4. Looper (2012)
Looper is Rian Johnson’s lean, mean and morose time travel fable.
Several decades into the future, time travel is invented and used by organised crime gangs to forcefully send their targets back to be killed in the past. One hitman, Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), earns a reputation as one of the most reliable, unfeeling and efficient hitmen until the moment when his future self (Bruce Willis) is sent back on a future-changing mission.
With Looper you’ve got to keep in mind the usual unwritten rule for watching films like this: don’t think too hard about the exact plot mechanics or you’ll just end up giving yourself a headache. It’s very much of the branching timeline model of Back to the Future where you can travel back to affect things to come – horrifically demonstrated by Jeff Daniels’ gangster cutting bits off a traitor whose older self is trying to escape – and this is where the tension lies, with every choice made having world-changing consequences.
They gave Joseph Gordon-Levitt facial prosthetics to play the younger version of Willis’ character and somehow he looks even less like Willis than he normally does. He still does a good vocal impression though, and plays off Willis and Emily Blunt (as a Sarah Connor-alike also called Sara without the “h”) particularly well. Bruce Willis’ second major time travel movie is even knottier and bleaker than 12 Monkeys and his character, while not being an outright villain, is certainly a complex and tormented antagonist. Sadly Looper is perhaps Willis’ last great role.
The film’s modest-to-medium budget is used well to show us a plausible cyberpunk near-future, and the whole thing demonstrates Johnson’s natural ability to economically construct a whole new reality and the troubled souls that inhabit it.
3. Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017)
Rian Johnson’s iconoclastic entry into franchise filmmaking frustrated many a fanboy.
The fascist First Order, led by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), pursues the remains of the Resistance across the galaxy while newly awakened Force-sensitive prodigy Rey (Daisy Ridley) seeks to persuade a self-exiled Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to join the fight.
5 years on and The Last Jedi still inspires passionate disagreement among Star Wars fans. Nobody thinks it’s just OK, it’s either one of the best of the series or its absolute anathema.
If The Force Awakens hit the reset button (for better and worse) on the Skywalker Saga, then The Last Jedi took the saga into uncharted territory. It takes aim at franchise iconography, questions everything and, to use Luke’s words, doesn’t “go the way you think”.
Bold character swings, grey morality and some of the most striking imagery in Star Wars (the mirrored cave, the throne room battle, the light speed split) more than make up for unanswered questions, and previous perfect hero archetype Luke proves to be more than fallible. Star Wars will always be a fantasy, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t interesting to bring a few of its characters crashing back to Earth.
JJ Abrams may have had coherent plans for the full trilogy – ditto for Johnson – but because they split directorial duties and their visions didn’t match, we ended up with two competing stories being told across three films. Even if you really appreciate The Last Jedi, it only really works completely as a stand-alone Star Wars story. It comes slap bang in the middle of this list because it is so rightly or wrongly controversial.
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