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20 best films of 2019 you need to see

By Catharina Cheung 24 December 2019

It’s almost the end of the year and the decade, and while a roundup of the best films of the decade is too much of a demanding task (not to mention the fact that we’re way too indecisive), we have gathered the most outstanding films of 2019 for your viewing pleasure instead. How many of these movies have you seen on the big screens?

Grab some snacks and popcorn, make it a point to watch everything on the list before 2020 arrives, and let us know which films you feel should have been included!

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Parasite

Director Bong Joon-ho, of Snowpiercer and Okja fame, returned this year with an absolutely haunting film that won him the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes. Parasite is a film that viewers should go into knowing next to nothing, so suffice to say that it’s about a teenager who forges a university degree so he can tutor a wealthy family’s daughter. It’s a genre-defying title, and one of the best movies to come out of South Korea in recent years (and yes, we know that’s saying something!).

The Irishman

Martin Scorcese reunited with Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci to deliver another amazing classic gangster film. Philadelphia mob associate Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran works under Union boss Jimmy Hoffa for 40 years and deals with his disappearance. In typical Scorcese fashion, the film has a runtime of three and a half hours, but despite its length (and the fact that we’re still not totally on board with the CGI de-ageing of the leading men), The Irishman will undoubtedly go down in history as yet another must-see mob movie.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Everyone goes into a Tarantino expecting copious amounts of bloodshed and violence, but the director has gone big with his latest film in a more subtle way. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as a pigeonholed actor looking to be taken seriously in 1969 LA, while Brad Pitt is his long-suffering best friend and stuntman. This is Tarantino’s personal love letter of sorts to the film industry and a thoroughly entertaining ride. Watch it for the spot-on casting of Bruce Lee and Charles Manson lookalikes, the most blatant showcasing of Tarantino’s foot fetish yet, and the final fifteen minutes of the film.

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Pain & Glory

Filmmaking legend Pedro Almodovar showcases the intimate nature of his art and interests to beautiful effect, and IndieWire has claimed it to be “a paragon of the form…in the films-about-filmmaking genre”. It’s up to the audience to decipher how much of Almodovar himself is present in the character of Salvador Mallo, an ailing movie director whose career has stalled. Pain & Glory is less scandalous and shocking than Almodovar’s previous works, but there is a pervasive and raw honesty that nevertheless slaps viewers in the face. Antonio Banderas—still as arresting as ever—won Best Actor at Cannes.

Joker

One of 2019’s most talked-about titles. Joaquin Phoenix was mesmerising as a mentally ill clown who is down on his luck, then finds catharsis in exacting violent revenge on a society that hates and shuns him. The culmination of the film is joyful, riotous anarchy, where you will most definitely find yourself rooting for the antagonist, but how much of what you’re seeing is real and how much is fiction presented as reality through the eyes of the Joker’s tortured psyche? Those who have yet to watch this film will need to experience it for themselves to understand all the fuss.

Knives Out

Starring a cast of stellar veterans and up-and-coming favourites, such as Daniel Craig, Jamie Lee Curtis, Lakeith Stanfield, Don Johnson, Chris Evans, Christopher Plummer, and Ana de Armas, Knives Out is an intricate and ingeniously structured murder mystery. Crime writer Harlan Thrombey puts a stopper in his 85th birthday celebrations by being discovered dead in the attic study of a gothic mansion. Is it a case of suicide, or have one of his family and friends, each with their own bones to pick, brutally picked him off instead? The witty dialogue and laugh-out-loud lines are just the cherries on top of this entertaining family drama. We just want a nice game of classic Cluedo to round things off now!

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The Lighthouse

Robert Pattinson puts in some heavyweight work and holds his own alongside the consistently great Willem Dafoe. The pair play two lighthouse keepers who slowly descend into madness at their post on a remote island. Keeping with its 1890s setting, the film is in black and white, with superb cinematography and complex orchestration that very much resembles an arthouse piece. We know people who have come out of The Lighthouse with new-found confidence in Pattinson’s upcoming role as Batman.

Us

Following the success of his directorial debut Get Out, Jordan Peele once again performs magic on the silver screen, creating this ingenious commentary about social stratification disguised as a horror film. No other preview or spoilers need be known apart from the bare-bones premise: that a family encounters their evil doppelgangers who try to take over their home and lives. Lupita Nyong’o is the indisputable star of the show with her creepily vivid performance. The haunting score will also stay with you long after the credits roll.

Long Day’s Journey Into Night

Chinese director Bi Gan has created this stunning new film with clear influences from David Lynch, Wong Kar-wai, and Ridley Scott. Descend into a gritty world of dream-like hallucinatory sequences that tell a tale of memory and fear. Luo Hongwu returns to his home, where he finds a photograph of his old love, triggering an obsession with finding her again. This film is particularly memorable for its 55-minute-long 3D long take, which has had critics all a-twitter since its debut at Cannes 2018. The very fiction of cinema is highlighted in an ultra-meta way: is Luo part of the 3D film he views? Is he dreaming the sequence? As the audience, how much are you immersed in the world within worlds of the cinematic experience?

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An Elephant Sitting Still

Based loosely on one of two controversial novels written by the filmmaker himself, this debut film is a four-hour-long masterpiece that is worthy of commemoration in the history books. Four lost souls drifting through life in the cold, desolate Hebei province of China are pulled together in a brutal story full of difficult-to-sit-through moments. There isn’t much cause and effect, and the film’s fragmented structure only serves to highlight the broken spirits and distance between the characters. Unfortunately, 29-year-old artist Hu Bo died by suicide before the world premiere of this movie, but An Elephant Sitting Still is truly a legacy worth leaving behind.

Avengers: Endgame

As much as it’s an absolute wrench saying goodbye to Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark (genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist, and arguably the best superhero ever—you can fight us on this), we don’t think Marvel fans could’ve asked for a better conclusion to more than a decade’s worth of 22 interconnected superhero movies.

Despite the run time of over three hours, we found ourselves at the edge of our seats, not wanting this epic film to end. Avengers: Endgame sees the sun setting on half of the original Avengers team, but with so much more to come in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (including their first Asian superhero movie starring Hong Kong’s very own Tony Leung!) it’s time to get excited for the upcoming Phase Four.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Céline Sciamma has crafted an aesthetic exploration of forbidden obsession and artistic creation. Artist Marianne is hired to be a companion for Hélöise, as well as secretly commissioned to paint a portrait of her for matchmaking purposes. Somewhere along the way of secret gazes meant to commit a face to memory, an intimate relationship based on furtive glances and unspoken truths is formed between the two young women. Flipping the traditional male gaze so present in viewership on its head, the film focuses instead on the female gaze and the erotic power it holds.

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Midsommar

After last year’s terrifying Hereditary, Ari Aster burst back onto our screens with Midsommar. Starring Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor, a young couple and their friends go on holiday to a remote Swedish village that seems idyllic on the surface. They take part in a festival that occurs once every 90 years, and of course, things quickly descend into cultish violence. Ladies, make your boyfriend watch it as a warning against cheating!

The Farewell

The lovable Awkwafina plays Billi, a young woman who learns to reconnect with her family in China after receiving news that her grandmother has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. The family decides to hide the truth from the old lady and gathers for a wedding instead. The Farewell tackles family estrangement, rooting searching, grief and other heavy subject matters while also delivering top-notch laughs.

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

DreamWorks wraps up its near-perfect trilogy with The Hidden World. There have been some huge-name animated movies in recent years, but How to Train Your Dragon consistently tops lists for us. Hiccup and Toothless are both handicapped, but it’s never treated as a flaw; the film instead celebrates differences, strength, and, above all, unwavering friendship and loyalty. This is a film with great rewatch value, starring one of the most lovable animated characters of all time.

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Toy Story 4

A quarter of a century after Woody and Buzz first got introduced to millennials, a whole new generation of kids got treated to this lovable group of sentient toys this year. The gang are with their new owner Bonnie, who adds the reluctant newcomer “Forky” to her room, and hijinks ensue with a road trip. Toy Story 4 is a welcome blast from the past, and a huge hit with animation-loving cinema-goers all around.

Ford v Ferrari

It doesn’t matter if you’re not into racing—the feuding and competition between Ford and Ferrari to build a vehicle that will win the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans in the late 60s will still be a drama worth taking note of. Christian Bale and Matt Damon are at the peak of their game as Ken Miles and Carroll Shelby, respectively, and director James Mangold insisted on using real race car sequences in the film for authenticity. Motorheads will absolutely come out of the cinema wanting a sports car even more.

Marriage Story

Nearly half of all modern marriages end in divorce, which explains why Marriage Story isn’t called “Divorce Story” instead. Two flawed individuals struggle through the dissolution of their relationship and try to make things work for the sake of their son, despite the underlying understanding on both sides that it’s not going to succeed. Adam Driver’s work has placed him as a top contender for a Best Actor Oscar; watch out for the raw and emotional five-minute argument scene that absolutely secures him as a standout actor.

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Doctor Sleep

Mike Flanagan took on the onerous task of adapting Stephen King’s sequel novel to The Shining, which means he’s also daringly pitted his work against the Stanley Kubrick 1980 classic. The adult Danny Torrance returns to the Overlook Hotel to “wake it up”, and encounters a range of terrors including a cult, the captured spirits of children with supernatural powers, and Rebecca Ferguson as the terrifying Rose the Hat. You can’t run from your traumas, and fans of the original will be suitably haunted by the memory of The Shining with Ewan McGregor’s performance in Doctor Sleep.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

After Colin Trevorrow failed to sail this (space)ship, JJ Abrams hopped back onto the captain’s seat and took charge of the end of the new Star Wars trilogy. This new addition to the saga sees the question of Rey’s true identity at the heart of the plot, while balancing a combative and struggle-laden relationship with Kylo Ren. The only complaint about The Rise of Skywalker is that it tries to please all fans, seeing the return of all the franchise’s key characters, including the late Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia, and could be seen as simply too much fan service. Die-hard fans might take offence, but it’s still an entertaining part of a classic universe, especially when accompanied by John Williams’ at times heart-wrenching score.

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Catharina Cheung

Senior editor

Catharina has recently returned to her hometown of Hong Kong after spending her formative years in Singapore and the UK. She enjoys scouring the city for under-the-radar things to do, see, and eat, and is committed to finding the perfect foundation that will withstand Hong Kong’s heat. She is also an aspiring polyglot, a firm advocate for feminist and LGBTQIA+ issues, and a huge lover of animals. You can find her belting out show-tunes in karaoke, or in bookstores adding new tomes to her ever-growing collection.

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