Top 19 movies of '19: 'Marriage Story,' 'Joker' lead search for humanity in sea of sequels

In the year of Lord Disney, filmmakers found ways to thrive outside of the franchise-driven business model

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

As we tie a bow on the 2010s — it's a shame we never bothered coming up with a name for this decade, sigh — the story in Hollywood is, more than ever, sequels and reboots.

This year at the movies can be summed up by the business approach of Disney, which in the final 365 days of this nameless collection of 10 years wrapped up current storylines in its mega "Avengers" and "Star Wars" franchises, remade several hits of yesteryear ("Dumbo," "Aladdin," "The Lion King") and continued the story of "Toy Story" and more recent hits "Maleficent" and "Frozen." Why invest in the future when you can milk the past?

Thankfully, there were other options. Outside of the franchises and shared movie universes — and sometimes inside of them — there were bold filmmakers telling human tales, finding a way to exist and get their stories told amid Hollywood's shifting business model. The only explosions found in the year's best movie are of the emotional variety, and they resonate far more than anything staged in any of this year's special effects-driven extravaganzas. 

Although there's still a place for those extravaganzas too. Let's dive into the year's best movies, tales of triumph and tragedy, that still give us hope as we head into a decade that will continue to reshape the movies as we know them. The industry keeps changing, but there will always be room for movies that help us learn about ourselves, our lives and the world around us. That's the dream, at least.

The Best Movies of 2019 

1. "Marriage Story" — A tragicomedy about the dissolution of a marriage, Noah Baumbach's latest is a knockout, and stars Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson turn in the year's two best performances as the fraying couple at its center. Baumbach has done pain before as well as humor, but never has he mixed the two as deftly as he does here. A remarkable, heartbreaking work.   

Scarlett Johansson, Azhy Robertson and Adam Driver in "Marriage Story."

2. "Joker" — Are comic book movies cinema? This one is. Director Todd Phillips spins the origin story of the iconic Batman villain into a cautionary tale for our times, and star Joaquin Phoenix burrows deeply into the role of a depressed loner pushed over the edge by a society that has lost all semblance of compassion, both for him and itself. 

Joaquin Phoenix in "Joker."

3. "Apollo 11" — In 1969, we put a man on the moon. That incredible feat is taken for granted today, but Todd Douglas Miller's straightforward documentary tells the story of how in as unobtrusive a way possible, with real footage of the men and women who did it, not with iPhones, but with human ingenuity and teamwork. The word "inspiring" doesn't begin to cover it. 

Neil Armstrong in "Apollo 11."

4. "Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood" — Quentin Tarantino's fairy tale about the summer of the Manson murders finds the director wistfully looking back at the Hollywood of yore and rewriting history as he sees fit. Leonardo DiCaprio is pure gold as a fading Western star on the backside of his career, but it's the immortal Brad Pitt who steals the show as his sun-baked right hand man. 

Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio in "Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood."

5. "The Irishman" — Martin Scorsese revisits the gangster genre for this epic look back at a life of crime and the toll it takes on a man and his family. Consider it a bookend to "Goodfellas," and a grand statement from the 77-year-old director about his lifelong fascination with street life.  

Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in "The Irishman."

6. "Honeyland" — This stunning documentary about a beekeeper in North Macedonia has so many insights about life and human nature it's practically a parable, and directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanovis tell it with a visual poetry that makes it sing — and sting. 

Hatidze Muratova in "Honeyland."

7. "Jojo Rabbit" — Hitler as a bumbling comic buffoon? Only in Taika Waititi's satirical look at the waning days of World War II. Through a child's eyes, Waititi offers a sharp refutation of hate and its origins, and what emerges is a celebration of life and all it has to offer.   

Roman Griffin Davis, Taika Waititi and Scarlett Johansson in "Jojo Rabbit."

8. "The Last Black Man in San Francisco" — Joe Talbot's directorial debut is an impassioned look at gentrification and what it does to a city and its residents. The setting is San Francisco, but the story can be applied to any city losing its soul in the supposed name of progress and prosperity. 

Jimmie Fails and Jonathan Majors in "The Last Black Man In San Francisco."

9. "Western Stars" — We've never had a storyteller quite like Bruce Springsteen, and here he offers up a gorgeous concert film colored with tales of love, life, and lessons learned from seven decades traversing the American frontier.  

Bruce Springsteen in "Western Stars."

10. "The Beach Bum" — As Moondog, the burnout poet at the center of Harmony Korine's booze-soaked tribute to the lost souls who find themselves in Key West, Matthew McConaughey achieves transcendence in a performance so meta it's hard to tell where McConaughey ends and Moondog begins.  

Matthew McConaughey in "The Beach Bum."

11. "Queen & Slim" — Melina Matsoukas' timely tale of a couple on the run is built around themes of America's race and class divide, and also smartly plays with the iconography that turns people into symbols of movements much bigger than themselves. 

Jodie Turner-Smith in "Queen & Slim."

12. "1917" — Sam Mendes' visceral WWI tale uses a visual gimmick — it's told in one continuous shot — to immerse viewers in the experience of the war and all the mud, blood, desperation and fear that comes with it. (Opens locally Jan. 10) 

George MacKay in "1917."

13. "Midsommar" — A nightmare in the blinding light of day. What Spielberg did for the beach in "Jaws," director Ari Aster does for Sweden in the summertime with this tale of a couple's trip to a summer festival that turns out to be a pagan ritual where they're the very special guests. And you thought Fyre Festival was a disaster. 

Florence Pugh in "Midsommar."

14. "Diane" — We're all dying, there's no getting around it, and writer-director Kent Jones addresses the topic head-on in this story of a Massachusetts woman (Mary Kay Place, in the year's most under-appreciated performance) who is watching everyone around her, herself included, die. Stark stuff, but such is life.  

Mary Kay Place in "Diane."

15. "Her Smell" — Elisabeth Moss is a tornado in this story of an unhinged '90s rocker (think Courtney Love) wrestling with her demons, on-stage and off. You'll never listen to Bryan Adams' "Heaven" the same way again, and that's a good thing. 

Elisabeth Moss in "Her Smell."

16. "Alita: Battle Angel" — In this action trash robo war run amok, a digitized Rosa Salazar is a cyber heroine fighting overlords in the clouds, or something. The cutting edge effects made this feel like the blockbuster of the future, and its underwhelming box office performance gives it the feel of a future cult title. Either way, it's a blast. 

Rosa Salazar in "Alita: Battle Angel."

17. "The Perfection/ In the Shadow of the Moon" — OK, I cheated. These two films — the former a thriller about a pair of cellists, the latter a time-hopping noir — have nothing to do with each other than their delivery method: They're both from Netflix. And they were both huge surprises, signifying that as our delivery methods change from theater to home consumption, the deluge of options on Netflix can be overwhelming, but every so often you find one, or two, that knock you off your feet.  

Logan Browning and Allison Williams in "The Perfection."

18. "Wild Rose" — A star is born. Jessie Buckley plays an aspiring country singer from Glasgow who can't get out of her own way in director Tom Harper's drama that does anything but play things the Hollywood way, instead sticking to the country music ethos of three chords and the truth.  

Jessie Buckley in "Wild Rose."

19. "The Nightingale" — Writer-director Jennifer Kent follows up "The Babadook" with an even darker tale of human horror. This 1800s-set revenge epic is propped up by sterling performances from Aisling Franciosi and Sam Claflin, and with its brutal depictions of rape and murder, it's definitely not for the squeamish or faint of heart.  

Aisling Franciosi in The Nightingale