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The 25 best movies of 2019

20. Toy Story 4 

(Image credit: Pixar)

Director: Josh Cooley

What is it? Woody and Buzz go on another adventure.

Why you should watch it? No one needed another Toy Story movie after the trilogy ended perfectly in 2010, but 4's greatest trick was not sullying that legacy one jot, and finding further fun and feels in Woody’s story. In the hands of a lesser studio, it could've easily been a cynical cash-in, but everything about Pixar's Toy Story 4 was handled with care, from Woody's continued arc, to the new characters (Forky and Duke Caboom earn their place on the shelf next to the franchise's best), to the best-in-class animation: the antique-store setting takes the medium to its next level. Hitting the right notes for kids while also doubling down on the existential angst, Toy Story 4 was as funny and moving a film as you were likely to see last year.

19. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker 

(Image credit: LucasFilm)

Director: J.J. Abrams

What is it? The trilogy of trilogies comes to an end.

Why you should watch it? There are few Star Wars fans who would say you shouldn't see Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. This is, after all, the final instalment in the Skywalker saga, bringing a story that's been 40 years in the making to an end. Admittedly, there are many problems with some of the revelations. Yet, there's also so much to love. Seeing Rey, Finn, and Poe adventuring around the galaxy is a joy to behold. New characters Zorri Bliss and Babu Frik are scene stealers. Lando's return is a fantastic addition to the series. Best of all, without going into too many spoilers, there are some incredible moments that will send shivers down everyone's spines. This may not have reached the heady heights of The Last Jedi of The Force Awakens, but it's a blast nonetheless. 

18. The Souvenir

(Image credit: A24)

Director: Joanna Hogg

What is it? Aspiring filmmaker gets caught in toxic relationship.

Why you should watch it? British writer/director Joanna Hogg made her most personal drama to date with The Souvenir. A semi-autobiographical portrait of aspiring filmmaker Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne, daughter of Tilda Swinton), who gets involved with wrong’un Anthony (Tom Burke) – a sophisticated Foreign Office employee wrestling with addictive demons – it was an achingly honest depiction of detrimental codependence. The politics and culture of early '80s London provided a rich backdrop for a strikingly intimate drama (much of  the film is set in Julie's Knightsbridge flat, based on Hogg’s own student digs) that bristles with repressed emotion, Hogg's exposition-free elliptical structure treating the audience with rare intelligence. Work is already underway on a sequel; if it can match the quality of the first chapter, it’s not to be missed.

17. Beats 

(Image credit: Altitude Films)

Director: Brian Welsh

What is it? Scots fight for the right to rave in the '90s.

Why you should watch it? Few films blend tones like Brian Welsh's coming-of-age dramedy set in an impoverished town in Scotland at the fag end of the rave scene in 1994. Just as its black-andwhite visuals at once screamed social realism and acted  as a flipbook of nostalgic photographs, so the movie  juggled politics (the shadow of Thatcher, the passing of  the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act) and the personal (two teenage mates embark on an odyssey to an illegal rave) with great mirth and melancholy. Welsh said it was "too much" when Total Film compared his movie to Withnail & I, Trainspotting and This Is England, but acknowledged, "I knew it would be a film people identify with – it deals with friendship, and how the purity of youth gets fucked over as you get older."

16. Us

(Image credit: Universal)

Director: Jordan Peele

What is it? A family are haunted by themselves.

Why you should watch it? Jordan Peele's Get Out follow-up didn't quite have the cultural impact of his debut (not much does), but Us was another triumph, further proof that the writer/director  can probe into a thought-provoking examination of the United States in 2019 (that ambiguous title is no accident) and provide satisfying Saturday-night thrills. The secrecy shrouded plot concerned the Wilson family, who are terrorised by a group of boiler-suit-wearing doppelgängers, who have a connection to mum Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o) and her childhood experience at a fairground. Nyong'o  was astonishing in the dual role, terrifying as 'Red', the 'Tethered' alter ego who speaks in a blood-chilling rasp while fixing you with a soul-tearing stare. Savagely funny, genuinely creepy and littered with Easter eggs that demand close attention and repeat viewings, Us confirmed Peele’s modern-master status. 

15. John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum

(Image credit: Lionsgate)

Director: Chad Stahelski

What is it? Hitman John Wick runs for his life.

Why you should watch it? "You got a couple of choices [with sequels]," says director Chad Stahelski. "You can try to blow more shit up… or you expand." Parabellum had its cake and wolfed it. Chapter 3 opened up Wick's  world – from a none more noir-like New York to the white heat of  the Moroccan desert – and broached his backstory, without sacrificing any forward momentum. The most ruthlessly paced, action-crammed, taciturn-badass-on-the-run threequel since The Bourne Ultimatum,  this was set-piece heaven. Or hell, given the infinite array of injuries: blade-to-the-eyeball, hooves-to-the-head, dog-to-the-bollocks… Audiences lapped it up, the film easily out-grossing its predecessors put together. Chapter 4 was swiftly announced; good news, though it’ll really have to go for baroque to top this.

14. Burning

(Image credit: Pinehouse Films)

Director: Lee Chang-dong

What is it? A mystery thriller where the less you know the better.

Why you should watch it? Released at the start of 2019 (The Favourite aside, it's the earliest calendar entry on this year's list) Burning’s staying power is a testament to its indisputable qualities. An enigmatic, South Korea-set slow burn, it's the story of country boy Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) who falls for firecracker Hae-mi (Jun Jong-seo), only for her to be snatched away by Ben (The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun), a charming sociopath with a predilection for burning greenhouses to the ground. A mystery-thriller that prioritises thick atmosphere and dense thematics over run-of-the-mill jolts, Burning was intelligent and honest in its depiction of South Korea's ruinous socio-economic divide and complex politics. It took director Lee Chang-dong eight years to complete Burning following 2010's acclaimed Poetry; let’s hope the wait isn't as long next time.

13. Little Women 

(Image credit: Sony)

Director: Greta Gerwig

What is it? A woke adaptation of a classic American tale.

Why you should watch it? Adapted numerous times for big and small screen, Louisa May Alcott's wholesome tale of four sisters growing up during the Civil War in 19th-century New England hardly seemed in need  of another interpretation… until Greta Gerwig had a go at it. Injecting fresh nuance into themes of ambition, artistic commerce and equality – while still satisfying audience expectations of Victoriana cosiness, Christmas scenes and hoop skirts – Gerwig's tale of the March sisters (led by a spirited Saoirse Ronan) deftly married chocolate-box nostalgia with the moxie of Lady Bird to create a lively, dramatically satisfying crowdpleaser. And it managed to make Amy (superbly essayed by Florence Pugh) a viable contender to Ronan's Jo for the heart of boy-next-door Laurie (Timothée Chalamet). That's no mean feat, especially as his delightful performance will do nothing to do quench the thirst of his fanbase. 

12. Minding The Gap 

(Image credit: Magnolia Pictures)

Director: Bing Liu

What is it? A documentary about skateboarding that’s so much more than that.

Why you should watch it? To say Bing Liu's years-in-the-making documentary is about skateboarding is like saying that Hoop Dreams is about basketball. As with Steve James' seminal 1994 doc, Minding The Gap starts with some kids – in this case, skaters Liu, Zack Mulligan and Keire Jackson – and ripples outwards to paint a portrait of a community and make keen observations on race, class and manhood in modernday America. It's heartbreaking stuff,  as Liu discovers he and his friends all share backgrounds of abuse, and Mulligan looks set to repeat the cycle of addiction and violence as himself becomes a father. But it's also exhilarating, with Liu's impressive skills as a cameraman growing before our eyes as he captures the every flip and face-plant. For these guys, skating isn't just an escape. It's survival.

11. Knives Out

(Image credit: Lionsgate)

Director: Rian Johnson

What is it? A wonderful Agatha Christie-esque whodunit.

Why you should watch it? The title was a fair description of some attitudes that greeted Rian Johnson’s last film, Star Wars: The Last Jedi.  But if the writer/director was feeling bitter, it didn’t show in this infectiously playful murder mystery. It was centred on very recently dead novelist Harlan Thrombey's (Christopher Plummer) mansion, where surprises just kept coming out of the gorgeous woodwork – one of the nicest being Daniel Craig hurling himself into the role of detective Benoit Blanc, with an accent as ripe as the name. Genuine star power (see also: Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette…) twinned with word power (Johnson's tangiest script since Brick) to produce a treat you could call 'old-fashioned', were it not for a subtext that felt very now. A devilishly funny poke at entitlement that would have been criminal to miss.