With the distance of time, it’s easy to forget how much of a Dick Tracy, Great Depression-era, wise guys vs. coppers gangster movie 1989’s Batman is. It’s an environment of tommy gun lawlessness and retro noir organized crime. The Joker further connects the film to 1930s culture by crooning lounge songs like “Beautiful Dreamer” and “It’s a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight”. And it’s telling that in the years that followed, we didn’t get Superman, Wonder Woman, and The Flash movies. We got Dick Tracy, The Phantom, and The Shadow.
But beyond these genre trappings, what other nuggets does Tim Burton’s seminal superhero film contain?
Jack Nicholson takes up a lot of the film’s oxygen, but he is fun to watch, whether vandalizing paintings, taking up scrapbooking, or launching a dodgy cosmetics marketing campaign. His deranged dancing is a quality passed on to Joaquin Phoenix’ Joker, although Cesar Romero wasn’t above a soft-shoe here and there. The Joker is a source of color in a grey world, and indeed, in a fairly grey cast of characters. An excessive amount of time is spent following Batman-chasing journalist Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl), who functions as an audience identification character. A strange decision given the copious amount of Joker material, holding court and claiming a huge amount of screentime that goes above and beyond time given to “villain scenes”.
It leads to the seeming conclusion that Burton is much more interested in the villains than in Batman, supported by the evidence of his unfiltered vision in the sequel and its characterization of Catwoman, Penguin, and Max Shreck. Of course, it behooves Batman to heavily feature Nicholson, who had the studio over a barrel with negotiating power. (His star power commanded a lavish salary and a big chunk of the merchandise, a deal he would ultimately try and fail to reprise for Hades in Disney’s Hercules.) And after all, in Superman: The Movie, villain Gene Hackman was also billed above Christopher Reeve.
The romance between Bruce Wayne and Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) is unconvincing. The screenwriters’ weaknesses in this area are laid bare, and their treatment of the relationship is hackwork. We are told they made a deep connection, but are not shown this. Michael Keaton is understated as Bruce Wayne/Batman (with the exception of the “let’s get nuts!” moment). It’s a fairly reserved performance. Famously, Keaton’s casting was a sticking point because he was mainly known as a comedy actor. Burton had worked with him before on Beetlejuice. Its title role is an uninhibited role in gothic makeup that on the face of it lays the pipeline for Keaton’s casting not as Batman but as the Joker. A fascinating road not taken.
Speaking of the road not taken, Billy Dee Williams appears as Harvey Dent, seeding the character for a Two-Face tragedy later on. When Two-Face was used as a villain in Batman Forever, recent Oscar winner Tommy Lee Jones jumped the line for the role. But Williams would eventually get his chance, voicing Two-Face in The LEGO Batman Movie.
One foundational change to the mythology is that Jack Napier, the man who will be the Joker, was also the man who killed the Waynes. I can definitely see the logic behind it (think also of the storytelling logic behind the Tobey Maguire Peter Parker’s organic web-shooters). But it is a seismic change; if Batman catches the Joker or he dies (which is exactly what happens to the Clown Prince of Crime), isn’t that game over? Can Bruce not go home with some measure of closure?
With his main theme, Danny Elfman does nothing less than crystallize the Batman sound. Rightfully grabbing all the headlines, the theme feels definitive. Elfman’s Joker theme is a carnival waltz that gains a demented quality when played against the character on screen. See the sequence where it plays as the Joker does that bizarre dance as he shoots crime boss Carl Grissom. There’s quite a lovely and warmly catchy Vicki Vale romance theme as well, adapted from one of the songs Prince contributed to the film.
Elfman has been open with his Bernard Herrmann influences, which are clear in the atmospheric score throughout Batman. There are moments of explicit echoes, and given that Herrmann would sometimes take to plagiarizing himself (he reuses part of his Vertigo score in Jason and the Argonauts), that makes quoting Herrmann something of a tradition.
As the film ends, Batman stands on top of a building gazing at the Bat Signal. Elfman’s final movement washes over the audience, incorporating quotations of various leitmotifs from the film. This explicitly Straussian cacophony climaxes in the shadowy main theme played in a triumphant major key!
The Craft of a Comic Book Movie
Tim Burton and production designer Anton Furst introduce a visually dense Gotham, following on from the level of cinematic detail found in, say, Blade Runner. All smoky matte paintings as far as the eye looks up, the city is a cathedral of industrialism. Even in Vicki Vale’s apartment, there are arches built into the ceiling evocative of urban sprawl and iron rivets. The density of Gotham is a stepping stone on the way to the absolutely wild urban design of the Joel Schumacher Batman movies. Burton and Furst mainly hew to noir influences, and the related framing of German Expressionism, but we get some of Burton’s trademark fairy tale imagery in perhaps the most indelible moment of the movie. Batman and Vicki Vale race to the Batcave in the Batmobile to the strains of Elfman’s “Descent into Mystery” cue, and the effect of passing through an eerily still forest, accomplished with models, comes off as a dark spin on The Wizard of Oz. Anton Furst won an Oscar for his work on Batman, but tragically he committed suicide less than two years later.
There are certain elements of Batman that echo forward in future adaptations, beyond city design. The Joker’s plan to poison the population’s beauty products is idiosyncratic to him, but has clear parallels to Laurel Hedare (Sharon Stone)’s beauty product poison from Catwoman. It’s also in the same ballpark as Ra’s al Ghul’s plan to poison Gotham with Jonathan Crane’s fear toxin in Batman Begins. That movie’s desperate Batmobile ride to take Rachel Dawes into the Batcave has its origin in Vicki Vale’s gothic “descent into mystery”. And what is William Hootkins’ crooked cop Max Eckhardt but a dry run for Gordon’s corrupt partner Flass (Mark Boone Junior)? The oddest future echo of all: the Joker calls Batman “junior Birdman”. 25 years later, Keaton would star in Alejandro Inarritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).
It’s always been the easy armchair contrast: that Tim Burton’s Batman was such a 180-degree change from the 1960s TV show. Which is undeniable. But while certain elements of “The Killing Joke” and other then-contemporary Batman lore are in the stew of the 1989 film, its main move is to draw from the character’s roots in the early days of Batman comics. A time when the character existed in a world of Edward G. Robinson gangster movies. And this is key to the film’s status as a curio now. Batman didn’t use Superman: The Movie as a Rosetta Stone to crack the code of the comic book adaptation. Tim Burton mashed a superhero story into a gangster movie template. The Joker may as well be one of the deformed, larger than life baddies of a Dick Tracy story. And after many subsequent film interpretations, that is what continues to make 1989’s Batman unique.
“Now you make me feel like a heel. If I don’t marry Elizabeth, some kid’s gonna be running around Puerto Rico barefoot with cavities in his teeth!” – David Larrabee
Billy Wilder’s Sabrina is a romantic dramedy featuring a love triangle of Sabrina Fairchild (Audrey Hepburn), Linus Larrabee (Humphrey Bogart), and brother David Larrabee (William Holden). It features an early exemplar of that romcom trope of frantically running after your love interest at the eleventh hour, and is another solid entry in Wilder’s 1950s run that also includes Sunset Boulevard, Ace in the Hole, and Some Like it Hot. It is also a nexus point that defines foundational aspects of the screen personas of Hepburn and Bogart.
In the film, Sabrina is a chauffeur’s daughter, her father the driver to the rich Larrabee brothers. Suicidally unrequited in love with playboy David, Sabrina goes off to cooking school in Paris and comes back to her native Long Island a changed, mature woman who now draws the attention of David. Because David is engaged to the daughter of a plastics industrialist, his flirtation with Sabrina threatens the family business. So Linus plans to keep Sabrina socially engaged, separate from David until the lucrative merger can be completed. But wouldn’t you know it, Sabrina and Linus begin to fall for each other on their own terms.
Sabrina’s class is a constant cloud over any romantic hopes she might have for either Larrabee brother; the flustered Larrabee paterfamilias constantly rails against any entanglement a Larrabee might have with a lowly “servant”. But while Sabrina may come from a lower class, she is seen to “transform” into an urbane and magnetic young woman after her time in Paris.
Sabrina’s arc is emblematic of several Audrey Hepburn characters. The defining theme: social mobility. Sabrina is a chauffeur’s daughter who becomes a confident force in high society. In Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Lula Mae Barnes is from a rural Texan family, married at 13, but comes to New York City and puts on a front, an entire personality transplant, to become the original manic pixie dream girl, Holly Golightly. And in My Fair Lady, this theme goes from subtext to text. Professor Henry Higgins makes it his parlor game mission to transform adult cockney urchin Eliza Dolittle into a sophisticate with perfect manners and diction.
(A notable inversion of this trope comes in Roman Holiday. Hepburn is a literal princess, who spends the movie “slumming it” with a journalist who doesn’t know her true identity. Social mobility goes both ways for Hepburn.)
Eliza Dolittle and Holly Golightly explicitly climb up the rung of the social ladder under male patronage. In Sabrina, while there is a mentor character in Paris (Baron St. Fontanel), his presence is downplayed. Sabrina seems to find a change within herself more organically and more on her own terms.
On another point of the love triangle is Linus Larrabee. Toward the end of the movie, resigned to the dissolution of their burgeoning love, Linus sends Sabrina on a cruise ship back to Paris without him. This is a very familiar move for a Humphrey Bogart character. Yes, it echoes the basic tenet of something like In a Lonely Place, where alcoholic Dixon Steele pushes love interest Laurel Gray away through an awful detour into domestic violence. But much more than that is Bogart’s agency in sending his love interests away.
In Casablanca, Rick Blaine sends old flame Ilsa Lund on a plane with Victor Laszlo, for (as he sees it) her own good. And after all, their own feelings famously don’t amount to “a hill of beans in this crazy world”. And then there is the case of The Maltese Falcon’s Sam Spade. For a man whose partner is murdered right at the off, Spade’s register is primarily one of fun. Through all the cloak and dagger of the plot, he seems like he’s having a great time. But he and client Brigid O’Shaughnessy do develop feelings for each other. And in the end, her culpability in the machinations of the villains is something Spade decides to reckon with, as he gives her up to the police.
So Bogart’s characters proactively and poignantly send their love interests away. And at first Sabrina fits that pattern exactly, but by the end it’s subverted. Linus takes a smaller company boat and catches up to Sabrina on the ship, and the movie ends on their loving embrace.
Sabrina is an entertaining romance, and also part of a consistent continuum for Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. Her social mobility and his romantic tragedies come together in a synthesis of both their screen personas. As Sabrina rises in social standing, she falls in love. And Linus, who seemingly has all the industrial power he could want, realizes it means nothing if he loses the person he loves.
“This is a big story, and you’re part of it.” – Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea)
Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent depicts a world on the precipice of World War II, and its thriller toolkit ultimately doubles as an argument for American involvement in the conflict – over a final needle-drop of “The Star Spangled Banner”, no less. Yes, we’re in propaganda territory, but Alfred Hitchcock’s craft is never overshadowed by a political agenda, here, or in two-years-hence, wartime-set Saboteur (1942). Both movies, one depicting the tense moment before the storm of war, one informed by the dreary reality of an ongoing conflict, integrate Hitchcock’s thriller vocabulary into the syntax of broadly defined world events.
We are again presented with an entire litany of Hitchcock’s comfortingly consistent tropes. The constantly disbelieved “wrong man”, the bluntly skeptical woman turning on a dime into devotion, the impeccably mannered and bourgeois traitors to their country with their secret drawing room conspiracies. The cabal of villains even use the same actor for their butler (Ian Wolfe) as they later will in Saboteur!
Charles Tobin in Saboteur, the genteel master of puppets, is humanized by his love for his granddaughter (though he apparently didn’t think to bring her with him on his planned flight to Central America…). Foreign Correspondent preemptively improves on this. Oily slick two-faced baddie Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall) has an extraordinary scene opposite the vessel of his own humanization, his daughter Carol, where he essentially gives a confessional. Knowing he faces arrest, he muses that it’s often “harder to fight dishonorably, than nobly out in the open”. After their transatlantic craft is shot down by Nazis, the plane’s surviving passengers find themselves on a part of the wing. Remarkably, Fisher sacrifices himself, like Jack in Titanic, by giving himself to the ocean… so his daughter may live. And just like in Saboteur, hero tries in vain to save the life of the villain, an act worthy of the Doctor herself.
The film’s central romance goes from negative 60 to 60 in a remarkably quick span. A few seconds of indistinct whispering, and foreign correspondent John (Joel McCrea, Sullivan’s Travels) and idealistic Carol (Laraine Day) build an entire engagement. While the two do kiss at one point, there are also coy references to “when you kissed me” off-screen, as this was a time in movie history when the length of kisses was policed.
Now if you want to see Edmund Gwenn, beloved for his Miracle on 34th Street Santa, push a man in anger into the path of a massive truck, Foreign Correspondent is the movie for you. There’s also the impossibly posh George Sanders providing withering support, and Albert Basserman, Oscar-nominated in the role of kindly, world-weary Dutch diplomat Van Meer.
Foreign Correspondent opens on a beautiful model shot of the fictional New York Morning Globe building, courtesy of Things to Come director William Cameron Menzies. It’s a striking sign of a different type of element in a Hitchcock film. That type of artisan effect is also seen in the thrilling moment when the plane wipes out into the water. Cued by the cockpit glass blowing, the retro front projection of the sea transitions into a torrent of water crashing in: A truly theme park-quality illusion. (Menzies’ model of the airship also recalls his own vehicles of apocalyptic war in Things to Come.) But Hitchcock doesn’t always need these tricks to grab the attention; a yokel avoiding a car chase features in an almost Chaplin-esque gag.
The propaganda aspect involves the audience in the story. The kidnapped Van Meer, when soliloquizing on the merits of “the little people”, glances directly at the camera. In the desperate climax, denial of the Nazi clear and present danger is punished as swiftly as in a slasher movie. And as quoted above, Jones says during a London air raid, “This is a big story, and you’re part of it”. The thrillers of this time can’t help but engage with the violent reality around them, or at least the pregnant pause before the plunge into war. The disclaimer at the beginning of the film may parrot the familiar boilerplate words, “the events depicted are fictitious”, etc etc, but that’s only true on a micro level. The War is an omnipresent shadow.
The explicit national interest in these early 40s thrillers is included in moderation. There is still a degree fo escapism, and that is what the inclusion of Hitchcock’s in-house tropes helps to provide. 1940 was also the year of gothic psychodrama Rebecca, nominated for Best Picture alongside Foreign Correspondent and winning over the more political work. This was the dawn of Hitchcock’s famous “American period”, that produced most of his famous works, and Foreign Correspondent engages with that country’s eventual entry into the conflict. So Hitchcock himself, an Englishman starting to make movies for American studios, is in a way the foreign correspondent of the title. While lacking the entertainingly quirky elements of Saboteur, sometimes plodding in its narrative, and driven more by setpieces than always by logic, Foreign Correspondent is still a fascinating integration of typical Hitchcockian espionage into a world on the brink of world war.
What makes a hero? A lot of things can; no one thing should. A hero can be a cynical pragmatist, or a morally grey antihero, and stories are often the richer for that. But a persistent, classic mold of the hero is the idealist. In the safe space of a rollicking action movie, heroes can represent idealism that doesn’t have to compromise, and we root for them because of it. Heroes can bear their naivé idealism as a weapon, made all the more powerful by their uncompromising belief in good, and the audience’s knowledge that the real world isn’t like that… but wouldn’t it be nice if it was? Three recent cinematic heroes can all be called naivé for their beliefs and resultant actions, but should also be championed for their idealism: Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and Wonder Woman/Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) in Wonder Woman. Especially in fiction, naiveté needn’t be pejorative, and these characters are case studies in why.
Ilsa Faust is an MI6 agent who has been assigned by her agency to infiltrate the Syndicate, an international rogue cabal of ex-spies who have turned from espionage to glorified terrorism. It is later revealed that the Syndicate was originally the brainchild of Atlee, Ilsa’s MI6 handler, highlighting with a sharpie the agency’s corruption. That murkiness is contrasted with Ilsa herself. Ilsa is an efficient killer and manipulator, no doubt. But she also naivély believes that agents of allied nations have a responsibility for each other, as she demonstrates when she risks blowing her cover to save IMF agent Ethan Hunt.
Ilsa is vindicated, as she and Ethan expose the Syndicate, foil their plans, and arrest their leader Solomon Lane. Had Ilsa followed MI6’s orders, Ethan would’ve been left at the mercy of the Syndicate. At first, when Ilsa rescues Ethan, she feels like a plot device to free the lead character, but in retrospect, Ilsa’s act defines her character. She doesn’t know Ethan has the outsize power that comes with being the main character. Ilsa simply sees an American agent in danger and saves him without hesitation. She represents a better, less pragmatic, more naivé version of statecraft. And accomplishes the impossible mission because of it.
Rose Tico is a Resistance technician whose home planet was strip-mined by the neo-fascist First Order. At Rose’s first meeting with former Stormtrooper Finn, Rose sees Finn’s actions in The Force Awakens as those of an overly simplistic and idealized hero. Initially, she doesn’t see Finn as a person. Ironically, after Rose reprimands Finn for attempted desertion from the Resistance, she starts them both on a path to true heroism, as he commits to the Resistance that Rose so believes in. Rose’s beliefs are contrasted in the movie with the roguish character DJ, who points out that corrupt weapons brokers sell to the Resistance as well as the First Order. When DJ tells Finn, “It’s all a machine… be free, don’t join”, DJ is using a convenient false equivalency. At a certain point you have to realize, one side kidnaps and brainwashes babies, and the other doesn’t. One side commits willful genocide, and the other doesn’t. And that’s exactly what Finn realizes as he fully commits to the Resistance, thanks to Rose.
Something of an activist, Rose frees fathiers who had been victims of animal cruelty, and disrupts the exploitative luxury of rich war profiteers. She gives hope to downtrodden stable children, igniting their dreams of adventure and heroism. After naivély regarding Finn as a perfect hero, Rose becomes a hero herself throughout the movie. One crucial moment where Rose saves Finn from a useless sacrifice (“That’s how we’re gonna win: not fighting what we hate. Saving what we love.”) clarifies the thesis of rebellion in all of Star Wars. In the original trilogy, the Rebels are the good guys defined by opposition to the tyrannical bad guys of the Empire. Rose’s backstory, and her inspiration to downtrodden slaves at Canto Bight, provide insight into not only what Rebels fight against, but what they fight for. Rose’s sentiment is idealistic and in some situations naivé, but Star Wars supports it. When Poe Dameron asks Lando Calrissian how the Rebels toppled the Empire, he says, “We had each other. That’s how we won.” This type of idealism drives a fairy tale like Star Wars.
In her solo movie, Wonder Woman/Diana Prince emerges from the paradise island Themyscira to find a world embroiled in “the Great War” (World War I). Naivély, Diana fervently believes that the only explanation for this grand-scale conflict is manipulation from the rogue god of war, Ares. This is the kind of great idea that can provide the engine for an entire screenplay, since the audience knows the moment will come when Diana’s naiveté will crash into the realization that humanity doesn’t need divine influence to sacrifice an entire generation in the trenches over lines on a map. But when it comes to the audience’s relationship with Diana’s naiveté, viewers can consider themselves more worldly and knowledgeable, but also envy Diana’s worldview. How wonderful would it be if violent conflict could only be explained as outside manipulation? Diana’s naiveté is objectively wrong, but there’s also power to it, right alongside her literal superpowers.
When Diana affirms her beliefs in a final battle with Ares, this manifests as a quantifiable power-up, allowing Diana to break free of shrapnel bondage. She says, “I believe in love”, to which Ares responds, “Then – I shall – DESTROY YOU!” It’s a truly absurd and cheesy moment, but one that speaks to the power of naivé idealism. “I believe in love” is a bold choice for an action movie one-liner, and stands out because of it.
Ilsa, Rose, and Diana are very different characters. Where Ilsa can manipulate with the most elite of spies, Rose and Diana are unfailingly earnest. What they share are ideals, some of which are impractical and unworldly. But in heroic stories, storytellers have license to let that very naiveté win the movie. Ilsa Faust, Rose Tico, and Wonder Woman are all characters not diminished, but enhanced, by a dose of naiveté.
First, a couple honorable mentions: Ariel Saves Eric and Commits to Her Choice, from The Little Mermaid. After a storm ravages Prince Eric’s ship, Ariel rescues him and takes him ashore. After he comes to and his men retrieve him, Ariel hides herself and reprises her “I want” song, “Part of Your World”, climaxing in the stunning moment when a wave crashes against the rock behind her. In this moment, she definitively makes a choice that was just a notion before, to become part of the human world. I also have to mention The Princesses Save Ralph in Ralph Breaks the Internet. In a sublime moment of fanservice, the Disney Princesses combine their skills to break Ralph’s fall. In terms of pure crowd-pleasing catnip it’s spectacular, but I don’t think it’s fair to run that moment in competition.
5) Tiana Breaks Dr. Facilier’s Talisman, The Princess and the Frog
While the decision to turn Tiana into a frog for much of the film’s runtime feels ill-considered, it is in frog form that Tiana shows the strength of her character. After Dr. Facilier murders Ray, he turns his attention to Tiana. Facilier tempts her with a vision of her dream restaurant up, running, and thriving, but she rejects his manipulation and shatters the McGuffin he’s so desperate for. This unleashes a phantasmagoric sequence, where Facilier’s “friends from the other side” come to collect his soul. And besides, Tiana knows she must earn her restaurant’s success through hard work, not by an ill-gotten shortcut.
4) Ice Palace for One, Frozen
Elsa inherited a castle from her parents. But her existence there was marked by repression of her true self. So when the people of Arendelle and its political peers see Elsa’s magical ice powers and react in fear to that which they don’t understand, Elsa sings an anthem of self-expression while building a palace entirely of herself. As “Let it Go” catapults emotion across the screen like a trebuchet flinging snowballs, Disney’s animators give us the unforgettable spectacle of Elsa creating an entire palace, culminating in Elsa magically manifesting her iconic ice dress.
3) Mulan Disarms Shan Yu, Mulan
After single-handedly crippling the Hun army (a potential entrant on this list all on its own), Mulan is outed as a woman but still warns of Shan Yu’s infiltration of the Imperial City. After Shan Yu’s sheer advantage in size overwhelms Li Shang and Mulan in turn, her fight with the Hun leader moves to a rooftop. Mulan, desperate for a weapon, produces the fan she brandished earlier in the movie when dressing up for a matchmaker. After Shan Yu taunts, “It looks like you’re out of ideas”, Mulan disarms him with the fan and takes his sword in an efficient punch-the-air moment.
2) Anna Sacrifices Her Kingdom to Save it, Frozen 2
For Anna, all hope is lost. She’s auditioned for Les Miserables with her song “The Next Right Thing”, wherein despite knowing her sister and Olaf are dead, she resolves to carry on and do what’s right, no matter how painful. So she wakes up the Earth Giants to destroy the Northuldra dam, the monument to Arendelle’s colonialist sin. Knowing the flood will destroy Arendelle, Anna invokes her royal authority to enlist the help of Mattias and his soldiers in taking desperate action. To be a Princess of a Kingdom is to understand the responsibility of power, and Anna’s decision to proactively confront the shameful history of Arendelle is a stunning display of leadership.
1) Moana Redeems Te Ka, Moana
For the length of the movie up to this point, Moana has believed that Maui, who stole the heart of Te Fiti, must restore it. But the power to do so has always been hers, as she has the insight to see through the corrupted form of Te Ka to the goddess underneath. So Moana parts the sea, sings to the kaiju-size fire demon, and saves it. In practice, this is mythic, poignant stuff supported by astonishing visuals. It gives me goosebumps every time. “They have stolen the heart from inside you / But this does not define you”, Moana sings to the molten monolith, before restoring that heart and saving the entire ocean from magical infection. A badass power move if ever I saw one.
10) Little Women
A movie in the melodramatic tradition, this Louisa May Alcott adaptation carries the audience on a wave of joyful highs and tear-jerking lows (people weren’t just crying, they were having emotional breakdowns in the theater). The interweaving flashback structure generates a powerful sense of nostalgia, which comes to a satisfying sense of resolution at the end. Warm as the day as long, Little Women benefits from a solid ensemble and clever construction.
9) A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
After Can You Ever Forgive Me, another excellent New York-tied movie from Marielle Heller, this time with added cinematic inventiveness (those establishing shots!). Fred Rogers’ aspirational idealism turns a mirror to the cynicism and false decorum of the other characters. Matthew Rhys is great in the lead role, the “broken” man who is changed by Mister Rogers. Not without its flaws, but lovely.
8) It Chapter Two
The first It is a solid movie, but I had no investment in it. In this sequel, there are several scenes that are surprisingly emotional for me. Look no further than the Losers’ Club reunion in the Chinese restaurant, an electric sequence of bittersweet warmth that turns into uncanny terror. The first two hours are excellent. A few wonky moments in the finale can’t taint this epic parade of jack-in-the-box horror, as director Andy Muschietti shows himself to be a showman in the grand guignol tradition, and my favorite actor Jessica Chastain further elevates the film.
7) Doctor Sleep
The second straight Stephen King adaptation on this list, Doctor Sleep walks the fine line of sequelizing both King’s novel The Shining and Stanley Kubrick’s iconic film. It’s a slow-burning dark supernatural fantasy, featuring stunning astral projection sequences. The wonderful Rebecca Ferguson plays the sadistic villain, and the movie itself must find her fun to watch as well, given how much screen time she gets. I don’t find Doctor Sleep or the It chapters particularly scary, but that’s not how I measure a horror movie, especially more ambitious ones like these. I’m here for some thrills, sure, but primarily for story and character.
This knife-sharp farcical thriller from Bong Joon-ho features an impoverished family of con artists inveigling themselves in the household of a rich family. Between Parasite and Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden, it’s clear that class struggles and the perils of upward mobility loom large in Korean cinema. Parasite milks its premise for tension, silliness, and sobering outbursts of violence.
5) Knives Out
In some ways an old-fashioned detection-driven mystery puzzle, in other ways a hypermodern character-driven sociopolitical satire, and in every way addictively entertaining. Knives Out is one of those “obviously good” movies, given how much writer-director Rian Johnson accomplishes at once while having so much fun doing it. Daniel Craig is unforgettable as drawling private detective Benoit Blanc (an even better Southern accent for Craig after Logan Lucky’s Joe Bang), and Ana de Armas gives the film its heart.
4) Ad Astra
Strikingly sober, both as a piece of science fiction and as a character study… while still finding time to do Mad Max on the moon. From the cinematography to the production design to the visual effects, Ad Astra is cinematically gorgeous, a more than worthy successor to the Gravity/Interstellar/The Martian cycle. Brad Pitt has movie star presence, not by turning on the charm in the role of a gung-ho astronaut, but in a deeply bitter, internal performance. Last year we had another “emotionally closed off male astronaut gets the job done” movie in First Man, and I’m way more into this version of it.
3) Frozen 2
What a difference six years of technological advancement makes. Frozen 2 makes for a perfect companion piece to its predecessor, but its improved animation really makes it shine. That’s not even to mention the deep emotion, effective humor, and supernatural action, or of course, the songs. From the giddy “Some Things Never Change” to the soaring “Into the Unknown” to the Les Miserables riff “The Next Right Thing”, songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez have outdone themselves. Best of all is Elsa’s transformative song “Show Yourself”, accompanied by mind-blowing imagery that is a clear highlight in Disney’s entire animated canon.
Director Olivia Wilde delivers the goods with Booksmart, a hilarious and visually inventive coming-of-age one-crazy-night movie. This level of energy, tight screenwriting, and charismatic performance is pretty outstanding, as rare as a coelacanth sighting. Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein generate out-of-this-world chemistry. That pairing alone would probably have been enough to carry a movie, but they’re aided by every other department around them firing on all cylinders as well. Booksmart, Good Boys, and Blockers prove you can be “woke” and extremely funny at the same time, no matter what some in the industry may think.
Sticking the landing for a 22-film saga, Avengers: Endgame is a game of thirds. A melancholy first act, a romp of a second, and a triumphant third coalesce with a mastery of structure and tone. One of the missions of the movie is to honor the original six Avengers, giving particularly note-perfect send-offs to Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark and Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers. But it is to the film’s credit that it also honors characters like reformed villain Nebula (Karen Gillan), making her character growth an explicit part of the plot. Given how the MCU has been playing at such a high level, Endgame’s creative success as a full cinematic meal doesn’t exactly surprise, but how rich a culmination it is may be more than its fans could have hoped for.
It’s been a journey to get to this point, but as I’ve watched all ten Star Wars movies in preparation for The Rise of Skywalker, I have unexpectedly come to the conclusion that Return of the Jedi is the best the original trilogy has to offer. Let’s explore my reasoning and celebrate the first time the world thought the Skywalker saga was wrapped up.
Genuinely funny humor
The entire chunk of the film dedicated to Jabba the Hutt’s chunky villainy is rife with successful comedy. From Salacious B. Crumb’s manic reactions to countless priceless C-3PO moments, the movie’s first act walks a line between silly and serious. There’s humor with a dark streak too. Malakili’s reaction to the Rancor’s death is both amusing and heartbreaking. And the Gonk droid who keeps screaming under torture is hilarious and disturbing at the same time.
The Ewoks, to their credit, are not generally bumbling delivery systems for slapstick, so when Wicket does hit himself in the face with a slingshot, it lands in more ways than one. I also love when an Ewok hugs Han’s legs after hearing about his carbonite experience. But it’s C-3PO who consistently kills it in Return of the Jedi; this is his best showcase as a panicking accidental comedian.
Deep engagement with core Star Wars themes
Not that the previous two chapters don’t possess depth, but Return of the Jedi firmly codifies a lot of the thematic preoccupations of Star Wars. Obi-Wan Kenobi gives his famous speech about “a certain point of view”. The Ewoks’ crucial role in defeating the Empire contrasts the natural world against technology through the lens of warfare, connecting to one of the key conflicts in the entire saga: the natural and flowing vs. the mechanical and rigid.
But it is the Luke Skywalker/Darth Vader/Emperor Palpatine thread that gets to the core of Jedi and Sith philosophy. Building on Yoda’s teachings in The Empire Strikes Back, this sequel makes the lesson tangible: the idea that the Dark Side is not wearing all black and using a red lightsaber, but rather giving into fear, hate, anger, and aggression. And make no mistake, Luke flirts with the Dark Side throughout the entire movie. The first thing we see him do is use Force Choke on two Gamorrean guards. After opening himself up to fear, anger, and hatred at the thought of losing his sister Leia, we see how wild and aggressive his lightsaber strikes against Vader are. That’s not passive defense. It’s passionate attack.
In the end, however, Luke remains a hero. When he refuses to kill his father, throws away his lightsaber, and leaves himself vulnerable to Palpatine, it’s a stunning act. He is willing to sacrifice his life to force Anakin Skywalker to redeem himself. It’s a defining moment for Luke; you can draw a straight line from this almost Biblical sacrifice play to his epic pacifist heroism on Crait in The Last Jedi.
The sail barge sequence
The sail barge sequence is the best pure action setpiece in the original trilogy. It’s a thrilling ride, from R2-D2’s iconic lightsaber delivery, to Leia choking Jabba, to Lando’s amusing scream when the Sarlacc’s tentacle ensnares him, to the triumphant score when the skirmish is won. It doesn’t matter that you can see a stuntman’s alien headpiece fall off as he rolls into the Sarlacc Pit, nor that Boba Fett’s death is celebrated with an ignominious burp. Nor that Luke cutting down henchmen has the imprecise choreography of an impromptu schoolyard play-adventure – and maybe that’s part of the point. Perhaps the charm of the sequence comes from that childlike enthusiasm. “What if Luke walked the plank, but then jumped up and got his lightsaber, and slashed all the bad guys?” If Luke swings his lightsaber haphazardly in the general direction of a stuntman, and they perform a stagey fall, we can fill in the blanks. Whether with crayons or ball-point pens, we can fill in the blanks.
The war, the lore, and the score
The theory goes that there are three major elements of Star Wars. The military conflict aspect: the war. The Force/destiny aspect: the lore. And the crime/heist/underworld aspect: for the sake of preserving the rhyme, the score. Return of the Jedi brilliantly serves all three masters. All the Jabba stuff is a hugely enjoyable dive into the criminal underworld. The seduction of Luke and redemption of Anakin is iconic lore material. And the two-pronged Battle of Endor is the war on a big canvas. Structurally, the film is an odd beast. As opposed to the straightforward chase framework of The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi leads with what could be its own mini-movie, fully develops it, and then widens the scope to round out the galactic picture. It has a clear serialized feel that is core to Star Wars.
Demerits and conclusion
I do take issue with some aspects of Return of the Jedi, which should be addressed. The edge is almost totally taken off the Han Solo and Lando Calrissian characters. Maybe Han’s carbon sickness lasts the whole movie, or maybe Harrison Ford didn’t necessarily want to be there, but Han is a goofy figure by and large. Lando is an appealing presence, but that’s all he is here: the square-jawed hero. The screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan and George Lucas can skew somewhat hacky, repeating phrases and ideas. And regarding the remastered edition changes, Vader’s “Nooooooooo” when killing Palpatine probably should’ve stayed internal.
However, the film benefits from the deepest emotional complexity of the original trilogy. The reveal that Darth Vader is Luke’s father in The Empire Strikes Back is a truly horrific spectacle. We sympathize with Luke’s pain and, indeed, revulsion; the Darth Vader character has been a monolithic force of evil. It is Return of the Jedi’s innovation to take that dark reveal, and find hope in it. To apply, I’ll say it, a Star Trekkian level of humanism to this Dark Lord of the Sith. Vader/Anakin’s moment of sacrifice in betraying Palpatine rightly gets the headlines, but observe the earlier scene where our heroes try to get clearance for their stolen Imperial shuttle Tydirium to land on Endor. Vader senses Luke’s presence; this is the enemy, ready to sabotage the deflector shield. But Vader lets the shuttle land. Is this a moment of sentiment?
A New Hope’s simplicity is its greatest strength and greatest weakness. The Empire Strikes Back, while deepening Jedi philosophy and the visual texture of the series, has an insular quality and its chase structure makes for a slightly fallow middle third. Return of the Jedi features the most impressive action in the trilogy in the form of the sail barge skirmish and the Battle of Endor (including the speeder bike chase), the most amusing humor, and in the Luke/Vader storyline, it writes a humanistic thesis of Star Wars. (Plus there’s the joy of Ian McDiarmid’s scenery-chewing as Palpatine.) There are moments watching Hope and Empire when I think all they have over certain other Star Wars movies is a high level of craftsmanship. To watch Return of the Jedi is to eat a full Star Wars meal. The show’s not over ‘til the fat Ewok dances.
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.
Contains full spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
“Something inside me has always been there… but now it’s awake.” – Star Wars
Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the longest film in the franchise, appropriately has a lot on its mind, but also uses its cinematic flair for an exciting popcorn ride. More than just a good eighth installment, it’s the type of sequel that reignites the appeal of what came before. It does this by giving itself wholly over to the core appeal of Star Wars, while expanding our understanding of those basic elements.
What’s quickly apparent is that The Last Jedi puts the Wars in Star Wars. Never before have detailed military tactics and big picture strategic chess moves played such a big part in these films. Attention is paid to the interacting dynamics of shields, propulsion, maneuverability, fuel reserves, and the role of fighters versus the role of bombers. When Paige Tico desperately tries to reach a detonator (an easy ask of a Force user), it feels like something out of World War II. Forget Rogue One, this is a star war. So, the core martial aspect of Star Wars is laid out with clear stakes and a greater detail than ever before.
This film’s portrayal of the heroic Resistance actually stands somewhat in contrast to the other Disney-era films. Whereas The Force Awakens reframed the Rebellion vs. Empire conflict into the Resistance vs. First Order because that underdog setup is just what works, The Last Jedi leans into that echo hard. With their backs constantly up against the wall, the Resistance is simply referred to as the Rebellion several times (the literalization of this being when the Resistance sets up shop with analog Rebel Alliance technology on Crait, including barely-hanging-together ski speeders), and the alt-right, neo-Nazi, fragile-egoed white supremacist-type character Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) is a young man trying to live up to the glory of the old Empire. Rogue One was all about complicating the central conflict, with corruption in the Rebellion facing off against a long-suffering middle manager in the form of Krennic, but The Last Jedi decisively returns to simplicity while also making the conflict dramatically engaging. We know the black-and-white, good vs. evil storytelling of the original Star Wars – here it is again, familiar and reinvented at the same time.
On a related note, The Last Jedi further defines the spirit of rebellion, this idea we’ve cheered for ever since an overly excited Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) asked C-3PO if he knew of the rebellion against the Empire. As the trip to casino city Canto Bight illustrates, rebellion is not just about fighting “evil”, but injustice. And this is why Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) is so vital to the movie.
An introverted gearhead with a passionate sense of right and wrong and an affinity for the underdog, Rose converts Finn (John Boyega) to the Cause. Because before, Finn was swept up in events for the sake of his friends, having “imprinted” on Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) as the first people to treat him like one. Arriving at Canto Bight, Finn learns from Rose that you don’t have to wear First Order jackboots to be one of the bad guys. The menagerie of wining and dining war profiteers make this a very clear class fable – when Rose shows an abused stableboy that her ring carries the symbol of the Rebellion, we are given a rare and welcome indication of just who the good guys are fighting for.
Releasing the exploited fathiers at Canto Bight is save-the-cat screenwriting at its best. Rose’s purity of heart contrasts other characters’ cynicism very well, but there is bitterness and pain as well. She has the line of the movie (hell, a contender for line of the saga) when she says, “I wish I could put my fist through this lousy, beautiful town”. Rose wears her heart, and the symbol of rebellion, on her sleeve.
Also at the nexus of Canto Bight, the greying of the central galactic conflict is represented by DJ (Benicio del Toro). This free agent neither good nor evil (“It’s all a machine – don’t join”) brings up some valid points but is ultimately portrayed as a villain. His selfishness is instructive for Finn, who has his hero moment, motivated positively by Rose and negatively by DJ, to proudly call himself “Rebel scum”. Now we feel even more what this means.
Even in small ways, central tenets of Star Wars are reinforced. When Rey reaches out with her feelings we are given a poetic Terrence Malick-ian montage that portrays the Force more completely than before. And speaking of the Force, let’s talk about our hero and villain, so dangerously strong with it. The teasing of Rey to the dark and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) to the light could not have been handled any better. The cinematic device of their long-distance Force phone calls they want to hide from dad (Luke and Snoke) is genius, allowing true connection. After the fantastic dark side mirror cave sequence, Rey confides her deep-seated need to see her parents not to Luke but to Kylo Ren.
But Rey and Kylo Ren each end the film disappointed in the other. Rey correctly foresaw Kylo Ren kill Snoke and took this as evidence of light, and Kylo Ren thought that when he revealed the truth of Rey’s parents to her she would join him, but each was mistaken. It’s that old chestnut, “from a certain point of view”. (We even get a Rashomon-style triptych story of the night Kylo Ren destroyed Luke’s old Jedi temple, so the tradition of Star Wars referencing Kurosawa is still alive.) What we have here with Rey and Ren’s kind of dance is a fresh take on that familiar Star Wars trope of “turning” people to the light or dark side. We can experience that thrilling glimmer of hope for Kylo Ren as he kills Snoke – and the language of Star Wars says, that’s it, he’s on the side of good now – but it’s not that simple. Again, the same, but richer.
It should be noted that this part of the movie contains one of the most badass action sequences in the franchise, the two-on-eight Praetorian guard dustup. (Rey and Kylo Ren each briefly use the other’s lightsaber, which has shades of Obi-Wan using Asajj Ventress’ red lightsaber in The Clone Wars TV series.) And after the dust settles, we learn that Rey’s parents were, in the grand scheme of things, nobodies. This is how Star Wars grows beyond the Skywalker Saga, beyond the idea of dynasty. If a powerful Force user, but more pertinently a great hero, can come from the humblest beginnings, there is hope for the galaxy.
So Kylo Ren takes over as Supreme Leader of the First Order, and if you thought his temper tantrums were bad before… He comes face-to-face with Luke, and Kylo Ren figures after Han Solo and Snoke, it’s time to kill the final father figure, the one who failed him all those years ago. When he and Luke face off, they don’t need to trade blows and hack off each other’s limbs for it to be thrilling. The wide-shot of their samurai standoff is stunningly beautiful, Luke a picture of determined calm and Ren a coiled lion in a cage. It turns out that Luke is projecting his image through the Force, and it’s vital that he’s not there; Kylo Ren can never get the satisfaction of finally killing this man he hates. Luke projects himself as a younger man, exactly as Kylo Ren remembers him. That’s salt in the wound. If Luke had been there and been killed by Ren, that’s a semblance of closure. As it is, Luke looks up at twin suns and becomes one with the Force, Rey finds her place with friends and fugitive heroes, and Kylo Ren has all the power he could want except the means to be rid of his pain.
Over and over The Last Jedi recontextualizes but also celebrates the building blocks of Star Wars. Far from a deconstruction, it adds vital detail and nuance to the elements that have always been there. But beyond all the themes and deep character work, just look at the moment when the Millennium Falcon takes a hard turn into the crystalline underground on Crait and John Williams deploys his classic dogfighting music. The Last Jedi shows an instinctive understanding of Star Wars in that instant. It clicks with our lizard brains. So The Last Jedi is also funny, exciting, pretty-looking blockbuster entertainment. If it wasn’t that, it just wouldn’t be good Star Wars.
Whatever else 2017 will throw at us, we’ll always have movies. And whether it’s finding the greatness that comes out of a studio factory, or keeping an open mind to new independent efforts, I’ll be there. So amidst the delights and excesses of awards season, these are the 2017 films I’m most looking forward to seeing.
First, a bunch of bonus mentions. T2 Trainspotting (one of my favorite directors, Danny Boyle, returns to the film that made his name), Pitch Perfect 3 (After the sequel improved on the first, I’m ready for more a capella antics); Free Fire (a claustrophobic 70s throwback crime movie from the director of the stunning A Field in England, it could be this year’s Green Room); Annihilation (I only called Alex Garland the greatest science fiction screenwriter of all time. No big deal! Hopefully he continues to bear this out with his next writing/directing effort); Kingsman: The Golden Circle (The first Kingsman is even smarter than I initially gave it credit for, and Matthew Vaughn is a dynamite director of action); Kong: Skull Island (Apocalypse Now with Kong as Kurtz is a great pitch, and I love the 2014 Godzilla, with which this shares a cinematic universe); Death Note (an adaptation of one of my favorite comic properties looks to be a twisted psychological thriller); Logan (the rapturous response to the first 40 minutes screened to festivalgoers bodes well for this final bow of Hugh Jackman as Wolverine); Beauty and the Beast (given the state of the Disney remake, I’m very optimistic).
10) Wonder Woman
It’s a travesty that the greatest female superhero has never headlined a movie (hell, no woman has headlined one at all since Elektra in 2005). So under any circumstances, this first Wonder Woman film is a full-blown event. Under any circumstances; it sure doesn’t help that the current DC universe project hasn’t produced a single decent movie out of three chances. (And I hope the way Henry Cavill’s charisma is repressed in the role of Superman doesn’t parallel any untapped range in Gal Gadot’s performance.) But the trailer is solid, promising a weighty World War I setting, stunning cinematography on Themyscira, and impactful action. The image of Wonder Woman walking out from a trench onto “no man’s land” is incredibly potent, and I predict some very creative uses for the Lasso of Truth. The film will either wreck shop, or prove as divisive as DC’s previous movies. Please be good. And please don’t lean on Chris Pine as some kind of “stealth male lead”.
9) The Fate of the Furious
In the past six years, the Fast and Furious franchise has reinvented itself as one of the silliest and most rewarding in Hollywood, and this first post-Paul Walker entry will surely continue that pulpy momentum. When I reviewed Furious 7, I hadn’t seen any other movies in the series. Now having seen them all, I anticipate #8 all the more because while the showstopping stunt setpieces are the franchise’s signature, its secret weapon is the use of past cast members to create a sort of gestalt ensemble. In that tradition, former villain Jason Statham will join the team! That sort of loopy idea of community (indeed, “family”) is what I look for in a Fast movie.
8) Blade Runner 2049
Following up Blade Runner is almost a thankless task. But director Denis Villeneuve might be the best fit for the material anyone could hope for. After the painful intensity of Prisoners, nightmarish Enemy, the visceral Sicario, and the brooding but beautiful Arrival, Villeneuve is on an extraordinary run of atmospheric and pointed work. The teaser shows a matter-of-fact return to this very specific world, bolstered by another return to an iconic role by Harrison Ford, and a lead performance from 2016 darling Ryan Gosling.
7) The Masterpiece (née The Disaster Artist)
Tommy Wiseau’s The Room is a legendary so-bad-it’s-good experience, endlessly quotable and inexplicable (“Did you get your promotion?” “Nah.” “You didn’t get it, did you?”). And co-star Greg Sestero’s personal account of its making, “The Disaster Artist”, is one of the funniest and most engaging books I’ve read, so the burden is on The Masterpiece to live up to the incredible subject matter.
6) The LEGO Batman Movie
After The LEGO Movie (my favorite film of 2014, incidentally), it seems LEGO’s roast/tribute of the Dark Knight is far from over. What’s most intriguing about this spinoff is its apparent willingness to engage with the whole breadth of cinematic takes on Batman. So we’ll have riffs on Adam West alongside jokes reflecting the Christopher Nolan era. And the above picture hints that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is already going to be satirized! For that alone, I can’t wait. It’s very unusual corporate thinking to let two Batman properties coexist on the big screen at the same time, making the business side of things fascinating as well. If all goes well, The LEGO Batman Movie could end up being the second-best Batman movie. That’s realistic.
5) Baby Driver
When wunderkind director Edgar Wright shows up, so do I. The sublime “Cornetto trilogy” of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End alone ensures Wright’s place as one of the best filmmakers working today, but Baby Driver looks like a bit of a change of pace. Frequent collaborators Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are nowhere to be found, and it looks to be a harder-boiled affair. Revolving around a getaway driver (Walter Hill’s 70s pulp classic The Driver is a clear reference point), the hook is that he suffers from tinnitus and listens to music constantly on his earphones during heists. So Wright has license to make a sort of jukebox musical crime movie. Sounds like a plan.
4) Paddington 2
One of the biggest surprises in recent memory, Paddington is no joke one of the best family films I’ve ever seen. Charming, funny, emotional, and thematically rich, the freshman entry is a hard act to live up to, but the humility of the story will surely make for a non-bombastic follow-up. This is just the story of a (sentient) bear and the human family who loves him, and if this sequel continues in the vein of the first, that’s all we need.
3) Thor: Ragnarok
“Think you can handle having the incredible Hulk for a dad?” That’s a line spoken by Taika Waititi’s character in a film he also directed, simply titled Boy. Boy is a charming coming-of-age slice of life set in mundane New Zealand. Its simple charms seem miles away from those of a big-budget superhero movie, but that’s what Taika Waititi has been entrusted with in Thor: Ragnarok. Also the director of heartwarming adventure Hunt for the Wilderpeople and hilarious vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, Waititi is an exciting indie filmmaker given the keys to the Marvel playground. And to bring it full circle, he’s got the Hulk.
He’s also got an unbelievable cast. Aside from returning favorites Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Idris Elba, Mark Ruffalo, and Benedict Cumberbatch, also signed up are Cate Blanchett, Karl Urban, Jeff Goldblum, and Tessa Thompson! That’s nothing less than a murderer’s row. I’m actually an unabashed fan of the oft-maligned Thor movies (this is Marvel heresy, but the first two Thors blow the first two Iron Mans out of the water for me), and Ragnarok has a chance to wrap up the trilogy in an unforgettable bow. With Waititi at the helm, there’s no limit to the cosmic and comic territories the film can go to.
2) Star Wars Episode 8
The world is still mourning the tragic death of Carrie Fisher, and even though Rogue One already functions as an odd tribute to her, she will actually have a strong presence throughout this second sequel to the original trilogy she was so beloved in. So Episode 8 will sadly function as a kind of collective wake for Carrie.
But beside all that, it will also function as a movie. In 2015, Star Wars: The Force Awakens brought the legendary franchise back to prominence in style. With Episode 8, Star Wars is taken over by writer-director Rian Johnson, who made the brilliant Brick and the visceral Looper. He inherits new characters audiences are already heavily invested in such as Rey, Finn, Kylo Ren, and Poe Dameron, and more minor ones like General Hux and Captain Phasma (who should have, you know, something to do this time around). And of course, Leia will be a prominent player and Luke Skywalker has re-entered the story. What’s particularly exciting is that now The Force Awakens has established the foundation of the story at a breakneck pace, Episode 8 can slow down and take the storytelling in any number of risky directions. The Force Awakens’ signature scene is the terrific lightsaber duel, and if Episode 8 comes up with anything as iconic, the series will be in good shape.
1) Molly’s Game
Aaron Sorkin’s body of work speaks for itself. Even ignoring TV, his screenplays for A Few Good Men, The Social Network, and Steve Jobs are masterful. (And to neglect non-masterpieces The American President, Charlie Wilson’s War, and Moneyball would be a mistake too.) With Molly’s Game, the doyen of dialogue will not only write but also make his directorial debut. And with my favorite actress Jessica Chastain in the lead role (as the real-life underground poker “queenpin” with a meteoric rise and fall), I’m very much in the bag for this. Last year Chastain starred in Miss Sloane, a movie I adore but which is also Sorkin-esque almost to the point of imitation. I look forward to seeing the genuine article, as it were.
Granted, Molly’s Game does not have an official release date yet. The year could go by without a release and I’d look pretty foolish for putting it in pole position, but this pick is a little more personal than the blockbusters that the eyes of the world will be watching. And in 2017, I’ll be watching quite a bit.