10. I Am Mother
We all know that AI and robots will rule Earth when we’re all gone, but what this movie supposes is maybe they’ll attempt to bring us back or keep us around. The main machine in Grant Sputore‘s feature debut, I Am Mother, is known only as Mother (voiced by Rose Byrne), and she’s made it her mission to raise the future of humanity. For now, she’s got one young woman (Clara Rugaard) dwelling with her in an elaborate bunker. She’s known only as Daughter and she loves physical fitness and episodes of The Tonight Show when Johnny Carson was the host. Suddenly, Daughter’s world is turned upside down by the appearance of another woman (Hillary Swank, best I’ve seen her in years) at the door of their shelter from what’s supposed to be an uninhabitable world.
Chaos and contemplation ensue, as they do in the best kind of science fiction. And while the premise appears to be simple and familiar on the surface — outsider arrives, disrupting the flow of a seemingly safe and relatively ideal life — where the movie goes with it is not as predictable or easy as you’d imagine. I Am Mother is an impressive, economical first film, never too showy, though also never as fun as something like the comparable Ex Machina. Its titular machine is one of the most “fleshed out” and complex robots in cinema yet, practically portrayed and believable to the point that you might take her for granted as a character as the movie goes. But afterward, you’re thinking about her for a long time.
With three very enjoyable movies now under its belt, the jumbled hodgepodge that is the DC Extended Universe is no longer deserving of disrespect. Shazam! really sealed it by being the most consistent in its focus and standard of quality. Aside from its easy elevator pitch of it being Big meets Superman, this adaptation doesn’t feel like something devised by studio executives and written by committee. Its smaller scope and price tag probably made that feasible, resulting in the movie its screenwriter (Henry Gayden) and director (David F. Sandberg) wholly intended, right up to the questionable non-kid-friendly bits.
Zachary Levi is a hoot as the title character, especially in his scenes opposite fraternal sidekick Jack Dylan Grazer, despite Billy Batson’s personality not lining up well between teen (Asher Angel) and superhero forms. And the rest of the cast nicely fills out what’s ultimately and surprisingly a comic book movie with a lot of warmth, just enough to make you feel good without getting a bellyache from too much sweetness. Everything works, from the comedic tone to the action set pieces to the motivations of the villain, wonderfully played by Mark Strong. Shazam! 2 can’t come soon enough.
8. Fast Color
Since the rise of the superhero movie genre as a dominant presence in cinema, plenty of storytellers have explored the idea of what it would be like if costumed crusaders or people with special abilities existed in the real world. Julia Hart‘s Fast Color is probably the closest thing to a correct answer. The small, stiff, slow film makes even the similarly plotted Midnight Special look like an epic action spectacular. Gugu Mbatha-Raw takes the lead as a woman on the run from government agents and scientists. She heads back home to reconnect with her mother and the daughter she abandoned years ago.
They have abilities, too. And the effects involved in their powers are very cool and beautiful. Yet this isn’t a film to watch for dazzling magic or astonishing feats or heroes saving the day. Fast Color is mainly a drama about three generations of women who’ve inherited gifts that go back through their family for centuries. They mainly involve breaking things apart and putting them back together, metaphorically reminding me of The Brother from Another Planet (which also happens to co-star David Strathairn). This, too, is a little film with big ideas executed tremendously.
7. Avengers: Endgame
Last year, Avengers: Infinity War just barely made my list of the best sci-fi and fantasy movies of 2018. And in a tie with Aquaman. Avengers: Endgame obviously fares much better. Like Infinity War, it’s a whole lot of movie. It also feels like a series finale for a decade-long TV show that just happened to play out on the big screen over 22 super-sized episodes. To that, it’s a surprisingly satisfying conclusion (unlike Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker), wrapping up multiple character arcs and plotlines, including some we didn’t even realize needed such focus — this is, unexpectedly, Nebula’s movie as much as it is Iron Man or Captain America’s.
How and where Endgame will place down the road, both within the Marvel Cinematic Universe and against other comic book and superhero movies overall, is unclear. The Avengers sequel is hardly able to exist on its own. For this year, though, the experience of sitting through its three hours, divided into the three acts of serious drama in melancholic mourning, fun adventures with (Back to the Future referencing) time-travel fan service, and an overpopulated yet thrilling splash-page of a climax, especially as a follow-up to the messy misery of Infinity War, was outstanding.
6. High Life
The first of two movies on this list about people spending the rest of their lives on a spaceship to nowhere, Claire Denis‘ first English-language feature is mesmerizing one moment and difficult to watch in the next, Tarkovskian in its pleasures and its provocation. Robert Pattinson stars in High Life as one of a group of convicts involuntarily sent off as guinea pigs on a mission to a black hole. Along the way, they’re subjected to reproduction experiments but are denied sexual activity outside of the masturbatory experiences inside a chamber called a “fuckbox.” That all goes about as smoothly as you’d presume.
The story offers intrigue as it begins with Pattinson’s character alone on the ship with a baby and then plays out in flashbacks to show what has happened to the rest, but the plot isn’t as important as specific stunning moments and Denis’ own study of her characters and exploration of humanity. Your appreciation of the original Solaris will very likely match your appreciation of High Life, only this movie has more body fluids to wade through. Pattinson is great. André Benjamin surprises. Juliet Binoche was born to play a mad scientist. But not enough people have celebrated Mia Goth‘s strength in the role that surely suffers the most. She continues to be a superb staple of the most unsettling cinema of late.