Whether one Martin Scorsese, director of a very good movie (Bringing Out the Dead) would agree, it is possible for a movie to be popcorn-crunching populist pulp and a great film. That’s a joke. I’m joking. And honestly, that discussion will never die on Twitter because there are actually some very good points to be made there.
But on to the list! Last week I ranked my top 10 movies that are not part of a big franchise. Today I’m listing my top 10 that are part of a big old’ cinematic series.
Have at it!
We’ll start here, with a movie that shows just how much you can do with great actors and the gumption to do something different with the genre. Logan is a sad, sometimes tough film to watch. It’s set in an alternate future of sorts, where Professor X is a nonagenarian with devastating psychic tremors, mutants are outlaws, and Logan is a driver and reluctant caretaker. There is a little shred of hope in this sick sad world, in the form of a young girl (the new Wolverine!?) and in the scenes that show just how much these grizzled, long suffering folks actually love one another. I’ve always preferred the X-Men movies to much of the MCU — thanks to their overwhelming earnestness. That’s fully on display here, minus the cloying cuteness the series falls into at times.
Prometheus is legitimately two-thirds of a great movie. It sucks that, with all the script turmoil, the world’s dopiest scientists somehow made the cut, and one key role was just horrifically miscast. These are massive stumbling blocks… and I frankly don’t blame you if they get in the way of Prometheus for you.
But I’m still thrilled that some of the most interesting, big-budget filmmaking of this decade came out of the Alien franchise. At its core, Prometheus is a “big questions of the universe” sci-fi movie with its eyes to the sky and delicious horror trappings (the alien birth scene is a terrifying and fresh homage to the original chestburster). And an excellent main character, Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, gets a performance that really should’ve made Noomi Rapace a proper action star.
This movie also gave us Charlize Theron and Captain Hottie Idris Elba on a spaceship together, making sweet offscreen love. Thank you, Prometheus, for this gift.
It really is too bad about Alien Covenant, though.
8. Magic Mike XXL
When I went to see Magic Mike XXL, for a Polygon review a few years back, I hadn’t seen the first movie. That film was sort of a workplace drama about a band of sexy guys in an all-male revue. I thought I was in for a bro-y road trip comedy starring a bunch of hot assholes, and braced for the worst. What I got — what everyone got in this beautiful treat of a movie — is a bro-y road trip comedy about bros who are actually nice. These dudes care about each other, treat the women in their lives with respect, and have a very, very good time dancing to Backstreet Boys songs.
In one of the early scenes, the (straight) boys go to a drag show. Instead of going for cheap laughs, the movie instead shows our heroes having the time of their LIVES, and driver Tobias, who is not a ripped male entertainer like the rest of the crew, actually wins a prize at the show for shaking it so well. That’s a tiny little thing, but it speaks to how inclusive and friendly and nice this movie is, without once handing down a schmaltzy line.
7. Blade Runner 2049
I have my issues with 2049 (as discussed in this five-star runtime podcast at Waypoint). The movie sidelines people of color and has some uncomfortably archaic notions about women, reveling in old-school male gaze bullshit without doing much work to subvert it. It’s also an astoundingly beautiful movie, with the kind of production design where you can stop on almost every frame for five minutes and just drink in the details of this awful, gorgeous neon world.
6. Black Panther
Of all the Marvel movies, Black Panther feels the most as if it is chafing under the mold of what a massive-budget superhero story can and should be in this decade. There’s a singular vision here, from the brilliant director Ryan Coogler, a cast that should make any lesser movie weep in inferiority, and a great villain — the best kind, really, because he’s right. This is a bold, gorgeous take on the genre, and the evolution of Coogler as a filmmaker. I’m thrilled to see what he does next.
5. John Wick (All of ‘Em, but 3 Is the Best So Far)
Oh, this series. It’s fun, just pure fun, and everything I love in an action-thriller. It has gorgeous, beautifully-choreographed fight scenes. It features astounding cinematography and production design. It stars cool queer and nonbinary characters. But my friends, it has, and it showcases Keanu Reeves at his absolute best.
Keanu Reeves’ delivery.
I have said enough.
4. Star Wars: The Force Awakens & 3. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
I’m going to talk about the currently-released movies of the new trilogy together. Although I want to give the slight nod to The Last Jedi for its sheer audacity. The new Star Wars movies are good. That sounds basic; it sounds reductive, and yes, it’s hard to root too hard for a franchise this big. That’s especially true with the prequel trilogy kind of hanging on in the background like an onerous, particularly capitalistic Force Ghost.
I grew up so obsessed with Star Wars that, as a 13-year-old, I would excitedly don special “flight pants” (these were just, like, windbreaker pants) to repeatedly play the first stage of Shadows of the Empire on my N64. I wrote, directed, and starred in my own Star Wars sketches (on VHS!), and I read every damned book that had a Star Wars label slapped on it. So yes, my nerdy little heart was ready to open up to this universe again, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how good-hearted and fun the newer movies have been, how much I love Rey as a hero, and just how goddamn adorable Finn and Poe are together.
There is a beautiful touch of adventure, warmth, and revolutionary politics here. Even if they aren’t really made for me, I’m glad for the direction they’re taking.
2. Mad Max Fury Road
If you read the first top 10 list, it’s pretty funny that this is here. I’ll keep it quick and make no bones about it; this film deserves all the wild praise it received at the time and still receives today. It still blows my mind that this gorgeous, surreal cinematography and practical effects/props/cars all serve to tell a story of a woman who basically wants to make the world better through empowering other women.
Like all of the Charlize Theron characters on my twin lists this decade — and god, maybe I should be embarrassed by how many there are, but fuck it, it’s my list — there is a common thread. She plays the hyper-competent person, a badass you might say, with a layer or five underneath of complex emotion, courage, or simple guts and intelligence. I can’t help it! I love Charlize Theron in a good action role.
Also, Farscape co-star and then-78-year-old badass/actress Melissa Jaffer is in this movie. She’s worth the price of six Doof Warriors on her own.
Creed is the movie here on this list that kind of justifies the whole thing. It’s a beautiful piece of filmmaking with an excellent script, compelling leads, and a real interest in examining what makes combat sports (obviously boxing in this case) actually work. What makes an athlete and a human being want to put in the work and take the risks to be one of the best in the world, in a dangerous, fleeting, ruthless sport. But it does so without ever reducing lead character Adonis to any kind of archetype. He cares deeply for his family (and his found family, in Rocky), for his girlfriend, herself a talented musician who could lose her gift at anytime, just like him. Michael B. Jordan is fearless in this role, and Ryan Coogler’s direction is sensitive, smart, and nuanced.
Creed is the rare adrenaline-spiking, sometimes literally gut-punching movie that also works as an intimate character study.
Thor, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Thor: Ragnarok, The first 30 minutes of Wonder Woman, The First Purge, X-Men: Days of Future Past