It’s listing time again! In today’s entertainment consumption sphere, all experiences must be pitted against each other and assigned numeric values that are ultimately arbitrary to anyone except the writer themselves. It’s just this fun thing some of us love doing even though the rules are made up and the points don’t matter.
I saw thirty films in theaters in 2018 — a new personal record — but six were Best Picture nominees officially released in 2017 and therefore disqualified from this list, because I’m an unreasonable stickler about dates. Ranking those six from Best to Least Best:
- Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
- Phantom Thread
- Darkest Hour
- Call Me by Your Name
- The Shape of Water
- The Post
(Yes, I know it’s an abnormal order. That’s why those entries were mostly ignored and why I’ll forever be a hobbyist and not a pro.)
Of the remaining 24 contenders that I saw in theaters, we had eight super-hero films, two of those animated; seven non-superhero sequels, one of those animated; two prequels; three adaptations of printed works; one documentary; and three live-action original works, one of which was based on a true story. Obviously you’ll note the following list is far from comprehensive in covering 2018’s release slate. Once again this was a busy year during which I failed to spend gas money on every film that caught my attention. On the bright side, 24 films is a 14% increase over my total for 2018, which in itself wasn’t a bad year. (As a sort of amends, I did manage to catch one of 2018’s best and most outrageous films later on Hulu. Due to my own rules, though, it’ll have to settle for a forthcoming “MCC Home Video Update” entry.)
Here’s what I didn’t miss in theaters in 2018, for better or worst-of-the-worst. Links to past reviews and thoughts are provided for historical reference. And now, on with the bottom half of the countdown:
24. Pacific Rim: Uprising. Guillermo Del Toro’s popcorn mega-film captured the willfully absurd, triumphantly wooden, shamelessly explosive spirit of all the best rubber-suits-vs.-clunky-robots spectacles of our childhoods and laid the groundwork for further adventures in the grand Godzilla tradition. That spirit was largely lost on this sequel as poor John Boyega slogged through a derivative melange of teen-soldier gravitas, hollow monsters, forgettable lookalike robots, and by-the-numbers downtown demolitions. A stiff homework assignment in checking off tropes instead of reveling in them.
23. The Predator. This would’ve ranked at the bottom if I hadn’t watched it at a “Dolby Theater at AMC” with a phenomenal sound system (I’m a sucker for a volume-11 experience) that held my brain in check till I walked out the door and the thinking parts rebooted. It’s my own fault, I suppose — a Shane Black festival of explosions and quotable tough guys used to be a guilty pleasure. I got the explosions, but the guys — a few of them rather magnetic actors — played the kind of crude, buffoonish, repulsive macho meatheads that seem to crawl out of the woodwork whenever I’m stuck in a room with too many males in it. “Boys will be boys” doesn’t do much for me nowadays, either in the company I keep or in the action escapism I crave, which is why I’ve never worked up the bravado to watch any of the Expendables series.
22. Solo: A Star Wars Story. Ron Howard salvaged what he could after Phil Lord and Chris Miller were fired for incorrectly Star Wars-ing, but he failed to fix the troubled production’s most foundational flaw: no one needed a Han Solo movie without Harrison Ford, especially not a secret origin. A New Hope told us everything we needed to know: he’s a wily rogue who’s open to negotiating his scruples. End of origin. Whoever was in charge of Lucasfilm’s spin-off brainstorming sessions confused “which characters do people love most” with “which characters would yield essential tales no fan will want to miss”. Parts of this could’ve made an above-average sci-fi film if the SW logos and serial numbers had been filed off (the train robbery and Paul Bettany’s crime lord deserved a better home), but they’re overshadowed by the banal overload of obligatory Easter-egging and prequel/first-trilogy connect-the-dots games (“…and that’s the story of how Han got his name!” Are you KIDDING ME WITH THIS), which used to be fun bonuses in geeks’ favorite films but in recent years have become lazy ways to reverse-engineer brand-extending corporate product.
21. Ready Player One. Based on the multiple excerpts I’ve been exposed to, the original novel was a self-indulgent Mary Sue fanfic starring Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons as a thin teen genius romping through an Enterprise-D holosuite version of Kingdom Hearts in which all the Disney worlds were replaced by quests extrapolated from his own collections, of which he was the only true master in all the universe, all of which he felt compelled to explain at length like a compulsive Wikipedia editor, just in case the other characters or the readers all lived in caves. I mean, okay, I talk like that sometimes myself, but not to everyone nonstop, only in quick one-clause exposition if I can help it, and I certainly wouldn’t want to hear me jabbering away like that for 400 pages straight. I appreciate Steven Spielberg jettisoning those worst parts (albeit rewritten by the author himself) and going for more of a glossy thrill-ride feel (the extended Kubrick homage is the most audacious thing he’s done in years), but I’ve also become sensitively skeptical about works purportedly For Geeks By Geeks that think my childhood was all about grooming me into the ideal consumer drone for nostalgia-addiction cash-in attempts such as this very one.
20. Incredibles 2. Brad Bird’s original Incredibles remains one of the three best Pixar films ever. Since they haven’t made too many sequels yet, his follow-up ranks as their fourth-best sequel ever, in the middle of that vast quality gulf between Monsters University and Cars 2. Our Heroes return for perfectly adequate superheroics, though so bogged down in trying to solve the first film’s “superheroes are illegal” premise that this film never quite claims a unique premise to call its own. Also, the genre has expanded quite a bit in the fourteen years since the first one. We have enough choices today that “perfectly adequate” translates into “would make a fine Netflix viewing or Redbox rental”, not really a must-see upon release.
19. Operation Finale. As long as someone keeps making new World War II films, Anne and I will always have a new excuse for a date that doesn’t involve superheroes or shopping. The true story of Adolf Eichmann’s 1960 capture and extraction from South America benefits from Ben Kingsley playing a more dignified, non-snarly menace for once, because evil is not always about bulging eyes, wild gesticulating, or raging speeches. The rest of the cast, including an unusually solemn Oscar Isaac, for some reason downshift their energy levels below Kingsley’s, resulting in a low-key heist flick whose entire third act diverges from the reality for the sake of a Hollywood climax virtually photocopied from Argo. But I got to learn some history from the parts they didn’t alter, so that was nice.
18. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. I was one of six people nationwide who got crotchety with Jurassic World, but I had a slightly better time with J.A. Bayona’s sequel. Act One was mostly in the trailer. Act Two kept the film’s stars — i.e., all the dinosaurs — cooped up in unexciting cages and boxes, thus risking the wrath of a lot of impatient five-year-olds who are there for DINOSAUR ACTION. The cliffhanger ending was one of the colossally stupidest Idiot Plot moments of the year, in which all the adults turned into slack-jawed yokels. Sandwiched between those failures was an incongruous but stylish creepy-house suspense thriller that leaped from perfect shot to perfect shot while Chris Pratt, Action Hero, finally remembered it was okay to be cocky instead of stiff as an ironing board, and Bryce Dallas Howard worked hard to let go of the silly albatross that was her controversial pair of heels.
17. Venom. Tom Hardy AND Tom Hardy costar in the year’s best buddy-antihero black comedy. Its trailers boasted “THE WORLD HAS ENOUGH SUPER-HEROES” but its makers were content to rely on their clichés, waste Riz Ahmed in the role of Venom’s eviler twin, and, in a perverse pair of twists, make the protagonist a crappy journalist and the antagonist a sinister climate-change worrier. In that sense it’s one of the least “woke” films of the year, but audiences here and overseas couldn’t get enough. Lesson learned: there’s no such thing as a film with too much Tom Hardy in it. They could’ve doubled the grosses if Tom Hardy had played all the speaking roles, including Michelle Williams’.
16. Ralph Breaks the Internet. Most of the social media jokes and viral-video spoofs arrived badly dated by actual internet standards, instantly obsolete and probably hilarious to your over-50 Facebook friends. The preponderance of corporate-brand placement, especially of Disney’s own — positioned as self-parody, but with a firm line drawn in the sand by Marketing — were egregious distractions straining to fake today’s online reality by pretending not to be ads. But amid all that greedy gleaming, the reason to care about any of this sequel was the duo caught in the middle. John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman pull off a delicate, sometimes painful duet in portraying a real-life conflict rarely done well in cinema: what happens when best friends slowly realize they’re not best friends anymore. That’s a tough Moral of the Story for an all-ages film to pull off, and one that deserves deeper discussions after viewing.
15. Deadpool 2. Longtime MCC readers tend to close their browsers quickly whenever I gripe about pervasive strong language, one of many pet peeves that ensures I’ll never belong to any of the really cool internet cliques, but the subservience to F-bombs was an unnecessary crutch for what could’ve been one of the best X-Men films ever. It captures the right vibe, distills the original X-comics into their more essentials but with value-added coherence, delivers fantastic comic-book battles, and wisely grooms Josh Brolin into a far better Cable than I thought was possible. Perhaps I should’ve been among the (admittedly tiny) target audience for the PG-13 cut, but it was buried in a far-too-overcrowded holiday season. If it helps, I put two R-rated films in the Top 10 in the next entry. Neither of them went overboard like Ryan Reynolds and his amazing friends did, though.
14. First Man. I’m a little ashamed I didn’t catch that many For Your Oscar Consideration titles before New Year’s. We’re always up for a rousing celebration of America’s victories in the space race, particularly the greatest achievement of all. Damien Chazelle and his effects teams recreate the moon landing with astonishing You Are There accuracy in both sight and sound, but the events leading up to it might have worked batter as an ensemble piece rather than narrowing the focus through the introverted Neil Armstrong, who wasn’t in it for the glorification and probably would’ve preferred to have the credit shared with the entire team.
13. Bumblebee. Travis Knight, hero of the toy store, stole Transformers from the clutches of Michael Bay (the “Al of Al’s Toy Barn” in this analogy) and gifted them unto all the robot-loving kids who were supposed to be their biggest fans in the first place. Hailee Steinfeld ruled as the emotional core that the first five films lacked, by extension forcing the filmmakers and animators to up their game to keep up with her. Some of it is a bit too simplistic (hey, kids! Isn’t it cool when the military are dummies!), but hopefully the middling box office doesn’t convince Paramount to disown the quality turnaround this frequently embarrassing franchise needed.
To be concluded!