The briefest of glances at a list of this year’s top-performing films will reveal two things: one, that audiences tend to gravitate towards familiar franchises, and two, they have assigned an unreasonable level of goodwill in the unchallenging brand of superhero cinema popularised by Marvel.
The success of the MCU, which must admittedly be celebrated for its innovative interconnected storytelling, has altered the industry in ways that might be irreparable. On a purely creative level, this has convinced studios and filmmakers that audiences are interested in watching only one kind of cinema. But on an economic (and existential) level, the Marvel movies have made it impossible for films below a certain budget threshold to even be released.
Which is why each of the five films on this list feels like an anomaly. Not all of them were released in theatres, and certainly, not all of them were hits. But they represent a bygone era in director-driven Hollywood filmmaking, before release dates dictated shoot schedules and a film’s box office potential was calculated by the number of cameos it could squeeze in.
Here are the top 5 mainstream action films of the year, in order of release:
It’s so ironic that director Michael Bay wasted a decade making Transformers movies of declining quality, only to go back to the drawing board, come back with his best movie in years, and watch it bomb before his eyes. It was a decisive demolition that even he, as the master of movie explosions, couldn’t have seen coming. But the film’s failure to recover its relatively (for Bay) modest budget functions almost as a badge of honour.
Ambulance is American action filmmaking at its finest, a movie that indicates — within minutes — why Bay is miles ahead of the rest when it comes to maximalist mayhem. An innovative visual stylist even on his worst days, in Ambulance, Bay displays his penchant for choreographing orchestrated chaos, using drones, his trademark sparky explosions, and the overt sentimentality that he isn’t usually given credit for.
Top Gun: Maverick
It’s quite stunning that three of the best action blockbusters of the last decade have starred Tom Cruise. Picking up where Edge of Tomorrow and Mission: Impossible — Fallout left off, Maverick finds the star in his element, ie, risking his life for our entertainment, having wholeheartedly dedicated himself to completing a hubristic quest to save Hollywood itself.
Watching Maverick on an IMAX screen was a transcendental experience. The immaculately staged flight sequences, the crisp storytelling, and the constant subversion all fuels a movie that feels like it’s perpetually on the verge of going supersonic.
Some would say that it was too soon for Jordan Peele to go an make a meta movie about himself — he had, after all, directed only two features before. And as tremendous as both Get Out and Us were, there was sense that Peele was still finding his voice as a genre filmmaker.
He pooled all his insecurities and anxieties into Nope, a movie that not only subverts audience expectations — unlike his first two movies, it isn’t a horror at all — but also functions as an introspective piece in which Peele engages himself in a debate about whether his art has any lasting value.
Several movies became the collateral damage in Disney’s takeover of Fox, but few fallen soldiers deserve medals more than director Dan Trachtenberg’s Prey. The film’s attempts at flipping the tropes of the Predator franchise weren’t restricted to the superficial (like installing a female protagonist at the centre of the famously masculine series), but also in terms of just how languidly Trachtenberg told his stripped-down coming-of-age story.
A wall-to-wall action film with minimal dialogue, Prey, like its plucky protagonist, rebels against convention — no comic relief, no set-pieces in which the visual effects overshadowed the characters, and no larger universe to service. It’s a pity that we weren’t able to watch it on the big screen.
Avatar: The Way of Water
Truth be told, Avatar: The Way of Water was never a sure thing. You could sense even the famously cocky James Cameron’s exterior cracking in the weeks leading up to the film’s release, as he begrudgingly admitted that he might be allowed to make only three of his planned five movies. This is the same guy who, by his own admission, once walked onto the Fox lot and declared that it had all been bought with the money that he made the studio with Titanic.
Even if The Way of Water turned out fine — and Cameron must’ve known that it did — he wasn’t sure if people would come out to watch it. And while the jury’s still out on the second part, there can be no doubt that the film is a big screen experience unlike any other, including its own groundbreaking predecessor. Breathtaking to look at, undemanding to follow, and yet so immersive, The Way of Water proves that nobody does it quite like Cameron, despite what Ayan Mukherji might think of himself.
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Rohan NaaharRohan Naahar is an assistant editor at Indian Express online. He cover… read more