2. Star Wars: The Last Jedi

lightsaber dueling

Overview

This will come as no surprise to anyone, because we all know that The Last Jedi, the middle chapter in the sequel trilogy of the Skywalker Saga is a universally beloved film. Ahem. OK, so maybe that’s not quite true. (Or remotely accurate — this might be one of the most divisive blockbusters ever.) But while The Last Jedi repelled some viewers, Johnson, who not only directed but is the sole credited screenwriter, managed to tell a Star Wars story that both honors the characters from The Force Awakens in furthering their franchise, while being distinct and singular.

In the 2017 follow-up, Rey (Daisy Ridley) has traveled to the ends of the universe to find the reclusive and older Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), while cocky pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) gets a jarring lesson in learning the limits of his devil-may-care attitude, and Finn (John Boyega) teams up with a mechanic named Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) to help out the Resistance. The Last Jedi is chock full of the breathless action that’s synonymous with the franchise, but what the film does most often and most thrillingly is surprise. 

Blockbuster fare seems intentionally designed to never throw off its audience, but The Last Jedi, in its early moments, makes clear that this will not be an obvious Star Wars film. Think of how Luke’s first reaction to be handed his old lightsaber is to toss it behind his back. Or of the gut-wrenching (but appropriate) reveal that Rey’s parents aren’t anyone special. (Here’s hoping that isn’t undone in the upcoming The Rise of Skywalker.) This movie may have divided audiences, but it’s an excellent example of how a filmmaker can maintain their voice within the blockbuster industry and still make a hell of a fun ride.

Signature Moment

One of the big mysteries from The Force Awakens was regarding the shadowy Emperor Snoke (Andy Serkis). Who was this previously unknown villain, and how had he risen to basically oversee the entire First Order? The Last Jedi gives us a closer view of Snoke, but the conflicted Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) doesn’t allow us to ever learn too much about the guy. In a mid-film twist much in line with Johnson’s eagerness to surprise, inspired by Rey’s pleas to join the light side of the Force, Kylo kills Snoke. Once the baddie is fallen, Kylo and Rey team up to kill Snoke’s bodyguards. The ensuing fight is one of the great battles in this franchise, both for character-based reasons and because Johnson’s action choreography is top-tier.

Best Quote

“Hi, I’m holding for General Hugs.” Really, the first sign that The Last Jedi wasn’t going to be quite the same as other Star Wars films comes during the opening battle between the Resistance and the First Order. Poe’s daring plan to destroy a First Order dreadnaught ship involves him getting as close as possible to the nefarious General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson), beginning with a phone call where he acts like he’s got bad cell-phone reception. As one of the First Order soldiers mutters, “I believe he’s tooling with you, sir.” It’s a surprisingly hilarious way to introduce levity into a stressful, tense action sequence, and a great start to the film’s bountiful humor.

Conclusion

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is an excellent chapter in the Skywalker Saga, and it’s an incredible example of what happens when a filmmaker with a singular voice is allowed to make a big-budget action film while maintaining that voice. The future of the Star Wars film series is unclear at this time, but fingers crossed that Johnson’s in-development trilogy comes to fruition. This movie proves he’s the best person for the job.

1. Knives Out (2019)

Knives Out Trailer

Overview

Call it recency bias if you must, but delirious fun is delirious fun. Rian Johnson’s newest film is his twistiest, his most entertaining, and his most delightful one yet. Knives Out takes place almost entirely at the Massachusetts estate of one Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a world-renowned mystery author who, merely minutes after his 85th birthday party concludes, is found in his study with a slit throat. Though the cops first dub it a suicide, famed private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, reviving his Southern-fried accent from Logan Lucky) has reason to believe there’s foul play afoot among Thrombey’s selfish family, and is aided by the late author’s caregiver Marta (Ana de Armas) in trying to figure out what’s amiss.

Johnson’s influences are far and wide in Knives Out — everything from Agatha Christie novels to the TV show Columbo to mystery films like Sleuth are acknowledged, either directly or indirectly. The fun is in how Johnson, who wrote and directed again, sets up a very eclectic group of characters, parceling out clues about each of them throughout to pay them off at unexpected moments. Craig and de Armas (who will reunite in the next James Bond movie, No Time to Die, in what will likely be very different circumstances) are standouts throughout. Craig’s Foghorn Leghorn-style accent would be too goofy to handle if it wasn’t for the Thrombey family often acknowledging it. And de Armas, best known for her supporting role in Blade Runner 2049, delivers a winning and honest performance as the one person in the film who’s so unable to lie that she literally throws up if she tries. 

Knives Out is a film best experienced with as little knowledge as possible. What you really need to know about the film is this: it’s an original blend of mystery and comedy, centered on a seemingly simple (but of course quite complicated) question of who killed Harlan Thrombey and why, boasting an ensemble cast for the ages. Everyone from Chris Evans (as the black sheep of the Thrombey family) to Jamie Lee Curtis, from Don Johnson (embodying the kind of middle-aged white dude to whom the phrase “Ok, boomer” applies) to Lakeith Stanfield, Knives Out is full of winners. And it’s one of the most purely enjoyable films released in theaters in the last few years.

Signature Moment

Both to avoid going into heavy spoilers, and because it really sets the stage for the film to come, the moment to highlight here comes early. A week after Thrombey’s death, his family is brought back to the estate for further questioning from Blanc and local cops (Stanfield and Noah Egan). The ensuing sequence introduces us to Linda (Curtis), Walt (Michael Shannon), Joni (Toni Collette), and Richard (Johnson), as well as their alibis and what really transpired with each of them the night of Harlan’s party. It’s a swiftly paced sequence full of backtracking, running gags (for example, none of the Thrombeys actually know where Marta is from, in spite of them calling her one of the family), and more. Knives Out makes its wickedly comic intentions clear from this early sequence.

Best Quote

“This case is like a donut with a hole in the middle…a donut hole.” Benoit Blanc, first shrouded in shadows, is quickly revealed to be an odd but very impressive private detective, having been profiled in The New Yorker. But as portrayed by Daniel Craig, he’s mostly just a goofy and charming Columbo-esque figure, as when he compares the Thrombey death to…well, a donut hole. (Eventually, as events continue to twist, it becomes a hole within a hole, but you really have to hear that explanation for yourself.)

Conclusion

Knives Out is as good as it gets. Rian Johnson’s career has spanned 15 years, and it’s typified not by a specific genre, but by a specific sensibility. Knives Out lines up with that sensibility, as the filmmaker communicates visually as much as with dialogue, with a whip-smart script that will keep you guessing until the truly brilliant punchline of a final shot.

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