With Season 2 (April), which recently wrapped its free-to-all run on YouTube Premium, “Cobra Kai” has secured its spot as the best continuation of a 1980s premise (a surprisingly robust genre lately). The safe, cheesy and sometimes flat-out bad (but yes, we loved it anyway) filmmaking of the “Karate Kid” trilogy has given way to a confident, funny, epic and ultimately heart-wrenching TV series.
The 2010s are the decade when the word “canceled” became softened and pretty much any old fondly remembered thing could be brought back (for better or worse). “Cobra Kai” – Season 1 of which aired in May 2018 on YouTube Premium – may or may not have been the most surprising revival, continuing from the “Karate Kid” trilogy (1984-89). But it is surprising that it’s this good.
Making a great fictional tennis movie is a tall order. The sport is naturally cinematic and filled with personal drama, and there’s no way made-up people and events can compete with what’s really happening on the pro tours. (By contrast, in a team sport like baseball or football, the idea of zeroing in on an individual has enough novelty value that even fictional people can be compelling.) Considering everything stacked against it, though, “Wimbledon” (2004) does not embarrass itself and is rather likable, if not memorable.
For the first 90 minutes or so, “The Karate Kid Part III” (1989) is shaping up to be the worst of the trilogy chronicling the coming of age and burgeoning karate skills of Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio). The last half-hour redefines the film – somehow written and directed by the returning team of Robert Mark Kamen and John G. Avildsen – as a hilarious unintentional comedy. At least I think it’s unintentional; I suppose it’s possible the film was shot in sequence and the filmmakers decided to lean into the absurdities at this point. It’s still the worst of the trilogy, but at least it gives me my recommended weekly allowance of laughs in one sitting.
The Karate Kid Part II” (1986) is definitely a less sloppy film than the original, without its forbearer’s editing errors, but it’s also a slightly less interesting one. The sequel is often entertaining, but it’s disappointing to see that “The Karate Kid” is apparently going to be a follow-the-formula film series where Daniel (Ralph Macchio) encounters a group of bullies and ultimately defeats them with a special trick move. On the other hand, I can’t quibble about Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) being the focal point of “Part II,” as he is the saga’s best character.
The same thing that excites a viewer about “The Karate Kid” (1984) – the fact that it’s directed by John G. Avildsen and filled with songs by Bill Conti – also brings it crashing down, because “The Karate Kid” is no “Rocky.” It’s no fault of those “Rocky” collaborators — Avildsen gives the film a nice look and gets strong performances out of young Ralph Macchio and veteran Pat Morita, and Conti is on his game, especially with Survivor’s “Moment of Truth” – but many parts of the movie are not fully fleshed out.
Fighting with My Family” doesn’t redefine the sports biopic genre, which in a way is too bad because professional wrestling is such an unusual thing, sitting on the border between athletics and entertainment. It might be fascinating to dig further into the mechanisms of how participants – and ultimately, champions — are chosen and how their narratives are written. As it stands, “Fighting” is a standard biopic in structure, but the story of Paige is so genuinely inspiring, and actress Florence Pugh (“The Little Drummer Girl”) is such a natural star, that the film is totally engaging.
For a long stretch, “Redbelt” (2008) employs Chiwetel Ejiofor and a stellar cast doing strong work in service to a story that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. But writer-director David Mamet is planting seeds for a stronger back half where most of it comes together in an unusual mix of Mametian con-job plot and martial-arts fight film. The finished product is still a bizarre blend that makes me question if it’s worth the 1 hour and 40 minutes, but Ejiofor – as big-city jujitsu instructor Mike Terry – ultimately shapes “Redbelt” into a fable about finding a way out of the direst circumstances through sheer training and skill.
Irecall that the theater was packed with an enthusiastic crowd for “Varsity Blues” in January 1999. Not that it was a huge movie – all movies other than the summer blockbusters kind of snuck into theaters back then – but it was definitely a cool movie for young people. It features “Dawson’s Creek’s” James Van Der Beek, other soon-to-be-stars like Paul Walker (R.I.P.), and a soundtrack lineup that’s the 1999 equivalent of the 1929 Yankees (tracks 2-6: Green Day, Foo Fighters, Collective Soul, Fastball, Third Eye Blind).
The dominant genre of 2018 continued to be superheroes; even with the “X-Men” Universe and DC Extended Universe releasing only one film each, the three Marvel Cinematic Universe movies were impossible to overlook. Still, this was a less blockbustery year than 2017, and by year’s end I had seen at least one really good film in every genre. From a throwback thriller to an arthouse gem, here are my 10 favorite films of 2018.