The final cuts were A Quiet Place and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.
1. Mission: Impossible – Fallout
I was on a plane a few weeks ago when a man a few rows up in the aisle pulled out a laptop, plugged in his headphones, and put on Mission: Impossible – Fallout. I recognized the scene as being from the third act. I couldn’t hear a thing, but I couldn’t look away. So he watched and I did too, silently, until we were about to land. When the stewardess came over and asked he put the laptop away, the man was visibly annoyed. He hemmed and he hawed. Eventually, he complied. There was a pause. Then he pulled out his phone and resumed the movie. And when I returned home, I rewatched it too, start to finish.
Fallout was so good I went back to Rogue Nation to remind myself how strong that installment had been. Fallout is better. It builds on the franchise like never before, with the reappearance of old characters increasing the stakes and adding emotional heft. It continues Ilsa’s arc (Rebecca Ferguson), her one of the most compelling characters in the series. It deftly develops Walker (Henry Cavill), a perfect counterweight to the unsettling quiet menace of the returning Solomon Lane (Sean Harris). The set pieces are insane and Tom Cruise is reliably fantastic. Mission: Impossible – Fallout is the best of the series, the most watchable movie of the year, and my favorite movie of the year.
Tully is an affecting and effective depiction of the realities of motherhood, and of the struggles—everyday and existential—that accompany adulthood. It is a small movie that is steady and comfortable with its scope and as a result finds intimacy and meaning. It is raw and honest and from that derives moments of genuine humor and warmth and insight. The intergenerational relationship at the center of the story, between Marlo (Charlize Theron) and her night nanny Tully (MacKenzie Davis) is wonderfully introduced in the way in which they probe and share and start to grow closer.
Then Tully becomes more. The relationship fleshes out, with a blend of admiration and curiosity, Tully’s boundless joy and understanding engaging Marlo’s cynicism and wisdom and wistfulness and nostalgia. There’s an impulsive, out-of-character night out which is set up to go somewhere and it does but certainly not in the expected direction, until it gets there and it makes so much fucking sense and adds even more depth to every conversation, every interaction that has come before. There is beauty in Tully’s humanity, all the more so because of the blemishes it is unafraid to show.
The last time I returned to Hong Kong, I entered the heart of the city on a Sunday. And as I approached, I was struck by what I saw. Street after street closed off to vehicular access. Far as the eye could see, there were just women sitting on the ground, having little picnics, with sparse open space among them. They, I was later told, were the live-in maids of upper and middle-class families, largely Filipina, enjoying their one day off for the week with their countrywomen. The scene left an indelible memory. The sounds of life, of vibrance and joy from those who find dignity and purpose and love in a world altogether foreign for those of us fortunate enough to have greater opportunity.
I couldn’t help but recall this when watching Roma. Alfonso Cuarón’s latest shares that dignity and purpose and love through a year in the life of a housekeeper in Mexico City. Roma is encompassing in a way few films are, patient and respectful of the mundanities of Cleo’s reality (Yalitza Aparicio) and of the complexity of her relationship with her employers-slash-family. And while Cleo’s life is not detached from changes in both the smaller and larger worlds around her, nothing is thrust upon her. There is not a melodramatic moment in the film, not a single misstep. And it is in its steady serene beauty that gives the finale an unexpectedly overwhelming emotional punch.
4. Three Identical Strangers
Identical triplets, separated at birth, reunited by chance. The story traced by the documentary, and revealed by the title, appears on its face quite simple—if obviously compelling. But this is merely the beginning. Three Identical Strangers has a full deck up its sleeve and director Tim Wardle masterfully structures the tale so that each card gets its due course. He handles the moments at hand with proper care even while hinting at what is to come. Through a mix of interviews, re-enactments, and archival footage, the narrative entertains, flowing cohesively through every twist.
The reunion is remarkable, naturally, but the story truly begins when it details how the brothers’ lives changed as a consequence thereof. It speaks to the benefit of time having passed prior to the retelling. From there, innocuous discoveries of commonalities and differences in the triplets’ personalities open a window to the environments in which each was raised. And from there, revelations about the disturbing truth behind their separation and adoption pushes the narrative in yet another direction, to confront much weightier themes. At every turn, Three Identical Strangers is riveting.
5. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Spider-Man’s origin story has been told time and again to the point of exhaustion, including revisits by reboots and retcons by sequels. But Into the Spider-Verse retells it without the audience even realizing it is happening. This is because Miles Morales’ story takes place in a world with a Spider-Man. He acquires his powers while a bigger conflict takes place. He accepts his responsibility as other characters deal with the immediacy of that conflict. Yet the complexity of the timeline does not render Miles’ story secondary; rather it imbues it with context, meaning, and urgency even as it is being told.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse manages to provide the sharpest and funniest depiction of the character to date. The relationships at the heart of the movie—between Miles (Shameik Moore), his father (Brian Tyree Henry), and his uncle (Mahershala Ali); and Miles and a reluctant Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson)—are well-developed, lending each story arc emotional weight. That this particular universe is fresh to most eyes also allows some genuine surprises along the way. Spider-Man’s been done to death, yes. But Into the Spidey-Verse knows that, and partly because of it, does it better than ever before.
6. The Guilty (Den Skylidge)
A Hijacking (Kapringen) was one of my favorites of 2012. It depicted a cargo ship hijacking primarily through the eyes of the lead negotiator, the company’s CEO. The Guilty (Den Skylidge), another Danish movie, takes that “conference room” concept to the next level, residing entirely in the call office of an emergency dispatcher. Yet its script is stronger than comparable high-concept thrillers like Buried and Phone Booth. Carried by Jakob Cedergren’s performance, and under the direction of Gustav Möller, the film develops a compelling narrative, creating tension with every uncertainty, every pause. Meanwhile, the turns in the story present themselves not as unexpected twists but the product of the slow drip of information that befits the extreme circumstance. The Guilty is sensational.
7. Crazy Rich Asians
It is to the credit of Crazy Rich Asians that it manages to be at all relatable. The “crazy rich” part is certainly fun, through jaw-dropping visuals of opulence and larger-than-life characters from that world—notably bestie Goh Peik (Awkwafina). But the movie smartly remains grounded in Rachel’s story (Constance Wu). Themes of identity and belonging resonate, while the Asian elements of the film are interwoven naturally into the proceedings, a nice bonus for an underserved audience, myself included. These and the performances, notably from Michelle Yeoh, elevate the script from its rom-com base and “meet the parents” archetype. This is best exemplified in the climatic mahjong showdown—one of my favorite scenes of the year.
For all the flaws of the Marvel endeavor, the 18 movies put together have indeed created a truly unique cinematic universe. And for all the flaws of Avengers: Infinity War, the movie utilizes and builds upon that foundation in a manner unlike any of its predecessors – including Avengers 1 and 2 and Captain America: Civil War. The script feels lean and mean, events taking place with a sense of urgency. Thanos (Josh Brolin) is fleshed out, his motivations clear. There are quips and witticisms but this is as restrained as a Marvel movie gets. The serious tone helps to underline the stakes, which become further evident with the staggering scale of the titular war. The action sequences are striking, the fallout… to be determined. No, Infinity War does not stand on its own. But it is a genuine achievement.
9. Teen Titans Go! to the Movies
Teen Titans Go! To the Movies might be the funniest movie I watched this year. It’s properly meta (about the team’s search for legitimacy through a big screen adaptation of their exploits), but grounded enough (about the team’s need for a formidable villain to get that movie) to keep the breezy adventure on the rails. The script effectively utilizes the team dynamic, while carving out small spaces for familiar characters. Start to finish there are fantastic gags that subvert genre expectations and play off the unfortunate DC film universe. Then there are just ludicrously funny moments – the Lion King dream sequence and the denouement / cut to credits being two standouts. It’s a blast.
Searching is a gimmick movie that more than justifies its gimmick. The decision to tell the story through screens feels natural because of the times we live in, and all the more because of the age of the missing character (Michelle La). Later, every text, email, and contact on those screens becomes a potential clue for David Kim (John Cho) as he seeks to uncover the truth about his daughter; the excess of data now both feeding into his desperation and building tension for the audience. Finally, as events unfold, the storytelling method helps to preserve some genuine twists. Searching is almost necessarily clunky at times, as the truth unravels and the story expands against its time and space constraints, but it is committed enough, inventive enough, and gripping enough to be well worth the investment.
And my most disliked movie this year.
The Meg is an unremarkable movie about a 75-foot shark, and thus it is a terrible movie. There are no good one-liners, no memorable scenes, minimal unintentional comedy. The characters are boring, their motivations questionable. Jason Statham’s limited acting ability is noticeable in a script that requires his character be tortured (not stoic), determined (not brooding), and at times charismatic (not nothing). The lack of any sort of consistent tone, let alone logic or structure, makes the movie worse, and sporadic attempts to create gravitas are not only telegraphed well in advance but executed poorly. The pandering to the Chinese audience is obnoxious. Everything about The Meg is awful.