Action Scenes of the Year (SPOILERS) (see below for One-on-One Fights)
10) Car chase, Ant-Man and the Wasp
9) Battle on Cybertron, Bumblebee
8) Train chase, Paddington 2
7) Chaos on the field, Black Panther
6) Parr House melee, Incredibles 2
5) Battle of Loudon Hill, Outlaw King
4) Helicopter havoc, Mission: Impossible – Fallout
3) Sicily skirmish, Aquaman
2) Thanos fight on Titan, Avengers: Infinity War
1) Bathroom brawl, Mission: Impossible – Fallout
Best Films Based on a True Story
The Death of Stalin
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Best Non-2018 Films Discovered in 2018
My Favorite () Yet
Black Panther, my favorite solo MCU debut movie yet
Bumblebee, my favorite Transformers movie yet
Best Heroes or Antiheroes of the Year
10) Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld), Bumblebee
9) Amanda (Olivia Cooke), Thoroughbreds
8) Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), Ralph Breaks the Internet
7) Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt), Mary Poppins Returns
6) Helen Parr/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), Incredibles 2
5) Shuri (Letitia Wright), Black Panther
4) Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich), Solo: A Star Wars Story
3) Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), Mission: Impossible – Fallout
2) The Nurse (Jodie Foster), Hotel Artemis
1) Paddington Brown (Ben Whishaw), Paddington 2
Moments of the Year
15) The table kill, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
14) The beach, Roma
13) Legacy of Spider-Man, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
12) Who’s on the film?, Bad Times at the El Royale
11) Flubbed lines, BlacKkKlansman
10) Back to amber, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
9) A small measure of closure, First Man
8) Chess business, Thoroughbreds
7) The Soul Stone sacrifice, Avengers: Infinity War
6) Death of Bruce Wayne’s parents, Teen Titans Go! to the Movies
5) Disney Princesses in the green room, Ralph Breaks the Internet
4) “Ask me who I am”, Black Panther
3) Han sees the Millennium Falcon for the first time, Solo: A Star Wars Story
2) McGregor’s freak-out at work, Peter Rabbit
1) “Shallow”, A Star is Born
One-on-One Fights of the Year (SPOILERS)
8) Grey Trace vs. Fisk Brantner, Upgrade
7) Tobias Beckett vs. Enfys Nest, Solo: A Star Wars Story
6) Ethan Hunt vs. John Lark, Mission: Impossible – Fallout
5) T’Challa vs. N’Jadaka/Erik “Killmonger” Stevens Round 1, Black Panther
4) Tony Stark (Iron Man) vs. Thanos, Avengers: Infinity War
3) Violet Parr vs. Hypnotized Voyd, Incredibles 2
2) Red Miller vs. Klopek, Mandy
1) Arthur Curry/Aquaman vs. David Kane (Black Manta), Aquaman
Best Pop Culture References/Allusions of the Year
5) Box office returns, Deadpool 2
4) Hercule Poirot, Paddington 2
3) Paddington 2, The Commuter
2) The Haunted Mansion, The Predator
1) Disney Princesses and Cass Hamada, Ralph Breaks the Internet
Special awards: Blockers, Teen Titans Go! to the Movies
Ranking Disney-Distributed Movies (worst to best)
9) A Wrinkle in Time
8) Christopher Robin
7) Mary Poppins Returns
6) Ralph Breaks the Internet
5) Ant-Man and the Wasp
4) Incredibles 2
3) Solo: A Star Wars Story
2) Black Panther
1) Avengers: Infinity War
Best Romance Films of the Year
Crazy Rich Asians
Mamma Mia!: Here We Go Again
Set it Up
Ant-Man and the Wasp > Ant-Man
Incredibles 2 > The Incredibles
The Predator > Predators
Ralph Breaks the Internet > Wreck-it Ralph
Creed 2 < Creed
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald < Fantastic Beasts and where to Find them
Mary Poppins Returns < Mary Poppins
Pacific Rim: Uprising < Pacific Rim
Sicario: Day of the Soldado < Sicario
Best Sequel (#2 – Second Installment) of the Year
Ant-Man and the Wasp
Mamma Mia!: Here We Go Again
Ralph Breaks the Internet
Best Spinoff of the Year
Solo: A Star Wars Story
Biggest tearjerker of the year for me is Christopher Robin, particularly the first five or so minutes.
Both The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Suspiria are presented in six acts. (The Favourite has even more.)
First there was Early Man. Then there was First Man.
John Krasinski imperatively communicates through sign language in A Quiet Place. In Aloha, he shared a bizarre scene with Bradley Cooper where they have a subtitled conversation using only subtle shrugs.
Ready Player One is Steven Spielberg’s The LEGO Movie. Ralph Breaks the Internet is Disney’s The LEGO Movie and The Emoji Movie.
Most Underrated Films of the Year
The Predator; Book Club; I Feel Pretty; Hotel Artemis
And Death Wish wins my “Pardon One Turkey” award.
Best Villains of the Year
10) Ebony Maw (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), Avengers: Infinity War
9) Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), Creed 2
8) Jatemme Manning (Daniel Kaluuya), Widows
7) Eleanor Young (Michelle Yeoh), Crazy Rich Asians
6) Thomas McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson), Peter Rabbit
5) David Kane (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), Aquaman
4) Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), The Death of Stalin
3) Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant), Paddington 2
2) Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), Black Panther
1) Thanos (Josh Brolin), Avengers: Infinity War
Worst Villains of the Year
5) Orm (Patrick Wilson), Aquaman
4) Quinn (Mark Lewis Jones), Apostle
3) Kores Botha (Roland Møller), Skyscraper
2) Richard Rusk (Joel Edgerton), Gringo
1) The Wydens (Malin Åkerman & Jake Lacy), Rampage
Most of Venom
Disingenuous sequel baiting, Tomb Raider
Character retcons, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
Independence Day: Resurgence similarities, and Scott Eastwood doing his dad’s voice, Pacific Rim: Uprising
Electric guitar beatdown, The Commuter
The Hokey Pokey, Mom and Dad
Tom Cruise stunt insanity, Mission: Impossible – Fallout
Prog-rock album cover imagery, Aquaman
(Rough) Final Ranking of All (84) 2018 Films Seen (Best to Worst)
The Death of Stalin; First Reformed; Mission: Impossible – Fallout; Avengers: Infinity War; Black Panther; Searching; Mandy; A Simple Favor; Paddington 2; The Favourite; Solo: A Star Wars Story; Can You Ever Forgive Me?; Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse; Game Night; Teen Titans Go! to the Movies; Aquaman; Outlaw King; Incredibles 2; Ant-Man and the Wasp; Ralph Breaks the Internet; Hotel Artemis; Book Club; Set it Up; Tully; Roma; Bumblebee; Widows; Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again; Upgrade; Mary Queen of Scots; The Ballad of Buster Scruggs; Blockers; Annihilation; Mary Poppins Returns; Bad Times at the El Royale; Thoroughbreds; Christopher Robin; Crazy Rich Asians; A Star is Born; A Quiet Place; Love Simon; Tag; First Man; Death Wish; Juliet Naked; The Predator; If Beale Street Could Talk; I Feel Pretty; Hold the Dark; Skyscraper; Green Book; Creed 2; Sicario: Day of the Soldado; Sorry to Bother You; Isle of Dogs; Early Man; Breaking in; BlacKkKlansman; Mom and Dad; Peter Rabbit; Disobedience; Vice; 12 Strong; Mary and the Witch’s Flower; Ready Player One; Apostle; Deadpool 2; Bohemian Rhapsody; Overlord; Woman Walks Ahead; Wildlife; Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom; The Commuter; Ocean’s Eight; Red Sparrow; A Wrinkle in Time; Beautiful Boy; Venom; Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald; Pacific Rim: Uprising; Rampage; Proud Mary; Tomb Raider; Gringo
By the Numbers
Percentage of films viewed that pass the Bechdel Test: 40%
8 Stan Lee appearances – RIP (Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, Deadpool 2, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Venom, Ralph Breaks the Internet, Teen Titans Go! to the Movies, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse)
5 Films featuring genetically mashed-up animals (Annihilation, Rampage, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Sorry to Bother You, Venom)
4 Train crashes (Paddington 2, The Commuter, Solo: A Star Wars Story, Mary Poppins Returns) (Special mention to The Death of Stalin’s climax, which features chaos reigning with over 1000 dead because the trains start running again.) (Subverted in Incredibles 2.) (A train also features in the climax of Black Panther.)
3 Films featuring characters called Black Panther (Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, Gringo)
3 Films with people digging into fried chicken (Green Book, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Vice)
2 Crime films set in a hotel with a heavy 60s-themed soundtrack written and directed by a guy named Drew (Hotel Artemis, Bad Times at the El Royale)
2 Crime films set in Chicago (Death Wish, Widows)
2 Dog food advertisements (Paddington 2, Isle of Dogs)
2 Female villains named Proxima (Avengers: Infinity War, Solo: A Star Wars Story)
2 Films about Scottish agitators to the English throne that open on a flickering candle (Outlaw King, Mary Queen of Scots)
2 Films about secret pen pals, which also uses The Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset” (Juliet Naked, Love Simon)
2 Films featuring Simon Farnaby and a talking bear (Paddington 2, Christopher Robin)
2 Films featuring voluntary toilet bowl drinking (Peter Rabbit, Aquaman)
2 Films where adult superheroes are hypnotized via screens and younger superheroes have to save the day (Incredibles 2, Teen Titans Go! to the Movies)
2 Foot chases in St. Paul’s Cathedral (Paddington 2, Mission: Impossible – Fallout)
2 Freak-outs taken out on a pool table (Mom & Dad, Tag)
2 Giant crabs (Roma, Aquaman)
2 Households with Julie Walters as a live-in homemaker, Ben Whishaw, and a pantry full of marmalade (Paddington 2, Mary Poppins Returns)
2 Incongruous animals rockin’ out on drums (Ant-Man and the Wasp, Aquaman)
2 Lead characters who have to climb a crane to jump onto a tall structure (Skyscraper, Bumblebee)
2 Long-lost mothers stranded in an isolated zone, wearing bespoke armor (Ant-Man and the Wasp, Aquaman)
2 Nannies who come exactly when needed and leave exactly when her purpose has been fulfilled (Mary Poppins Returns, Tully)
2 Neighbors who constantly try to join the main characters’ game night (Game Night, Christopher Robin)
2 Paddington appearances (Paddington 2, The Commuter)
2 Say Anything… boombox parodies (Ready Player One, Deadpool 2)
2 Suited office boss villains equated to sinister fantasy animals (Christopher Robin, Mary Poppins Returns)
2 Swims with dolphins (Mary Poppins Returns, Aquaman)
2 Tartigrade appearances/references (Ant-Man and the Wasp, Sorry to Bother You)
2 Tesseracts (A Wrinkle in Time, Avengers: Infinity War)
2 Uses of Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” (Ralph Breaks the Internet, Bumblebee)
2 Visions of World War II with fighter planes and a mushroom cloud (Black Panther, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald)
Messing with the Studio Logos (A Wrinkle in Time, Pacific Rim: Uprising, Avengers: Infinity War, Rampage, Incredibles 2, Proud Mary, Peter Rabbit, Game Night, Christopher Robin, Bohemian Rhapsody, Overlord, The Favourite, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Mary Poppins Returns, Aquaman, Upgrade)
Opening Title Sequences – * = dedicated sequence (Paddington 2, The Commuter, Mom and Dad*, Isle of Dogs*, Deadpool 2*, First Reformed, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Proud Mary, Mission: Impossible – Fallout*, Christopher Robin, A Simple Favor*, Woman Walks Ahead, Set it Up, Apostle*, Bohemian Rhapsody, Overlord, Breaking in, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs*, I Feel Pretty, Roma, Mary Poppins Returns*, Vice*, Love Simon, Tully)
Wrap Party Finale (Paddington 2, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, Mary Poppins Returns)
Epilogue text (The Death of Stalin, BlacKkKlansman, 12 Strong, A Simple Favor, Woman Walks Ahead, Bohemian Rhapsody, Outlaw King, Beautiful Boy, Green Book, Tag (epilogue footage) , Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Mary Queen of Scots, Vice)
Curtain Call Cast Credits (Black Panther, A Wrinkle in Time, The Death of Stalin, Deadpool 2, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Mary and the Witch’s Flower, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, Peter Rabbit, Game Night, Early Man, Overlord, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, Ralph Breaks the Internet, Teen Titans Go! to the Movies, Creed 2, Aquaman, Bumblebee)
Mid-Credits Scenes – * = does not take up the entire screen (Paddington 2*, Black Panther, The Death of Stalin*, Pacific Rim: Uprising, Isle of Dogs*, Deadpool 2, Hotel Artemis*, Proud Mary*, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Mary and the Witch’s Flower*, Peter Rabbit, Game Night*, Sorry to Bother You, Crazy Rich Asians, Book Club, Christopher Robin, A Simple Favor, Set it Up*, Blockers, Venom, Tomb Raider, Bad Times at the El Royale*, Bohemian Rhapsody*, Ralph Breaks the Internet, Teen Titans Go! to the Movies, Tag*, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again*, Roma*, Aquaman, Vice, Juliet Naked*, Bumblebee)
Post-Credits Scenes (Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Venom, Ralph Breaks the Internet, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse)
Movies like Ready Player One, Teen Titans Go! to the Movies, and Ralph Breaks the Internet feature tons of characters and iconography crossing over in the same movie, often in tiny cameos. This has necessitated a special category of “By the Numbers” I’ll call the Intellectual Property Tally.
3 Aquaman appearances (Ready Player One, Teen Titans Go! to the Movies, Aquaman)
3 Iron Man appearances (Avengers: Infinity War, Ralph Breaks the Internet, Bumblebee [toy])
3 Millennium Falcon appearances/references (Ready Player One, Solo: A Star Wars Story, Ralph Breaks the Internet)
3 Stormtrooper appearances (Ready Player One, Solo: A Star Wars Story, Ralph Breaks the Internet)
2 “Back to the Future” main theme needle drops (Ready Player One, Teen Titans Go! to the Movies)
2 Batgirl appearances (Ready Player One, Teen Titans Go! to the Movies)
2 Batman appearances (Ready Player One, Teen Titans Go! to the Movies)
2 Deathstroke appearances (Ready Player One, Teen Titans Go! to the Movies)
2 Eeyore appearances (Christopher Robin, Ralph Breaks the Internet)
2 Flash appearances (Ready Player One, Teen Titans Go! to the Movies)
2 Groot appearances (Avengers: Infinity War, Ralph Breaks the Internet)
2 Infinity Gauntlet appearances (Avengers: Infinity War, Ralph Breaks the Internet)
2 Lara Croft appearances (Ready Player One, Tomb Raider)
2 Mera appearances (Teen Titans Go! to the Movies, Aquaman)
2 Mobile Suit Gundam appearances (Ready Player One, Pacific Rim: Uprising)
2 Optimus Prime appearances (Ready Player One, Bumblebee)
2 Original Jurassic Park Tyrannosaurus Rex appearances (Ready Player One, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom)
2 Peter Pan representations (Ralph Breaks the Internet, Can You Ever Forgive Me?)
2 Proxima Midnight appearances (Ready Player One, Avengers: Infinity War)
2 Red Skull appearances/references (Avengers: Infinity War, Ralph Breaks the Internet)
2 Supergirl appearances (Ready Player One, Teen Titans Go! to the Movies)
2 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles appearances (Ready Player One, Teen Titans Go! to the Movies)
2 TIE Fighter appearances (Solo: A Star Wars Story, Ralph Breaks the Internet)
2 X-Wing appearances (Ready Player One, Ralph Breaks the Internet)
Best Supporting Actress
Andrea Riseborough, The Death of Stalin
Molly Kunz, Widows
Jennifer Jason Leigh, Annihilation
Rachel Weisz, The Favourite
Michelle Williams, I Feel Pretty
Best Supporting Actor
Hugh Grant, Paddington 2
Simon Russell Beale, The Death of Stalin
Josh Brolin, Avengers: Infinity War
Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Michael B. Jordan, Black Panther
Best Original Song
“Shallow”, A Star is Born
“Always Remember Us this Way”, A Star is Born
“My Superhero Movie”, Teen Titans Go! to the Movies
“A Place Called Slaughter Race”, Ralph Breaks the Internet
“Upbeat Inspirational Song About Life”, Teen Titans Go! to the Movies
Alfonso Cuarón, Roma
Rob Hardy, Annihilation
Rob Hardy, Mission: Impossible – Fallout
Benjamin Loeb, Mandy
Bradford Young, Solo: A Star Wars Story
Best Adapted Screenplay
Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely, Avengers: Infinity War
Ryan Coogler & Joe Robert Cole, Black Panther
Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin, & Peter Fellows, The Death of Stalin
Paul King & Simon Farnaby, Paddington 2
Christopher McQuarrie, Mission: Impossible – Fallout
Nick Johnson & Will Merrick, Searching
Eddie Hamilton, Mission: Impossible – Fallout
Peter Lambert, The Death of Stalin
Yorgos Mavropsaridis, The Favourite
Pietro Scalia, Solo: A Star Wars Story
Best Original Score
Lorne Balfe, Mission: Impossible – Fallout
Christophe Beck, Ant-Man and the Wasp
Ludwig Göransson, Black Panther
Rupert Gregson-Williams, Aquaman
Justin Hurwitz, First Man
Best Production Design
Bill Brzeski, Aquaman
Hannah Beachler, Black Panther
Ralph Eggleston, Incredibles 2
Paul Harrod & Adam Stockhausen, Isle of Dogs
Neil Lamont, Solo: A Star Wars Story
Best Animated Feature
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Isle of Dogs
Ralph Breaks the Internet
Teen Titans Go! to the Movies
Best Original Screenplay
Paul Schrader, First Reformed
Diablo Cody, Tully
Bill Holderman & Erin Simms, Book Club
Drew Pearce, Hotel Artemis
Leigh Whannell, Upgrade
Christopher McQuarrie, Mission: Impossible – Fallout
Ryan Coogler, Black Panther
Panos Cosmatos, Mandy
Alfonso Cuarón, Roma
Paul King, Paddington 2
Domhnall Gleeson, Peter Rabbit
John Cho, Searching
Tom Cruise, Mission: Impossible – Fallout
Alden Ehrenreich, Solo: A Star Wars Story
Ethan Hawke, First Reformed
Olivia Cooke, Thoroughbreds
Emily Blunt, Mary Poppins Returns
Jodie Foster, Hotel Artemis
Melissa McCarthy, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Emma Stone, The Favourite
The Death of Stalin
Avengers: Infinity War
Mission: Impossible – Fallout
15) Teen Titans Go! to the Movies
One of the advantages of Corporate Synergy™ is the ability to poke fun at your own characters even as you stack them all up in a movie for basic-math super-marketability (see also Ralph Breaks the Internet). In Teen Titans Go! to the Movies, DC satirizes their own stable of superheroes and the broader context of superhero cinema, in a constantly clever and subversive kid-friendly family comedy. (My jaw hit the floor after the Thomas and Martha Wayne gag. How did they get away with this?) The conflict of the movie, which exists in a world where every DC hero imaginable has been given a starring role in their own blockbuster, comes from Robin and the rest of the Teen Titans trying to get a film of their own, with hilarity, and songs, ensuing. Yes, this is stealthily the best musical of the year on top of everything else.
14) Game Night
2018 has actually been a damn solid year for studio comedies (a genre that I have sometimes associated with dread), with Blockers, Tag, and I Feel Pretty all sticking the landing. But none of those films reach the heights of Game Night, a high-concept murder-mystery-party-turns-real setup that’s basically shot like a straight thriller and performed with knee-slapping gusto. Jason Bateman kills his line readings, but the standout performances, getting big laughs in two totally different ways, come from Rachel McAdams and Jesse Plemons.
13) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
This psychedelic animated delight fractures reality in service of a coming-of-age tale for alternate Spider-Man Miles Morales. But in addition to its humor, excellent voice acting, and universal themes, Spider-Verse is notable for its formal experimentation. When a radioactive spider bites Miles, his inner monologue and the animation style of the world around him change to closely resemble a comic book. And when alternate reality versions of Spider-Man converge in his world, different animation styles co-exist seamlessly on the screen: the modern CG of Miles, Peter Parker, and Gwen Stacy, the Looney Tunes-esque shading of Spider-Ham, the anime Peni Parker, and the black-and-white Spider-Man Noir. These unfussy mash-ups represent a special thing: the medium of animation taking a step forward. Also featuring perhaps the best Stan Lee cameo.
12) Can You Ever Forgive Me?
A film of sharp wit and strong sense of place, Can You Ever Forgive Me? stars Melissa McCarthy in the true story of biographer Lee Israel, who is motivated by cash-strapped finances to forge and sell counterfeit letters from authors and actors she knows so well from research. This literary crime movie is bolstered by fully committed performances from McCarthy and Richard E. Grant. But just for the record, one of the bookstores in this film set in the early 1990s carries an anachronistic book that wouldn’t be written for another 25 years! Clearly, now the whole movie is a wash.
As the young Han Solo, Alden Ehrenreich gives at once a movie-star performance and a remarkably subtle technical one. And as an excuse to spend two hours in the company of fun characters, in a crime movie in a galaxy far, far away, the movie named Solo comes up aces. Reflecting Star Wars’ Flash Gordon roots, the film so nails the feel of an adventure serial. As far as the spinoffs go, while Rogue One’s highs are higher, Solo is more functional as a movie. And when Han sees the Millennium Falcon for the first time, I cry every time.
10) The Favourite
Not your typical regency drama, this love triangle/three-way power play between Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), and newcomer maid Abigail (Emma Stone) features lots of drive-by backstabbing, pointed barbs, and more shade being thrown than is around co-star Nic Hoult’s eyes. The latest askew dramedy from Yorgos Lanthimos after the visceral satire of The Lobster and the stygian horror of The Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Favourite is an acting showcase with a well-bred caustic wit.
9) Paddington 2
This sequel to one of the greatest family movies ever made continues to spread joy like marmalade on celluloid. Ben Whishaw reprises his charm offensive as the voice of Paddington Brown, the bear in the blue duffel coat, and this time he’s in opposition to Hugh Grant’s delightful villain Phoenix Buchanan, a washed-up actor turned criminal. In service of maximum entertainment per square minute, director Paul King deploys every filmmaking trick conceivable, including Wes Anderson-esque symmetrical storytelling and a detour into the pages of a pop-up book.
8) A Simple Favor
A total blast from start to finish, A Simple Favor is one of the crop of Gone Girl-alike thrillers, but filtered through the nimble no-frills lens of Paul Feig’s comedy. Anna Kendrick is the single mom food vlogger who gets caught up in the overwhelming larger-than-life existence of Blake Lively’s fashion company PR director, who seems like she should be in a Bond movie! With his run from Bridesmaids to this amusing mystery, Feig has become one of my favorite journeyman directors. If you’re humming along on its wavelength, A Simple Favor is a simple pleasure to watch.
An elevated exploitation movie with otherworldly cinematography, a demon biker gang, and Nicolas Cage in a chainsaw-on-chainsaw fight, Mandy feels less like a movie and more like a 1970s prog-rock album cover brought to life. It almost feels wrong to put it on a list of my favorite films of 2018, because it almost exists in a pocket dimension out of time. Is it a cliché to say that Mandy will become a modern midnight movie classic if it’s true?
A thrilling mystery anchored by a raw nerve performance from John Cho as a father desperately looking for his missing daughter, Searching hits a home run with its formal experiment of 100% computer screen-sourced visuals. The film deftly shows both the positive and negative aspects of the Internet, in service of a tightly coiled twist-filled narrative that keeps you on the edge of your seat. And the thing is, John Cho’s character is on the edge of his seat too, as Searching achieves a rare synergy between audience and lead character.
Recently, superhero movies are adding “exotic fantasy epic” to the list of genres they can patch into their framework. Wonder Woman takes us to Themyscira, Aquaman to Atlantis and beyond, and in a move that has struck a chord throughout pop culture, Black Panther gives us Wakanda, a hidden afro-futurist über-technological nation. The film mixes spycraft, racial and interregnum-based political debate, and Shakespearean inheritance drama with apparent ease. And it all plays out through a deep bench ensemble of fascinating characters, from Chadwick Boseman’s dignified T’Challa to Letitia Wright’s scientific genius prankster Shuri to Michael B. Jordan’s magnetic villain Erik Killmonger. Overall, 2018 has been the strongest year yet for Marvel Studios. Speaking of which:
Marvel’s Avengers movies come fitted with a goldmine of action, character, and humor. But on a storytelling level, all three of them are deeply impressive. The 2012 Avengers effortlessly fires on all cylinders of its big-for-the-time ensemble. Age of Ultron has one of the firmest commands of theme that I’ve seen in a movie, let alone an action movie. And now, Infinity War miraculously balances its Biblically huge cast, all while arguably raising supervillain Thanos (Josh Brolin, in a standout motion capture performance) to the status of lead character. The film excels at applause moments and brutality. And when seven superheroes combine their power sets to fight Thanos on his home planet Titan, that’s the stuff comic dreams are made of.
A pure crash course in the language of cinema, the sixth Mission is a nexus of filmmaking craft operating on the highest level: stunts (many of which, near-impossibly, are performed by Tom Cruise), editing, scoring, acting, directing, cinematography, and more are all award-worthy. While I adore Fallout’s predecessor Rogue Nation even more, watching either film is like going to my happy place. I’ve listened to writer-director Christopher McQuarrie talk about this movie for six podcast hours, and with the audio commentary still ahead of me, I’m ready for more.
2) First Reformed
A serrated crisis-of-faith movie, First Reformed stars an electric Ethan Hawke as a priest despairing the existential threats that humanity has visited on itself. So, a feel-good romp, then. There’s the sense that 72-year-old writer-director Paul Schrader has put everything he has, themes of prayers like open wounds that he’s wrestled with his entire career, into this epistolary ecological thriller. Such a personal infusion runs the risk of railroading the audience with macho flagellation, but First Reformed breaks out of that box and just cooks.
This list has included cornucopias of dark humor bled out of historical politics (The Favourite) and virtuoso cinematic balancing acts (Avengers: Infinity War). The Death of Stalin embodies both, as it walks a delicate tightrope: finding the absurdist humor in the bumbling villainy of fascistic statesman. Leavening evil with wry laughs enhances the sense of both, and director/co-writer Armando Iannucci has created a culmination for his practiced room-where-it-happens satire (The Thick of it, In the Loop, Veep). The screenplay takes characters like Simon Russell Beale’s monstrous Committee member and Andrea Riseborough’s grieving daughter and pinballs them around in a farce of national proportions. Adapted from a French comic, The Death of Stalin is incredibly the year’s best comic book movie. And we do live in an age of comic book adaptations, don’t we?
At one point in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, Newt Scamander, Leta Lestrange, and Porpentina Goldstein sneak around the French Ministry of Magic and are literally trapped in a moving labyrinth of family backstory. It’s almost too perfect a metaphor for an insular narrative obsessed with the storytelling primacy of lineage, and which flirts with impenetrability even for students of the franchise. Comprehension aside, however, the story being animated is dull. The film shows us all sorts of magic, but never the magic of a cohesive or engaging story.
After the arrest of would-be wizarding tyrant Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) in Fantastic Beasts and where to Find them, guess who escapes during a prisoner exchange. Now the hunt is on for both Grindelwald and the enigmatic young Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), who is seen as the key to Grindelwald’s plans. With British and American aurors on the trail, Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) sends Newt (Eddie Redmayne) to find Credence as well. But all the while, Grindelwald’s rhetoric of power fantasies and magical dominance over the muggle world seduces many.
It’s an easy-but-true, first-base criticism that this film is irrevocably torn between serving two storytelling impulses: the fantastic beasts, and the crimes of Grindelwald. From the title of the series to the tie-in toy line, there is an emphasis on empathetic magizoology. But this is constantly leavened by a dark streak that takes in baby death, and even worse, infanticide; “love potion” manipulation, and even worse, magical rape. Neither extreme of this wildly swinging pendulum amounts to anything satisfying.
A mystery structure has served the Harry Potter films well in the past, but in place of a functional narrative J.K. Rowling gives us tangled family histories and skeletons in the closet, which come to a head in what feels like ten minutes of backstory infodump with red herrings (those herrings being un-fantastic beasts). It feels painfully novelistic, Rowling still unused to the screenplay format.
The proliferation of characters is not particularly well handled by the screenplay. Newt is an intriguingly introverted lead, but only has the odd moment of charm or clarity. Tina (Katherine Waterston), the female lead of the last film, has next to nothing to do, and apparently can’t read a newspaper in a romantic subplot that wouldn’t sustain a sitcom subplot. Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), to be fair, is decent comic relief and has a couple good moments in the climax. Jude Law puts some of Richard Harris into his Dumbledore voice and the movie gains more of a pulse when he’s on screen. Grindelwald, looking like if Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet was electrocuted, leaves a middling impression when he should be punching a hole through the screen. By far my favorite character thread here is Queenie Goldstein’s (Alison Sudol); the movie does interesting things with her character that I won’t spoil here.
The biggest miscalculation lies with Credence. He was a relatively effective character in the previous movie, as his foster mother’s repression of his magic led to him turning into a metaphorical and menacing monster. Now that the entire narrative revolves around him in a “who are my real parents?” plot, he’s ironically way less compelling. Rowling might as well have watched the Rey’s parents arc from Star Wars: The Last Jedi and said, “Let’s do that, but wrong.” Stripped of specificity and personality, Credence becomes a MacGuffin.
The film is most effective in moments of little magic, like when one man is heavily windblown on a sidewalk and everyone else is unaffected, or when Queenie’s telepathy becomes a problem, or seeing the mother of all English basements. However, these grace moments are suffocated by room temperature decisions. Director David Yates plays a lot with POV and extreme close-ups, with not much skill or point. The opening setpiece aims for spectacle but lands on muddiness. Where’s the man who gave us such amazing imagery in the latter four Harry Potters?
Composer James Newton Howard’s main theme is appropriately elegant and haunting, but the rest of the score doesn’t stand out. He does pull out “Hedwig’s Theme” for one big moment of fanservice. Indeed, there’s a bunch of “call-forwards” to Harry Potter. My favorite is Leta Lestrange looking into the Hogwarts Great Hall that her descendent Bellatrix will later ransack. (And look out for the film being so apparently desperate for beast material that it reaches into the well to provide origins for a couple important Harry Potter beasts.)
This is a movie of grey cinematography, flat pacing, character-less characters, opaque incidents, and laborious reveals. It’s workmanlike when it should be wondrous, the product of a tired creative team. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is a house of cards, not necessarily collapsing but with just as much of a thin foundation. It’s a lifeless, borderline incoherent movie that asks a lot of the audience and gives almost nothing in return. 3/10.
Inasmuch as this film uses delaying tactics in favor of a third installment, I would suggest: Get fresh blood behind the camera, maybe have another writer mold Rowling’s worldbuilding into a stable screenplay, and don’t gloss over the intensely personal stakes between Dumbledore and Grindelwald. But maybe by committing to both beast showcases and apocalyptic political stakes, this series is already stuck with a losing formula.
At one point in Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer, the next-level weird character Martin (Barry Keoghan) suggests putting on his favorite movie for himself, his mother (Alicia Silverstone), and Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) to watch. You might reasonably assume the movie to be something like Salò, or Irréversible, but it turns out to be a delightful choice that happens to be one of my favorites too. But this is not a movie of comfort, where you take a sigh because you’ve avoided the bad thing headed your way. In this tale of a family man surgeon’s (Farrell) strange and disastrous mentorship of the son of a former patient (Keoghan), you can’t take a step but for the psychological minefield under your feet.
As the misfit Martin, Barry Keoghan gives a profoundly weird performance. He’s an uncanny valley unto himself, a superficially courteous youth with an unsettling presence. As the movie plays, the viewer wonders if this blank-faced, 21st Century Norman Bates is meant as a comment on mental health issues in some way, but Martin stands apart, in his own pocket universe. Granted, everything of human interaction in this film is off. People talk like automatons (somewhat in the manner of Lanthimos’ previous film The Lobster) and do that thing out of The Room where they switch subjects mid-breath with the imperceptible snap of a finger.
It takes a specific kind of ensemble to pull this off, and so this cast is filled with actors of daring. Colin Farrell, long since breaking out of the “Hollywood leading man” template. Nicole Kidman, who embraces art films, Oscar bait, and blockbusters. Raffey Cassidy, who in Tomorrowland played a literal robot that was much more human, all told. The chameleon Bill Camp. And Alicia Silverstone, who between this and Catfight is starting to make interesting choices.
From the opening shot of the film, meant to shock, it establishes a contract with the audience. The first shot prepares viewers for the many subtler, more insidious shocks that are in store. The sterilized production design makes the whole movie an operating theater of the macabre. And more than that, The Killing of a Sacred Deer returns to a more pagan humanity. There are allusions to Oedipus the King and Hammurabic justice. When Iphigenia comes up, it feels almost too obvious a sign that this contemporary setting is being visited by some stygian shit.
Speaking of signposting, maybe the constant eerie musical stings overplay the movie’s hand. And there is a bit of a tonal issue that comes up with regard to Martin. At first, the other characters warm to Martin and find him charming and personable. But after his true agenda is revealed, the sentiment morphs into “he’s always been weird” despite the other characters’ lack of prior suspicion. It makes the reality of the movie less hermetically sealed, but is overall just a blip in the immersion.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer traffics in grippingly odd dialogue scenes and visual framing, and features some primally upsetting imagery. As animated by Barry Keoghan, Martin’s inimitable strangeness makes him one of the best villains of 2017. You have to be on the film’s wavelength to be engaged with it, and it has the makings of a divisive but major work from Lanthimos. For me, this joins 2001: A Space Odyssey and Dune in a rarefied club of mesmeric movies.
EXT. AUSTRALIAN FARM. A helicopter lands, and LUTHER STICKELL disembarks. Walking a few paces, he steps in feces.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout and its predecessor Rogue Nation are so good, watching them is like going to your happy place. For all the tension they generate, they’re extraordinarily pleasant to watch. In stark contrast, Mission: Impossible 2 is the black sheep of the franchise for good reason, most often embarrassing rather than entertaining. I mean, this is a movie in which (see above) Luther steps in shit and says, “Shit”.
The Name’s Hunt… Ethan Hunt
The film takes quite a bit from the James Bond playbook, but in the most warmed-over, reheated way. There’s a romance of the week (atypical for the Ethan character), scenes highlighting local international festivities (Seville), and Hunt as not so much a skilled asset but a one-man army. There’s a sexy car chase that passes for 95-mph flirting –GoldenEye much? Nyah Nordoff-Hall (Thandie Newton) is a character with a lot of potential but becomes slightly edgy Bond girl eye candy. Because the central romance has to be established, the plot starts twice and walks the audience through stuff they’ve already seen after the movie’s done faffing around for the moment.
Romantic spinning of wheels aside, Mission 2 is a pretty inept spy movie. Rogue Nation and Fallout director Christopher McQuarrie has a rule that the maximum number of mask gags you can get away with in one movie is two. There are at least five here, which gets tedious fast. There’s even a five-minute stretch with two mask reveals! (As an interesting aside, the first two Mission movies show the complete unmasking gag in a single shot, while later films almost always cut at a transition point between the actors’ faces.)
But I can’t deny the goofy entertainment to be had at the climax. Take the amazing moment when Ethan and villain Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott) play chicken with motorcycles, then jump off and collide midair. A ridiculous one-on-one fight ensues, with each move more flamboyant than the last. That’s complete with slow motion flying kicks like this is Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. It’s bonkers; it’s entertaining; it’s not strictly speaking good. At least director John Woo gets his slow motion white dove in there! Even though in its grand entrance it’s made of painful CGI!
Try Hard with a Vengeance
In the opening moments of the movie, we hear the scientist Nekhorvich (Rade Šerbedžija) explain that every hero needs a great villain, in the context of a cure (Bellerophon) for a virus (Chimera). But the subtext is clear; the film itself is announcing a strong villain for Ethan Hunt. It introduces Sean Ambrose wearing a mask of Ethan, a tactic repeated later in the movie. Ambrose is former IMF, and in fact we witness his defection after the spy agency actually orders Ambrose to impersonate Ethan. Clearly Ambrose is intended as a classic foil, but for all of Dougray Scott’s predatory Scottish scenery chewing, Ambrose comes across as a damp squib.
There’s a built-in conflict in the backstory between Ethan and Ambrose, but the film does next to nothing with their former antagonism. John Woo’s movies often excel at depicting duos of driven, strong-willed, totemic men, so when they square off, horizontal in the air, each with guns pointed at the other, there are personal stakes. Ah Jong and Li Ying in The Killer, Tequila and Alan in Hard Boiled, Riley Hale and Vick Deakins in Broken Arrow, and Sean Archer and Castor Troy in Face/Off all fit this pattern. Ethan and Ambrose only stack up in the most perfunctory way. There’s no spark, no fire. And it doesn’t matter how many times the Nekhorvich clip is played (it’s a lot). Repeating the point doesn’t help your case.
(Side note: Mission 2 is famous for being the movie that cost Dougray Scott the role of Wolverine in X-Men. Scott was cast, but Mission overran and on top of that he was injured in a motorbike stunt. And Hugh Jackman became a star. What might have been.)
But the most garish element of Mission 2 is that this is such a bro-y movie, filled with baffling toxic masculinity. As Ambrose’s henchmen are scanning Nyah for bugs, one says, “She’s clean”, and the response is, “All cats are.” What in the living hell does that even mean??? Ethan’s team consists of himself, Luther (Ving Rhames), and pilot Billy Baird (John Polson). Billy, who sticks “mate” at the end of every sentence so you know he’s Australian, makes a leering joke about the emotionally abusive Ambrose’s kiss-first-and-ask-questions-later policy. IMF secretary Swanbeck (Anthony Hopkins) makes a sexist comment about women’s skills at lying. But the most utterly bizarre sequence comes between Ambrose and right-hand man Hugh Stamp (Richard Roxburgh). It’s a standard setup of the villain punishing his henchman. But then Ambrose gets Stamp in a vice grip and starts breathily monologuing about how “some of us have the burden of sex”, and at the moment of climax Ambrose says he’s “absolutely gagging for it” as he cuts off Stamp’s finger! I guess they were aiming for Frank Booth but they’ve landed on a fourteen-year-old’s idea of edgy sexuality.
When Nyah arrives at Ambrose’s house, she walks toward him in a dragged-out scene partially in slow motion, to the point where the viewer wonders out loud, “Will she ever get there?” The viewer can also wonder, “Will this movie ever get anywhere?”
The Silver Lining in the Sophomore Slump
The most spectacular part of the film is certainly the Utah free-climbing sequence. It’s quite a statement for the introduction for Ethan Hunt, even if the incongruous techno soundtrack doesn’t help. Above the sheer cliff face, an IMF helicopter shoots the mission (recorded on a sweet pair of shades) to Ethan in a rocket, then he throws the exploding sunglasses at the camera leading into the title sequence. That’s the type of self-conscious “cool” that I can get on the wavelength of.
And occasionally the high operatics of the film do take flight. During the showdown in Biocyte, composer Hans Zimmer thinks he’s scoring Gladiator. Similar beats in the score and more vocals by Lisa Gerrard help to elevate the material, at least for a few moments. Other than these fleeting strengths (plus the goofy entertainment value of the climax), it’s tough to pick out positive aspects of the movie. I guess it’s fun to see Cruise’s brother, William Mapother, as a henchman?
Should We Choose to Accept this?
In this sequel, the mission doesn’t seem very impossible. This feeling arises from a dull story. Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga of all people (writers of the rushed Star Trek Generations and the excellent Star Trek: First Contact) contributed a story that was scrapped when Woo joined the project; on the evidence of the final product, maybe their services should have been retained. Mission 2, with its overblown villain, hacky screenplay, bizarre sexual subtext, and flat pacing, is as dry as the Australian outback. It fits with the trend of 2000s blockbusters filmed in that country, like Superman Returns or Star Wars Episode 2: Attack of the Clones, and is of similar quality. Let’s just say that when the Mission: Impossible theme plays in this movie, it’s Limp Bizkit performing it. Do with that what you will.
In Blade Runner 2049, what could be the runtime of a whole other movie passes before original lead Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) comes into the story. Replicant blade runner K (Ryan Gosling) explores a petrified Las Vegas, and there Ford is, hanging out with his loyal dog just as in another 30+-years-on sequel. This isn’t a delaying tactic; 2049 doesn’t actually require knowledge of the original film to stand. There are callbacks and reprised characters, but the world created here is independently arresting. Denis Villeneuve’s direction, Roger Deakins’ cinematography, and Dennis Gassner’s production design make for a visually mesmeric movie. The leisurely but loaded pace gives time to appreciate the sheer craftsmanship on display. This is art installation as dystopian mystery film.
After a widespread technological “Blackout” is mitigated by the innovations of industrialist Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), newer replicant (read: android) models made by Wallace are designed to have less free will than older models. Obedient newer replicant K (Gosling) is a blade runner, ordered by his superiors to retire (read: kill) older models. But after evidence is found of a paradigm-shifting miracle in the form of biological replicant reproduction, what it means to be human is challenged.
For such a designed movie, 2049 gets a lot of mileage from the careful application of character. There are likable or at least engaging personalities even in this miserable and hazy future. Leading “man” K is ironically one of the least interesting, a bit of a cipher. His holographic girlfriend Joi, on the other hand, benefits from terrific pathos and a warm movie star performance from Ana de Armas. A standout scene finds Joi initiating “surrogate sex” with K, which takes a similar sequence from Spike Jonze’s her to a new level. As a hologram, Joi represents a science fiction construct and a vehicle to question consciousness, sentience, and the like, but it’s never done schematically. It’s all filtered through sympathy for this being. Similarly, K and Ana Stelline (Carla Juri) share a scene that’s essentially worldbuilding exposition, but it’s performed and written as tenderly human.
My favorite character has got to be Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), Wallace’s replicant enforcer/secretary. A weird, terrifying, sympathetic terminator, she’s exquisitely and precisely performed by Hoeks. Luv is a magnetic villain, murdering another character in an amazing moment of emotional brutality. The only strike against her is her association with boss Niander Wallace. A part written for David Bowie, Wallace is instead brought to life in an airless performance by Jared Leto. Leto has exactly one great line reading (“You do not know what pain is yet. You will learn.”). The rest of the character is space-case bullshit.
Apart from creepy CEOs, there are a lot of great supporting bits. Lennie James is bleakly funny, Robin Wright is a good hard-boiled presence (if quite mannered), Dave Bautista is nicely world-weary, the aforementioned Juri quietly impresses, and Edward James Olmos gets a cool cameo connecting to the first movie. Also returning, of course, is Harrison Ford as Deckard. (It’s quite the parlor trick, keeping Deckard’s status as either human or replicant ambiguous even at movie’s end.) Ford brings the emotion and intensity, but in no way does it feel like he’s playing the same character he did in the original Blade Runner. This is no reflection on Ford; there’s just nothing there in the original characterization.
The visuals are constantly gobsmacking, beautiful in their own smoggy way. Over and over, new flourishes get a reaction, whether it’s the vertiginous cityscape, the crazy shadows in Wallace’s pyramid, or the endless protein farms enveloping California’s fields. Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer’s score is striking, taking its synth-heavy cues from Vangelis’ original soundscape. The action cue “Sea Wall” is particularly pointed, as well as the poignant re-use of Vangelis’ “Tears in the Rain”, for another replicant’s soft expiration. However, the music is too high in the sometimes-smothering mix. What’s with the Oscar nomination for Sound Mixing?
Something the film isn’t getting any awards for is gender optics. The urban landscapes are strewn with projections and statues of naked women (slight shades of The NeverEnding Story), so clearly, this type of exploitation continues and evolves in 2049. You can see the thought process here; this is a dystopia, depiction ≠ endorsement, etc. But when replicants are your world’s second-class citizens, you don’t need another layer of that, and in fact, it only muddles the thematic point you’re making. If you still want the attack of the 50-foot women, fine – just have some artfully nude male holograms too. (And not to mention, one of Wallace’s scenes features a loaded moment that goes pretty darn far.)
My second viewing of Blade Runner 2049 has raised the film in my estimation. Like Avengers: Infinity War, there’s something to the idea of rewatching two-and-a-half hour movies on home video. 2049 is visually stunning with an (almost entirely) excellent cast. It also compares favorably to its legendary predecessor, with this late-coming follow-up more Children of Men than 2001: A Space Odyssey. 2049 is deliberately paced, which superficially might suggest iciness, but the film has a warm humanistic core fighting for heartbeats. Replicants do not have hearts, per se, but Blade Runner 2049 makes you wonder. A weak 9/10.
What more can be said about the original Star Wars? It’s a film so influential and beloved that the film industry and film fandom are still feeling the shockwave from its May 25, 1977 release. The first paragraph of its opening crawl has been adapted into a 2-hour-plus movie. Halfway glimpsed background characters have been turned into sought-after action figures. George Lucas’ tale of underdog rebels battling the evil Empire has spawned an empire of its own, but let’s return to the beginning.
“You Can Type this Shit, George, but You Can’t Say it”
I say beginning, but this is a movie that starts in the middle of a pitched space chase. No one-and-a-half-hour buildup to action; we are dropped in medias res into a star war. The situation is sketched quickly and efficiently. The Empire is an overwhelming dominant force; the Rebellion is skittering away on a little blockade runner.
Lucas has often dismissed the importance of dialogue in favor of visuals, and the film plays into that thesis at many points. When Darth Vader barks orders at his subordinates (“I want them alive!”), John Williams’ score violently crescendos, in the style of a silent movie. During the prison block escape, the dialogue is buried in the sound mix. Two of the most iconic scenes in the movie, the binary sunset and the throne room medal ceremony, lead with visuals and don’t bother with words. When the Imperial Star Destroyers chase the Millennium Falcon near Tatooine, the danger has already been set up by the opening shot.
Lucas’ framing is mostly classical, but filled with visual interest. On the flashier cinematic side of things, my favorite shot in the film is when the camera follows Princess Leia’s cell door closing down to the floor, tracks with an officer’s foot, and adjusts back to eye level.
While there is certainly some excellent dialogue in Lucas’ screenplay, sometimes his words do let the movie down. The most egregious example is his decision to add the Jabba the Hutt scene into the Special Edition, which tediously re-covers the ground from the previous Han/Greedo scene, occasionally using the same phrasing to make the same points (not to mention the awful visual gag of Han stepping on Jabba’s tail).
John Williams’ landmark score constantly complements the words and visuals, telling the story with a punchy, magical soundscape that oddly also sounds excitingly DIY. The magisterial main theme opens the curtains; the ambling Jawa theme fits their silly design perfectly; the Force theme is instantly iconic; the perhaps underused Leia theme provides contrast to all the bombast; the “TIE Fighter Attack” cue remains thrilling; the “Battle of Yavin” music is some of the best action film music ever; and “The Throne Room” is a perfect triumphant dénouement. And: “Binary Sunset”, end of.
“You Think a Princess and a Guy Like Me…?”
The cast of characters is painted in broad strokes, as archetypes. There is very little psychological complexity to them yet. But this works for the movie because of the spirit of universal adventure it embodies. Luke is the earnest underdog hero; Leia is the brash and savvy politician of action; Han is the insouciant scoundrel; Obi-Wan is the wise mentor; Vader is the black cloud of evil. Maybe the most complex characters are the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern-esque droids C-3PO and R2-D2, who show a whole range of cowardice, bravery, affection, and irritancy.
Vader and Tarkin are an excellent villainous double-act (which one is the film’s main villain…?), with an interesting dynamic between them. Peter Cushing brings a lot of smarm and charm to the role, with his delivery of “you’re far too trusting” being a particular classic. At the time, Lucas even felt that Vader was a weak villain without a Tarkin-type figure to play off of.
Another iconic double-act is Han and Chewbacca. Chewbacca takes the idea of the loyal dog to a fantastical extreme, where he becomes an equal partner. But how much is this true in-universe? After hiding in the smuggling compartments, Han playfully fuzzes up Chewbacca’s head; in a deleted cantina scene, Han strokes Chewbacca under the chin exactly in the manner of a dog. Later films would never literalize the Chewbacca-as-dog dynamic like this again, an indication of this film very much in the process of figuring things out.
Not to mention the crazy-in-retrospect, right there on screen love triangle element between Luke, Leia, and Han, which course-corrects later. Lucas not only categorically saw Luke and Leia as love interest characters at this point, he’s also on record saying that he wanted Leia to “run off with” Chewbacca and that he “wouldn’t mind” killing Leia off. That course correction couldn’t come too soon.
Approaching Tosche Station
A key element of Star Wars, and especially this first movie, is silliness. That’s both intentional screwball humor, and unintentional kitsch. Why do these Imperial officers keep baiting and egging on Vader when he can choke them with his mind? What did Luke hope to accomplish by firing on the sheer face of the Death Star? And most pressing of all, is the VT-16 really quite a thing to see?
Given the controlled chaos of the production (at one point, the Sandcrawler was mistaken for a new type of tank and the movie almost started an international incident), the number of continuity errors is understandable. Greedo is seen walking around after he’s already been killed. A lot of the ADR on the Imperial officers is painfully obvious. At one point Vader’s dialogue and gestures are out of sync. There’s the amazing moment of the stormtrooper bumping his head. You can see David Prowse’s eye a couple times when Vader’s in his TIE Advanced.
But really striking in retrospect are the anachronisms. Luke says there’s nothing C-3PO can do for him “unless you can alter time, speed up the harvest, or teleport me off this rock.” Right there you have references to time travel and teleportation, two ideas that have never made it into the Star Wars mythology (Rebels’ World Between Worlds notwithstanding). If Luke has a concept of them, does the galaxy have its own version of science fiction?
Naturally, there are even more anachronisms at a script and draft level, but it’s amusing to look back on them. Vader threatens Leia with, “You will come to know such suffering as only the Master of the Bogan Force can provide…” And check out this little speech from Obi-Wan about Leia:
She’s part of the royal family. They won’t get any information from her… She knows the art of mind control… She’s a swan sensana.
That died a death on the way to the screen, but this description of her mental power does remind me of the bene gesserit from Frank Herbert’s Dune. All the references to spice must also be allusions to Dune, and the concept of a messiah from that novel also finds its way to Lucas’ epigraph on the script: “… and in the time of greatest despair, there shall come a savior, and he shall be known as The Son of the Suns. – Journal of the Whills, 3:127”. Suffice to say, we could have had a very different Star Wars saga.
The First Step into a Larger World
George Lucas did revise well, and came out with a screenplay packed with amazing (and funny) lines. “I find your lack of faith disturbing.” “I’ll be careful.” “You’ll be dead!” For all that the power of the binary sunset scene is wordless, the last time I watched the movie, Owen and Beru’s buildup to it (“he has too much of his father in him”) made me cry while the sunset itself did not. The film, like many first installments, is a marvel of scope if not scale. The Empire Strikes Back probably beats it on a scene-to-scene basis, but the original Star Wars wins out through structural purity. Watching the film now, in light of everything that’s happened with the franchise in the forty-one years since, there’s the sense that Star Wars has outgrown this. The simplicity of the film is pure, but also singular, and not sustainable for an evolving series. But no matter what, the franchise will never stop honoring it. The original Star Wars truly was the first step into a larger world.
For an actor, “business” in the scene gives the performer something physical to do to complement their acting, whether verbal or nonverbal. For most people, this is something like fiddling with a water bottle, or shuffling through papers. For Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible – Fallout, he has to act as Ethan Hunt while also… for real, solo flying a helicopter. As you do. It’s a fitting act for this lead character, as in the two latest Mission movies writer-director Christopher McQuarrie has weaponized Hunt’s “main character powers” as a key element of the story. Hunt’s success is textually and metatextually inevitable, but a great strength of Fallout is that it constantly generates incredible suspense for this impossible hero. Accomplishing this unlikely task, Fallout is another exceptional entry in perhaps our greatest modern action series.
When “the Apostles” of incarcerated anarchist Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) threaten the world with nuclear attack, Ethan Hunt and his IMF crew (Ving Rhames’ Luther Stickell and Simon Pegg’s Benji Dunn) must prevent catastrophe. But with the CIA insisting on the imposing agent August Walker’s (Henry Cavill) involvement, and Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) still in the spy game, the chessboard is harder than ever to master.
To keep things fresh, Fallout trades in a variety of action scenes, from vehicular chases to foot chases to brawls. There’s a fantastic standout fight in a bathroom that has shades of The Raid, and features what others have referred to as Walker reloading his arms for a round of punches. But there are two stunning IMAX-format showstopper sequences that steal the spotlight: the HALO jump, and the helicopter chase.
The HALO jump required Cruise to perform it nearly 100 times, reaching speeds of 200 mph. After scaling the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Ghost Protocol, Cruise here jumps out of a plane that’s over 100 times higher. (In the film the jump is above Paris, but it was filmed in Abu Dhabi; you can see the original ground-level location in the trailer.) The level of verisimilitude and pure human-in-the-void unease is only comparable to the space walk sequences from 2001: A Space Odyssey, but of course filmed with palpable realism. The helicopter sequence required Cruise to, you know, learn how to fly one, and to hairpin specifications. Visually, the scene resembles Go Pro footage; it’s that immersively real.
Even apart from these Buster-Keaton-on-a-mission accomplishments, Cruise gives a movie star performance. There are scenes where Ethan is acting, and Cruise’s intensity is enough to fool even the audience. There’s even a classic Jerry Maguire-esque moment of total befuddlement, plus an amusing showcase for the famous “Tom Cruise run”. And yes, the stunt that broke Cruise’s ankle is in the finished film.
Plot-wise, McQuarrie weaves a tangled web of standard spy movie material as a framework. But on a moment-to-moment basis, he and editor Eddie Hamilton generate a huge amount of tension. The buildup is just as precious to the movie as the relief of tension, whether it’s a flash of brutal violence or an aggressive kiss. The film delights in reversals. Not the expected espionage story double-crosses, but just smart cinematic storytelling. Scenes are set up a certain way, then subverted and flipped in a different direction (one early example really had me convinced it was steering the film in a certain direction then pulls the rug out). Moments from the trailer that you take at face value are given unexpected twists in the film. McQuarrie just knows the alchemy of movies; he speaks the language.
A while back, when Tom Cruise was attached to The Man from U.N.C.L.E. as Napoleon Solo, Henry Cavill auditioned for Ilya Kuryakin and didn’t get the job because he looked too much like Cruise. Now, Cruise and Cavill are an electric double-act in Fallout, with Walker as a brick-muscled foil for Hunt. Ilsa Faust’s wild card status is preserved, while still respecting the character (though she’s maybe underused). Luther and Benji are excellent sidekicks, Solomon Lane works as a villain on the back foot, and Vanessa Kirby as “the White Widow” brings an amused-by-it-all quality to her scoundrel character, along with a connection going back to the first Mission: Impossible. The only real off moment for me comes in an emotional scene between Luther and Ilsa, which starts off great, but ends up slightly baffling.
Fallout resoundingly closes another chapter in this storied action franchise. Through smart filmmaking that stokes both suspense and payoff, a likable ensemble, and another obstacle course for the human ragdoll Ethan Hunt, the sixth Mission: Impossible (M:I 6, which does factor in the agency MI6) chooses to accept its mission and delivers the goods. One wonders how long Thomas Cruise Mapother IV, now 56 years of ago, can continue topping himself. But for now, you will leave the theater exhilarated, exhausted, exquisitely tense, and extremely impressed. A strong 9/10.