In Hollywood, we’re always hearing about the glamour and glitz of the big-budget films that are released each year. But behind the scenes, the film industry is going through a bit of a rough patch.

Each year, the films that are released at the end of the year are the movies that made the biggest impact, whether they were well-received by critics or audiences. But in 2019, the films that were released didn’t have the box office clout that their counterparts from last year had. Disney’s release of Aladdin was the top earner of the year, but it only earned $434 million at the global box office. That’s significantly lower than the $775 million earned by Black Panther and the $981 million earned by A Star is Born. These are all fantastic films, and we should all be grateful that they were released when and where they were, but they couldn’t quite put Humpty Dumpty back together again. If they had, the box office might look a bit different. It’s also worth noting that Aladdin was the only film released by Disney this year. This is a trend that’s been ongoing for a while now. In 2018, the studio released only two films, which is the lowest number of releases in over a decade. It’s a pattern that seems to be related to Disney’s shift away from its traditional live-action movie model and towards a more immersive, virtual world.

The Fall of Live-Action Movies

In early 2019, we saw a number of veteran Hollywood actors walk away from lucrative movie deals, frustrated that they couldn’t negotiate equal pay for equal work. Many felt that the industry had changed in such a way that they were no longer able to thrive, and that their time had come and gone. It was an interesting moment, because it seemed to come out of nowhere. Just a few years ago, it would’ve been unthinkable for an actor of Jack Nicholson’s or Warren Beatty’s caliber to say they weren’t going to make another film, especially since most of their acclaimed films were still bankable. Now, it seems like every other high profile actor in Hollywood has had a similar thought, and the ripple effects are being felt all the way to the top.

The biggest name to walk away from a movie adaptation was Beatty. He’s been attached to the project Room 40 for years, but due to creative differences, he decided to exit the project. He was replaced by Christopher Plummer, who is an expert vocal actor with a prolific career, but has mostly worked in stage plays and British television. He’s only recently transitioned to feature films and hasn’t had much experience in big-budget, mainstream American cinema. So while his work is impeccable, he’s probably better off not trying to tackle one of the greatest film tugs-of-war of all time. In the same vein, Nicholson’s performance in the film About Schmidt is still unsurpassed, but his advanced age makes it clear that his time has come as well. Nicholson has famously said that he’s seen his best days and that he doesn’t have the energy to commit to another film, regardless of its quality. It was an incredible speech at the time, because it seemed like he was announcing his retirement from acting. Instead, he’s made three more movies since then and continues to have an active career.

The Rise of Virtual Reality And Gaming

The cinematic world that we as audiences know and love is changing, thanks to innovations in technology. While blockbusters used to be the bread and butter of the movie industry, low-to-mid-range films are now becoming the moneymakers, thanks in large part to the rise of virtual reality and gaming. The most lucrative industries are now gaming and virtual reality, and as a result, the high-end cinemas are becoming luxury theaters, filled with movie lovers eager to escape the reality of everyday life.

It’s not just moviegoers that are flocking to the virtual reality theaters. The developers, creators, and funders of VR are also frequent moviegoers, and they want to be able to experiment with new content and see what works and what doesn’t work when placed within the immersive world of virtual reality. This trend presents unprecedented opportunities for filmmakers, because it opens up entire new platforms for content.

The most successful adaptation of a comic book series in cinematic history took place last year, with Detective Pikachu sweeping the box office and becoming the highest-grossing film of all time, not adjusted for inflation. The combination of live action and 3D computer graphics was a revelation, and it proved that there was still life in the old dog yet. This year, the character of Pikachu will star in his very own film, Detective Pikachu, which will be released exclusively in theaters equipped with VR capabilities. The film’s writer and director, Rob Letterman, spoke to us about how adapting comics for film and using computer graphics in unique ways has enabled him to tell a different kind of story, one that appeals to a younger audience, and how he’s trying to make the most of the medium’s evolving capabilities.

New People, New Voices, New Ideas

With all of this in mind, we were more than a little curious about the films and their directors that were released this year, because while it’s true that many of them didn’t do well at the box office, it doesn’t mean that they weren’t well-received by critics or audiences. In fact, quite the opposite. The most highly regarded films this year were those with new people at the helm, those with fresh perspectives and new ideas, and those that weren’t your standard Hollywood fare. We’ll discuss each one of these in turn.

First up is Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale, which won the 2019 Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. It’s based on the acclaimed 2006 Broadway play by the same name, which was also adapted into a critically-acclaimed 2008 film starring Jessica Lange and Frances McDormand. So it’s no wonder that Baumbach’s follow-up to 2018’s superb Mistress America focuses on a similar dynamic, between a daughter (Margot Robbie) and mother (Lange) who have been feuding for years. But while the source material is similar, the setting, characters, and tone of the two films are all very different. This is a common theme throughout this list of well-received movies. They are not your classic “Hollywood” stories, despite their box office performances. The cinematic experience does not feel like it belongs to the same universe as Black Panther or A Star is Born.

The Place Beyond The Pines

Speaking of Black Panther, it’s arguably the greatest cinematic achievement ever. Hands down. Period. It may not be for everyone, but if you’ve never seen a movie that is this good, then we don’t know what else to tell you. Chadwick Boseman plays T’Challa, the crown prince of Wakanda, who, along with his teammates, must take on the role of mentor, defender, and teacher against a world that fears and mistruths about them.

For a while there, it looked like 2019 was going to be the year of black cinema. First up was BlacKkKlansman, the 2018 comedy-drama that starred John David Washington as Martin Luther King Jr. and Adam Driver as a Jewish cop. The film co-starred Laura Harrier and Topher Grace and was released by Netflix. Then there was the highly anticipated Baby Boy, starring Emmy Award-winner Regina King as a Los Angeles mother who has to make the ultimate sacrifice to protect her family. And in the summer of 2019, Us starring Cleo Anthony, Lucas Hedges, and Algee Smith will hit theaters.

Escape Room

Speaking of Black Panther, it is indeed wonderful. But it’s also one of the most expensive movies ever made. The action-adventure movie stars Kevin Hart and his wife, Eniko Santoni, as Kate and Will MacLeman, a black couple who head to a remote island to escape the pressures of everyday life. Once there, they encounter a group of criminals who have planted a bomb inside the house. As the only survivors, the couple must now work together to defuse the bomb and escape with their lives. One of the aspects that makes this movie stand out is its attention to detail. You would think that a movie about defusing a bomb would be pretty standard, but the filmmakers went above and beyond, creating dozens of intricate puzzles as part of the fun. While some might find the film’s ending to be a little unbelievable, it is in keeping with the heightened reality that is the hallmark of Todd Phillips’ work. We’re not likely to see a movie with this level of detail and creativity in the near future. It’s very Black Panther, isn’t it?