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My 2018 at the Movies, Part 2 of 2: The Year’s Least Worst

mary poppins returns!

Off we go!

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover: In 2018 I made 24 trips to the theater to see films made that same year. In Part 1 we ranked the bottom twelve. And now, the countdown concludes with the twelve most relatively awesome:

12. Mary Poppins Returns. Disney’s recent portfolio is chockablock with too many nostalgic do-overs, face-lifted with advanced graphics and top dollars paid for today’s all-stars to stand in their spotlight. (I still can’t bring myself to click on the new Beauty and the Beast even though it’s conveniently on Netflix.) Points to director Rob Marshall for choosing to sequelize instead of remaking shot-for-shot, a rare context in which a sequel is the aesthetic high road. No one’s making films like the original Mary Poppins anymore, but Marshall, Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda prove it can be done with talent and effort. Time-honored morals come alive again (family is important; civility matters; predatory lenders suck) as sweet sincerity fills the frames with almost too much zeal and “The Cover Is Not a Book” comes closest of any song to approximating the irresistibility of the Sherman brothers’ supernaturally catchy classics.

11. Creed II. Also basically Rocky IV II, in which Son of Creed achieves all his dreams (family! respect! the heavyweight title! oh btw he’s a heavyweight now!) except maybe one: revenge on the man who murdered his dad in the ring. Or at least revenge on his proxy. Ivan Drago’s return to the Rocky Cinematic Neighborhood lacks his first appearance’s shamelessly crowd-pleasing, hyper-jingoist trappings, or the freshness of Ryan Coogler’s sharp-eyed relaunch, but newer fans should be satisfied with the further adventures of Michael B. Jordan and Tessa Thompson in their ongoing ascendancy to popcorn-film royalty.

10. Ant-Man and the Wasp. With the mandatory origin out of the way, Paul Rudd and company were free to kick back, make funnier jokes, devise new size-changing stunts, add “quantum” to every other noun, and step back periodically to let Evangeline Lilly and ninth-inning pinch-hitter Michelle Pfeiffer invade the Marvel boys’ club. It’s wispy and inessential, but a necessary reprieve from Marvel’s as-yet-closure-less Serious Drama that threatens to lead to fan burnout without more traditional flights of fancy like this plucky palate-cleanser. Needed way more Michael Pena, though.

9. Avengers: Infinity War. Comic book crossovers can be a dull, expensive chore when they’re shareholder-mandated annual events that expect you to triple your reading budget for six months, but they’re big fun with bigger climaxes if you’re affluent and/or addicted enough to have caught every single chapter in the story. Over a decade in the making, the third Avengers film is actually the nineteenth in a series, an impenetrable entry point for newcomers but a generous, grandly entertaining reward for those of us who’ve followed along out of zeitgeist fever, brand loyalty, or collect-’em-all compulsion. Points deducted for an over-the-top cliffhanger ending that will obviously be overridden in April’s Avengers: Endgame. As a longtime comics reader, I remembered the “snap” from my teenage years and knew it was coming, but I’m annoyed at how many panic attacks they gave a younger fandom that took a good month or more to stop their meltdowns. I’ve also grown to loathe superhero deaths as a plot device and let them bounce off me as the meaningless, easily reversible fake shocks they are.

8. Aquaman. It took a savvy showman like James Wan to concoct a superhero movie with the overcaffeinated rhythms of a 2½-hour supercut of Fast/Furious trailers and maybe, just maybe, blaze a trail to redemption for the moribund DC Cinematic Universe. Underwater sci-fi armadas, proudly sinister arch-nemeses, creepy monsters,
fantasy side quests, intricately choreographed tracking-shot martial-arts duels, Super-Friends Easter eggs, and a frickin’ Kraken are among the feast of sometimes campy delights that leading macho man Jason Momoa has the pleasure of swimming, strutting, and plowing around and through. The entire cast gets what kind of movie they’re in, and they totally run with it. I can’t sum it up any better than critic Sam Adams, who called it “the best Star Wars movie of the year”.

Chris Hemsworth!

The Cult of Chris Hemsworth is now accepting applications.

7. Bad Times at the El Royale. Films that aren’t fantasy, sci-fi, superheroes, budget-minded horror, or animation have a hard time vying for attention outside Oscar season, and the Kids These Days certainly aren’t clamoring for more film noir. Writer/director Drew Goddard didn’t care and persevered anyway with a sleek, knotty crime thriller that’s as much an homage to favorite olde-tyme flicks as the average Tarantino heist, but minus his irritating tics and excesses. Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm, Chris Hemsworth, and Dakota Johnson mix and mingle with malice and mayhem while relative newcomers Cynthia Erivo and Lewis Pullman bring their own bags of tricks to this tale of fake free-love cults, old promises, dementia, redemption, and dying tourist attractions.

6. Searching. It’s easy and lazy to cry “gimmick” at Aneesh Chaganty’s experimental suspense yarn, staged and shot entirely through recording devices — phones, laptops, old-school PCs, FaceTime, faux YouTube, vintage home videos, TV news, and more — but far more satisfying to watch an artist engage in new media and explore the range of possibilities. It was also immensely gratifying to see John Cho as a leading man for once — not the sidekick, pilot, best friend, or minion. As a desperate father in search of his missing daughter, Cho alternates between panic and determination as he parachutes down countless internet rabbit holes, in search of clues in circles where nothing is as it seems, and someone can live out a warped “real life” built on as many lies as a glossy Instagram profile.

5. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? That one Mister Rogers movie I refuse to shut up about, which everyone will probably criminally forget after the fictionalized Tom Hanks biopic drops in 2019. Not many documentaries hit theaters on our side of town, but we drove the extra mileage for this one because Mister Rogers was worth it, because he made every kid at home feel like they were worth it.

Annihilation!

…uhhhhhhh, you kinda had to be there.

4. Annihilation. Maybe it’s for the best that I haven’t read the original novels, or maybe it’s my loss. Either way Alex Garland, who wrote or directed such past thinking spectacles as Sunshine and Ex Machina, throws everyone headlong into the kind of SF slow-burn mind game that Arrival wanted to be, diving into an angry, ambiguous environment where an all-star women’s league of Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, and Jane the Virgin confront exotic visuals, morphing aliens, floral body horror, each other’s fatal flaws, and the most terrifying villain of the year, that horrid screaming skull-bear. Garland refuses to delineate straightforward answers, daring a new generation of viewers to learn the value of spending hours after a movie debating What The Heck Just Happened. If you insist on unabridged origin stories and hard-coded, spoon-fed answers to every question, the Annihilation art-film challenge is not for you.

3. Mission: Impossible — Fallout. It’s absolutely unfair that Tom Cruise is over halfway to age 110 and can still run, leap, fight, pilot, crash, motorcycle, and HALO-jump harder than a twentysomething NAVY Seal on Super-Soldier Serum. It’s differently miraculous that returning writer/director Christopher McQuarrie found multiple ways to put all those magical skills to use in a literally death-defying, roller-coaster narrative that hops the globe while still remaining surprisingly lucid for this kind of movie, gives the other cast members worthy moments to savor even if they’re nowhere near as wizardly as Cruise’s, has me actually holding my breath in the final seconds of the climax, and quite impossibly makes a sixth film the best one in the series.

2. Black Panther. Director/co-writer Ryan Coogler, co-writer Joe Robert Cole, and the year’s best ensemble were given all the space and latitude they needed to craft Marvel’s most complex live-action film to date, one that’s about more than just superheroes. The moral selfishness of isolationist exceptionalism; the deep cultural differences between Africans and African-Americans; the crucial, corruptible drawbacks to an absolute monarchy system; the decades-ahead-of-its-time, retroactively Afro-futurist take on “what if there was an African nation whose development wasn’t interrupted by invaders”; the role of father figures and the side effects of eliminating them; the consequences of letting women be more awesome than men; and more, more, more are the levels of meaning to be found amid all that A-plus costume-brawling and rhino-wrangling. It came thiiiis close to making #1 on my list but I’m still a smidgen disappointed that Chadwick Boseman, as regal and commanding as he is, gets some great scenes but none of the best scenes. That seems…y’know, unbecoming for a king.

miles morales!

With great teamwork comes great power.

1. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Not the first time an animated feature has locked in the top spot for me. (Fourth year in a row, in fact, now that I check my records. Huh.) Miles Morales, the all-new all-different Spider-Man, makes his big-screen debut in an amazing, spectacular, sensational mixed-media extravaganza starring an entire team of Spider-heroes from different Earths, each rendered in their own styles but synchronized visually and temperamentally. Three directors and co-writer Phil Lord wrangle all those characters and a killer cast (among which a self-parodying Nicolas Cage is arguably the least, but still doing his best work in years) and who-knows-how-many animation teams and more than a few choice super-villains (including Jenny Slate’s wicked turn as the next Doctor Octopus) through a dazzling gauntlet leading toward the brink of potential multiversal destruction, in a manner only achievable through collaborative animation that makes Infinity War‘s massacre look old-fashioned in comparison. At the heart of the movie is the kind of inspirational Moral of the Story we ought to hear today: that anyone — any gender or color or motto, no matter how weirdly drawn or badly out-of-shape — can be a hero if they step up when they hear the call to action. In a year that at long last saw the loss of the legendary Stan Lee himself, Spider-Verse delivers the most apropos Marvel eulogy possible.

…and that was my 2018 at the movies. Check back with us in the months ahead and see how many times I can be cajoled out of my comfy living room for two hours of cinematic splendor out in the wild with other humans!

Fun addendum for longtime MCC readers: my wife Anne, who is extremely selective about when she’ll join us at the movies for a variety of reasons, would rank the eleven 2018 films she saw as follows:

1. Avengers: Infinity War, for being brave enough to kill off the most unexpected characters.

2. Aquaman, for being a fun DC movie.

3. Won’t You Be My Neighbor, for championing kindness and celebrating a remarkable life.

4. Mary Poppins Returns, for that foot-tapping underwater number.

5. Ant-Man and the Wasp, for diverting her time for a couple of friendly hours.

6. Operation: Finale, for showing the complexity of evil…though it’s unlikely the real Peter Malkin spent nearly as much time with Eichmann as he later claimed he did or was portrayed doing in the film.

7. Black Panther: great character, story, visuals, but didn’t connect with her on some levels.

8. First Man: stunning visuals but loses for performance and pacing.

9. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, a popcorn film with two completely irresponsible adults at the end.

10. Solo: A Star Wars Tale, completely unnecessary but rescued by Donald Glover.

11. Incredibles 2, which might’ve been better, but she slept through half of it.

…all of which are outranked by the one 2017 Best Picture nominee she saw, Darkest Hour, which she called “awesome”. I mean, it had WWII stuff in it. The other films never stood a chance. Well, maybe Operation Finale could’ve, but ultimately, nope.

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