Rian Johnson is one of the most promising filmmakers to emerge in recent decades, with an energetic storytelling style and flair for narratives that capture the sensibility of familiar genres while subverting his audience’s expectations at nearly every turn. With a film career that has – to date – almost exclusively covered the mystery and science fiction genres, he has become one of the most interesting contemporary pulp filmmakers. Sometimes, however, his wit can overshadow his films and undermine what he seems to be trying to achieve. So let’s explore his impressively creative and quirky films, and rank his films from least effective to most effective.
6. “Looper” (2012)
The first half of Rian Johnson’s first sci-fi movie is so intricately realized that you might not notice that it doesn’t make sense. Looper is set in a world where assassins like Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) are hired to kill people sent back in time from the future, and are eventually expected to kill older versions of themselves. When his future (now played by Bruce Willis) returns, he runs away, and it’s up to this reckless young man to literally destroy his future. “Looper” is an inventive and electrifying movie, cleverly mixing the black, western, time travel, and cyberpunk genres, but the second half veers into uninspired “Terminator” territory, and the subplot about psychic powers feels like a completely and dramatically different kind of movie. less exciting.
5. “Knives Out” (2019)
Johnson assembles an Agatha Christie-esque supervillain cast, with Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Chris Evans, Toni Collette and Don Johnson playing the family of a wealthy, mysterious novelist, played by Christopher Plummer, whose sudden and suspicious death attracts the attention of supervillain detective Daniel Craig. They all have motives, but “Knives Out” is more interested in helping the hired victim, played by Ana de Armas, who has one hell of a secret. Johnson’s stunning direction and brilliant ensemble keep “Knives Out” engaging and compelling, but the filmmaker’s efforts to give deeper meaning to this plane narrative feel perfunctory. Even worse, the mystery wears off quickly and, despite some valiant efforts, never reappears. “Knives Out” is never boring, but it doesn’t have a lot going for it.
4. “Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi” (2017)
The second film, the latest in the “Star Wars” trilogy, somehow manages to be as gritty, modern, and energetic as “The Empire Strikes Back,” while still following the same basic movie structure. Johnson’s film divides the cast, teaches us entirely new ideas about power, explores the relationship between fascism and capitalism, builds on the relationship between hero and villain, and gives us one hell of a movie. It’s full of amazing set pieces and great ideas that can’t help but burst a little at the seams. Not every idea is explored for fulfillment, and some plot points are controversial, but “The Last Jedi” dares to take a familiar franchise in exciting new directions, effectively removing the safety from the entire “Star Wars” mythos. As a standalone movie, it’s messy, and yet it’s exactly what the series needs.
3. “The Brothers Bloom” (2008)
The con artist subgenre is usually a satirical one, where no one can be trusted, and even the audience is treated as a label. But Johnson’s sparkling and romantic “Bloom Brothers” is a whole different kind of racket. Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo play brothers who not only deceive their victims, but weave intricate stories full of subtext and character development that keep everyone happy. Even if they just got out of all their money. When their latest target turns out to be a twisted genius, played to perfection by Rachel Weisz, their story begins to unravel in unexpected ways. Crackerjack entertainment and thoughtful, character-driven drama, with a villainous turn from Maximillian Schell that will make your skin crawl.
2. “Brick” (2005)
Johnson’s debut feature remains, impressively, one of his best. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the iconic high school trooper who investigates the disappearance of the only girl he’s ever loved, played by Emilie de Ravin. His research uncovers shocking truths and fascinating characters within all of the high school class systems, in a narrative that successfully transforms John Hughes archetypes into a thick, hard-boiled ensemble noir. “Brick” gets fun with its teen detective premise, sometimes satirizing for taking its gritty style too seriously, but beneath its high-concept veneer, Johnson tells a powerful story of love, loss, and loneliness. It’s as strong as any neo-noir, and Johnson’s trademark wit doesn’t get in the way of the story’s harsh punches.
1. “The Glass Onion: Knives Out of Obscurity” (2022)
Benoit Blanc, Daniel Craig’s southern detective, returns in Glass Onion, another all-star thriller with twists and surprises aplenty. The mystery is dense and clever, but even if you manage to get past Johnson’s intricate plot, the fascinating characters, lavish locations, and intriguing story will keep you enthralled. Kate Hudson practically steals the movie, but everyone is uniformly great, in this incredibly timely yet satisfyingly universal tale. “Glass Onion” proves that breeze can be fun and broad entertainment can be incredibly clever.
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