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Which movie had the best special effects of the year?

Avengers: Infinity War, Aquaman and Paddington 2 make the cut

Avengers Infinity War Spider-Man scene Marvel Studios

Earlier this year, the masterminds behind the Academy Awards revealed that the 2019 ceremony would include a “Most Popular Film” award, a subtle way of saying “we need blockbuster blood on this stage.” A few weeks later, they scrapped the idea, after the film industry raised a collective eyebrow. Yes, Most Popular Film was probably a way to ensure that an uber-successful, culturally poignant superhero movie like Black Panther could earn some love between more traditional prestige plays, but as everyone recognized, the Marvel movie was probably going to make the Best Picture cut anyway. So why demean it with “Most Popular?”

We’ll know whether the voters threw their support behind Black Panther when the Academy reveals its nominees on Jan. 22, 2019 (and air on Feb. 24 later that year). But anyone looking for superheroic representation at Hollywood’s biggest night need look no further than the shortlist for the year’s Best Visual Effects category. This week, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Science announced that 20 films are officially in the running for the award. The list ranges from Marvel and DC’s major plays to other envelope-pushing blockbusters and a few smaller films that employed visual effects in more low-key ways.

Which one of these razzled and dazzled and computer-graphically movies entranced our senses the most in 2018? Here’s the full list:

Ant-Man and the Wasp
Avengers: Infinity War
Black Panther
Christopher Robin
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald
First Man
Incredibles 2
Isle of Dogs
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
Mary Poppins Returns
Mission: Impossible – Fallout
Mortal Engines
The Nutcracker and the Four Realms
Paddington 2
A Quiet Place
Ready Player One
Solo: A Star Wars Story
Welcome to Marwen

A few immediate takeaways: There’s no question that its hyperkinetic battles, Josh Brolin’s motion-captured performance as Thanos, and the fact that it probably won’t be nominated in any other category this year, make Avengers: Infinity War a clear contender for the trophy.

And yet, Aquaman’s end-of-year release date could give it a fin up on the competition. While I have to remain tight-lipped on specifics for now, James Wan’s Justice League-spinoff is pure ecstasy in the visual department, with underwater kingdoms, legions of sea battalions and the propulsion of laser-filled war rendered with jaw-dropping detail. If Infinity War feels too familiar to voters, there’s a chance Aquaman could take this one. (No surprise that Disney is adding Infinity War to Netflix on Dec. 25, so people can soak it back up this holiday season.)

Despite the love for Black Panther, it’s not the special effects that really make the movie pop — it’s everything else. Likewise, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Solo: A Star Wars Story, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald and most likely Bumblebee all feel a little too low-key to steal this one away from the juggernauts. Mission: Impossible’s emphasis on real stunts also seems like it would only work against the subtle effects that make all of Tom Cruise’s big moments sing. Same goes for Incredibles 2, which bakes visual effects (a totally different department and skillset than traditional character work) into animation, making its wow-factor part of an overall reaction.

But perhaps character-driven visual effects could lure the sharp-eyed, technical voters in ways us laymen may not fully grasp? First Man utilized state of the art digital backdrops, combined with a rocky set built in an Atlanta quarry, to send Ryan Gosling to the moon. Since the movie spends most of the time suffocating us inside NASA space capsules, the effects aren’t on flashy display, but they are emotional. Meanwhile, A Quiet Place brought its alien creatures to life for brief but effective moments, and both Christopher Robin and Paddington 2 — one of the best movies of the year! — star CG bears.

The past few winners of the visual effects honor include Blade Runner 2049, The Jungle Book, Ex Machina, Interstellar, Gravity, Life of Pi, and Martin Scorsese’s eye-popping-yet-overlooked 3D masterpiece Hugo. The award is not an automatic win for “biggest comic book movie.” But it might be this year, with two of the brassiest having battled for our eyeballs and now duking it out over Oscar votes.

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