Top 10 Films of 2018, No. 3 – The Death of Stalin

The Death of Stalin is a black comedy and political satire directed by Armando Iannucci and co-written by Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin, and Peter Fellows. The film is set in 1953 and tells the story of the struggle for power among members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union following the death of the tyrannical dictator Joseph Stalin.

The-Death-of-StalinOver the years, there have been some tremendous political satire films, including classics like Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) and Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), as well as more recent films like 2009’s In the Loop (which I will mention again later). And with The Death of Stalin, Scottish filmmaker Armando Iannucci has created an exceptional addition to the genre, which I hope will live on among the aforementioned greats. If you have read my blog before, you will likely know that one of my favorite types of film is black comedy – as I have mentioned before, there is something captivating about the amalgamation of darkly serious issues and wickedly funny storytelling. Stalin Gif 3This movie is set during an obviously horrifying time in world history – at that time in the Soviet Union, the government (led by Stalin and his cronies) was impulsively torturing and jailing its citizens, even executing many. The film is thus blunt and dark about those events, including characters insouciantly bantering about having people killed mercilessly. Luckily, the basic plot devices and dialogue are both entertaining and hilarious, which makes the film’s political satire as a whole brilliantly comedic. The cast of characters at the center of the story’s power struggle are constantly trying to get one step ahead of the others, which makes for an amusing series of loyalties and betrayals pursuant to the film’s many schemes and counter-schemes for supremacy.

Death2At the center of this dark farce is the film’s creator, director and co-writer Armando Iannucci. As mentioned above, Iannucci is no stranger to brilliant political satire, directing and co-writing In the Loop, an outstanding satire about politics and, particularly, the political relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom. This film was an instant classic and one of the best political satires of the 2000s, earning Iannucci and his co-writers an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. More recently, Iannucci is known as the creator of HBO’s Veep. He obviously has a rich background in black comedy and political satire, and his skills are radiantly on display in The Death of Stalin as he skillfully balances the film’s silliness and malevolence.MV5BMmEyNDYyM2ItODRmOC00M2Q4LTk3ODUtYTliMmUyMDJhNmFjXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzI1NzMxNzM@._V1_ To give you a taste of Iannucci’s humor, the film begins with one of my favorite scenes in all of cinema from 2018. At the start of the movie, there is a concert of classical music being performed live, with a Soviet radio station broadcasting the concert. The radio director then gets a call from Stalin’s office indicating that the dictator would like a copy of the concert’s recording and will be sending men to pick that copy up in person. There’s only one problem – the radio station was not recording the broadcast. In a frantic effort to still satisfy Stalin’s wishes, the radio director (played frenetically by Paddy Considine) attempts to stop everyone in the concert hall from leaving, explaining that they are about to have an encore performance of the entire concert. The scene is chock-full of comical dialogue, including Considine’s character hurriedly telling the audience, “take your seats, take your fucking seats,” and nervously proclaiming to everyone, “don’t worry, nobody’s gonna get killed, I promise you.” The scene is the epitome of life under Stalin’s rule, and Iannucci plays it perfectly.

Stalin Gif 2The last thing I want to mention is the film’s ensemble cast, which spectacularly brings Iannucci’s vision to life. The main characters are: Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), the callous and calculating chief of Stalin’s secret police force; Nikita Khrushchev, played as seemingly, but riotously, incompetent by Steve Buscemi; Georgy Malenkov, Stalin’s temporary successor, depicted as spineless and unassertive by Jeffrey Tambor; Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), a seasoned diplomat in the Communist Party; and Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), an intense high-ranking official in the Societ military. The film also features wonderful supporting performances from Rupert Friend and Andrea Riseborough as Stalin’s adult children.giphy7 One of the most noteworthy parts of the film is Iannucci’s decision to have his cast speak in their native accents. Although this technique was polarizing for film fans, I loved it and consider it one of the best things about the movie. Having the actors in Bryan Singer’s 2008 film Valkyrie speak in neutral accents rather than the German ones associated with their characters was something I found distracting because the film was an intense drama. Here, Iannucci is affirmatively striving to make a film that is darkly comedic and politically satirizing, so the actors’ use of their own accents made the entire charade that much more hysterical. The Death of Stalin is rated R for language throughout, violence, and some sexual references.

The Death of Stalin trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E9eAshaPvYw

Advertisements

Top 10 Films of 2018, No. 4 – A Star Is Born

A Star Is Born is a musical drama directed by Bradley Cooper (in his directorial debut) and co-written by Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper, and Will Fetters.  The film tells the story of a country musician named Jackson Maine (Cooper) who discovers and falls in love with a young, aspiring singer named Ally (Lady Gaga). Ally’s budding musical career quickly takes off, but all the while, Jackson’s own personal demons threaten to tear his down.

Star Gif 4This iteration of A Star Is Born is the third remake of the original 1937 film, following reincarnations in 1954 (starring Judy Garland and James Mason) and 1976 (starring Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson). Despite trotting through familiar territory, the Cooper- and Gaga-led version feels undeniably new and wholly unique. As much as this film is about the music (and trust me, the music is flawless – I still listen to “Shallow” at least a few times each week), it is really much more about an exploration of Jackson and Ally and their obviously genuine, but altogether complicated, love story. These two characters clearly inspire each other in the most believable ways possible (both in life and in music), which makes their rollercoaster relationship that much more affecting for an audience. Star Gif 1Although the ease of buying into this tale of romance has a lot to do with Cooper and Lady Gaga as actors (their chemistry was organic, unforced, and utterly convincing), it can also be credited to the dynamic screenwriting trio, the X factor of which is Eric Roth. Roth has led a critically acclaimed career behind the pen, writing the scripts (and receiving Oscar nominations) for Hollywood heavy-hitters Forrest Gump, The Insider, Munich, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. With such an illustrious filmography, it is patently obvious that Roth’s fingerprints were all over the script for A Star Is Born.

Star Gif 3The movie also benefits tremendously from an exquisite directorial achievement by Cooper. Some of the most emotionally packed scenes in all of film this year came from A Star Is Born, and Cooper’s vision is at the root. Avoiding spoilers, I will say that the emotional climax of the film was, even for someone that hadn’t seen any of the previous iterations of the story, predictable. But despite that, Cooper still presented it in a way that felt raw and unexpected – it was single-handedly the most heart-wrenching scene of the year. (There wasn’t a dry eye in the theater.) Further, the main function of a director, aside from being the film’s chief visionary, is to get the best work out of the actors – in that department, Cooper far exceeded all expectations that could possibly have been set for him. As I will get into more detail about in a moment, Lady Gaga delivered an exceptional performance as Ally. Yes, she was clearly born to be a performer. Yes, she already has a small handful of acting credits. And yes, the film is about a singer, which Gaga already is in real life. But in the wrong director’s hands, a good performer could still fall flat – it happens all the time. Luckily, in A Star Is Born, the combination of Cooper’s shrewd direction and Gaga’s unquestionable talent came together beautifully to offer one of the year’s best acting performances. Star Gif 5It also says a lot that Sam Elliott, a pioneer in the acting world with a career that spans over five decades, received his first Oscar nomination of all time in the role of Bobby Maine, Jackson’s manager and half-brother. Not only did Cooper bring out the best in Lady Gaga, but he also found a way to elicit a career-defining supporting performance from a Hollywood legend. I am still quite a bit upset that Cooper was overlooked in the Best Director category – he definitely should have received a nomination for his work behind the camera.

Star Gif 2As alluded to above, Lady Gaga’s portrayal of Ally was amazing – given her background in music and her own rise to fame, Cooper could not have hit a more definite homerun in terms of casting than this. Gaga effortlessly commanded the complex emotional nature of Ally, portraying her vividly as a young woman who is at first apprehensive and lacking in self-esteem, and later confident and more comfortable in her own skin. However, even after Ally becomes more self-assured, she still maintains an innocent sense of vulnerability – Gaga depicts that remarkably. tumblr_pg469awrKr1qjde42o8_400Even though Bradley Cooper is the film’s creative mind behind the camera, he also turns in one of the best acting performances of his own career, justifiably earning him a fourth Oscar nomination in an acting category. Jackson Maine is a complicated character – despite Ally energizing his life in terms of love and music, he still struggles to keep up with his own personal battles. A life of alcoholism and self-sabotage trips Jackson up at every turn, and Cooper’s portrayal is haunting and dramatic – it was definitely a memorable piece of acting. A Star Is Born is rated R for language throughout, some sexuality/nudity, and substance abuse.

A Star Is Born trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nSbzyEJ8X9E&t=8s

Academy Award nominations for A Star Is Born:

Best Picture (Bill Gerber, Bradley Cooper, and Lynette Howell Taylor, producers)

Best Actor in a Leading Role (Bradley Cooper)

Best Actress in a Leading Role (Lady Gaga)

Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Sam Elliott)

Best Adapted Screenplay (Screenplay by Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper, and Will Fetters)

Best Original Song – “Shallow” (Music and Lyrics by Lady Gaga, Mark Ronson, Anthony Rossomando, and Andrew Wyatt)

Best Sound Mixing (Tom Ozanich, Dean Zupancic, Jason Ruder, and Steve A. Morrow)

Best Cinematography (Matthew Libatique)

Top 10 Films of 2018, No. 5 – Blindspotting

Blindspotting, a film directed by Carlos Lopez Estrada and co-written by Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs, follows Collin (Diggs), an African-American in present-day Oakland who has just three days left on probation. Collin and his best friend Miles (Casal), a white guy with a propensity for being a troublemaker, work together for a moving company. One night after work, Collin witnesses a police officer shoot an African-American suspect in the back when the latter is fleeing. This incident creates a captivating change in reality that Collin must now cope with, riddled with questions about race, the class system, and gentrification, which ultimately threatens to splinter his friendship with Miles.

dmyz3pThis movie is set at the intersection of ‘buddy comedy’ and ‘profound drama,’ and it uses humor in a manner that makes the film’s emotionally affecting explication of deep social issues that much more poignant and impactful – its mastering of this blend of storytelling makes it not only one of the best films about race in the present era, but one of the best movies of the entire year. Period. At the center of the story is a thriving interracial friendship between Collin and Miles, which is used throughout the film as a conduit for the exploration of privilege. The friendship is remarkably authentic, which exceptionally evokes an innate sense of empathy from the audience for the test that this friendship endures as the movie’s social issues begin to complicate the relationship between the two leads. giphy4The genuineness of Collin’s and Miles’s friendship can be credited to the real-life relationship between Diggs and Casal, who co-wrote the film – the two are childhood friends from Oakland. The film’s funniest and most heart-wrenching moments feature Collin and Miles at center stage, and their banter throughout the movie (which includes some witty freestyle rapping while packing up clients’ belongings) is outstanding.  I truly think the movie thrives in a beautiful manner because of the believability of the close friendship between Collin and Miles.

tenor5Casal is wonderful in his comical, yet layered portrayal of Miles (he is at his best in one of the film’s greatest moments, where Miles is attempting to sell a sailboat), but in this film, Daveed Diggs steals the show. Diggs rose to fame in 2015 for his portrayal of both Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in the award-winning musical Hamilton, which featured a great deal of rapping and garnered Diggs a Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical. Prior to Hamilton, Diggs had already established himself as a rapper of the highest quality via his experimental hip-hop group Clipping. With this background, Diggs prepared himself for an enrapturing on-screen acting performance in Blindspotting, which earned him a nomination for Best Male Lead at this year’s Independent Spirit Awards. Not only is Diggs’s acting on point, but his execution of the film’s dialogue is masterful. There are parts of the film where Diggs actually raps his character’s dialogue, but even in the moments where the words are not meant to be rapped, Diggs’s cadence is still incredibly melodic and poetic. tenorIn the film’s climatic scene, Diggs’s character stares right into the camera with a gun drawn (for what feels like forever), delivering an emotionally packed monologue that feels less like traditional rap and more like performance art. The scene is the film’s most powerful, and it stands as the pinnacle of Diggs’s acting achievement in the movie.

MV5BNDdiZDkzZmUtODVkZi00MTFiLWI0MGQtMjM3ZjA4ZDQyMmJiXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTgwMjA2MDg@._V1_The serious themes at issue in Blindspotting benefit from the complete package of first-rate filmmaking, and Carlos Lopez Estrada (in his directorial debut) commands the movie’s direction precisely. The movie is constantly shifting from funny to dramatic and from heartwarming to violent, and Estrada carefully constructs and intricately weaves these divergent tones into an overall great movie. The film features a set of dream sequences that Collin grapples with following the police shooting, and Estrada brilliantly tempers those sequences’ surrealism with the perfect touch of fidelity. Estrada definitely brought his ‘A game’ to this film, and I look forward to watching anything else he creates in the future. Blindspotting is rated R for language throughout, some brutal violence, sexual references, and drug use.

Blindspotting trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-9-HBqVbtTo&t=89s

Top 10 Films of 2018, No. 6 – Thoroughbreds

Thoroughbreds is a film, written and directed by Cory Finley in his feature debut, set in an upper-class suburban area in Connecticut. At the beginning of the film, two high-school girls who used to be friends but eventually grew apart have reconnected – Amanda (Olivia Cooke) comes over to Lily’s (Anya Taylor-Joy) house, a sprawling mansion, in order for Lily to provide tutoring lessons. It takes the girls a little while to grow accustomed to one another again, but after more and more time spent together, they begin to warm up to each other. Eventually they hatch an ominous plan to kill Lily’s controlling and domineering stepfather, Mark (Paul Sparks), which also includes contracting with a local drug dealer, Tim (Anton Yelchin), for help with the deed.

source3One of my favorite genres of film is “black comedy,” and Thoroughbreds epitomizes the term. After my wife and I first watched it a few months ago, I distinctly recall leaning over to her and stating, “If I could make a movie, this is exactly the kind of movie I’d make.” For me, there is something so appealing and satisfying about a humorous, yet dramatic and thought-provoking, exploration of twisted topics – and in that sense, Thoroughbreds absolutely delivered. To give you a taste: We learn early on that Amanda has recently euthanized her prize horse, which resulted in animal cruelty charges and the scorn of the community. T3The creative mind behind Thoroughbreds is writer/director Cory Finley. Although new to the feature film world, Finley’s debut is a smash and a sign of great things to come. The entire movie feels a lot like a Yorgos Lanthimos film (see The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and The Favourite), but in his own way, Finley still provides something unique here. Thoroughbreds is suspenseful and profoundly unsettling, and Finley uses all aspects of filmmaking to accomplish this – with the combination of a haunting score, organic cinematography, and a script that perfectly utilizes pauses and periods of outright silence, Thoroughbreds builds tension in an exquisite way as the film grows darker every minute.

giphyMy favorite part of the movie is its exceptionally interesting characters and accompanying acting performances. For starters, the two leads are phenomenal. Amanda and Lily could not appear more opposite – Amanda is blunt and emotionless (and with respect to the latter, that is a literal personality trait, as it is revealed that Amanda actually lacks the ability to feel any emotions), and Lily is nervy but mannerly. However, as the film progresses, we start to see cracks in Lily’s façade begin to develop, as she slowly reveals a sense of narcissism and manipulation deep within. giphy2The vast differences in Amanda’s and Lily’s physical and emotional temperaments are striking, and to best depict these distinctive characteristics on the screen, Finley could not have done better than Cooke and Taylor-Joy. Anton Yelchin also gave a noteworthy performance in one of the late actor’s final film roles – the actor, who died just a couple of weeks after principal photography wrapped, skillfully portrayed Tim as a wittily arrogant drug dealer with a lot of underlying vulnerabilities. It was a wonderful performance to cap off a brilliant career that was cut too short. Thoroughbreds is rated R for strong violence, grisly images, and language.

Thoroughbreds trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TPcV_3D3V2A

Top 10 Films of 2018, No. 7 – Upgrade

Upgrade is a film, written and directed by Leigh Whannell, that is set in the not-so-distant future where autonomous cars dominate the roadways (in a much more technologically advanced fashion than anything currently existing, like Tesla’s autopilot system) and artificial intelligence far exceeds the likes of our modern-day Alexa or Siri. The film follows Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green), who spends his days refurbishing old muscle cars for high-end clients and listening to music on vinyl (such as the classic blues song “Smokestack Lightning” by Howlin’ Wolf) – he is “vintage” and proud of it. When Grey and his wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) get into a car accident, a group of criminals kill Asha and leave Grey paralyzed. Grey is then offered a unique opportunity by Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson), one of Grey’s clients and a wealthy whiz-kid technology innovator. Eron offers to implant Grey with a biomechanical enhancement chip called STEM that will allow Grey full functionality of his body again. This quickly proves to be the miracle Grey was waiting for, but upon discovering a wealth of additional abilities that are afforded to him via STEM, Grey sets out on a revenge spree in the name of his wife to bring the men who killed her to some form of justice. Chaos ensues as STEM (voiced by Simon Maiden) begins taking more and more control over Grey’s actions.

Upgrade5I will point out for you now that Upgrade is not a cinematic masterpiece or a film that will go down in the history books as a “classic.” However, the movies finds itself in my personal Top 10 this year because it is visually stimulating and energetic and simply provides some of the very most fun I have had watching a movie this past year – that experience I had was worth the entry at No. 7. The movie is produced by Blumhouse Productions, a studio which has notably put out horror franchises like Insidious, Paranormal Activity, and The Purge – it has also produced the likes of Whiplash, Get Out, and 2018’s BlacKkKlansman.  Additionally, the writer/director has a rich background in horror, penning the scripts for the first three installments of the Saw franchise and all three Insidious films (the most recent of which he also directed). I recite the filmographies of Upgrade’s creative vessels to point out that in Upgrade, this vast horror/thriller acumen plays a central role in the film’s success.

UpgradeUpgrade consists of an interesting mixture of film genres that all come together spectacularly to form an exhilarating movie – it is equal parts science-fiction, horror, action, and thriller. (It also features a dose of an appropriate amount of humor, most notably via sarcastic and witty banter between Grey and the inner voice of STEM that only Grey can hear.) Although this movie highlights these elements of various genres in a way that builds upon tropes that you will have no doubt seen many times over in previous films, I assure you that Upgrade still feels new and refreshing. Upgrade3The movie is premised on the classic theme of “humans vs. robots,” and the technological advances depicted on screen are enjoyable, which includes characters with guns built into their arms, making for some action-packed shooting scenes. Whannell’s exploration of this theme is vivid and presents a world in which the rapid advancement of technology becomes increasingly dangerous. This is where Upgrade thrives the most – the film employs high-tech weaponry and artificial intelligence to tap into rousing scenes of adventure and gore, with the help of active cinematography and visually arresting action stunts/choreography.

Upgrade4The film’s casting is also spot-on for a movie of this nature. Logan Marshall-Green is fantastic in his role as Grey, authentically depicting the character’s immense resistance to modern technology – Marshall-Green skillfully executes Grey’s sardonic dialogue and demeanor. Although only featured in a supporting role, I was notably impressed by Harrison Gilbertson’s performance as Eron Keen – Eron is eccentric to the point that it borders on creepy, and Gilbertson neatly portrays Eron’s tendencies to appear both vainly confident and frantically vulnerable. Upgrade is rated R for strong violence, grisly images, and language.

Upgrade trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G9fXbkiKfmY

Top 10 Films of 2018, No. 8 – American Animals

American Animals is a dramatic crime film that is written and directed by Bart Layton. Based on real-life events, the film follows two friends – Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) and Warren Lipka (Evan Peters) – who plot to commit a heist of expensively rare books (including The Birds of America by John James Audubon) maintained at the library on campus at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky. What starts out more like a dare quickly turns into a dangerous reality as the boys (who eventually recruit two more guys to the team – Chas Allen, portrayed by Blake Jenner, and Eric Borsuk, portrayed by Jared Abrahamson) become increasingly fixated on the prospect of doing something daring and interesting with their lives.

AA1This movie is a thrilling experience, and the style in which it is presented is fascinating and adds significantly to its allure – the film is a hybrid that combines elements of dramatic narrative and documentary filmmaking in an exceptionally unique way. Throughout the movie, Layton skillfully mixes in interviews with the real-life characters, and these interviews aren’t in the form of archival footage – instead, Layton actually filmed new interviews with the real people behind the heist attempt and intercut those shots with the narrative being told. So essentially, the scenes starring Keoghan and Peters embody an incredibly well-crafted reenactment of the story being told through the documentary-style interviews. This technique was wildly intriguing, and it never once reached the point of being gimmicky. Layton employed this system of storytelling aptly as a way to better advance the plot and its rich themes of entitlement and delusion, and American Animals was a grittier film because of it.

AAAs far as the story itself, it is absolutely absurd. From the very start, the plan that Spencer and Warren hatch is utterly misguided and illogical. All four of the college kids involved in the scheme come from seemingly normal middle-class families, which only adds to the silliness of their heist attempt – influenced by Tarantino movies, these guys seem to just be looking for an adrenaline rush to spice up their lives with the prospect that it might provide some sense of meaning to their existence. The entire movie is a subtle referendum on entitlement, which makes the ultimate message so deep, despite the fun and entertainment that comes along with telling a heist story. As seen in the interview scenes, the real-life Spencer Reinhard and Warren Lipka recite the events with vast contradiction, leaving the audience to guess whether certain parts of the story ever really happened. It is an engaging tale of delusion, and Layton tells it well.

AA2The reenactment portion of the film features some impressive acting performances, particularly those of Keoghan and Peters. I have seen Keoghan in a few bit parts over the last couple of years, but he broke out in Yorgos Lanthimos’s 2017 film The Killing of a Sacred Deer – although I liked Keoghan much better in that film, where he was perfectly haunting and amusingly wicked, he is still a force in American Animals. He portrays Spencer’s apathy with precision. I was also thoroughly impressed by Peters’s performance as Warren. Despite the fact that the plan is initially concocted between both Warren and Spencer, it is Warren who pushes the heist forward at every step, including organizing a buyer for the rare books that are to be sold. Peters is remarkable in his depiction of Warren’s fixation on the heist, and his portrayal of Warren’s accompanying delusions of grandeur is spot-on. American Animals is rated R for language throughout, some drug use, and brief crude/sexual material.

American Animals trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yAhruSwum1c&t=34s

Top 10 Films of 2018, No. 9 – A Quiet Place

A Quiet Place is a horror film directed by John Krasinski and co-written by Krasinski, Bryan Woods, and Scott Beck. Set in a post-apocalyptic world that has been overtaken by mysterious blind creatures that attack their prey utilizing their acute sense of hearing, A Quiet Place follows the Abbott family as they live in silence in an attempt to survive.

Over time, the cinematic landscape has become more and more saturated with horror films, more so than most other genres. However, every so often, a movie comes along that injects something unique and refreshing into the genre, and I tend to gravitate to those remarkable adventures. For example, I really enjoyed the 2015 film It Follows, which didn’t really break the rules of traditional horrors films as much as it uncompromisingly set its own distinctive and memorable rubric for the genre. Further, in 2017, Jordan Peele’s Best Picture-nominated Get Out became the gold standard for mixing horror with invigorating social commentary. In the same vein as some of its noteworthy predecessors, John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place not only redefines what makes a film scary and suspenseful, but it breathes life into a premise that builds upon both classic elements of horror and an infusion of inventive plot devices.

AQP3In this film, sound is dangerous, noises breed vulnerability, and safety resides in silence. In that sense, A Quiet Place is similar to the 2016 horror film Don’t Breathe – however, in Don’t Breathe, only some of the movie utilizes silence as a plot point (i.e., the scenes in the blind man’s house), as the remainder of the film includes ordinary dialogue. This is what makes Krasinski’s filmmaking here so impressive – the central foundation of this post-apocalyptic world is that, from the get-go, noise is bad. Thus, Krasinski can’t use ordinary character dialogue to progress the story or create tension at any point – instead, he must rely on visuals and non-verbal cues. In this aspect, Krasinski was masterful in A Quiet Place. Using the silence as a tool, Krasinski constantly tugs at the audience’s nerves, creating an edge-of-your-seat adventure.  I also greatly enjoyed the fundamental theme of the story – as Krasinski explained, “The scares were secondary to how powerful this could be as an allegory or metaphor for parenthood. For me, this is all about parenthood.”

AQP1From an acting perspective, A Quiet Place is wonderful. In particular, I was thoroughly impressed with Emily Blunt and Millicent Simmonds. Blunt (Krasinski’s real-life wife) plays Evelyn, the mother of the family, and her performance was incredibly balanced and emotive. The scene that sticks out the most to me as evidence of Blunt’s fantastic acting is when Evelyn (who is pregnant and nearly full-term) must attempt to remain silent despite her contractions – it was definitely one of the tensest scenes in the movie. Simmonds was also tremendous as Regan, the eldest daughter of the family. Simmonds is deaf, which lends a great deal of authenticity to her portrayal of Regan, who is deaf in the film and wears a cochlear implant. Obviously Regan’s deafness plays a key part in the development of the story, and Simmonds’s performance packs some of the film’s most vital emotional punches. A Quiet Place is rated PG-13 for terror and some bloody images.

A Quiet Place trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WR7cc5t7tv8

Academy Award nominations for A Quiet Place:

Best Sound Editing (Erik Aadahl and Ethan Van der Ryn)

Top 10 Films of 2018, No. 10 – Black Panther

Black Panther is a superhero film produced by Marvel Studios based on the Marvel Comic character of the same name. Directed by Ryan Coogler and written by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, Black Panther tells the story of T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) as he becomes the new king of Wakanda, an isolated but technologically advanced African nation that is powered by a mysterious metal called vibranium. Soon after becoming Wakanda’s king and Black Panther, T’Challa is faced with an enemy (Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan) who challenges his reign, and he must rally both friend and foe among the nation’s tribes in an effort to secure the safety and longevity of Wakanda.

BP2I must confess at the outset that I am not a big fan of the live-action Marvel movies – I have only seen roughly half of the franchise’s films. But of the ones I have seen, Black Panther reigns supreme in the Marvel universe (sorry Guardians of the Galaxy). In fact, after my initial viewing, it quickly became one of my top five favorite superhero movies of all time. My lack of passion for most superhero movies (especially in the Marvel universe) is due in significant part to what I view as cookie-cutter plots and characters – yes, most of these films are very well acted and produced, but they generally involve low stakes and follow the same tropes that are trotted out in every predecessor. With Black Panther, the story is much more intimate, and unlike its Marvel counterparts, it has a truly distinct style and personality, both in terms of the plot and the characters.

BP5What sticks out the most for me in terms of Black Panther setting itself apart from most other Marvel films is its writer/director – Ryan Coogler was the perfect choice to be the film’s creative visionary. The 32-year-old filmmaker has built his budding career on the foundation of captivating stories about African-Americans – in his debut Fruitvale Station, Coogler created a thought-provoking sense of anger and heartbreak, and in Creed, he reinvigorated the Rocky franchise with storytelling that was simultaneously nostalgic and fresh. In Black Panther, Coogler takes his creative abilities to new heights, constructing a movie that fits the mold for a superhero movie (e.g., action, suspense, and triumph), while also bringing a certain intimacy and sensitivity to its plotline that induces a beautiful connection between the audience and the characters. Black Panther is a movie about identity, and this is, at its core, a product of Coogler’s imaginative excellence.

BP4As discussed above, Black Panther features some fantastic characters, which were brought to life by wonderful performances. In supporting roles, the film had many outstanding performances, including those from Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Daniel Kaluuya, Martin Freeman, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, and Winston Duke. However, the standout supporting performance was delivered by Letitia Wright, who was magnificent as Shuri, T’Challa’s younger sister – Shuri is both spunky and fierce, and Wright’s superb performance helped land her the EE Rising Star Award at this year’s BAFTAs. Further, I enjoyed Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa, but he didn’t blow me away. This is likely due to the fact that Michael B. Jordan simply stole the show – in fact, for his performance as the villain Killmonger, I believe Jordan should have been nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Aided by a deep backstory that slowly becomes more evident and emotional as the film progresses, Killmonger became one of the greatest Marvel film characters of all time – this is due unequivocally to Jordan’s marvelous performance. Black Panther is rated PG-13 for prolonged sequences of action violence, and a brief rude gesture.

Black Panther trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xjDjIWPwcPU

Academy Award nominations for Black Panther:

Best Picture (Kevin Feige, producer)

Best Original Score (Ludwig Göransson)

Best Original Song – “All the Stars” (Music by Mark Spears, Kendrick Lamar Duckworth, and Anthony Tiffith; Lyrics by Kendrick Lamar Duckworth, Anthony Tiffith, and Solána Rowe)

Best Sound Editing (Benjamin A. Burtt and Steve Boeddeker)

Best Sound Mixing (Steve Boeddeker, Brandon Proctor, and Peter J. Devlin)

Best Production Design (Production Design: Hannah Beachler; Set Decoration: Jay Hart)

Best Costume Design (Ruth E. Carter)

Best Actress in a Supporting Role (2018)

The following is my Oscars ballot for this category, Best Actress in a Supporting Role:

WINNER: Emma Stone (The Favourite)

Emma 2

The Favourite is a film, set in England in the early 18th century, that follows the struggle between Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail Masham (Emma Stone) as they jockey for the attention and adoration of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). Spoiler alert: You are going to hear a lot from me about The Favourite over the next couple of weeks in the lead-up to the Oscars – it was truly a pitch-perfect movie. And for all of director Yorgos Lanthimos’s stylistic vision and Deborah Davis’s and Tony McNamara’s snappy script, what makes this film truly sing is its three-headed monster of a cast – Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, and Rachel Weisz. Both Stone and Weisz received nominations for Best Supporting Actress (beyond deservedly so), and their performances were my two favorite on the year – Stone breaks the tie in my mind, which is why she’s pegged as my pick in this category (although I would be perfectly okay with either actress taking home the gold). While Weisz’s Sarah is the established figure in Queen Anne’s inner circle, Abigail is the newcomer – Stone was born to embody this role within the film’s dynamic, as she adeptly navigates the precise contrast between Abigail’s simultaneous innocence and cunningness. Stone has always thrived with comedic material, and in The Favourite, that experience is too obvious to ignore – she is simply at her very best!

2. Rachel Weisz (The Favourite)

WeiszAs mentioned above, if Rachel Weisz finds herself giving an acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actress on Oscars night, I will not be displeased in the least – her performance as Sarah Churchill in The Favourite is just as flawless as Stone’s. While Stone’s Abigail is the rookie in the castle, Weisz’s Sarah is Queen Anne’s recognized confidante and advisor, as well as her trusted lover. When Abigail comes along and tries to steal Sarah’s cushy position right out from under her, Abigail resorts to psychological mind games out of uncompromising devotion to Queen Anne in an effort to retake her number-one spot (*Ludacris voice*) from Abigail. These characteristics are vastly different than Abigail’s, and Weisz (a seasoned actress with prior experience mastering the art of Yorgos Lanthimos’s idiosyncratic vision – i.e., The Lobster) is the perfect person to take on the challenge. Weisz emotes steeliness in a manner that sends chills up your spine, and her ability to effectively portray Sarah’s undying commitment to Queen Anne with shrewd resolve highlights a performance to be remembered.

3. Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk)

KingSet in Harlem in the 1970s, If Beale Street Could Talk tells the complicated love story of its two African-American leads, Clementine “Tish” Rivers (KiKi Layne) and Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James), as Tish (newly pregnant) and her family fight to prove Fonny’s innocence after he is arrested and wrongfully charged with sexual assault. I had very high hopes for this movie, but Barry Jenkins’s follow-up to Moonlight did not quite hit the mark for me. Notwithstanding that fact, it is undeniable that Beale Street was chock-full of supreme acting performances – Layne and James were splendid as the two protagonist lovers, Teyonah Parris is stunning as Tish’s sister Ernestine, and Brian Tyree Henry is brilliant in his limited screen time as Fonny’s friend Danny. However, it is patently obvious that King steals the show as Tish’s mother Sharon. In a career that spans nearly 30 years (commencing with a staggering performance in 1991’s Boyz n the Hood), King has made her mark as one of the better actresses in Hollywood, and in this film, she accomplishes her greatest feat. Sharon is supportive of her daughter’s pregnancy and relationship with Fonny, but as that relationship is progressively threatened by Fonny’s arrest, King’s Sharon masters her position as a mother fighting for her family. In the scene where Sharon travels to Puerto Rico to question Fonny’s accuser, King’s acting prowess is on full display. She is determined, yet apprehensive, throughout the scene, desperate to prove Fonny’s innocence, but as the confrontation unravels, King captures the heartbreaking emotion of the scene with great ease and undeniable resonance.

4. Marina de Tavira (Roma)

TaviraIn Roma, a film set in the early 1970s in the Colonia Roma district of Mexico City that follows Cleodegaria “Cleo” Gutiérrez (Yalitza Aparicio), a live-in domestic worker, Marina de Tavira plays Sofía, the mother of the family that employs Cleo. Early in the film, the patriarch of the family, Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) leaves the family as his marriage to Sofía crumbles. Throughout the remainder of the film, she struggles to keep it together as she battles her heartbreak and loneliness (including a powerful scene where she gets angry with her kids as she desperately instructs them to write letters to their father about how much they love him and miss him). Although Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is most definitely a film about Cleo, Sofía’s character arc marvelously adds to the substance of Cleo’s journey, epitomized by this quote from Sofía to Cleo: “No matter what they tell you—women, we are always alone.” Marina de Tavira handles this delicate role – one that requires a wide range of emotions, from pure bliss to unbridled misery – with dexterity and immense vulnerability. She is definitely a major part of the reason Roma is such a great film.

5. Amy Adams (Vice)

AdamsIn Adam McKay’s film Vice, Amy Adams plays the role of former First Lady Lynne Cheney, the wife of the lead character, former Vice President Dick Cheney. As I have waxed about on this blog many times before, Amy Adams is one of my very favorite actresses in the industry, and I am not confident I have ever seen a performance by her that wasn’t laced with quality of the highest order – in Vice, that adage rings true once more. The film is clearly about Bale’s Dick Cheney, but Lynne plays a crucial role just beneath the surface. When Dick gets kicked out of Yale and begins to lead a drunken life as a lineman, it is Lynne that gives him an ultimatum that then shapes the remainder of his career. And after one of Dick’s heart attacks, it is Lynne that hits the campaign trail in an effort to secure Dick the U.S. House of Representatives seat for Wyoming. Lynne is ambitious in her own right, and Adams portrays that unmerciful desire masterfully. Bale turns in the most transformative performance in the film, but Adams also plays an important part in keeping the Vice boat afloat at all times.

Best Actor in a Supporting Role (2018)

The following is my Oscars ballot for this category, Best Actor in a Supporting Role:

WINNER: Mahershala Ali (Green Book)

AliIn the film Green Book, Mahershala Ali portrays Don Shirley, the real-life African-American jazz pianist. The film follows Shirley on his 1962 concert tour through the Deep South, escorted by his Italian-American driver, Tony “Lip” Vallelonga. In light of the Jim Crow era setting, both men are thrust into a variety of racist issues throughout the tour, and the film tells the story of their personal journey and growth as they learn about life from each other. I enjoyed Green Book, but as many of you might know, it has been marred by controversy since its release – the debate revolves around Shirley’s family’s objections to the film and its screenplay, which was co-written by Tony Lip’s real-life son Nick Vallelonga. Despite the family’s issues with the depiction of Shirley and his relationship with Tony Lip, Ali admitted that in his performance, he did his best to honor the legacy of Shirley based on the information he had – and for me, that performance was impeccable. Although this controversy has dominated the headlines, it is nonetheless impossible to ignore the remarkable acting work of Ali – his mannerisms are nuanced, his emotions shrewdly portrayed, and his ability to impressively master Shirley’s fears and insecurities in light of the overt racism plaguing the nation in the early 1960s was unimpeachable. Mahershala Ali has evolved in the past few years into one of the most talented actors in the business, and if I had it my way, he’d walk away on Oscar night with his second Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in the past three years.

2. Richard E. Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)

Richard-E-Can-You-1In Can You Ever Forgive Me?, a film about the real-life biographer Lee Israel and her attempt to invigorate her writing career by forging letters by famous celebrities and selling them for large amounts of money, Richard E. Grant plays the role of Jack Hock, a recent acquaintance of Israel who joins her in the exploitation of the fraudulent letters. In this film, Melissa McCarthy churned out probably the best dramatic acting performance of her career, but for me, Grant’s Hock stole the show. Despite not having a permanent home and appearing rather drifter-like, Jack Hock is flamboyantly lavish in his tastes and is as witty and charming as a character can be, making the film much more fun and entertaining. Mark Kermode, a film critic for The Guardian, summed up Hock brilliantly: “Jack seems to be in permanent performance mode, hiding his own insecurities behind a mask of bravado and bonhomie.” Despite being a recognizable face in the industry since his career-defining performance in his 1987 film debut Withnail and I, Grant has only ever been nominated for acting awards on a few occasions (and those were many years ago) – for his cleverly beautiful performance as Jack Hock, Richard E. Grant has justifiably reversed that history.

3. Sam Elliott (A Star Is Born)

rev-1-ASIB-06247_High_Res_JPEGIn A Star Is Born, Sam Elliott plays Bobby Maine, the manager for and older half-brother of singer Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper). To put it simply – Sam Elliott was phenomenal during his limited on-screen time in A Star Is Born. Although Bobby Maine is the personification of a “supporting” character, Elliott – a legend in the industry – deftly executed every second of his performance. Two scenes stick out the most for me that made Elliott’s portrayal of Jackson’s brother so incredibly memorable – (1) the argument between Jackson and Bobby over their father’s land, and (2) the moment Bobby pulls out of Jackson’s driveway after dropping him off towards the end of the film. In that latter scene in particular, the passion Elliott put into portraying Bobby’s flash of emotion as he backs out of Jackson’s driveway is worth the price of admission. With a film career that has spanned over five decades, it is awesome and well-deserved to see Elliott celebrating his very first Oscar nomination.

4. Sam Rockwell (Vice)

RockwellThe setup for Sam Rockwell’s portrayal in Vice is simple – he portrays George W. Bush, the 43rd President of the United States. All the acting buzz surrounding Vice centers predominantly on Christian Bale in the lead role of Vice President Dick Cheney (and rightfully so – more on that in a later post). But for me, one of the most underrated aspects of the movie was Rockwell’s performance. With some fantastic work from the makeup department, Rockwell did look quite a bit like Bush, way more than Josh Brolin did in Oliver Stone’s 2008 biopic W. However, what is truly more impressive about his portrayal (which also bests that of Brolin’s) is Rockwell’s seamless embodiment of Bush in terms of accent, mannerisms, and speech pattern. Rockwell nailed Bush’s trademark Texas twang, and his first-rate acting abilities (which garnered him an Oscar win last year in this category for Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri) made this performance one to remember.

5. Adam Driver (BlacKkKlansman)

DriverIn Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, Adam Driver portrays Det. Philip “Flip” Zimmerman, the Jewish partner of John David Washington’s lead character, Det. Ron Stallworth. As Stallworth, an African-American officer, slowly starts to infiltrate the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan via telephone (posing as a white man), Zimmerman is tasked with being Stallworth’s physical stand-in for in-person meetings with the KKK – as famed film critic Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun Times described it, “We’ve got a white cop impersonating a black cop impersonating a white supremacist.” Although BlacKkKlansman didn’t make it onto the list of my favorite movies from 2018, it still was an enjoyable experience with some superb acting, particularly by Washington. In terms of Driver, though, I found his performance to be simply “good” and “serviceable” – nothing extraordinary in my estimation. Truthfully, I thought his nomination should have gone to the likes of Timothée Chalamet (Beautiful Boy), Michael B. Jordan (Black Panther), or Nicholas Hoult (The Favourite) instead.