10. Ad Astra
Director: James Gray
What is it? Brad Pitt, afflicted by Daddy issues, travels through space.
Why you should watch it? James Gray's contemplative sci-fi can be summed up simply as 'Apocalypse Now in space', but even comparison to one of the finest films ever made does Ad Astra a disservice. Balancing impossibly huge existential questions (what if extraterrestrial life doesn’t exist?) with a profoundly intimate study of loss and longing for an absent father, it was a masterful cosmic epic featuring a movingly introspective, and rarely-better, Brad Pitt. Best known for street-level crime thrillers and intimate character pieces like The Yards, We Own The Night, and Two Lovers, Gray proved an adept world-builder with Ad Astra, constructing a grounded, plausibly tactile space-faring future. A chase sequence on the moon was Fury Road in low gravity, while director of photography Hoyte Van Hoytema found beauty in the infinite void at the end of the galaxy. Simply mesmerising.
9. The Favourite
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
What is it? A queen is courted by two younger women.
Why you should watch it? It scooped hardware galore at the beginning of this year and with good reason. Yorgos Lanthimos' fish-eye lensed tale of court intrigue may have been a period piece but its focus (on three women), style (Sandy Powell's monochrome punk costumes) and verve (ducks on leads! Cake vomit! Use of the word 'vajuju'!) made it fresh, modern and pertinent. Following a fallen 18th-Century noblewoman (Emma Stone) as she social-climbed through the court of Queen Anne (Oscar-winning Olivia Colman) and vied for the monarch’s favour against Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), The Favourite tracked female relationships, sexism, power play, grief and ambition in a bawdy, delicious 'fact-adjacent' romp that was a tart clapback to the usual male-dominated awards contenders. "Sometimes a lady likes to have some fun," purred Lady Sarah during a key scene. Well, indeed.
Director: Ari Aster
What is it? A group go on a deadly trip to a European festival.
Why you should watch it? No, Ari Aster's follow-up to Hereditary wasn’t as scary, but then it wasn’t trying to be, favouring pitch-black humour and an atmosphere of dread over outright terror as a group of American students (Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, Will Poulter, William Jackson Harper) accompanied a Swedish pal (Vilhelm Blomgren) to his ancestral home for a sun-soaked nine-day ritual celebrating the summer solstice. Of course, anyone who'd seen The Wicker Man had a good idea where things were going, but again, that was the point. "The idea was to meet the inevitable in a way that feels a surprise and cathartic… a catharsis that people have to wrestle with after the fact," Aster told Total Film. "We were going for a feeling of awe as opposed to a feeling of horror." Job done.
Director: Olivia Wilde
What is it? Two bookworms go on a night out.
Why you should watch it? The best directorial debut of the year. Olivia Wilde smashed all expectations with her sensational teen comedy, and launched Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein on their way to stardom. The pair played best friends Amy and Molly, two studious seniors who decide to make up for their lack of partying with one wild night before graduation. Rude, funny, and immensely touching, it was a film with empathy to spare: every character was treated with kindness, and stereotypes were trashed with gusto. Behind the raucous laughs, there was a touching paean to friendship, and the night itself felt like a genuinely life-changing odyssey for them and us, featuring inventive flourishes (the animated doll interlude), hilarious supporting characters (special shoutout to Billie Lourd) and a banging soundtrack.
6. Eighth Grade
Director: Bo Burnham
What is it? A teenage YouTuber deals with modern anxieties.
Why you should watch it? Talk about a social-media presence: roughly 100 fake Instagram and Twitter accounts were created for Bo Burnham's breakout. But Eighth Grade’s commitment to authenticity went far beyond the shiny surface. "I so believe that the experience of being 13 is different from the memory of being 13," says the writer/director. "This story is about the things you forget." Fresh out of eighth grade herself when shooting started, Elsie Fisher brought startling empathy to Kayla, the super-shy student struggling to gain friends and YouTube followers. Moments of cringe comedy – involving bananas, pool parties and bumbling dads – were underpinned by a compassionate, unpatronising take on adolescent anxieties. Among its biggest fans was '80s teen queen Molly Ringwald – what further endorsement do you need?
Director: Todd Phillips
What is it? The origins of a Batman villain.
Why you should watch it? Who'd have thought the guy who made The Hangover trilogy had it in him? Todd Phillips proved that comic-book movies don't need spandex and superpowered scraps to dazzle with his dark, disturbing Joker origin story. Taking cues from the movie-making heroes of his youth – Lumet, Forman, and especially Scorsese – Phillips gave the genre its first fully fledged character study, one set in a politically fraught, socially fractious and frighteningly relevant Gotham. The choice was inspired, but Phillips' masterstroke was casting Joaquin Phoenix as the nascent Clown Prince of Crime. A once-in-a-generation talent giving a once-in-a-lifetime performance, Phoenix was astonishing as Arthur Fleck, engendering powerful sympathy for a tragic outsider, until his monstrous actions could no longer be defended. A powerful, provocative stunner that was no laughing matter.
4. Marriage Story
Director: Noah Baubach
What is it? A couple go through a difficult divorce.
Why you should watch it? Noah Baubach channelled his own split with Jennifer Jason Leigh into this mournful, funny, forensic study of the disintegration of a relationship through divorce – the ring of truth in every bitten accusation, defeated appeal and tearful confession made for a tough but cathartic watch. The couple at war were NY theatre director Charlie (Adam Driver) and movie actor Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), whose initially amicable split spiralled when they involved LA lawyers: her courtroom maven (Laura Dern) vs his seasoned rottweiler (Ray Liotta). Amusing and heartbreaking in equal measure, with career best performances from the two leads, Marriage Story managed to be an unflinching look at the emotional, financial and parental destruction of legal uncoupling as well as a celebration to the love that went before it. Universally relatable and likely to attract multiple gongs come awards season.
3. Avengers: Endgame
Director: The Russo brothers
What is it? The Avengers assemble to bring back their fallen friends.
Why you should watch it? While staunch auteurs (Scorsese, Coppola, Loach) groused about superhero cinema, audiences declared that they loved it 3,000, making Endgame the highest-grossing film of all time (ending Avatar's nine-year reign). True, the Russos' time-hopping epic may not have packed quite the same punch as Infinity War (Total Film's movie of 2018), but it still provided satisfying closure to an 11-year storyline. This was a film that managed to look backward, forward and sideways (branched realities ahoy!) without getting hopelessly overcomplicated or losing a sense of fun. And yet – listen up, Marty – the most enduring image wasn’t the scores of superheroes emerging from Catherine-wheel portals (though that was pretty sweet) but that of two slow-dancing sweethearts. "[Cap’s] a World War 2 soldier who has finally come home," says co-writer Stephen McFeely. "It took a long time, but he got there..."
2. The Irishman
Director: Martin Scorsese
What is it? Scorsese directs another gangster masterpiece.
Why you should watch it? Robert De Niro gave his best performance for 20 years. Al Pacino, ditto. Joe Pesci was so good it made us mourn for the performances lost to his retirement. And Martin Scorsese once more proved he's the don of gangster pictures as he fashioned a decades-spanning epic centred on the titular Frank Sheeran (De Niro), an assassin for the Bufalino crime family and his role in the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino). "It's a film about how Frank balances what he is as a human being with what he does in his life, which ultimately overwhelms him," said Scorsese, and The Irishman went places that Casino, GoodFellas and Mean Streets never dared, eschewing all glamour to chronicle the emotional and spiritual cost of such a life. Devastating.
1. Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood
Director: Quentin Tarantino
What is it? A fading TV star and his stuntman accidentally cross paths with the Mansons
Why you should watch it? Quentin Tarantino scored the biggest opening weekend of his career with his most personal film to date, and it went on to become the highest-grossing (English language) original of the year. Weaving together fact and fiction, Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood told the story of fading TV idol Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio on electrifying form) and his trusty stuntman/dogsbody Cliff Booth, as Dalton makes one last bid to resuscitate his career in 1969 Hollywood.
Tarantino created a setting alive with texture, one you marinated in as the characters shot the shit, worked on film sets, and crossed paths with the Manson Family (the Spahn Ranch scene is a masterclass, almost working as a standalone horror short). The level of in-world detail was impressive, even by QT's standards, with faux films, fake featurettes and ersatz ads, and the bonkers climax was among the most exhilarating sequences seen on screen last year. But what really resonated was the depth of feeling, as Dalton confronted his own mortality and Sharon Tate (a luminous Margot Robbie) got the fairytale ending she was denied in life.