The Ten Best Movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe
10. Iron Man (2008)
Rarely does a film leave such a lasting impact as 2008’s Iron Man. There have been important movies since, but not a single one has managed to redefine the landscape of cinema in the same way. With Iron Man came the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and with the Marvel Cinematic Universe came a decade of non-stop superhero action. This was a movie that sparked a wildfire that has yet to be put out, as studios continue to try to recapture that same flame Tony Stark lit back in a cave with a box of scraps at the turn of the decade.
As a movie, Iron Man stands out especially thanks to the care it gives to pacing its narrative. Outside of flashbacks, Tony Stark spends the entire first act secluded from the rest of the world. Immediately, audiences can form an intimate connection with the character as he desperately tries to stay alive and build the iteration of the titular suit. By the time the plot proper begins, audiences fully understand who Tony is as a character, what he is capable of, and the arc he will be undergoing.
From a filmmaking perspective, Iron Man is easily one of the best in terms of direction and writing. The script is filled with natural dialogue only enhanced by the overall cast’s performances. The MCU has occasionally struggled with miscast supporting players, but there is not a single weak link in Iron Man. As far as shots go, Iron Man is home to perhaps the most iconic in the series: Tony’s arms stretched out as a host of Stark weapons go off behind him. It’s the perfect introduction to his character, one that captures the man he will grow out of while also hammering in the anti-weapons theme the film would go on to explore.
More than anything, Iron Man has simply aged well. It isn’t held back by the constraints of needing to fit into an overarching series, but it still respects its role in the franchise by properly serving as the origin point for everything to come. It’s a personal story about Tony Stark without forgetting pave the way for subsequent films. It all caps off with one of the greatest moments in superhero moviedom, where Tony drops the pretense of secret identities and outs himself as Iron Man before the credits roll. It’s the perfect cap to a great film, and a masterfully appropriate start to a decade’s worth of films dedicated to redefining the superhero genre. (Renan Fontes)
9. Marvel’s The Avengers (2012)
As The Marvel Cinematic Universe has evolved, the ambition of each new film has escalated, with bigger budgets, bloated run times, and storylines jutting into space. In many cases, film quality has followed in kind. Thor: Ragnarok eclipses the Thor offerings that precede it. Winter Soldier and The First Avenger retroactively seem like pleasant stepping stones on the road to Civil War. Likewise, Infinity War looms as the culmination of everything (until the next culmination of everything), threatening to relegate Marvel’s The Avengers to a nascent glimpse of potential or vestige of simpler times.
Not so fast: The Avengers remains the highest grossing MCU film, having held off behemoths like Black Panther and Iron Man 3. It was Infinity War before Infinity War — the original “I can’t believe they actually pulled this off” triumph. The film is a fascinating threshold between phases (certainly more so than its sequel, Age: Of Ultron), lamentably heralding a new era where everything matters so much, yet nothing really does. Avengers shocked us with its ambition and success; six years later, these movies feel predestined and inevitable, no matter their quality.
But The Avengers also stands upon its own merit. There’s a lot of sap there, to be sure: the idea of Agent Coulson’s death being a necessary catalyst for the team to unite feels quaint, given the deluge of films that have followed. The Avengers were always going to Avenge — we know this — but the film mined the novelty of their collaboration for moments of originality, and shades of each character were still unrevealed. They grate on one another, as they realistically would; Tony Stark has always been an Asshole, Captain America an insufferable boy scout, and Thor is aloof instead of the snarky, one-eyed Jack he has become.
In large part, The Avengers have become a mishmash of similar heroes, delineated along ideological lines. They each employ Tony Stark’s caustic wit and Captain America’s brooding gravity in equal measure, but The Avengers withstood that tendency until its climactic crowning shot, which circles them as they finally unite. The moment represents both end and beginning — the end of the MCU’s most ambitious gambit, in which it banked on audience interest in unsung heroes like Thor and Iron Man, and the beginning of Marvel’s reign as cinematic overlord, a machine so unstoppable that framing real narrative stakes has become harder with each new film. There have been good — and even great — movies since, but few manage to feel a fraction as epic as The Avengers. (Michael Haigis)
8. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Whether you love the Marvel Cinematic Universe or you hate it, nobody can argue that the movies have a tendency to stick to a formula for the most part, for better or worse. One of the reasons that Guardians of the Galaxy feels so fresh is that it’s about heroes that most of us have never heard of, and it’s set in the dark recesses of outer space, a million miles away from anyone (well, mostly anyone) that has been featured in the MCU before.
The rag-tag bunch of quasi-heroes that make up the Guardians and have banded together to (reluctantly) save the world(s) are a likeable crew, and most importantly, they’re largely different to the majority of Marvel heroes we’ve seen before. While Star-Lord isn’t too far removed from Tony Stark as a character, the wise-cracking raccoon, Rocket, and the adorable tree-man, Groot, became the original MCU breakout stars long before Okoye would steal the show in Black Panther.
Guardians might have a disposable villain, even by the MCU’s crummy standards, but the plot and the threat and the end goal is kinda irrelevant. It’s the journey that matters, as well as the quick-witted banter between the characters. That’s the heart, and it’s where Guardians truly excels. It’s by far the funniest Marvel movie (at least until Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2), and one that even people who traditionally don’t like superhero movies can get behind. Throw in a wonderful ‘70s soundtrack, and the MCU just doesn’t get much better than Guardians of the Galaxy. (John Cal McCormick)
7. Black Panther (2018)
The newest addition to the MCU, Black Panther shows that Marvel is only getting better. In a collection of great superhero movies, Black Panther stands out by taking the focus off the superhero aspect. Writer/Director Ryan Coogler brings his expertise in political, emotionally charged films, and creates a marvel movie that feels immensely dramatic and brings up a lot of important questions about the real world — particularly regarding the African Diaspora and their relationship to the continent they can trace their ancestry to. The people of Wakanda are as well-crafted as the Afrofuturist aesthetic of the country in which they live. Just like T’Challa stole the show in Captain America: Civil War, his sister Shuri, spy Nakia, and General Okoye steal the show here. The number of laughs we get from Shuri and the thrills we get from Okoye make them instantly lovable, and they always leave you wanting more. Nakia also presents our hero with the rational side to the antagonist’s villainous plot.
And of course, Black Panther has one of, if not the greatest villain the MCU has to offer. From the very first scene he’s introduced, Eric Killmonger makes you pay attention. Michael B Jordan puts on a novel performance as the furiously determined army veteran. Killmonger’s unbridled anger and extremism have an undeniable weight to it, and he feels as threatening as any supervillain, despite being (by all means) a normal person. You fear his disposition and denounce his goals, but you can’t help but feel bad for him. You feel that below the anger and hatred, his criticisms of Wakanda and the wider world are undeniably right. And despite the sub-par CGI plaguing the movie’s climax, Killmonger and T’Challa’s final confrontation is heart-breaking, due in part to how much their conflict means to both characters. He remains the only MCU villain to bring tears to my eyes.
Considering all its strengths, it’s no surprise that Black Panther is currently one of the highest grossing movies of all time. Black Panther has become the rising star of the MCU, and if things keep going well for the Wakandans, we’ll be seeing much more of them in the future. (Ade Adeoye)
6. Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
It’s safe to say that all Marvel fans had the same joyful reaction when they realised that Spider-Man would be joining the MCU. While the two previous Spider-Man movie franchises were good in their own rights, Spider-Man: Homecoming blows them out of the water. The web-slinger’s newest film lacks many of the iconic marks of the other films — there’s no Uncle Ben, there’s no green goblin, and there’s barely a Mary Jane — but the direction in which Homecoming goes heavily justifies these changes. With the fat trimmed, a fresh cast, and a new story, Homecoming becomes streamlined and easily the most enjoyable Spider-Man film yet. It takes the ‘friendly neighbourhood’ aspect of the character and makes it the focus. Tom Holland plays the most authentic Peter Parker yet, both sufficiently quippy and nerdy, and constantly hilarious. His concerns aren’t with stopping rampaging millionaires or super-powered villains, but with helping people all over New York with the small things. And when he’s raring to move on to bigger jobs, the ever-entertaining Iron Man is there to act as his guardian and keep him grounded.
The movie’s rendition of The Vulture is a villain as blue collar as Spider-Man. He’s a man whose only real motivation is providing for his family, albeit via dangerous and illegal means. How down to earth both characters are makes for a movie with much smaller stakes than its MCU companions, but it undoubtedly works. Fifteen-year-old Peter Parker isn’t a full hero like the Avengers are; as Tony Stark points out several times, he’s just not ready for that life. Writer/Director Jon Watts could’ve had Peter pitted up against a grandiose villain with a world-threatening plan, but realistically, in the same New York where the Avengers tower is located, Peter wouldn’t be the one dealing with it. It only made sense that MCU Peter begins by dealing with (essentially) a small-scale arms dealer. Thankfully, the film effectively portrays Parker’s youth and naivety, while still making him the Spider-Man we know and love. (Ade Adeoye)
5. Iron Man 3 (2013)
The first post-Avengers film felt like the closest thing to a post-9/11 movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After the events of New York, Iron Man 3 sees Tony Stark suffering from anxiety attacks and post-traumatic stress. He can’t stop working himself to exhaustion, and throws himself in front of terrorist attacks believing himself to be untouchable. Shane Black’s entry in the Iron Man franchise is the one that pushes Tony Stark to face the demons he has created, and is the most human portrayal of the billionaire seen in any of the films.
A lot of the charm comes from how Downey Jr. plays off characters — something which Black has made a career doing. From the first act’s focus on Stark’s strained relationship with Pepper Potts, to the second act’s revitalization of who Tony Stark is through conversations with a young kid reminiscent of himself, to the conclusion with Stark and James Rhodes’ friendly banter, Stark realizes that he has a duty to the world, but his own personal life matters just as much. Iron Man 3 is what happens when you take the man out of the suit — he finds out what really matters, and whether it’s him or Iron Man that is necessary to the world.
Much of Iron Man 3 lets the comic book side of things take a back seat until the final showdown, instead making a direct parallel between terrorist attacks and the Extremis program. The Mandarin works great as a face for evil, despite the reveals that may have angered comic book fans. There are a lot of factors that go into why evil happens, making Aldrich Killian a great example of evil born from past mistakes that capitalizes on growing global tensions. Sometimes we don’t realize the error of our ways until it’s too late; Iron Man 3 is that profoundly delayed realization in Stark’s life. (Christopher Cross)
4. Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Thor: Ragnarok has no shortage of action-packed or hilarious scenes that make it one of the best films of 2017. However, as awesome as they all undoubtedly are, there’s one scene in particular that stands out above the rest. It’s not a scene that exemplifies Taika Waititi’s quirky sense of humour or his skill with fight sequences, but rather a scene that indicates his ability to pinpoint the emotional core of a narrative no matter how absurd or bombastic it might otherwise be. This scene is, of course, the death of Odin.
On a verdant cliff overlooking the ocean as it stretches to the horizon and merges with a sun-pierced sky, Thor and Loki meet with their father, Odin, one last time before he dies. It’s a tender scene that does away with the Shakespearean levels of pomposity that made the Asgardians work so well in the previous two films and replaces that with a much more muted and relatable sense of loss that instantly humanizes the demi-gods. For all their prodigious strength and inhuman abilities, the two sons of Asgard are as weak and vulnerable as even the lowliest human to the eventual ravages of time. As the last of Odin’s strength fails him, he transforms into a haze of starlight as his divine essence ascends to join his beloved wife, Frigga, in the afterlife.
Not only is it a powerful moment in its own right, and one of the most affecting so far in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it’s also a pivotal moment in the story. Immediately following Odin’s death, the audience is finally introduced to Hela, the film’s principle antagonist, and the story proper begins. The rest of Ragnarok may essentially be the greatest prog-metal music video ever made, but it’s that one brief moment of clarity and calm that defines the real spirit of the entire film. (Chris Underwood)
3. Captain America: Civil War (2016)
If the movies in the MCU often feel like they’re made via a template, Civil War is one of the few entries that stands apart from the rest. Unlike most of the movies featured on this list, Captain America: Civil War tells not of global or galaxial annihilation, but instead a more personal tale of friends and allies that can’t see eye to eye on the big issues, and the fallout from the difference in their philosophies.
Sure, that still involves an awful lot of CGI people kicking each other in the face, but it’s at least nice to see some repercussions this time around for all the destruction and devastation that has occurred in the previous movies. For every world-ending event that the Avengers stopped either together or alone, countless people were hurt or killed, and that’s why Zemo (a more well-rounded villain than usual for the MCU) makes it his personal mission to destroy them not with magic powers or hi-tech gadgetry, but by driving a wedge between them with some uncomfortable home truths.
From an action standpoint, it also features one the MCU’s greatest battles: a ludicrous battle royale set in an airport featuring a team of superheroes led by Tony Stark going up against Captain America’s squad of super-powered all-stars. It’s our first taste of what Infinity War would be like, stuffing each scene with weird mash-ups of heroes that we’ve never seen before and making sure that everyone involved gets something cool to do before the dust has settled. Spider-Man and Ant-Man steal the show, but once it’s all over, the movie settles back down in order to deal with the most personal and emotional conflict in the series so far, changing the direction of the MCU forever. It’s a home run. (John Cal McCormick)
2. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Before the Marvel template was in full effect, before quips became the punctuation of choice for superhero dialogue, before both preventing and causing rampant destruction became a prerequisite for exciting action, director Joe Johnston crafted an old-fashioned adventure that recalled a bygone era when things just made more sense. Captain America: The First Avenger is the perfect introduction to a character out of time; it tells its story with filmmaking techniques of yore (or at least pre-Avengers), unafraid to take time to develop, and confident enough to substitute actual sincerity in place of snark.
Though a typical origin story in many respects, Captain America: The First Avenger is one of the few Marvel films that doesn’t seem ashamed by this, disinterested in moving on to bigger and louder things. Audiences will spend a good deal of time with Steve Rogers the runt, witness to his many failings yet also a party to the indomitable spirit that catches the wise eye of a certain ex-Nazi doctor with an experimental drug that could give Steve the physical ability to match his mental nobility. The early scenes of Skinny Steve are vital to understanding the mind of a man who until now has been frustrated by his helplessness when it comes to helping, and when the young man is artificially juiced into the muscular pinup idol audiences currently cheer, one can’t help believe that this guy will actually follow through on turning the world’s wrongs into honorable rights.
That character development also lends its weight to the eventual action. The pursuit of a Hydra agent through 1940s New York is both tense and entertaining as the Cap discovers his new power, yet also tinged with sadness and outrage over the death that instigated it — because of a relationship allowed to breathe. After a montage depicting the powerful-yet-powerless hero paraded around like a dancing bear for the USO, a solo mission to free some POWs from a German base feels more like Captain America is finally breaking out of his own prison and into the man he was always meant to be. The last act does sag a bit, but the assault on Red Skull’s base and subsequent hijacking of his death plane beats any city-destroying rampage that came after it simply by focusing on story more than spectacle — and that time-travel ending is a knockout. Honest, dedicated, hard-working, genuine; the world needs heroes like Steve Rogers, and Marvel needs more entries in its ever-expanding universe like Captain America: The First Avenger. (Patrick Murphy)
1. Captain America: Winter Soldier (2014)
Hail Hydra! By far one of the biggest moments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is Captain America: Winter Soldier’s dissolution of S.H.I.E.L.D., the main government body in the Marvel comics. It rippled through immediately to the TV show, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., as the agency was revealed to have been run by Hydra. Not only that, but Captain America himself has his entire world collapse around him only to leave him left to figure out where he stands in the current political landscape.
The rise of Hydra does many things to Steve Rogers as a character. It pushes him from being on the inside to the outside, it means the war against Hydra he thought he helped win wasn’t the absolute victory he believed, and it forces Rogers to question anything and everything instead of blindly following the leader. The “America is #1” ideal from Captain America: The First Avenger is taken away from the equation, while also cementing the doubt Rogers has about S.H.I.E.L.D. when he discovers in The Avengers that weapons of mass destruction are being built covertly by the organization he believed in completely. Rogers grows as a character more than any other in the MCU, and pitting him against Bucky Barnes (his best friend) while dissolving S.H.I.E.L.D. and killing off the love of his life, Peggy Carter, is a sure-fire way to have a man question his entire being.
While the character study of Steve Rogers is incredibly detailed, it’s the ’70s conspiracy thriller that is so embroiled in the DNA of Winter Soldier that elevates the movie beyond its comic book nature. Sure, we still get great fights (and for the first time, I felt like every action scene was perfectly executed) and quippy one-liners, but it’s the tension that keeps things interesting. Robert Redford is delightfully corporate as the bad guy of the film, and Anthony Mackie establishes himself as a great addition to the Marvel roster as Falcon. It’s a cast worth admiring, but it’s that political angle that leaves perfect execution in directing feeling vital to whether the movie lands or not — which it does, with an astoundingly somber, tense tone. (Christopher Cross)
‘The Gentlemen’ is Familiar, Grungy Territory for Guy Ritchie
The director of ‘Aladdin’ and ‘Sherlock Holmes’ returns to his roots to craft a flashy, intricate web of crime, held back by old-fashioned sensibilities.
Suave and grungy, Guy Ritchie’s popularity rose very quickly with the one-two punch of his seedy, gangster films, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. Since then, he did a couple more gangster films, but after 2008’s RocknRolla, everything audiences have seen from the director may have been a Guy Ritchie film in style and execution, but not in setting or plot. Twelve years later, and the director has come back to the British gangster movie with The Gentlemen. While not wholly successful in its execution, there’s an undeniable charm to the return to form that’s aided by a strong ensemble and razor-sharp dialogue.
Most painful to endure in The Gentlemen is how its story is framed, which is through the eyes of a sleazy, racist private investigator named Fletcher (played devilishly by Hugh Grant, who comes the closest he’s come to his Phoenix Buchanan character in Paddington 2). Arriving at Raymond’s (Charlie Hunnam) house unannounced, he attempts to hustle him out of 20 million pounds by recounting a story that implicates Raymond in a very intricately wound net of corruption and criminal activity. At the heart of it is a strife between Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey) and Dry Eye (Henry Golding), as Mickey attempts to get out of the marijuana business by selling his company to Matthew Berger (Jeremy Strong), a businessman who is ready to buy the company and let Mickey take an early retirement. Nothing goes as planned, of course, and Fletcher plans to unravel the entire criminal enterprise by providing his intel to the Daily Print tabloid, which is helmed by Big Dave (Eddie Marsan), assuming Raymond doesn’t pay to keep Fletcher silent.
Complicated at first, Ritchie has always done a decent job simplifying the complex narrative with a single narrator explaining things along the way. The Gentlemen is not complicated, though it is intricately woven. The mistake Ritchie makes is putting the entire story in the hands of a racist who makes other characters in the story spew racist remarks as he takes liberties with the story he’s telling Raymond (and the audience). It’s the kind of character who, put to the background of a movie like this, would be a reminder that Ritchie still has difficulty writing his characters without being a major blemish on the film. Instead, Fletcher serves as the audience’s only frame-of-reference for the majority of the story, as Raymond nods and allows him to continue his ramblings unless they become a bit too sensationalist. Other characters end up seeming racist because the story is told from Fletcher’s perspective, making it almost unbearable to get through The Gentlemen’s extensive, dialogue-heavy scenes.
There are a lot of other facets of identity that Ritchie confronts in his screenplay, whether it’s Fletcher’s constant advances on Raymond (the sexual innuendo never ends), Matthew’s effeminate gangster, or the way people make fun of others’ ethnic names. The problem is that almost none of these remarks are new for him, and almost all are handled with the gracefulness of a bull in a china shop. It’s hard not to come out wondering if Ritchie is aware he’s being offensive, but he often struggles to show any self-awareness. When his characters do acknowledge problematic things people say, it’s a punch-line that makes light of actual concerning dialogue.
Yet, despite the racism and homophobia, The Gentlemen is a slick gangster movie that has plenty of laughs and wit. All of it is brought to life by the stellar cast that revel in the opportunity to bring Ritchie’s trademark dialogue to the screen. Colin Farrell in particular comes in with some of the best comedic timing in recent memory. Grant, despite his dialogue being often infuriating, dives head-first into the material and comes out of it appropriately sleazy. His character’s obsession with film — including a reference to Coppola’s The Conversation that feels fitting given the dialogue-heavy screenplay — goes even further than one would have expected with the film. It even opens with a screenplay written by Fletcher that he is overly excited to share. McConaughey plays it cool, calm, and very McConaughey as his character tries to keep everything under control. The same can be said about Hunnam’s performance, though he gets a little more screen time and a lot more opportunities to be the witty protagonist. Other notable actors include a baffling Jeremy Strong, whose performance feels so out of place, an eccentric and wild Eddie Marsan and Henry Golding, and Michelle Dockery acting like the coolest person in the boy’s club.
Bolstered by trademark smash cuts, doodling on the screen, and other flashy editing techniques, The Gentlemen goes down like a nice scotch — a little burn, but familiar and smooth. Seeing this cast work together in one of Guy Ritchie’s well-concocted webs of crime is a delight. It ultimately falls into place nicely with Ritchie’s prior films. Even the ending hearkens back to 2000’s Snatch with the way everything comes together in the messiest fashion possible. The line between dumb luck and carefully-executed plan is so finely walked that, like with his other films, it feels justifiably placed among characters that are often blindsided. It’s just a shame that The Gentlemen feels more like a time capsule than a fresh, innovative film.
Sundance 2020: ‘Vitalina Varela’ Is a Love Letter to Faces
Pedro Costa’s fascinating metafictional work tells one woman’s story of loss and abandonment, but her face is the true star.
I become an obsessive note scribbler when I review a film. I try to write down everything that pops into my head, whether it’s a profound insight or, more commonly, a banal observation. At the end of Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela, I had written only two words: “Her face!” (with double underlines). Costa’s slow yet engrossing metafictional work is filled with sumptuous textures and overwhelming emotions, but the film’s star, Vitalina Varela, is its most fascinating component. She has a face that cries out to be painted, one that makes her emotions seem almost Olympian, and Costa is perhaps the only filmmaker who could do her justice.
The Portuguese filmmaker has almost exclusively relied on non-professional actors over the past decade-and-a-half, and Vitalina Varela is no different. His lead actress previously appeared in a small role in 2014’s Horse Money after he discovered her while scouting locations. After hearing or story of loss and abandonment, Costa created a film based around her experiences. Vitalina Varela features his signature style and expressionistic visuals, but it might as well be a documentary for how closely it follows the contours of her life. The real-life Vitalina was a Cape Verdean native whose husband left over 25 years before the events of the film for Portugal in hopes of making a better life for them. But their life back home calls that motive into question. The two built a stunning 10-bedroom home for themselves back home, which was a luxury compared to the decrepit shack that he lived in in the shantytown Fontainhas, just outside of Lisbon. Vitalina was meant to join him, but the money for a plane ticket never materialized for over 25 years, and when she finally makes the journey to Portugal it’s three days after he has died under mysterious circumstances, and she’s too late to even make the funeral. As she talks to her husband’s neighbors she learns unsavory details about his life abroad, yet she’s determined to stay in this new country.
Costa film’s Vitalina’s acclimation to Fontainhas in achingly slow scenes which will test the patience of many viewers. But those who get on his wavelength (and have a coffee beforehand) will be absorbed in his painterly compositions. He and his cinematographer Leonardo Simões photograph the slum interiors (none of which seem to have electrical lighting) in bursts of faux sunlight and moonlight almost exclusively, giving the events a ghostly character. It’s only in the last few scenes that we see Vitalina outside in the daylight, and the camera is allowed to expand beyond the claustrophobic confines of her building. The stunning lighting also directs our attention squarely on her face, which shimmers with loss and regret. Like Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), she has a face that conveys everything we would ever need to know of her story. Luckily, Costa understands that and lets it do the talking.
Sundance 2020: ‘Shirley’ Is Another Triumph for Josephine Decker
Josephine Decker’s film dramatizes a turbulent period in Shirley Jackson’s creative life to startling effect.
Something is amiss from the opening moments of Josephine Decker’s newest feature, Shirley. A young couple, Fred and Rose Nemser (Logan Lerner and Odessa Young) are taking a train to Bennington College, where he’ll be teaching. Rose reads a recent issue of The New Yorker featuring Shirley Jackson’s now-classic short story “The Lottery,” dating the scene to 1948 or ’49. The story, about a (spoiler alert) woman who is stoned to death as part of a community ritual, doesn’t arouse the expected response in Rose. Rather than being horrified, she’s excited, even turned on by the tale, and she initiates a quick tryst with Fred out of sight of the other passengers. Like Rose, Decker seems thrilled by the most sordid and disturbing interpersonal relations — and by the film’s end, much of the audience will be too.
Though the film opens with Rose and Fred, Shirley is most concerned with the eponymous Jackson (Elisabeth Moss). Despite being a critically and commercially successful writer, she’s not considered much more than a faculty wife to her husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), a professor at Bennington and a respected literary critic. The Nemsers are set to move in with Jackson and Hyman for a short period until they’re able to find a place of their own in town. Stanley will mentor Fred, who will deliver some of his lectures in hopes of getting his own course load and, eventually, tenure. But from the start, Shirley has an unhealthy fascination with the couple, especially Rose. As she begins to plot out what will be her second published novel, Hangsaman, she begins to spy on the young woman, intruding on the most intimate moments of her life. At the same time, she absorbs herself in news articles about Paula Jean Weldon, a Bennington student who disappeared in 1946, and her interests begin to coalesce in a clear nod to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966).
Decker’s disorienting style, which animated much of Madeline’s Madeline, makes occasional appearances, but she’s more restrained in how she films her characters. In her earlier films, which she wrote by herself, her eye-catching and disorienting style was a way of making up for long sections with little dialogue, but that’s not necessary with Sarah Gubbins’ more traditional screenplay. Gubbins sensitively portrays Shirley’s life as an underappreciated artist and delves into the ways her work tears away at her personal life and her mental health. Her husband’s dalliances with his students and other faculty wives don’t help.
Moss and Stuhlbarg’s repartee and bouts of sadistic marital games will surely draw comparisons to the couple in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but they have a more tender relationship than those famous bickerers. Stanley is condescending and even tyrannical at times when it comes to their personal lives, but he’s Shirley’s biggest champion and a believer in her literary greatness. Stuhlbarg makes it clear that the character has great affection for his wife, even if he chooses to have sex with anyone but her. Moss delivers another in a series of great performances that seem to be in dialog with her work for Alex Ross Perry in Queen of Earth (2015) and Her Smell (2018). Decker, Gubbins, and Moss all work together to create a portrait of an artist’s creative process, and we see how Shirley absorbs Rose and Paula Jean’s lives to inspire her fiction. So often, movies about artists merely gloss over the act of creation to focus on the most dramatic elements of their personal lives, which makes the art seem as if it miraculously came into being. In Shirley, we see the heartbreak and conflict required to create great art, or at least required to create Shirley Jackson’s art. Decker may have calmed down her frenetic style this time around, but it was only in service of her most compelling story to date.
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The Best Anime of the Decade (Ranks 50-26)