The MCU is, among other things, an action franchise, so it follows that fighting words lead to literal fighting. An on-screen fight is action and acceleration, yes, but here’s the thing: great fights are also storytelling. Revealing character through action; audience investment in the conflict beyond pitting avatars for good and evil against each other; dialogue surrounding a fight giving it greater impact. These factors, in conjunction with dynamic choreography, elevate exceptional examples of the form. But equally, some fights’ pendulums swing more one way than others and I can’t expect every fight to develop character, emotion, and spectacle. We’re concerned here with one-on-one fights specifically, not two-on-ones or group skirmishes, which could have their own list. ***Full spoilers for all MCU movies through Avengers: Endgame***.
A couple honorable mentions: A fight that’s good but just too short for serious consideration is Sam Wilson (Falcon) vs. The Winter Soldier, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. A fight that’s good but just too one-sided for serious consideration is Clint Barton (Hawkeye) vs. Vision, Captain America: Civil War.
10) Tony Stark (Iron Man) vs. Thor, The Avengers
This is one of the premier examples of the “what if two superheroes fought?” mode of one-on-one fights (see also, Scott Lang vs. Sam Wilson in Ant-Man). It’s a fun balance of powerset showcasing and old-fashioned wrassling. Also not the last time a headbutt is used for a mid-fight laugh (see Thanos trying to headbutt Carol in Avengers: Endgame). What taints this fight for me is that it is extremely lacking in the character department. Tony and Thor are fighting for pretty specious reasons, and when Steve Rogers stops the fight, Thor brings Mjolnir down on him. If that shield wasn’t made of vibranium, Steve would be dead – and as the movie goes on, that doesn’t seem to faze anyone.
9) T’Challa vs. N’Jadaka, Black Panther
A ferociously if chaotically choreographed fight, this one scores very high in the emotional stakes department. The fight is solid, but it’s elevated by some quality pre-fight trash-talk from N’Jadaka/Erik Stevens/Killmonger (though not as excellent an example of the form as M’Baku’s monologue before the movie’s other challenge fight), and the operatic drama at play here. The rise and fall of Kings, made violently intimate. The challenge fights in Black Panther stand out because, by design, they’re between depowered/unpowered people who are vulnerably attired (read: shirtless). The blade cuts that T’Challa and N’Jadaka get on each other are, to a PG-13 extent, visceral (not like when Clint Barton slashes Akihiko in Endgame and you can’t see blood from the wound), but the true star of the show is Michael B. Jordan’s dominating performance. “Is this your King?”
Favorite moment: N’Jadaka calling would-be-intervener Zuri Uncle James as he kills him.
8) Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow) vs. Clint Barton (Hawkeye), Avengers: Endgame
This is a brief one, but as the culmination of one of the MCU’s strongest bonds of friendship, every move is intensely emotional. Both Natasha and Clint are fighting to sacrifice themselves, which is almost a farcical setup but in practice becomes heart wrenching. And while this is a compact fight, it nonetheless briefly displays each character’s powerset. Natasha uses her stingers and grappling hook. Clint uses his bow and arrow; the only thing missing is his sword. And the storytelling acrobatics going on here show that by successfully sacrificing herself, Natasha wins this fight.
7) Thor vs. The Hulk, Thor: Ragnarok
The build-up might be this fight’s biggest strength and weakness. Big event status, filmed in IMAX, biggest crowd since the Quidditch world cup, sweeping score flourishes from Mark Mothersbaugh, the famous “friend from work” line. The hype is certainly there, if anything a little overdone. In the fight’s favor are a cartoonish quality, and the spectacle of the two most powerful original Avengers wielding comically oversized weapons and throwing each other across an arena. Adding flavor is Loki’s range of emotions watching the proceedings. The fight is fun but long, and some X factor is missing to really take it to the next level.
Favorite moment: The Avengers: Age of Ultron callback, complete with Brian Tyler’s score, with Thor trying to get Bruce Banner to emerge with the “sun’s gettin’ real low” lullaby.
6) Tony Stark (Iron Man) vs. Thanos, Avengers: Infinity War
Tony makes full use of the bleeding-edge nanotechnology in his Mark 50 suit, all for a drop of blood. With pile drivers, shields, and rockets, Tony’s full arsenal proves insufficient to stop Thanos. The choreography introduces us to all kinds of new Iron Man suit functions but it’s all done quite flowingly. There are also shades of Iron Man 3 when the nanotech starts failing and Tony is left painfully vulnerable with the suit only partially covering his body. After a brutal stabbing by Thanos, Tony is saved by Strange and the rest is history.
5) Stephen Strange (Doctor Strange) vs. Thanos, Avengers: Infinity War
A full-on wizards’ duel: Strange’s magic vs. Thanos’ infinity stone shenanigans. The fight is low on character but high on innovation. Doctor Strange manifesting additional arms and creating multiple versions of himself is great. I like the little touches, like when Thanos uses the Reality Stone to unnaturally collapse the distance between him and Strange. (When you think about it, that’s ironically the type of reality manipulation Kaecilius and the Ancient One can do in the Doctor Strange film, because they take power from the Dark Dimension.) It’s just a magic-based fight that takes full advantage of that.
Favorite moment: Thanos uses the Space Stone to send a Mirror Dimension shard vortex toward Strange and he turns it into butterflies.
4) Wanda Maximoff vs. Thanos, Avengers: Endgame
A delightful fight. Wanda starts by telekinetically throwing big chunks of debris, and after some energy-assisted hand-to-hand fighting (like when she fought Proxima Midnight in Infinity War), she gets Thanos in a really tight bind that’s only broken when his ship starts bombarding the battlefield. While not one-sided, she was definitely winning. This calls back to Infinity War when Wanda, with one hand, could hold back a Thanos wielding five infinity stones. Also, I realize that Wanda kind of rules at one-liners. Here, of course, “You took everything from me” and “You will”. After losing her brother, Wanda rips out Ultron’s heart and says, “It felt like that”. To Vision, “I can’t control their fear. Only my own.” To Tony, “You locked me in my room”. To Clint, “You were pulling your punches.” The only exception, which becomes comical in contrast to the others, is when she says to Corvus Glaive, simply, “Hands off”. Anyways, this is a comic-book-y fight that keeps the momentum of the Battle of Earth going beautifully.
Favorite moment: Wanda’s little flicking gesture to start dismantling Thanos’ armor.
3) Steve Rogers (Captain America) vs. Thanos, Avengers: Endgame
Speaking of that Battle of Earth… It begins on the big applause moment. Steve summons Mjolnir, and the crowd goes wild (reminiscent of Rey summoning the lightsaber in Star Wars: The Force Awakens). Earlier during the three-on-one fight against Thanos, Steve uses the same flying kick he used to take down Batroc in Winter Soldier. But armed with Mjolnir and his vibranium shield, his powerset changes; in rapid succession, he uses almost every conceivable God of Thunder move with Mjolnir in a marvel of semi-digital choreography. You get lightning strikes, flying uppercuts, throwing the hammer into the shield for maximum sonic disruption. The fight must also account for the height difference between the two characters (like how Thor uses Mjolnir against the very tall Surtur in Thor: Ragnarok), so there’s an extra layer of creative choreography there. And you can’t beat the emotional payoff, as Thanos breaks the shield, leading directly into the one man vs. an army shot, and the portals sequence. All in all, it’s the crowd-pleaser that keeps on giving.
2) Steve Rogers vs. The Winter Soldier, Captain America: The Winter Soldier
On a pure choreography level, the best traditional one-on-one fight in the MCU. The movement is beautiful and logical; the knife flips, the resounding punctuation of metal arm-on-shield. Both evenly-matched combatants get more tired as it goes on, until the fight demonstrates that it’s no slouch in the character department either, with the big unmasking moment. Bucky is alive, Steve is paralyzed (a trait that continues in Civil War and Endgame), and his friends Sam and Natasha bail him out of the fight.
Favorite moment: Steve’s flying knee kick of the Winter Soldier into the side of the van.
1) Gamora vs. Nebula, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Not a traditional fight, to be sure, but an absolutely killer landmark of character and emotion for one of the key relationships in the MCU. This is action as delivery system for therapy. In this particular face-off on Ego’s Planet, something mysterious happens where the CGI, and the very exaggerated, external things the two sisters are doing become the perfect embodiment of what they’re feeling. When Nebula jaggedly crashes her ship through the cave just to desperately close the distance between her and her hated sibling, all those pixels are in service of something real. When Gamora fires the absurdly large mounted gun, it’s a metaphor for what people feel like they want to do to their family members in moments of frustration. The audience feels this on a primal level. The actual fisticuffs are brief, but this family squabble stands as a terrific integration of action and character work.
When does a trilogy become a quadrilogy? It’s only clear with the benefit of hindsight that Toy Story 3 felt felt like such definitive closure because the audience, especially those who grew up with the movies over 15 years, identified so intensely with Andy. As Andy gave away the toys (or characters), which meant so much to him, the audience was put squarely in his position for maximum emotional effect. But this is to discount the toys. Toy Story 4 asks itself and successfully answers the question, “How can Woody, the ultimate dutiful toy, evolve?” When does a trilogy become a quadrilogy? When there’s more story to tell. And why, besides a sweet box office haul, Toy Story 4? Because the characters need it.
Longtime Toyheads may be disappointed that Buzz Lightyear, Jessie, Hamm, and the gang are relatively sidelined in this film. For me, it’s the sign of a focused movie, and much preferable to the How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World move of giving every tertiary comic character an arc. It also leaves room for shiny new and returning toys!
The delightful Duke Caboom is given a tragicomic backstory worthy of Sergeant Calhoun from Wreck-it Ralph. Gabby Gabby is already one of the great Disney villains (with one major caveat it would be a spoiler to discuss). Bunny and Ducky get a nice running joke that plays with the rules of the Toy Story world. Bo Peep returns after a one-movie absence, with a new streetwise characterization and, with the benefit of 2019 animation, gorgeous porcelain detailing.
And then there’s Forky. Made out of a spork, pipe cleaners, googly eyes, and not much else, this brilliant addition to the cast gives a new perspective on the weird rules of what it means to be a child’s toy, or indeed, alive as a toy. Caught in an identity crisis between spork and toy, Forky longs to be thrown away. In this quite subversive move, we remember the harrowing furnace sequence in Toy Story 3, and realize quite explicitly that Forky wants to die like that.
It might even be said that for those still unconvinced by a fourth Toy Story, Forky is an avatar for the whole movie. He doesn’t understand the point of his existence – he constantly feels the pull to the trash can, like a rejected story idea in the writers’ room – and ultimately finds self-worth, understanding, peace, and purpose.
And what Toy Story 4 successfully plays out is a movie with a small scale, but apocalyptically high stakes for the characters. Most of the movie takes place in one antique store, and across the street, in a seasonal carnival. But the characters want what they want with every plastic fiber of their being, and wrestle with existential crises as well as external ones. And you will reward the film with tears for it. I’m not super-duper familiar with Toy Story. I like the movies, I grew up with it to an extent, but I don’t have nostalgia for it baked into me. Toy Story 4 emotionally flattened me, so just imagine what it’ll do for people with a deep love for this series. Why Toy Story 4? Because despite what Woody says to Bo Peep, you can teach an old toy new tricks.
P.S.: I appreciate the cameo of a couple late 1970s Kenner Star Wars figures. There’s an Obi-Wan Kenobi, and I believe a Greedo – though because I just got a glimpse, it could be Ponda Baba/Walrus Man.
Three Disney live-action remakes in a year (four if you count a Maleficent sequel) is insane. It goes beyond saturating the market into knocking movies over in turn like nine-figure budgeted dominoes. But when they’re as much of a blast as Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin, you won’t hear a complaint from me. With the energy and visual appeal of Bollywood, this remake is, relatively minor flaws aside, a great two hours at the movie theater.
In the fictional kingdom of Agrabah, Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) grapples with political reality. Street rat Aladdin (Mena Massoud) lives theft-to-theft. And Grand Vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) puts into motion a plan to further his grand designs of warmongering ambition, a plan that ensnares Aladdin, whose purity is put to the test when a 10,000-year-old Genie (Will Smith) has three wishes to grant.
Having recently rewatched the animated 1992 original, I find this remake narratively and visually distinct enough never to feel like a rehash. New handmaiden character. Fairy tale politics. More layers of clothing for Aladdin. (Or just, you know, layers at all.) The standout characters prove to be Jasmine and wicked Jafar. The villain is played naturalistically, and Kenzari demonstrates a strong threatening screen presence even, and maybe especially, when perfectly calm. As Jasmine, Naomi Scott simply gives a movie star performance, charismatic and commanding.
When disguised in the bazaar, Jasmine gets in trouble with the law for giving bread to starving children without thinking of the money to pay for it. One thread in recent depictions of female heroes on screen is that there is a positive power in naïveté. It’s in Wonder Woman convinced in her thinking that World War I is caused only by a mad god’s manipulations and not the evil that men do. It’s in Ilsa Faust having the crazy idea that agents of allied nations are supposed to help each other out. And it’s in Jasmine putting her subjects first and envisioning a gender-blind monarchy. These are powerful character choices because they give glimpses of a more idealistic world. In this industry of escapism, this is a very cinematic thing to do. A whole new world indeed.
And as a fleet-footed musical, what fine escapism Aladdin is. Aside from a couple weird Guy Ritchie-an speed-ramping moments, “One Jump Ahead” really pops on screen. (Though Ritchie can’t help one gratuitous switcheroo flashback sequence like in The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) The soaring “Arabian Nights” is used not just to introduce Agrabah, but the main cast of characters. The new song “Speechless”, while not for lack of trying, is transparently not of a piece with the original batch of songs. But I’m always here for new songs in these classic musicals, and this one does its job efficiently and emotionally as a power anthem for Jasmine.
Similar to how “Be Our Guest” is my least favorite sequence in the Beauty and the Beast remake, “Friend Like Me” is my least favorite here. Maybe it’s because both numbers trade in show-off-y visual jazz that renders (no pun intended) the line between animation and CGI spectacle almost non-existent. Throwing digital confetti all over the place is self-defeating when the whole remit of the movie is to play more realistic.
Hence both Beauty and Aladdin running the same play from the remake playbook of turning each Princess’ father character (Kevin Kline’s Maurice for Belle, Navid Negahban’s Sultan for Jasmine) from a cartoon buffoon to a dignified person. Another entry from that realism playbook: The “Prince Ali” song not continuing until the Sultan taps along to it is reminiscent of the punters struggling with asynchronous clapping in Beauty’s “Gaston” number. “A Whole New World” is sonically aces, but visually, that drive for realism feeds into a bit of a conservative imagination. No magic carpet trip to China here.
But while that sequence’s visuals aren’t the most adventurous, one of the chief pleasures of this film is the bright visual scheme – Bollywood-inspired costume and production design is a fresh take for a Disney project, and they’re a pleasure to behold. CGI blue Genie still looks… off, but not in a way that’s particularly bothersome. Any minor awkward choices are overwhelming by all the breezily entertaining ones, and that does characterize this movie. With engaging characters and music, strong production design, and the warmth of a fairy tale, Aladdin proves that cash grabs are not mutually exclusive with genuine quality. A strong 7/10.
“A hostile alien army came charging through a hole in space. We’re standing 300 feet below it. We’re the Avengers. We can bust arms dealers all the livelong day, but that up there? That’s the Endgame.”
So many superhero narratives find villains as the proactive ones, enacting plots and schemes to attain a goal that the heroes must stop. But after losing in Avengers: Infinity War despite viewers thinking so desperately that they’re right, the Avengers must finally live up to their name. And indeed, Infinity War was structured as the villainous Thanos’ movie in a way that Avengers: Endgame simply isn’t. It’s the beloved heroes’ time to shine, because for some of them, we may never see them again.
“… If we can’t protect the world, you can be damn sure we’ll avenge it.”
At great personal sacrifice, Thanos (Josh Brolin) succeeded in using the six Infinity Stones to cull half of all life in the universe. Now, do what’s left of the Avengers move on, or attempt a Hail Mary play to save the fallen? Their only chance lies in a daring “time heist”; but not all the time traveling heroes were always on the virtuous side…
Avengers: Endgame is structurally interesting. Concomitant with its three-hour runtime, it has a very clearly demarcated three-act structure, almost to the point of containing three discrete but linked movies. Before Act One proper kicks off, just the first 15 minutes feels remarkably distinct from the rest of the film, playing out like its own compact “traditional” Avengers movie, before things take a sharp left turn. Act One is a quiet, mournful, and wryly convivial gathering of the team. Act Two is time travel hijinks. Act Three is a Lord of the Rings-scale battle followed by Return of the King-scale denouements.
Act Two is the weakest by the hair, while still filled with wonderful touches and featuring a treatment of time travel that seems to carry more weight than one might expect. By emphasizing that when you’re in the past, the stakes are just as high as when centered in your native present, the time travel aspect has more narrative gravity than a jokey gimmick. That being said, this Russian nesting doll of a sequence contains tons of deep-cut references and surprise returning characters (for the first time in the MCU, one previously exclusive to TV) that detail-oriented fans will appreciate.
In this third of the film, Endgame pokes fun at previous MCU movies in clever and subtle ways, like calling out how the Avengers are “posing up a storm” just to intimidate a villain, or how a character seems so much cooler from within their own cinematic POV than on the outside looking in. But best of all is a truly hilarious sequence where the Avengers have to study up on Infinity Stones and their intertwining history with previous movies, which puts these characters in the position of MCU viewers trying to make sense of the minutiae of the cinematic universe over Chinese takeout.
One of the great things about the MCU as a serialized story is that the characters change over time. And in a genius move on the part of screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, this is made explicitly part of the plot through Nebula’s (Karen Gillan) character. The heightened dramatization of her inner conflict and growth makes her my favorite character in Endgame.
But the film services its ensemble remarkably well. There are satisfying payoffs to ten-year character arcs and a very sci-fi-TV-series-finale approach to showing familiar characters in unfamiliar situations in a less-than-ideal future. For example, the direction taken with Thor has to be seen to be reckoned with or believed, but it’s clear that Chris Hemsworth’s desire to lean into the character’s comedic stylings has been honored. I won’t spoil which characters are given the most definitive closure, but I find the standout performances in the movie to be Robert Downey Jr. (Tony Stark), Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff), Karen Gillan (Nebula), and Jeremy Renner (Clint Barton). The secret to the MCU’s success is the character work, and these performances have a particular dynamism here.
I appreciate composer Alan Silvestri’s deployment of established leitmotifs, including his own Captain America theme and Christophe Beck’s Ant-Man theme. The time heist score deftly weaves in Doctor Strange cues just to aurally key into the temporal nature of the shenanigans, even adapting it to decade-appropriate twists. But most importantly, Silvestri’s understated but sweeping music effectively underscores moments of great sensitivity, evoking the same emotional texture he brought to such films as Back to the Future and (though I’m not a fan) Forrest Gump.
Part of the journey is the end, and part of it is the surprise. Yes, at least one familiar character dies. And when they do, another character delivers a final line to them that is an absolutely perfect fit. Avengers: Endgame is filled with moments so warm it’s like being wrapped in a blanket, moments so heart-rending it’s emotionally exhausting, and moments so fist-pumping you’ll get carpal tunnel. All in all, it brings more than satisfying closure to Marvel’s unprecedented era of quality genre storytelling. The first time I saw it I held a couple minor reservations, but the second time it landed even better. I wouldn’t have gone so high at first, but: 10/10.
P.S.:**“DON’T SPOIL THE ENDGAME” SPOILER WARNING**
After Infinity War’s Natasha/Okoye/Wanda vs. Proxima Midnight fight, Endgame tops it with a beautiful moment highlighting the MCU’s female heroes. It’s especially appreciated after killing off Natasha. That larger battle sequence embraces more “comic book-y” imagery, including the unforgettable shot of Steve Rogers facing down Thanos’ entire army, Carol Danvers’ look, and Wanda Maximoff at the most “Scarlet Witch” she’s ever been. Wanda going toe-to-toe with Thanos is a definite highlight of the movie for me.
For those familiar with the lightsaber duel in Star Wars: The Force Awakens… In the spectacular one-on-one fight between Steve Rogers and Thanos, Mjölnir is summoned to Steve’s hand like Luke’s lightsaber is summoned to Rey’s hand. And, somewhat similar to Kylo Ren punching himself in his open wound to bleed out, Steve aggressively fastens his shield strap over an open wound. He’s taking the best of both worlds!
Notice how many characters are motivated by love for a daughter… Clint and Laura Barton; Scott Lang; Tony Stark and Pepper Potts; and of course, Thanos himself.
In the series finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, we see a montage of young women standing up to abusers, challenges on the sporting green, and other trials, as the power of the Slayers is distributed across the world. There’s a similar montage in Captain Marvel, except at different stages of one woman’s life, as she picks herself up after a fall. It’s an empowerment sequence that worked in Buffy, and works here, in a solid superhero movie that seems to point the way forward for the Marvel Cinematic Universe after the closure of Avengers: Endgame.
Under the stern command of Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), amnesiac Kree operative Vers (Brie Larson) hunts the shape-shifting Skrulls, led by the mysterious Talos (Ben Mendelsohn). But after a mission goes south, Vers ends up on Planet C-53 (to us, Earth) in 1995. Vers learns that she had a life on Earth as United States Air Force pilot Carol Danvers alongside wing-woman Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), and begins to recontextualize not only her life, but also the war she has been a blunt instrument in.
Captain Marvel feels like a touchstone for the MCU post-Endgame. Slower, quieter, not without bombast, balanced between the weird and the grounded, doing something with the villain that’s pretty new to the MCU’s bag of storytelling tricks. There are vital sequences in the film that seem to have taken notes from Avengers: Age of Ultron’s lush and character-building Barton farm scenes (ironic given that Marvel Studios considered cutting the farm from that film).
Appropriately for a relatively unshowy movie, Brie Larson gives an appreciably subtle performance, doing a lot with micro-expressions to show Carol’s confidence, dry humor, and drive for self-discovery. That’s what happens when you cast an Oscar winner as your lead superhero. The film traces a well-thought-out arc for Carol regarding the source of her superpowers. The Kree’s Supreme Intelligence and Starforce urge her toward the unemotional, but it’s one of those Equilibrium situations where the people telling you to not show emotion are hypocrites well versed in anger and condescension.
The film’s approach to an origin story is novel, but may put off some viewers. Early on there’s a lengthy scrub through Carol’s fractured memories that’s purposefully disorienting, yet moored to Carol’s point of view. If directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck had chosen to film the story as a traditional origin in chronological order, this sequence is like taking all that and putting it in a blender. This choice to show Carol’s life on Earth only from a remove results in Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening), a major mentor figure in Carol’s life, never registering as a fully realized presence in the movie. But on the other hand, it is exactly this approach that enters Captain Marvel’s most powerful moment, the montage of Carol throughout her life standing in unison, into the cinematic vocabulary of the movie.
For much of the film Carol is accompanied by the very welcome mid-1990s Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), whose performance is augmented by near-flawless de-aging technology. The de-aging on Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) isn’t as seamless. Maybe it’s the hair? A couple standouts in the cast are Lashana Lynch, who really tugs on the heartstrings in one of the movie’s best scenes, and Ben Mendelsohn. Reunited with his Mississippi Grind directors, Mendelsohn has fun playing with his eternal typecasting as middle management villains (Rogue One, Exodus: Gods and Kings, Robin Hood) and suited baddies (Ready Player One). There’s a great little moment when Korath (Djimon Hounsou), years before appearing as a henchman in Guardians of the Galaxy, is given one line for the briefest but most efficient of insights into his psychology. Jude Law’s rather meat-headed Yon-Rogg doesn’t make much of an impression, however.
Composer Pinar Toprak’s Captain Marvel theme, like “Fanfare for the Common Man” (or Woman, as the case may be), uses majestic wide intervals to create a sense of dramatic rising that doesn’t resolve. This fits the story of Carol learning to embrace the full range of her powers. (This constant rising feeling is also found in Christophe Beck’s Wasp theme, another leitmotif for a female MCU superhero.) The rest of the score is at its most ostentatious when it deploys standard space-age synthesizers for Kree-relevant flourishes. Sanja Milkovic Hays’ costume design, of course taking a cue from the comics, lands a bull’s-eye with the red, blue, and gold Captain Marvel costume, which looks terrific on screen.
Captain Marvel is a Marvel movie in a lower key, entertaining and with solid emotional bedrock. It doesn’t use its mid-1990s setting as a gimmick (but look for a key use of a certain grunge classic), centering on the quiet journey of discovery that unlocks the full potential of Carol Danvers’ powers. While not reaching the heights of top-tier films in the MCU, Captain Marvel decisively points the way forward for a cinematic universe that needs room to grow after infinitely scaled crossovers. 7/10.
At the denouement of M. Night Shyamalan’s Split, when James Newton Howard’s Unbreakable theme ushered in a cameo from that earlier film’s lead character, jaws were dropped. “Split is a secret Unbreakable sequel!” people said. More accurately Split is a secret spinoff, and now Glass’ task is to sequelize two very different movies. The somewhat admirable and somewhat mediocre Glass goes in an odd direction, but it’s that very oddness that makes it an interesting auteur artifact.
Since Glass makes very few concessions for those who haven’t seen the previous two movies: David Dunn (Bruce Willis, better in his other recent vigilante movie Death Wish) is a street-level super-strong righter of wrongs (weakness: water), Elijah Price/Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson) is a mastermind supervillain (weakness: brittle bones), and Kevin Wendell Crumb/The Horde/The Beast (James McAvoy) flits between 24 personalities plus one brutal animal-human hybrid (weakness: the invocation of his birth name). All three larger-than-life figures end up institutionalized where Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson, who will play another mental health professional of questionable competence in a Nurse Ratched TV show) tries to rationalize all of their fantastical skillsets.
At the end of Psycho, there’s a commonly criticized scene of a psychologist laying out in prosaic English his diagnosis of Norman Bates, making plain text what was shadowy subtext before. In his screenplays, Shyamalan seems to love to adhere to this super-schematic device of play-by-play commentary and explication. In Split, Betty Buckley’s character explained at length Crumb’s disorder, and here in Glass, Dr. Staple does much the same (with the occasional leaden clunker of a line). There’s a long scene of Staple debunking each character’s extraordinary abilities that at first feels agonizingly self-defeating until it becomes clear that this is exactly the point.
When he made Unbreakable in 2000, Shyamalan’s “grounded superhero movie” stood out. But in 2019, after Super, Kick-Ass, so many “realistic” takes on superhero conventions, and even riffs on the device of living within a comic book, is Glass late to the party? In ways that I can’t discuss without spoilers, Shyamalan doubles down on the tension between superhero existence and mundane reality; he sets Glass in a world that willfully bends superheroes into the contours of “the real world”. His powered characters are animated by genre, but face the existential threat of realism.
Glass is a very talky film, often to a tiringly didactic extent. But at least the actors show up to play. McAvoy once again deserves a curtain call for his herky-jerky modulation between multiple personalities, sometimes within one take. Anya Taylor-Joy, reprising her “final girl” survivor from Split, convinces with unconvincing material. But Samuel L. Jackson truly owns the screen, especially when given a self-consciously dramatic villain monologue.
With these actors, Shyamalan trusts them and favors the extreme close-up (perhaps a corrective after directing himself as the awkward lead in Praying with Anger – his Glass cameo is also endearingly goofy). He shoots much of the action with Guy Ritchie-style bodycams that play up the prosaic messiness of a real fight and other vérité techniques. The mundane is given a sweeping quality by composer West Dylan Thordson slathering Howard’s Unbreakable leitmotifs all over the score, which is rather cool to hear.
This is an idiosyncratic and sometimes alienating film, but its commitment to finding new ways to flatten superhero tropes into everyday life is notable. It’s not a particularly engaging work – too dramatically inert for that – but while Glass is often as dissonant as a Philip Glass composition, the twist is memorable and blindsiding. Glass is a proudly low-budget genre experiment that’s probably more interesting to talk about than watch.
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?