From the arthouse to streaming, 2019 has been an exceptional year of career-defining films from visionary auteurs. Our 25 best films of the year feature an eclectic collection of standout cinema ranging from Asia and Africa, to South America and Europe, alongside plenty of quality American indie productions.
(Note: The following picks were limited to films released in Singapore in theaters, online or on Blu-ray within this calendar year.)
30) Crawl, 29) Dolemite Is My Name, 28) American Factory, 27) Tigers Are Not Afraid, 26) For Sama
25) Birds of Passage
Part ethnographic study and part gangster epic, Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s beautifully crafted film is culturally rich, visually lyrical and sweepingly tragic. Spanning the late 60s and 70s, Birds of Passage follows the rise and fall of a family from Colombia’s indigenous Wayuu tribe, as they get caught up in the country’s booming drug trade. When sacred traditions and portentous omens are compromised by capitalist greed and prideful vengeance – blood is shed and innocence is lost. This dusty contrast of ancient beliefs and modern corruption is enthralling.
Directed by Alejandro Landes, Monos is a hypnotic survivalist saga set on a remote mountain in Latin America following a group of young militia rebels. Playing like Lord of the Flies with child soldiers, this muddy and lyrical journey into the heart of darkness explores guerrilla warfare, human nature and adolescent alienation. Monos immerses us into the bruising anarchy and pointless violence of this harsh existence with very little dialogue, choosing to examine its themes through powerful imagery and an evocative score from Micah Levi (Under The Skin).
Directed by Ali Abbasi and written by Let The Right One In scribe John Ajvide Lindqvist, this was Sweden’s nominee for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars, and we can see why. Part magic-realist fantasy, part romantic drama, and part crime thriller – Border is one of the most uniquely unforgettable movies you’ll ever see. Following a customs agent with the ability to literally sniff out guilt, we see her lonely existence within the margins due to her physical deformity. But that all changes when she meets a man who unravels the secret to her biology.
Quentin Tarantino’s star-studded ninth film is a languid and wistful journey through a nostalgic Tinseltown fairy tale, framed as a buddy comedy. Ambitious yet ambiguous, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood eschews structure and story in favour of a scenic tale of backlot Hollywood in 1969. Relying almost entirely on the easy chemistry between Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, this is an expressionistic rendering of a fabled time in American pop culture. While some may find Tarantino’s indulgence esoteric, others will find it mesmerizing. Read our full review here.
Loosely drawn upon the lives of writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski’s late parents, Cold War is cinema at its most ravishing. This is a devastatingly beautiful love story, sparked by art and doomed by ideology, spanning decades and both sides of the Iron Curtain. Shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio and in black and white, this Polish masterpiece is a monochrome feast of chilly negative space depicting hot-embered passion, and a tumultuously elliptical romance. Read our full review here.
This stunning documentary follows climber Alex Honnold as he attempts to scale the 3,000 foot vertical rock, El Capitan – without a rope. Free Solo is an intensely stressful and nerve-wracking experience, but at the same time, this life or death tale of discipline and passion will leave you awed. The complex technicality and immense physicality of such an endeavour is gripping to witness (the slightest error certainly leads to instant death), but this National Geographic production is equally compelling in it’s exploration Honnold’s psyche and emotional process.
I Lost My Body follows a severed hand that sets out to reconnect with its body. During a hair-raising escapade across Paris, the lost limb fends off pigeons and rats alike to reunite with pizza boy Naoufel. Along the way, it’s memories of Naoufel and his love for librarian Gabrielle may provide answers about what caused the hand’s separation, and a poetic backdrop for a possible reunion between the three. Stirring and cathartic, I Lost My Body is an existential saga about the struggle to find beauty in a world that forces us to leave parts of ourselves behind.
This engrossing automotive drama follows visionary American car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and fearless British-born driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) who defied the odds to build a revolutionary race car for Ford Motor Company – and take on the dominating race cars of Enzo Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France in 1966. Ford v Ferrari is an exhilarating re-telling of a tremendous underdog true story that detours into compelling themes of friendship, fatherhood, American ingenuity and the evils of corporate marketing. A genuine crowd-pleaser.
Originally shot by Sydney Pollack and painstakingly reassembled by producer Alan Elliot (the footage was deemed unusable due to technical issues), this concert documentary showcases the great Aretha Franklin at the height of her powers – and it’s a pure spiritual gift. Filmed at Los Angeles’ New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in 1972 to a rapt audience, Amazing Grace captures the glorious joy and miraculous wonder of a truly transcendent gospel performance. This is a powerful and nourishing testament to the Queen of Soul and a voice touched by God.
Yorgos Lanthimos’ 18th century English period piece is a unconventional and idiosyncratic delight. While other tales of court intrigue might focus on regality and pomp, The Favourite leans into corseted pettiness and outrageous petulance to craft an absurdist and anachronistic black comedy. Buoyed by a triumvirate of irresistible performances from Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz – this biting satirical farce about women vying for power is bawdy, profane and cynically fun in spite (or perhaps because) of it’s revisionism. Read our full review here.
Rian Johnson’s deviously clever Knives Out is such a tremendously fun and dazzlingly tricky whodunnit. The film follows debonair Detective Benoit Blanc as he investigates the death a renowned crime novelist. To get the truth, must weaves through a web of red herrings and self-serving lies spun by the deceased’s duplicitous family and staff. Sharpened by a crackling script, gut-busting comedy, and a brilliant all-star cast – this is one murder mystery that Agatha Christie herself would applaud. Ingenious and immensely stylish, Knives Out is cinematic magic.
The Old Man & the Gun is such a charming little film – leisurely, low-key and lovably puckish. In the final role of his career, Robert Redford warms your heart as an Americana antihero archetype he’s played many times before. He’s a gentleman outlaw, a sweet old bank robber who steals with a smile, and leaves you with a twinkle in your eye. If this guy ever sticks you up, it’ll probably be the most pleasant interaction of your day. This wistful folk tale is the perfect swan song for Redford, radiating with its star’s dapper charisma, soft touch and easy affability.
Directed by Robert Eggers (The Witch), The Lighthouse is a claustrophobic, disgusting and delirious descent into madness. This bonkers sailor’s yarn about two lighthouse keepers on a remote New England island in the 1890s is a stunning showcase for Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe – whose tour de force interplay crescendos into a visceral battle of wills. Part pitch black comedy, part psychological horror and part Promethean tragedy – this cold and clammy chamber drama is a texturally rich, visually striking, and brazen piece of cinematic artisanship.
While Ari Aster’s follow-up to Hereditary retains the filmmaker’s fascination with cults, it brightly pivots from darkness into the sunny and flowered open fields of a remote Swedish village. Part Scandanavian folk horror and part breakup fairy tale, Midsommar basks in daylit beauty while slowly enveloping you in a slow-burning hallucination filled with increasingly unnerving pagan rituals, languid dread and a dash of gallows humour. Florence Pugh is phenomenal as the film’s emotional center, nailing every beat as a gaslit girlfriend going through grief and terror.
This sensual, aching, and unpredictable Senegalese ghost love story about the migrant crisis is cinema at its most stunning. Set in Dakar, Atlantics follows exploited construction workers who decide to leave the country by the ocean. Caught amidst all this are Souleiman and Ada – doomed lovers separated by capitalism and tradition. This magic realist mood piece is oblique and elliptical – a mystical dreamscape of haunted romance grounded by political dimensions and internal anguish. Confounding, beautiful and tragic – Atlantics is a seductively hypnotic reverie.
Written and directed by Lulu Wang, The Farewell is a beautifully subtle and bittersweet tale of filial duty and mortality that finds universal truths in a story about a culturally specific lie. Led by a powerful and poignant performance from Awkwafina, the film follows a Chinese family who decides to keep their grandmother in the dark about her terminal cancer diagnosis – in keeping with traditional beliefs. This secret forms the heart of this gentle, layered and mischievously funny dramedy about how culture shapes our sense of love and family. Read our full review.
Although set against an infinitely stunning interstellar canvas, James Gray’s space epic is an extraordinarily intimate and deeply profound drama. Ad Astra is an accessible sci-fi star vehicle featuring one of Brad Pitt’s finest performances, and a soul-baring work of bold artistic ambition. As we follow astronaut Roy McBride’s journey through the cosmos to discover the secrets of his long lost father, this hypnotic film backdrops futuristic perils and fascinating world-building with a gripping meditation about the loss of human connection in pursuit of ambition and exploration.
The Irishman is a reflective and enthralling gangster epic that makes full use of its daunting runtime to fully explore all the themes Martin Scorcese has toyed with in his previous films within the crime genre. Led by phenomenal performances from Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci, this (revisionist) historical mob drama isn’t just another sweeping tale of mafiosos – it’s also a mournful depiction of masculinity and growing old. Although brimming with Scorcese’s kinetic style, The Irishman’s poignance emanates from it’s meditation on morality and mortality.
Far from a stuffy costume period piece, this vivid drama is a stirring and slow-burning romance lensed though Céline Sciamma’s radiantly sensual female gaze. Set in In 1770, this lesbian love story follows the young daughter of a French countess, who develops a mutual attraction to the female artist commissioned to paint her wedding portrait. This supremely elegant and visually ravishing drama brims with incandescent passion and thwarted desire. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a powerful and painterly treatise on art, female agency and queer romance in the 18th century.
Following up from the Oscar-winning Moonlight, Barry Jenkins turns his deft eye toward an adaptation of James Baldwin’s seminal novel. If Beale Street Could Talk is mesmerizing and profoundly moving – marrying richly-drawn characters with stunning performances, and accentuating Baldwin’s beautiful prose with Jenkins’ visual poetry. This is a tender story of love and family, buoyed by hope and drowned by despair. Like the blues, this film can feel astonishingly warm, even as it paints a disturbing portrait of systemic racism in America.
This Japanese zombie comedy is a hilarious love letter to low-budget genre filmmaking, emphasizing that the greatest joys of creating art are the imperfections of its process. It’s first half is a 40-minute B-grade romp, shot in one take, about a film crew shooting a zombie movie that are attacked by real zombies. It’s second half follows the DIY production of that movie, showcasing the behind-the-scenes comedy of errors that force the cast and crew to improvise some of the first half’s most baffling moments. One Cut of the Dead is ingeniously meta fun.
Revered auteur Pedro Almodóvar returns with his best and most personal film in years. Pain and Glory finds Antonio Banderas excelling as Salvador Mallo, a fictionalized version of the aging Spanish director. As we follow a series of reencounters experienced by Mallo, the film offers a grounded, melancholic rumination on aging and artistic intent – steeped in Almodóvar’s own history. Pain and Glory’s sublimely bittersweet story of memory, creation, and lost youth circles around the idea of art as self-creation – layering the film as an elegiac cinematic memoir.
Olivia Wilde’s feature directorial debut is a perfect high-school comedy and an instant coming-of-age classic. Booksmart follows the hilarious misadventures of two best friends on the eve of graduation, as they try to attend their first party. Buoyed the exuberant chemistry of its leads Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein – Booksmart is a delightful tale of youth and female friendship that scores huge laughs, warm feels and well-earned tears. Blazingly paced, perpetually unpredictable and hyper fresh, this is the definitive teen romp for Generation Z.
At once humanist, humourous and heartbreaking – Marriage Story is the ultimate divorce-drama disaster movie. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are phenomenal as a couple negotiating a messy separation in Noah Baumbach’s uncomfortably intimate chronicle of a dying relationship. Marriage Story demonizes neither party, nor does it ask us to take sides. It instead treats its flawed characters with compassion – unjudgemental of their journeys, mistakes or integrity. This gracefully empathetic film captures love and life with all its raw emotional nudity and complexity.
Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho satirizes the various ways the rich and poor leech off each other in his latest masterpiece (and Palme D’Or winner), Parasite. Part giddy con-artist farce, and part nail-biting thriller – this wickedly tense, darkly funny and beautifully shot tragicomedy artfully crafts a masterful indictment of class inequity, greed, and economic anxiety. From the desperate underprivileged willing to exchange financial security for moral bankruptcy, to the oblivious bourgeoisie – Parasite illustrates the pervasive psychology of money. Read our full review here.