Filmmaker Michael Almereyda is a poet of emotional concision, expressing recessive human textures through a pared sense of editing, staging, and collage. Almereyda’s two superb new films—Escapes and Marjorie Prime, a documentary about Blade Runner screenwriter Hampton Fancher and a sci-fi-tinged chamber drama, respectively—both rely on the sorts of intricate juxtapositions that have formed the bedrock of the filmmaker’s cinema. From his modern-day Dracula cover, Nadja, to the prescient corporate machinations of Hamlet, to the profoundly neurotic power of Experimenter, Almereyda has followed his own idiosyncratic interests, uncovering fleeting glimpses of the concentric patterns that unite all art as well as life. We talked about the origins of Escapes, the visual influences behind Marjorie Prime, and a bit about the stories that hide in between the lines of art.
I’m curious about your interview process with Hampton Fancher. How long did it take to record him for Escapes?
The original impulse came in 2012, and I’ve known Hampton a long time. We’re pretty good friends, and it was like extending a conversation rather than having a series of interviews. It was just me and usually one other person visiting him in his apartment, and it was kind of casual. We had a few sessions over maybe three or four years.
Did the project initially have a different intention? Did it grow out of something else?
It did. I don’t know if you’ve seen a short film I did called Skinningrove. Did you, by any chance?
I’ve seen it, yes.
Well, Escapes came out of that, because that was done with another friend, someone I knew well. Skinningrove came out of a slide collection and, even though it took two hours to shoot, it took practically a whole summer to edit because it was so distilled. I learned something from that film about measuring or pairing images with commentary. In some ways it’s an obvious thing, but Skinningrove felt more open-ended and more revealing than I expected. The thing is, of course, when you look at a photograph of a person there’s a lot that you can’t know. Even if you consider it a great photograph, there’s a lot of missing information, narrative, and emotion. Of course it’s the same or even more so with the moving image.
There’s a movie that Hampton’s girlfriend from some time back did called Blue Hawaii. Joan Blackman and Hampton were involved for a while and she’s the one starlet that didn’t sleep with Elvis after starring in one of his movies. Hampton told a story about Blue Hawaii, which has this breezy, idyllic quality. But to recognize what was going on while these images and scenes and happy musical numbers were being filmed was pretty remarkable, and I thought I could make a short film with Hampton’s commentary and scenes from Blue Hawaii. When he told that story for the camera, maybe because it was the first time that we were doing it, it just wasn’t as alive or as interesting as I imagined. Another story he told about Teri Garr felt more vital, and more personal in a certain way—in a way that began to connect to other stories.
You know from seeing the movie that there are a series of episodes, almost each one involves something that could be called a near-death experience. Something that Hampton emerges from and has to survive, and there’s usually a woman involved too. So there’s a kind of symmetry that, of all the stories he’s told in his life and can continue telling, the stories I chose to film are heading toward the improbable arrival at the point where he writes Blade Runner. That became the structure, and that was something that was discovered rather than preordained.
I love how the personal is shown to yield something that everyone’s familiar with and takes for granted as another pop-cultural given. In less certain hands, it could have felt as if Escapes was entirely about the Blade Runner climax. Instead, it almost feels, as you said, as if Blade Runner arose, inevitably, out of these intense Hollywood stories.
Things happen to Hampton and he also makes things happen. He’s almost like a figure in a Philip K. Dick story where reality bends around him, and Blade Runner is one of the more public and accredited triumphs of his life. But there’s a lot of lucky circumstances that built up to it, and they seemed as interesting as the writing itself. I’m glad you appreciated the balance. That was what we were attempting to do.
Something else that struck me, near the end of Escapes, is when Hampton says that he feels his life is governed by fear. Because this man appears to be rather distinctively fearless.
Hampton’s also very honest, and I think we all have degrees of fear. He was partly talking about himself when he was young. I hope it’s threaded into the film that he was measuring himself against these macho images, which he was able to emulate and mirror but didn’t necessarily reflect who he really was. He was acting a role, and I think he’s moved past that. He still has fear, but it’s now a different sort of fear—a different measure. That was one of the later interviews, where I wanted him to talk about how his life and images of men [that he saw] as he was growing up were related. He doesn’t go into the obvious thing where he wanted to be Humphrey Bogart, which he already said. He talked about fear, and I thought that was pretty pointed.
I would look at someone like Hampton and would probably feel the admiration for him that he feels for his own heroes, and so you think about these nesting dolls of neuroses and admiration that abound in pop culture.
[laughs] That’s a good way to put it. I thought you were going to say something slightly different. There are nesting dolls, yeah. Almost every kind of great actor reveres great actors from the past. There aren’t actors who don’t buy into, on some level, the glamour and the craft that we all, as fans, respect. And you’re right: Neurosis is part of it too.
The editing has a punchy, succinct, pop-art rhythm to it. Were there longer versions of the film? What was the process of arriving at this particular cut?
I’m glad that you like it. It’s really me and two different editors, both young women in their 20s. One of them had to go back to Estonia because her visa ran out. But they’re both students. This, as you can guess, is a handmade, homemade film. Escapes wasn’t funded by anyone, it was patched together. And so I had the leisure of building it gradually. But I also had the luxury of showing it at a couple of film festivals as a work in progress, which allowed us to recognize, through audience’s questions, if something was missing, or if something was tantalizing and wasn’t clear. The film gathered steam in a way, getting tighter and more dimensional. And also, when I started, half the things that are on DVD now weren’t then. It’s a kind of a weird loosening or ripening of the goods. We were lucky. There’s a still good amount of things that Hampton’s in that I didn’t get ahold of, but it’s amazing what came to light.
Did you have any issue with clearing the footage that you used?
Well, you’ve probably seen Thom Andersen’s great Los Angeles Plays Itself, which touched on that issue of fair use. I got the same law firm that he employed, and they reviewed Escapes in a scrupulous way, and there’s something about the nature of fair-use law that allows you to make a mosaic like this, to make a collage. We can’t use any of the footage in the trailer [laughs], but we can use it in the film.
There’s precise matching between Hampton’s voiceover and footage of him in various films and shows. How does one go from a blank canvas to such intricate juxtapositions? The task sounds impossibly vast.
Well, it was organic. And it was really about me discovering these old shows. Hampton was in a handful of movies, but mostly shows. In an incremental way, I’d watch and rummage, and then I’d meet with the editor [Piibe Kolka] and tell her where things should go because I’m technically inept, but I have a good memory. It was like a collage, and most of my movies, including Hamlet, configure collages, where you bring disparate things together in a way in which they speak to and inform each other. It’s maybe the way that I think, so the process didn’t feel daunting but fun.
Each chapter of Escapes has a distinct concept. The first piece is a merging of voiceover and archive material, and, of course, the film eventually opens up to show Hampton entirely on screen. Was this reveal arrived at instinctively? Or did you always have it in your mind a particular point in which we’d actually see Hampton?
Well, the initial film was just that short anecdote with Teri Garr and Hampton’s career resuscitation, being brought back from the dead when his Bonanza episode aired. So that was self-contained. By the time it was done, I’d already been meeting with Hampton and filming him some more and recognizing that there could be more episodes, with each named after something he was in. I didn’t want to be schematic, but I knew that each episode would have its own internal logic, and that Blade Runner would be the conclusion.
Did Hampton ever look at Escapes as a fellow filmmaker, or did he remain purely a subject?
He’s been encouraging. He talks with a reasonable degree of humility about how he was afraid that he wouldn’t like it because who in their right mind wants to look at themselves holding forth? Who, beyond a real narcissist, wants to submit to that and indulge it? But he’s a great personality and storyteller, and I think he was compelled to recognize that the film works and has power and charm. Escapes was really built out of distillation. At one point, I think he said that [ex-girlfriend] Barbara Hershey was willing to be interviewed, but I realized that it really was meant to be Hampton’s voice. To get back to your question, he was never critical. He was always encouraging.
I enjoy the purity of the project. Talking-heads documentaries tend to feel impersonal, but when you make a pointed, pared choice to spotlight one person, it can lead to something idiosyncratic and revealing.
I’m haunted by a John Updike story, where he, the narrator, is at a baseball game and he’s watching the crowd drain out and he focuses on an old Chinese man eating rice out of a takeout container, and the protagonist fantasizes about following the man home and writing a novel about him. Even though the Chinese man is kind of nondescript and not anyone’s idea of a hero, you could make a novel, or a film for that matter, about him or about anyone. It might take a lot more work, imagination, empathy, or depth of feeling to pull that off with someone who’s not as vivid as Hampton, so I was lucky to have him. I don’t know that I have the energy to follow the Chinese man home and make a movie about him, but Hampton made it seem easy.
Across the body of your work, you take these emotional subjects and approach them with a kind of matter-of-factness. A lot of directors, particularly in America, really sell emotions, though you allow emotions to have their own lucid, irresolvable grace.
Wow, that’s eloquent. I can’t say anything more than “thank you.” That’s a good way to put it. One component, I’m curious to know what you think, because I don’t know how to measure myself against other filmmakers, but I do know that there’s a lot of filmmaking where the music is trying too hard. The films could almost be twice as good if you stripped away the music. I’m conscious of that. I’ve been careful about music.
I wish more directors were attuned to the music and space of silence.
My Skinningrove movie is about the only one that was good enough to have no music. [Both laugh.]
It struck me, in watching Escapes and Marjorie Prime back to back, that both are about people looking for alternate worlds. Is that just an accident of art?
Well, it’s hardly an accident, but I think they just overlapped. You become obsessed with certain things. Marjorie Prime is based on a play written by Jordan Harrison and I embraced it and I think I respected it. The movie is pretty close to the play in most respects. I added a fair amount too that I hope distilled what was achieved in the play. It’s a very human thing to want to reach beyond what you’ve got, and in terms of alternate worlds, anyone who’s alive is aware that inner and outer reality don’t always correspond.
The images in Marjorie Prime aren’t simply of people talking. They have a hard, succinct clarity.
I spent some time with [cinematographer] Sean Price Williams. You might be acquainted with Sean. He’s a powerhouse of a younger generation of independent filmmaking. He’s fast, deeply knowledgeable, and very charismatic. I’m sure he’ll be directing soon on his own, and I couldn’t have made the film without him. He’s light on his feet and he carries the intensity with him. I don’t think he ever used a dolly as much as he had in Marjorie Prime, but he’s a great soldier. And we watched enough films together and talked them over. This is maybe an exaggeration, but I don’t know anyone who’s seen more movies than Sean, except maybe Scorsese, who’s got a few years on him. So that comes in handy, and it’s not just a critical or schematic knowledge, because he cares about what he sees and internalizes it. So we watched a fair number of Renoir movies. He was dazzled that I could show him something that he hadn’t seen. And Renoir’s the expert at managing large casts, allowing to you feel like the inside and outside of a location that is being revealed and explored. And [Ingmar] Bergman is probably the master of people in a house.
Do documentaries and narrative films scratch different expressive itches for you? How does the process differ from one kind of production to another?
I don’t know how to answer that without being glib. The glib answer is that I like making movies. I tend to do my best work when I’m not being paid to do it, and it’s easier to not be paid to make documentaries. My documentaries and short films may turn out more humble and personal. It’s hard to make feature films without having more of a kind of heavy apparatus: funding and all the machinery that’s necessary. I like the idea of making films that no one else has made. The films I like best from my contemporaries or my friends are films where you feel they’re in the films. Olivier Assayas is good at doing that. I try to use that as a measure. Trust your instincts and go where your interests lay. I’ve been lucky lately in that I’ve been cutting corners and making things that aren’t expensive to make, and I know it’s getting harder and harder to make independent films. It’s always a bit miraculous, but I tend to be kind of willful about it. And somehow that makes it a pleasure. [laughs]
Before we go, I must say that your Hamlet is one of my favorite treatments of Shakespeare.
Well, someday, if we’re eye to eye, we’ll talk about why Cymbeline is a little better than you thought it was, but I appreciate it. [Laughs.] I hope to do more Shakespeare and keep that conversation going. I’m grateful. I’m working now on a little film with John Ashbery and we met partly because he likes that Hamlet. You’re in good company, in other words. That, as you may know, was shot on Super 16 for a little over a million dollars with famous people who were paid minimum wage. So the movie got made and I was able to have final cut because it was made for so little. And that seems to be the paradigm: how I manage to put one foot in front of another.
Interview: Jia Zhang-ke on Ash Is Purest White and the Evolution of China
Jia discusses what he likes about digital video and how Zhao Tao helped bring her role to life.
Unshowy yet unshakably self-assured, sincere but with glimpses of a sly sense of humor, and unhesitatingly frank even about touchy topics like the Chinese government’s censorship of his work, Jia Zhang-ke comes off in person just as a fan of his films might expect. Ever since his 1997 feature debut, The Pickpocket, and 2000’s Platform, in which young people struggle to adapt to China’s increasing Westernization, Jia has been creating a kind of unofficial history of his homeland, quietly defying his government’s determination to erase its tracks as it barrels along by doing things like rewiring the economy, rewriting the social contract, and depopulating whole cities and erecting new ones in a matter of months.
Jia’s films operate in metaphorical deep focus, surfacing the ways that these sweeping societal changes affect individual lives and relationships by zeroing in on sensitively detailed portrayals of two lovers, or of a group or pair of friends, while just as clearly portraying the socioeconomic backdrops to their stories. And often at the center of his films is Zhao Tao, his wife and longtime muse. In Jia’s latest, Ash Is Purest White, Zhao reprises the role she played in 2002’s Unknown Pleasures: Qiao Qiao, a strong-willed woman from Jia’s hometown of Fenyang, this time over a span of 17 years that starts when she’s the young lover of a gangster and ends with her in charge of the gambling den he once ran.
In a conversation before Ash Is Purest White’s debut at the New York Film Festival, Jia explained what he likes about digital video, how Zhao Tao helped bring her role to life, and how he deals with his government’s suppression of his work.
The music in your films is always an important part of the story. Can you talk about how you picked the songs for this one, starting with “Y.M.C.A.”?
Since I wanted to set the story starting in 2001, I wanted to find a piece of music that can trigger that particular era very authentically. And back in the day, in 2001, the younger generation, they didn’t have a lot of sources of entertainment. They might have had a disco club and karaoke, and that was about it. Two songs very popular at that time were “Y.M.C.A.” and “Go West” [the Pet Shop Boys song that was a motif in Jia’s Mountains May Depart].
The reason that we liked “Y.M.C.A.” was not because we understood the lyrics or understood who sang them or who was involved in the production. We had no idea what they were singing about. But we did enjoy the rhythm, the melody, and the beat, which is matching the heartbeat of the young people. It really got you going and brought up the energy of the room.
Another song that is particularly important in the film—you hear it again and again—is “Drunk for Life” by Sally Yeh, a Cantonese pop singer. This is a song I listened to when I was in junior high. At the time, young people tended to hang out in the video arcade, and this was one of the songs heard there. It was also a theme song for John Woo’s The Killer. That film, in the triad genre, is very similar to the John Woo motif that I want to evoke in this film.
The third song in this film is “How Much Love Can Be Repeated?” This sequence was actually shot 12 years ago in Three Gorges, when I made Still Life. I think the reason why I wanted to use it was that it could create this interesting contrast between what was happening on stage and Zhao’s character off stage, when you see her reaction watching this performance. Mind you, the on-stage part was shot 12 years ago, but Zhao’s part was shot last year. Hopefully, you cannot tell that these two footages were from two different times and spaces.
Was any of the other Three Gorges footage shot for Still Life, or shot when you were making that film? I know you shot a lot of documentary footage there at the time.
Only that particular clip was shot 12 years ago. The rest, we went back to the same location and tried to capture what we did in Still Life. But, unlike in other parts of the film, where we tend to use digital video, for the Three Gorges part we use film stock. That’s why it gives you a sense of nostalgia, evoking what happened in the past.
You’ve worked in digital video for a long time, partly because it allowed you to bypass processing labs, which would not have developed your films because they weren’t government-approved. Digital video also made it much easier for your films to be copied and disseminated in China when they weren’t being played in theaters. Are there also things that you prefer artistically about using digital video, especially now that it can do so much more than it could early on?
Starting in 2001, using DV to shoot Unknown Pleasures, I didn’t think of it just for practical purposes. DV as a medium has its own aesthetics that I can really explore and develop. Using DV you can create a close proximity between the camera and the actors and actresses, a kind of intimacy that cannot be done through the traditional camera.
The other thing is, things that happen unexpectedly can be easily captured with DV cameras. With cameras that use film stock, things are usually highly scripted in a contained, particular environment. With DV you tend to have a lot of spontaneity and a lot of impromptu happenstances that can be easily captured.
It’s so important for people to share their stories and learn from history. To me, one of the most important forms of disruption in China since Mao is the way people have been barred from telling their stories, or made to alter what they say to fit some official narrative. So you’re performing an important service by writing history with your films, recording the story of the present and the recent past for the people of tomorrow.
I think that’s also why I rely a lot on DV. I joke that only the pace of the evolution of DV equipment can keep up with the pace of the development of China. For me, this film is very much about how, in this time span of 17 years, human connections and human emotions—the interpersonal relationships between people—evolves and changes as a result of all that. On the surface, you can see very clearly the changes pre-internet era and post-internet era, [things like how] in the past you had slow trains and now you have high-speed trains. But that is on the surface level. What I’m interested in exploring is what happened in terms of the inner world of those people in this particular historical context, how their relationships evolved or dissolved and the reasons for the dissolutions and the evolutions of their relationships.
You’ve said you like working with your wife partly because she becomes a kind of second author of your screenplays, adding detail to what you have written. Can you give an example of what she brought to this movie?
When she was in the cabin of the boat and the lady in black [a cabinmate] came in, she just, almost as a kneejerk reaction, stood up, suddenly and immediately. She was trying to capture what it would be like for someone who has been in prison for five years, how she would have reacted to a security guard entering the jail cell and how she would react the same way when this lady in black entered her cabin.
I see her training as a dancer a lot in the physicality of her acting.
Yes. Another example would be the water bottle in this film. It was used to evoke this same character in Still Life, and she carried that water bottle there too. It makes sense because of the weather; it was very hot so she would need to drink. But the water bottle also came in handy to enhance the mood I was trying to create. Zhao Tao took this on and really went for it. She used it as a weapon, she used it as a way to stop the door from closing,
And to avoid holding hands with the man she met on the train.
Exactly. She was using this bottle as a kind of third character in the film, thinking about how this can be expanded and explored.
Your work has faced such strong resistance from the Chinese government. What is the government’s response to your films these days, and how does that affect how you work or how your films are seen?
I make films based on my own ecology, my own tempo and rhythm. I don’t really think too much about whether or not the film can be shown in China. Of course, I would love if my film could be shown in China, but that’s not the only reason why I make films. The most important thing for me is to understand that that’s not the end goal, so I don’t need to somehow sacrifice and change the way I make films in order to be shown in China.
I will make the film I want to make, and if it can be shown in China, great. If not, so be it. That’s the way I interact with this particular censorship system. But I have to say that the situation has improved in terms of the communication channels. Those have opened up a lot more, so after I finish the film, I will do my best as a director to communicate to the censor bureau why this film should be shown in China. That I am willing to do. But I will not compromise the quality or any subject matter.
Translation by Vincent Cheng
Every Cannes Palme d’Or Winner of the 2000s Ranked
There’s a certain formula that often defines the recipients of Cannes’s most prestigious prize.
There’s a certain formula that often defines the recipients of the Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious top prize, the Palme d’Or. These films, in recent years especially, tend to have a sense of importance about them (Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11), frequently due to their sociopolitical awareness of the world (Laurent Cantet’s The Class), or of specific societal ills (Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days). Very occasionally, the Palme d’Or goes to a bold, experimental, and divisive vision from a well-liked auteur (Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives), but more often it’s awarded to a film in the lineup that the most people on the Cannes jury can probably agree is good (Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake). And in less than three months, we’ll see if Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s jury will follow any sort of predictable formula when it announces its winners.
You’ll find us on the Croisette this May, covering most of the titles in Cannes’s competition slate. Until then, enjoy our ranking of the Palme d’Or winner from the 2000s. Sam C. Mac
Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on May 1, 2018.
19. The Son’s Room (2001)
Halfway through The Son’s Room, director Nanni Moretti shifts the rhetoric of his narrative away from an exaggerated view of happy domesticity and into a realm of weepy melodrama. Psychiatrist Giovanni (Moretti) is a perfect father and husband: he helps his daughter with her Latin homework (perducto means “without hardship you will be guided”—wink, wink); allows her boyfriend to exalt grass (when high, the boy says he’s “looking at the universe”); and initiates group lip-synching during the family’s car trips. Nicola Piovani’s score grotesquely heightens the joy behind every smile, meaning disaster is inevitable. As Moretti delves deeper into Giovanni’s work, focus is shifted away from the family arena. Though the film blooms when Paola (Laura Morante) and the family seek deliverance from their pain by connecting with a girl their deceased son, Andrea (Giuseppe Sanfelice), met at summer camp, Paola remains a cipher throughout. Cue Brian Eno’s “By This River,” which blares from a car radio as the family stands near the sea that killed their Andrea: “Here we are stuck by this river/You and I underneath a sky/That’s ever falling down, down, down.” In this one stoic moment, not only does the family seemingly escape their grief but also the Rob Reiner soap opera Moretti trapped them in. Ed Gonzalez
18. Fahrenheit 911 (2004)
A mediocre director but a master PR man, Michael Moore is the father of the Happy Meal documentary: big fonts, quick-fire montages, celebrity cameos, causing elaborate scenes. Fahrenheit 9/11 is no less an attention-grabbing stunt than his Bowling for Columbine, but what a scene it is. At the time of its release, Moore’s compilation of the Bush I administration’s bamboozling of the American public in the wake of 9/11. More than 10 years after its release, though, what lingers most about the film is Moore’s self-aggrandizement and forced sanctimoniousness (he rah-rahs from the sidelines when an interviewee says something he agrees with, and you sometimes get a sense that he wouldn’t call a dying man an ambulance if it meant getting the money shot of the guy croaking). At least it’s some kind of mercy that he spends very little time on screen. Gonzalez
17. Amour (2012)
There’s a deceptiveness lurking deep within Amour, an insincerity that colors the drama, recasting it as a ploy. Whereas across earlier films Michael Haneke’s predilection for deceit served a high-minded, if still somewhat suspect, intellectual purpose (an interrogation of privilege and meaning in Caché, the deconstruction of genre in both versions of Funny Games, and so on), here his disingenuous approach is not only unwarranted, but is actually at odds with the tone and tenor of the drama. This suggests two possibilities: Either Haneke has attempted to shear his sensibility of trickery and failed to do so convincingly, or he has made an experiment in manipulation and feigned empathy so exacting and oblique that nobody has understood its real purpose (I wouldn’t put the latter past him). Either way, Amour intends to dupe us, to feed on our own pain and suffering. Moved to tears or scared to death, we’d all lose our dignity in the end. Calum Marsh
16. I, Daniel Blake (2016)
English stand-up comedian Dave Johns brings the sort of spontaneous energy to his eponymous character that’s consistently made Loach’s films worth keeping up with. But Blake’s storyline veers from its emotionally grounded setup and into grandstanding displays like the Michael Moore-worthy stunt from which I, Daniel Blake takes its title. Both principal actors have a strong enough sense of their characters, even as they’re pulled into increasingly harrowing places, to make the film a more successful one than Loach’s last few, but it’s still schematic and predictable, and it aggressively stacks the deck against Blake and Kattie (Hayley Squires) in a way that makes it more effective as social activism, and less so as drama. The Loach of two or three decades ago, who made intimate, naturalistic films about the working class, like 1969’s Kes and 1994’s Ladybird Ladybird, is distinctly different from the Loach of today—and the soapbox-prone I, Daniel Blake reaffirms how unlikely it is for that to change. Mac
15. The Class (2008)
When a plot finally emerges, it’s all about the quandaries of privileging principle (and principal) or empiricism, duty or personal preference, questions that have been implicit all along, even in kids’ protests that they’re always being picked on or favored. As a clever late twist suggests, the interactions themselves are almost all riffs on Socratic debates—usually, the teacher seems to be asking students to verify their claims so he can give himself time to rebut—and as director Laurent Cantet said at The Class’s New York Film Festival press conference, the school’s a place “where democracy is at stake.” Instead of the usual righteous monologues, this is a film of dialogue and dialogues, in which the bickering teachers’ conferences begin to echo the kids’ troublemaking and skepticism but for the adults’ pretense of understanding and decorum (everyone, in any case, has their reason and handily states it in close-up). It would make a perfect, though not particularly good, double feature with Frederick Wiseman’s documentary State Legislature or Advise and Consent. David Phelps
Every Marvel Cinematic Universe Movie Ranked
On the eve of Captain Marvel’s release, we ranked the 21 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Most of Marvel Studios’s films are the cinematic equivalent of breadcrumbs, which have been dropped into theaters strategically so as to keep one looking for the next sequel or crossover, when the endless televisual exposition will eventually, theoretically yield an event of actual consequence. Occasionally, however, a Marvel film transcends this impersonality and justifies one’s patience. Weird, stylish, and surprisingly lyrical, Ant-Man, Iron Man 3, and Doctor Strange attest to the benefits of the old Hollywood-style studio system that Marvel has resurrected: Under the umbrella of structure and quota is security, which can bequeath qualified freedom. Chuck Bowen
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on April 25, 2018.
21. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
The aesthetic dexterity and psychological depth of Ang Lee’s Hulk is corrupted by Marvel’s “reboot” of the superhero franchise, Louis Leterrier’s intermittently kinetic but depressingly shallow The Incredible Hulk. In response to complaints that Lee’s unjustly excoriated 2003 effort was too talky and slow, Leterrier swings the pendulum to the opposite side of the spectrum, delivering a slam-bang spectacle so lacking in weight that, until the impressive finale, the film seems downright terrified of character and relationship development, as if too much conversation or—gasp!—subtextual heft will immediately alienate coveted young male fanboys. Nick Schager
20. Iron Man 2 (2010)
Upgraded with the latest CGI hardware but also more shoddy screenwriting software than its system can withstand, Iron Man 2 is an example of subtraction by addition. For a sequel designed to deliver what its predecessor did not, Jon Favreau’s follow-up to his 2008 blockbuster piles on incidents and characters it doesn’t need while still managing to skimp on the combat that should be this franchise’s bread and butter but which remains an element only trotted out at sporadic intervals and in modest portions. Schager
19. Captain Marvel (2018)
As another of the character-introducing MCU stories existing mostly to feed new superheroes into the Avengers series, Captain Marvel looks like something of a trial run. You know the drill: If the film lands with audiences, then you can count on Captain Marvel (Brie Larson)—like Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and even Ant-Man before her—getting her own series. But if not, then, hey, she’s at least assured of being asked to pop by the game room at Stark Industries for a kibitz in somebody else’s franchise down the road. Based on what’s on display here, Captain Marvel could well get her own star turn again at some point, but hopefully it will be with a different crew behind the camera. Chris Barsanti
18. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
What is this, a crossover episode? After 18 films, the overlords at Marvel Studios have gathered almost all of their indentured servants, er, star-studded stable together into the ever-crashing, ever-booming, and ever-banging extravaganza Avengers: Infinity War. Whether you look at this whirling dervish and see a gleefully grandiose entertainment or a depressing exemplar of the culturally degraded present moment will depend on your investment—in all senses of that term—in Marvel’s carefully cultivated mythos. The film is all manic monotony. It’s passably numbing in the moment. And despite the hard-luck finish—something an obligatory post-credits sequence goes a long way toward neutering—it’s instantly forgettable. Strange thing to say about a film featuring Peter Dinklage as the tallest dwarf in the universe. Keith Uhlich
17. Thor (2011)
With some notable exceptions, Marvel Studios-produced films usually plateau at a glossy but totally indistinct level of mediocrity, and Thor continues the trend of weakly jumpstarting a franchise based on a Marvel comic with an adequate but instantly forgettable origin story. Kenneth Branagh’s film is reasonably well put-together, but unlike even his worst films, it has no internal life, instead feeling like an impersonal, assembly-line product. The film’s most notable feature is that it serves as a continuation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe set up by the Iron Man movies. Characters from those films pop up during Thor’s main narrative and after the end credits, living up to Marvel’s commitment to populating their films with the same bland versions of perfectly acceptable characters. While Thor is certainly competent, that’s just not enough. Simon Abrams
16. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
A spectacle of star-spangled superheroics, Captain America: The First Avenger gives sturdy big-screen treatment to Marvel’s square-jawed—and square—jingoistic military man. With Joe Johnston delivering pyrotechnical action-adventure in a period guise, à la The Rocketeer (which was similarly fixated on its female lead’s buxom chest), this costumed-crusader saga is a capable, if somewhat unremarkable, affair beset by the same origin-story shortcomings that plagued another U.S.-virtue-via-army-weaponry fable, Iron Man—namely, a bifurcated structure in which the introductory first half exceeds, in compelling drama and kick-ass thrills, the latter fight-the-baddies combat. Schager
15. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
While writer-director Joss Whedon takes considerable strides to make Avengers: Age of Ultron’s narrative feel more nuanced and personal, his few sublime scenes of expressive melodrama are drowned out by the massive amounts of exposition and backstory that make up most of the dialogue and subsequently make the film feel overworked. When the talk isn’t about the intricate plot and the characters’ mythology, it’s a whole lot of dick-centric jabs. In cases like the competition over who can pick up Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) hammer, there’s a vague sense that Whedon is in on the joke, but then there’s a plethora of other exchanges that don’t seem so tongue in cheek. The bro-isms that underscore these interpersonal relations might explain why Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff strikes up a romance with Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), a.k.a. the Hulk, the only male Avenger who isn’t consistently preoccupied with the size of his…ego. The growing relationship between Romanoff and Banner is the tender heart of Age of Ultron, and Whedon clearly thrills in the cheesy but heartfelt melodrama that builds between them. Unfortunately, as the film has approximately another half-dozen or so plotlines to tend to, this section of the story barely makes up a sixth of the narrative. Chris Cabin
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