If there is one thing I've learned from reviewing blockbuster movies, it's that the best of them can easily stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their more artsy counterparts. As a result, when ranking the best blockbuster films of 2018, I have to applaud the filmmakers for transcending the crass roots of such enterprises — the drive to simply make a lot of money with a disposable product, as one sees with the movies of Michael Bay or Adam Sandler — and putting out motion pictures that deserve to be regarded as works of art.
I hope it's a coincidence that "Bumblebee" is both the best reviewed "Transformers" movie and the one with the weakest opening at the box office of the entire series. If there is a causal relationship between these two facts, that means that audiences prefer the headache-inducing cinematography, broad and stereotypical characters, and vulgar comedy of the five Michael Bay-helmed installments. It would also mean that a film which is heartfelt, funny, genuinely nostalgic and capable of staging coherent action sequences is not what audiences want from a "Transformers" movie.
These things cannot be true . . . or, at least, I desperately hope that that isn't the case.
If you ever watched the Adult Swim sketch show "Robot Chicken," you may remember the running joke in which Aquaman was ridiculed by his fellow DC superheroes for not having any of his own movies and, in general, being considered pretty lame. Thanks to director James Wan and star Jason Momoa, those sketches are thankfully out-of-date. While "Aquaman" doesn't achieve the transcendent greatness of "Wonder Woman," it is an entertaining flick with lush visuals, spectacular action scenes and a strong central performance by Momoa himself. Plus there is a scene in which an octopus plays a set of bongo drums, which is special in all sorts of ways.
While some critics have referred to "Mission: Impossible — Fallout" as one of the greatest action movies of all time, I suspect that assessment won't hold up over time. This isn't because "Mission: Impossible — Fallout" is a bad movie, or even one that action aficionados shouldn't check out. The action set pieces are meticulously crafted and thrillingly executed, and the fact that Tom Cruise performs his own stunts easily earns him the right to be ranked alongside action legends like Jackie Chan. At the same time, the story of "Mission: Impossible — Fallout" is generic; it's pretty much the same plot that we've seen in the other franchise installments save for the first one (which was excessively convoluted). There is nothing really memorable about the characters, the stakes for which they're fighting (the world needs to be saved from a bland terrorist with cookie cutter motives) and while Cruise is great as an action star, the character of Ethan Hunt lacks the flavor of a James Bond, Jason Bourne, Jack Ryan or John McClane.
None of this means I wouldn't recommend "Mission: Impossible — Fallout." Those action scenes are genuinely breathtaking and Cruise deserves tremendous credit for putting himself in physical peril well into his 50s. For an action movie to be among the greatest of all time, though, it has to have more than just great action in it (see "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Die Hard," "Skyfall"). This is a standard that "Mission: Impossible — Fallout" simply doesn't meet.
At a time when superhero movies feel less like the result of an independent vision and more like the latest serial in a larger series — in other words, more like TV episodes and less like actual movies — "Venom" deserves credit for taking the bold step of being self-contained. Similarly, instead of weighing itself down in the melodramatic ponderousness of a "Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice" or "Avengers: Infinity War," "Venom" opts to be like the cheesy, silly and unambitious superhero flicks of the '90s. It seems counterintuitive to praise this kind of creative modesty as bold, but bleak is chic these days, so seeing "Venom" star Tom Hardy climb into a lobster tank and chow down on raw crustaceans is a welcome change of pace. Given that "Venom" grossed more than $800 million worldwide on a budget of roughly $100 million, it is safe to say that there will be sequels, and I hope they don't lose touch with this rough-and-ready ethos. "Venom" was made for repeated, intoxicated and joyous DVD viewings.
It's hard to say if "The Incredibles 2" counts as a superhero movie. Technically speaking it is a movie about superheroes, of course, but qualitatively "The Incredibles 2" doesn't transcend its Pixar origins to feel like something out of the Marvel or DC canon. From start to finish, it feels much more like a Pixar film than a traditional superhero movie, but this works to its favor. Instead of being bloated and action-heavy, "The Incredibles 2" entertains you by focusing on the misadventures of the Parr family as they deal with the same kinds of stresses that non-superpowered families also experience. The scenes with Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) dealing with the budding powers of his infant son Jack-Jack are especially memorable; anyone who has had to care for a baby can imagine the aneurysms they'd have if that normal baby could also turn into a demon, light itself on fire, grow to gigantic size and enter other dimensions at will.
This is the Jamie Lee Curtis show.
There are other things that work about this "Halloween" sequel. It is masterfully paced, preserves the mystery and menace surrounding the Michael Myers character, contains excellent gore effects and — by ignoring every other "Halloween" film except the first one — removes the contrived plot twist of having Laurie Strode (Curtis) actually be Myers' long-lost sister. Yet the real reason "Halloween" works is that Curtis adds a new layer to the iconic status of the character she has been playing for 40 years. Instead of being simply a final girl, Curtis is a hybrid of Sarah Connor from "Terminator 2" and Nancy Thompson from "A Nightmare on Elm Street 3." She is a tough, fierce and intelligent warrior, one who can more than capably take on the franchise's chief baddie, and yet becomes fascinatingly complex as a trauma victim still grappling with her PTSD. Even people who don't like horror movies can appreciate Curtis' central performance.
On a superficial level, "Ralph Breaks the Internet" invites comparison to the 2017 film "The Emoji Movie." Both are animated family fare that try to offer clever commentary about the Internet and are rife with meta-humor, pop culture references and product placement.
The difference, of course, is that "Ralph Breaks the Internet" is a highlight of the genre and "The Emoji Movie" is a cynical cash-grab. As a result, I would almost recommend watching these two movies back-to-back if anyone wants a double-feature demonstrating how a movie's quality relies on how it executes its core ideas rather than on the intrinsic merit of those concepts. A film in which '80s arcade characters wander into cyberspace and meet Disney princesses, Marvel superheroes and various stand-ins for real-life companies could have easily failed, but the filmmakers behind "Ralph Breaks the Internet" had two things going for them: a genuinely sweet story about the evolving friendship between Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), and funny and insightful observations about the Disney and internet properties they were featuring. As a result, "Ralph Breaks the Internet" works where a less heartfelt movie with a similar idea did not.
3. "Deadpool 2"
While the legacy of "Deadpool 2" has been partially marred by the theatrical release of "Once Upon a Deadpool" — a glorified DVD special feature that was cynically sent to theaters to pad out this movie's box office haul — this flick is still one of the funniest movies of the year. Chief credit of course belongs to star and co-writer Ryan Reynolds, who has become as iconic in the titular role as Robert Downey Jr. is as Tony Stark/Iron Man. He is the Michael Jordan of mixing frat boy humor, pop culture references and meta-humor/fourth wall breaking with genuinely thrilling superheroics; it looks so effortless that you can forget how much skill and craftsmanship goes into the endeavor. Director David Leitch and co-writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick also deserve considerable credit as well for creating a story that takes the piss out of blockbuster cinema's most fashionable genre while still delivering a serviceable entry of their own. (Watch David Leitch discuss "Deadpool 2" on SalonTV.)
I was not a fan of "Jurassic World," which had an ingenuous premise — seeing real-looking dinosaurs wreak havoc in a theme park — and then skimped on both the realism of the dinosaurs and the theme park-based set pieces. "Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom" rectifies both of these shortcomings by producing dinosaurs that look flesh-and-blood and making the most of its two new ideas: That of dinosaurs being used for more than entertainment and, consequently, appearing in set pieces that take place off of their traditional island setting. In the process, "Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom" includes some interesting ideas about animal rights specifically and applying ethics to advancing technologies more broadly. It also serves as a fitting bookend to the original "Jurassic Park" movie in a way that previous sequels did not. By destroying the island of Isla Nublar via volcano eruption, director J. A. Bayona and writers Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow not only force the franchise to move past the safety of the formula that animated the first four films, but also provide poignant, even heart-wrenching scenes of dinosaur deaths that seem to symbolize our own nostalgia for the classic first movie. That lingering shot of the brontosaurus roaring in sadness as it realizes it was left behind to die still haunts me.
It's not even close: When ranking the blockbusters of 2018, "Black Panther" is in a category all by itself.
The challenge for any genre picture that aspires to greatness is that it must execute a paradoxical task: Excelling in its adherence to a formula while being about something more than the sum of its parts. "Black Panther" achieved both of these things. As a superhero movie, it creates a rich mythology around its titular protagonist Black Panther/T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and Wakanda, the fantastical African kingdom he rules as a benevolent monarch. The special effects are top notch, the dialogue is smart and the action set pieces are among the most skillfully executed of the year, surpassed only by those seen in "Mission Impossible: Fallout."
Yet "Black Panther" is more than your standard superhero movie, and the reason is simple: What director and co-writer Ryan Coogler, co-writer Joe Robert Cole and co-star Michael B. Jordan did with the character of N'Jadaka/Erik "Killmonger" Stevens. He is an outspoken political radical, an ideological visionary whose outrage about racial, economic and political injustices prompts him to foment a revolution. His observations are more relevant to the real world than much of the bloviating you'll find on television, YouTube or message board comments sections, and the conflict between his militant idealism and Wakandan conservatism drives both the movie's plot and Killmonger's own Shakespearean lust for power. The political message carries an intelligence sorely lacking in equally ambitious superhero movies (such as Thanos' half-baked Malthusianism in "Avengers: Infinity War"). These qualities guarantee that long after other pop culture ephemera from 2018 has faded into obscurity, "Black Panther" will be remembered and rewatched.
In short, it is fitting that "Black Panther" was the highest grossing film in the United States this year. Indeed, it deserves to be regarded as one of the best movies of the year. If the Oscars fail to recognize this, they will provide their critics with a powerful exhibit in the case against the Academy's own cultural relevance.
Dishonorable Mention: "Avengers — Infinity War"
If reader responses are any indication, my negative review for "Avengers: Infinity War" is one of the most controversial I've ever penned. It is one that I didn't like writing either; I had hoped that "Avengers: Infinity War" would find a way to weave its dozens of characters and innumerable plots and subplots into a coherent, compelling story of its own. That it failed is hardly surprising, but that isn't the bigger problem. The main issue that "Avengers: Infinity War" seems to be ushering in a trend in which movies are becoming indistinguishable from TV shows. Instead of feeling like self-contained stories, movies like "Avengers: Infinity War" are, as I wrote in my review, " a 'movie loaf,' somewhat akin to the prepackaged mystery meat available at the deli counter. It's a combination of various parts and pieces that could have been organic parts of something that was originally tasty, but here get ground up and mixed together."
There is one good thing about "Avengers: Infinity War" and that is the end, which was powerful and bold in ways that one rarely sees from genre pictures. That said, anyone who wants to get the best that this film has to offer can skip ahead to the final 20 minutes and spare themselves two hours plus of narrative chaos that precede it. As for this film's legacy, I fear that it may be inspiring more films to be episodic rather than authentic.