong is out to entertain but not to reassure; as ever, the zaniness of his plotting masks a bleak realism about human nature. Still, there’s no doubting his sympathy for those at the bottom of the heap, nor his flair for the medium itself. In all of world cinema, there are few filmmakers who can match his ability to weave suspense, slapstick, surrealism and social criticism into a single intricate design. JW
And some honourable mentions…
A simmering sense of impending violence underscores life in the decrepit shopping strip outside Napoli where mild-mannered Marcello (Marcello Fonte) runs a dog-grooming salon and sells cocaine to the local thugs. Matteo Garrone directs a gripping, persuasive account of an ordinary man in thrall to his oppressors. SB
Tracy Edwards was only 23 when she began assembling the first all-female team for the Whitbread round-the-world yacht race. She only wanted to be navigator, but ended up as skipper of the 1989-90 crew, described by The Guardian‘s yachting writer at the time as “a tin of tarts”. She’s a flawed but fascinating character and, along with the brilliant archival footage, one of the main attractions of Alex Holmes’ rollicking documentary. KQ
A powerful debut from Victorian director Rodd Rathjen. A 14-year-old Cambodian boy is hijacked onto a Thai fishing boat, where he endures endless violence. An estimated 200,000 men and boys are believed to be working as slaves and indentured labour in the fishing industries of south-east Asia. PB
The divisive Joker is a lot more than just a comic-book origin story. With a masterful performance by Joaquin Phoenix, director Todd Phillips lays bare the toxicity of contemporary America and its abandonment of the struggling mentally ill. The Joker delivers one of the year’s most potent political statements: “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash? … You get what you f—in’ deserve!” GM
Pain and Glory
Spanish master Pedro Almodovar enters the late phase of his career with a sublime study of a filmmaker failed by his body and haunted by his beliefs. Creativity is both a gift and a curse for Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), and with bittersweet flourishes Almodovar intertwines memory, friendship, and longing as a storyteller’s salvation. CM
Ford v Ferrari
Director James Mangold has taken some flak for tinkering with history in his account of Ford’s bid to beat Ferrari in the 24 Hours of Le Mans race in 1966 but he’s made a wholly seductive film. Cars may be its focus but its underlying theme dwells on the deadening effect of corporate conformity. SH
Stephanie Bunbury is a film and culture writer for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.
Paul Byrnes is a film critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Sandra Hall is a film critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Jake Wilson is a film critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.
Garry Maddox is a Senior Writer for The Sydney Morning Herald.
Karl Quinn is a senior culture writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.
Craig Mathieson is a TV, film and music writer for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.