The Fifth Annual “Countdown to the Oscars” and 2016’s Honorable Mentions

For the fifth consecutive year, welcome back to The Reel Countdown, my annual “Countdown to the Oscars” blog, which now, for the first time ever, officially has its own domain name: http://www.thereelcountdown.com. In just 14 days, the 89th Academy Awards will be broadcasted live from the Dolby Theater in Hollywood, California, and over the next two weeks, I look forward to sharing with you my favorite films from 2016.

For the past few years, this blog has included a breakdown of my “Top 15 Films of the Year,” as well as my own personal Oscars ballot for the year’s major categories. However, starting this year, the countdown of my favorite films of the year will be reduced to a “Top 10”—life has gotten much busier since last year!

After a fantastic year of film in 2016, the lead up to the Academy Awards has produced a number of interesting storylines: La La Land tied All About Eve and Titanic for the most nominations by a single film (14!), the Academy nominated one of the most diverse group of nominees ever, Meryl Streep extended her own record for most nominations by a single actor to 20, Mel Gibson was effectively forgiven by Hollywood after notching a Best Director nomination, and O.J.: Made in America became the longest film to ever be nominated in any category (467 minutes). With late-night funnyman Jimmy Kimmel set to host for the first time, this year’s Oscars will surely entertain on all levels.

I am kicking off my fifth annual countdown by announcing the five films that just missed out on making my list of the Top 10 Films of 2016. Here are my five Honorable Mentions:

No. 11 – 13th

avaduvernay13th is a Netflix original documentary by director Ava DuVernay that explores race, the criminal justice system, and the social consequences of the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which states that “[n]either slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” In 13th, DuVernay examines how the drafters of the 13th Amendment, while ending slavery in its more traditional form, left themselves an “out” to continue enslaving blacks in America via imprisonment for shockingly inconsequential charges.

13thTo put it simply, 13th is one of the year’s most important films. Not only is it important on a broad humanistic level, it is also as relevant as ever given Donald Trump’s extensive racially unconscious and divisive rhetoric (which director Ava DuVernay portrays in one particularly unflinching scene). Growing up and living in a vastly conservative region of the United States (where it is completely normal to see someone proudly flying the Rebel flag), I have seen firsthand how a wide range of people consider blacks to generally be “criminals,” and DuVernay, with meticulousness and dexterity, examines the roots of this unfounded terror and dehumanization. Exploring D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, the “Jim Crow” laws, President Reagan’s “War on Drugs,” and President Clinton’s “Three Strikes” rule, DuVernay delineates how America has fostered a prejudice for those of color. Everything 13th investigates has clearly been done so with exhaustive, in-depth research, and DuVernay has created one of the year’s most thought-provoking films. Bravo!

No. 12 – Gleason

gleason-1Gleason is a documentary that follows, with extraordinary access, the life of former New Orleans Saints hero Steve Gleason, who was diagnosed in 2011 with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease). This film tells the inspirational story of Gleason’s fight against this rare and incurable disease, delving deep into his relationship with his wife, the birth of his son at the beginning of his diagnosis, and his faith.

gleason-2Gleason is definitely one of the year’s best films (documentary or narrative), and I advise anyone that subscribes to Amazon Prime to make it a priority to watch it. But I will warn you now: PREPARE FOR TEARS! The filmmakers explore Gleason’s diagnosis from every angle and do not sugarcoat anything—they show you the fight and determination of Gleason’s family as they react to the initial diagnosis, but they also examine the real and undeniable daily struggles that come with ALS. This film definitely hits the heart in astonishing ways, but despite the pain and sadness that embody the nature of Steve Gleason’s disease, the story of inspiration and hope reigns supreme.

No. 13 – Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures Day 41

Hidden Figures is a biographical drama directed by Theodore Melfi, with a screenplay by Melfi and Allison Schroeder. The film tells the true-life story of Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), three black female mathematicians working for NASA during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Hidden Figures follows the three women as they break a wide range of racial barriers in the early 1960s, including Johnson’s integral role in calculating flight trajectories for John Glenn’s infamous Friendship 7 mission, where he became the first American to orbit the Earth.

hidden-figures-2Hidden Figures is heartwarming and relevant as ever—not only does it tackle the severe racial tensions of the 1960s, but it also digs into the even more challenging life of a black female during the middle part of the 20th century. The film introduces the world to three extraordinary women who helped shape America’s role in space exploration, and it inspirationally communicates to all girls, especially young black females, that they are just as worthy as their male counterparts in all aspects of life. Hidden Figures is an empowering film, and it is just what America needed during this tumultuous time in our history.

No. 14 – Hacksaw Ridge

hr-1Hacksaw Ridge is a war drama directed by Oscar winner Mel Gibson, with a screenplay by Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan. The film tells the amazing true-life story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a combat medic during World War II who, as a devout Christian, refused to carry and/or use a weapon. During the Battle of Okinawa, Doss single handedly rescued over 75 American soldiers at Hacksaw Ridge, earning him the Medal of Honor—this was the first time the highest military honor had ever been bestowed upon a conscientious objector.

mel-gibson-hacksaw-ridge

Over the past decade, Hollywood has unofficially blacklisted Mel Gibson following the anti-Semitic comments he made during a DUI arrest in 2006, which has been evidenced by the big studios’ blatant cold shoulder. However, with Hacksaw Ridge, Gibson has returned to the level of filmmaking genius that earned him numerous Oscars for Braveheart—clearly, the Academy took notice, bestowing upon Gibson another Best Director nomination. In addition to Gibson’s direction, Andrew Garfield gives one of the year’s best performances as Desmond Doss—Garfield provided poise and nuance to his real-life character, and the film benefits from his talent. Although the film is far too preachy for my tastes, the incredible action sequences make it well worth the watch.

No. 15 – Green Room

green-room-anton-pootsGreen Room is a thriller written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier. The film follows the Ain’t Rights, a punk rock band traveling through the Pacific Northwest who, in desperate need of cash, agree to play a gig at a neo-Nazi skinhead club. After the concert, band member Pat (the late Anton Yelchin) returns to the green room to retrieve a cell phone, only to witness a recently committed murder. When Pat and his band members attempt to alert the police, the club’s brass, at the direction of ringleader Darcy (Patrick Stewart), lock the Ain’t Rights in the club’s green room. In thrilling fashion, the rest of the film follows the group’s attempts to make it out alive.

green-room-2The first time I came across the work of Jeremy Saulnier was in 2014 when I watched his masterpiece of a film, Blue Ruin. Although Green Room does not achieve the same degree of amazement as his previous film, Saulnier has returned to the same well to craft an exhilarating adventure that kept me on the edge of my seat throughout. Green Room is harrowing and sadistic in its depiction of the dark side of the punk rock scene as it relates to the skinhead subculture; however, Saulnier constructs this horror with composed skill. Led by exceptional performances from the late Anton Yelchin and Captain Jean-Luc Picard himself (Patrick Stewart), Green Room is a wild and crazy adventure that is a must-see!

Top 15 Films of 2015, No. 1 – Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road is an action adventure film directed and produced by critically acclaimed Australian filmmaker by George Miller, with a script written by Miller, Brendan McCarthy, and Nico Lathouris. Set in the near future in a desert wasteland where gasoline and water are scarce commodities, the film follows Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a hard-hitting solider under the control of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), as she is tasked with driving a fuel truck (known as “War Rig”) across the desert to an oil-producing station. MMFR8However, Furiosa has other plans, as she reroutes her journey in order to accomplish her true objective: She has rescued Immortan Joe’s sex slaves (known as “The Five Wives”) and intends to speed across the desert in order to free them from their concubinage. When Joe realizes what Furiosa has done, he sends out his “War Boys” to track her down and return what is his. During the chase, Furiosa eventually teams up with Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy), a mercenary who, at the beginning of the film, was captured by Immortan Joe, and the two go to extreme lengths to ensure their survival.

MMFR10“Oh, what a day. What a lovely day.” That quote from Nux (Nicholas Hoult), one of Joe’s War Boys, is one of the best quotes from Mad Max: Fury Road; but better yet, it will go down as one of the greatest quotes in film history. Not only does the quote sum up the intense action of the film’s story perfectly, but it also brilliantly describes my experience in an IMAX theater watching the movie for the first time—what a lovely day it was. In the past, deciding which movie would be ranked No. 1 on my year-end countdown was pretty easy—most of the time one sticks out above the rest. But this year, my process was incredibly difficult. MMFR3After watching The Revenant, I spent weeks constantly moving it and Mad Max interchangeably between the Nos. 1 and 2 spots. But when I decided to finalize my list, I simply could not ignore the genius of Mad Max: Fury Road. Even though the film was released in May, it has stuck with me, day in and day out. Rarely have I ever had such an engrossing experience in a theater watching a movie. I was mesmerized by everything director George Miller threw at me—with every passing minute, I knew I was witnessing pure greatness. So when it came time to decide which movie would come in at No. 1 on my list, one thing became immeasurably clear: Although The Revenant was a visionary masterpiece, Mad Max: Fury Road would go down as one of my absolute favorite films of all time!

MMFR16The genius of Fury Road starts with its imaginative creator, George Miller. For those that do not know, Fury Road is the fourth installment in Miller’s acclaimed Mad Max franchise (Mel Gibson played the original Max in the previous three films). Miller’s original Mad Max film and its sequel The Road Warrior are considered by many film scholars to be some of the best movies of all time. In fact, Spike Lee created a list years ago of essential films for all aspiring filmmakers to see, and both Mad Max and The Road Warrior were listed. The original films were so powerful because Miller created some of the most memorable characters, scenes, and stories to ever hit the silver screen with an incredibly small budget. The original film’s budget was just an estimated $280,000. MMFR15The third film, which boasted the most expensive budget in the franchise’s history at the time, was a meager $10 million. This is why I was so pumped for Fury Road: It would feature the same creative filmmaker making another Mad Max film, but this time he would be doing it with seemingly unlimited resources (his budget for Fury Road was $150 million). Although The Road Warrior is considered the greatest in the franchise, Fury Road beats it hands down. Rarely does a franchise’s fourth film trump the rest in terms of cinematic quality—but Fury Road has done just that.

MMFR12George Miller’s classic innovation is radiantly on display in Fury Road. The film, for all intents and purposes, is a 120-minute-long chase scene—2 hours of violent, action-packed, dusty, intense, thrilling, and downright amazing chase scenes. The visual effects are stunning, yet Miller uses mostly practical effects to execute his action sequences—the film features very little CGI. One of my favorite aspects of the film, though, is the music. Junkie XL has crafted one of the greatest scores, for me, in film history—it is a shame it was not nominated for an Oscar. MMFR5The way the music is interpolated into the plot is outstanding. Throughout the chase, Immortan Joe’s convoy features a variety of War Boys who play music during the chase—they are essentially a war band, featured smack dab on the frontline. The music the War Boys band plays is the film’s score—it is a brilliant juxtaposition of score and story. The best part of the band: The Doof Warrior (Australian entertainer iOTA), a heavy-metal musician who hangs from the front of a truck, blasting his twin-necked electric guitar, which itself doubles as a flamethrower. Only someone as groundbreaking as George Miller could think this stuff up.

As everyone knows, I am a devoted fan of Tom Hardy. In Fury Road, he takes on the iconic role of Max brilliantly. However, his speaking parts are limited and his worth is merely conveyed through subtle “looks.” Despite not speaking much, Hardy portrays Max with soulful air of mystery, and this nuanced performance is effective. MMFR6The real story of the film, however, is Imperator Furiosa and Miller’s feminist ambitions. In a film where Tom Hardy’s character leads in the titular role, Charlize Theron steals the show (for which she really should have received an Oscar nod). Fury Road is truly an exposition of female domination, and I bought in 100%. Max is merely a placeholder at times, while Theron’s Furiosa is the real protagonist—she is the heroine modern film so desperately needed. Although Furiosa only has one arm (the other is a prosthetic), she never pities herself. She is a strong, independent woman who is tougher than nails. MMFR4Her goal: to rescue Immortan Joe’s “Five Wives” from their sex slavery. Can it get any more “girl power” than that? I read this week that George Miller actually brought in Eve Ensler, the author of “The Vagina Monologues,” to prepare the “Five Wives” (Zoe Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee Kershaw, and Courtney Eaton) for their roles in the film—this only adds to the obviousness of Miller’s intentions. In a franchise where Max and a variety of other “he-man” characters have pervaded the storyline, Fury Road ushers in an unsurpassed era of female gallantry. Mad Max: Fury Road is rated R for intense sequences of violence throughout and for disturbing images.

Mad Max: Fury Road trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hEJnMQG9ev8

Academy Award nominations for Mad Max: Fury Road:

Best Picture (Doug Mitchell and George Miller, producers)

Best Director (George Miller)

Best Cinematography (John Seale)

Best Costume Design (Jenny Beavan)

Best Sound Editing (Mark A. Mangini and David White)

Best Sound Mixing (Chris Jenkins, Gregg Rudloff, and Ben Osmo)

Best Makeup and Hairstyling (Lesley Vanderwalt, Elka Wardega, and Damian Martin)

Best Visual Effects (Andrew Jackson, Tom Wood, Dan Oliver, and Andy Williams)

Best Film Editing (Margaret Sixel)

Best Production Design (Colin Gibson and Lisa Thompson)

Previous movies on the countdown of the Top 15 Films of 2015:

  1. The Revenant
  2. The Big Short
  3. Sicario
  4. Ex Machina
  5. Spotlight
  6. Straight Outta Compton
  7. Kingsman: The Secret Service
  8. Steve Jobs
  9. Creed
  10. ’71
  11. Room
  12. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
  13. Beasts of No Nation
  14. The Martian

Top 15 Films of 2015, No. 2 – The Revenant

The Revenant is an action adventure film directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, with a screenplay by Iñárritu and Mark L. Smith, adapted in part from Michael Punke’s novel of the same name about the real-life Hugh Glass. Set throughout the American wilderness in the 19th century, the film follows Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), a fur trapper who, while briefly away from his men, is attacked by a bear. Although Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) initially agrees to part with his men and stay back with his fallen comrade, he ultimately grows tired of Glass’s “condition.” Fitzgerald slays Glass’s son Hawk in front of him, attempts to bury Glass alive, and leaves him for dead. The rest of the film charts Glass’s determination to trek across the cold, barren wilderness to get vengeance for his son’s murder.

Rev10When I bought a ticket and sat down in the audience of a dark theater over a month and a half ago to see Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s newest film, I was excited but truly did not know what to expect. What resulted was amazing: I did not merely watch a film—I experienced it! An experience is just what this film is. The Revenant is a visionary work of art, and the man behind it all is Iñárritu, a creator at the peak of his filmmaking career. In 2013, he gave us Gravity, an out-of-this-world (literally) depiction of two astronauts lost in space, which I did not enjoy initially but have grown to appreciate. In 2014, Iñárritu brought Birdman to the big screen, a film that would garner nine Oscar nominations and four wins, including Best Picture and Best Director for Iñárritu. Could the 52-year-old Mexican director really deliver another brilliant production in 2015? No matter what anyone might have thought, Iñárritu responded with a resounding, “Yes.”

THE REVENANT

With help from his loyal cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki (who with The Revenant earned his third straight Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography; Chivo is going for a three-peat, having won that award the previous two times for Gravity and Birdman), Iñárritu has given us a film that will surely endure the test of time. The term “revenant” means, according to Merriam-Webster, “one that returns after death or a long absence.” DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass is just that, in both senses of the word; not only is he separated from his men for a long period of time, but he trudges back almost like a ghost, having been buried alive, seemingly left to die. Iñárritu ties this meaning of his title into a story that tells of perseverance and retribution; the only time he loses me is with his few scenes of philosophy and spirituality, but I forgive him for these brief interludes that lose focus. Rev4The opening scene features an intense battle that pits Glass and his team of fur traders against a group of violent Native Americans. This scene is remarkable—arrows whiz by the camera, bringing the viewer closer into the fold. The scene is reminiscent of classic war scenes, such as the Normandy invasion in Saving Private Ryan. At times throughout the film—especially during close-up shots—characters’ blood and sweat spew onto the camera, leaving visible spots. Most of the time this would be a reprehensible act, but in this film, it just works. You see characters’ breath fill the lens. This lends an extraordinary sense of realism to the film.

THE REVENANT

The film is beautiful and enduring, but the end result achieves even more acclaim based on the fact that the movie was a living hell for all involved. Many crewmembers abandoned ship during the production (either voluntarily or not; apparently Iñárritu axed many himself), and it was reported that the grueling schedule and terrible weather conditions were to blame. Principal photography spanned almost a year, and filming was incredibly difficult because Iñárritu and Chivo chose to shoot using natural light almost exclusively (they used only light from the sun, moon, and fires to guide production). Although this arduous process pushed everyone involved to his or her breaking point in a cold, inhospitable wasteland, the result is a gift to cinema. During his acceptance speech for Best Director at the Golden Globes in January, Iñárritu admitted the difficult nature of the film’s production, but recited one of the most poignant quotes in filmmaking: “Pain is temporary, but a film is forever.” Thank you, sir, for this beautiful movie; may it long endure as your masterpiece.

Rev2Now, let’s get to DiCaprio. My goodness, give that man an Oscar! Although his character is mostly silent throughout the film, Leo delivers a performance that will be discussed for generations. As mentioned above, the production of The Revenant was demanding, and Leo felt the brunt of that often. He admitted to being on the brink of hypothermia throughout and has openly described this film as the most difficult challenge he has ever taken on. Hugh Glass is faced with a set of circumstances that mean to deny him survival at every stage of the film, starting with his brutal bear attack early on, which, let’s be honest, is one of the most incredible scenes you will ever witness in a movie—it is the definition of an “edge-of-your-seat” experience, and it is filled with heart-pounding thrills. Rev6But he marches on. He endures. He survives. He is absolutely unrelenting in his quest for justice. He eats raw bison liver. He sleeps in a fresh horse carcass for warmth. Like I said: GIVE THIS MAN AN OSCAR! In all seriousness, Leo is the odds-on favorite to take home the Academy Award for Best Actor and rightfully so. But for everyone (which includes me) that feels Leo has been snubbed far too many times by the Academy, realize this: When Leo gets this award, it will not be a “Lifetime Achievement” award (i.e., a make-up call)—it will be because in this film, he absolutely deserves it for throwing himself into Iñárritu’s treacherous pit of film production and coming out alive, giving us a preeminent acting performance in the process.Rev7 I would be stupid not to at least mention Tom Hardy here, as he also received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor, but I will point you to my earlier post about why Tom Hardy 100% deserves the Academy Award for his stellar performance. What I will say here is that Hardy’s portrayal of Glass’s nemesis was the glue that held this film together. Without Tom Hardy absolutely killing it in his supporting role (playing the voice of the film), this film falters. The Revenant is rated R for strong frontier combat and violence including gory images, a sexual assault, language, and brief nudity.

The Revenant trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LoebZZ8K5N0

Academy Award nominations for The Revenant:

Best Picture (Arnon Milchan, Steve Golin, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Mary Parent, and Keith Redmon)

Best Director (Alejandro G. Iñárritu)

Best Actor (Leonardo DiCaprio)

Best Supporting Actor (Tom Hardy)

Best Cinematography (Emmanuel Lubezki)

Best Costume Design (Jacqueline West)

Best Sound Editing (Martin Hernández and Lon Bender)

Best Sound Mixing (Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montaño, Randy Thom, and Chris Duesterdiek)

Best Makeup and Hairstyling (Siân Grigg, Duncan Jarman and Robert Pandini)

Best Visual Effects (Rich McBride, Matthew Shumway, Jason Smith and Cameron Waldbauer)

Best Film Editing (Stephen Mirrione)

Best Production Design (Jack Fisk and Hamish Purdy)

Previous movies on the countdown of the Top 15 Films of 2015:

  1. The Big Short
  2. Sicario
  3. Ex Machina
  4. Spotlight
  5. Straight Outta Compton
  6. Kingsman: The Secret Service
  7. Steve Jobs
  8. Creed
  9. ’71
  10. Room
  11. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
  12. Beasts of No Nation
  13. The Martian

Top 15 Films of 2015, No. 3 – The Big Short

The Big Short is a biographical comedy-drama directed by Adam McKay, with a screenplay by McKay and Charles Randolph, which is adapted from Michael Lewis’s book of the same name. Set during the financial crisis in 2007–08, the film follows a group of brilliant men who discover that the global economy is on the brink of collapse. In order to push the market to its brink to bring attention to the downright fraudulent activity being conducted by Wall Street’s biggest banks, these men decide to do what no one else would ever dream of: bet against the housing market.

Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that a movie about the housing-market collapse would be so amazing, but The Big Short is just that. Many films have been made about the infamous financial crisis of 2007–08, including one of the best films from 2011, J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call. The problem with most of those movies, including Margin Call, is that most of the time, you really have zero clue what is going on. Why? Because financial jargon is ridiculously confusing and nonsensical at times. TBS5This is where The Big Short blows every film about the most recent financial crisis out of the water. Don’t get me wrong—The Big Short definitely still features some convoluted financial lingo, but it is writer/director Adam McKay’s method for making this complex subject understandable to the average layperson that makes the film so brilliant. He dumbs the subject matter down but never in a condescending manner—it is instead enjoyable and exciting. McKay perfectly utilizes the film technique known as “breaking the fourth wall.” In order to make this intricately dense subject comprehensible, his characters speak directly to the audience. Early on, Ryan Gosling’s character breaks the fourth wall to tell us, “I’m guessing most of you still don’t know what really happened? Yeah, you’ve got a sound bite you repeat so you don’t sound dumb but c’mon.” It’s true—most people watching don’t know what all really happened. Throughout the film, McKay uses famous celebrities in cameo roles to break the fourth wall and explain preposterously baffling financial terms to us. TBS4Margot Robbie is featured in a bubble bath sipping champagne as she breaks down “sub-prime loans,” and Selena Gomez is later shown at a poker table in Las Vegas to explain what a “synthetic collateralized debt obligation” is. These brief vignettes work—they dumb down the terminology for us so that throughout the rest of the film, we can completely understand what is going on when those financial words are referred to. McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph’s strategy is incredible, and it makes this movie so much fun to watch.

TBS6Although this film is hilarious throughout, the third act puts everything into perspective: This story is, first and foremost, a heartbreaking tragedy. Adam McKay is the comedic genius behind iconic comedies like Anchorman, Talladega Nights, and Step Brothers, so he obviously has a knack for humor. In The Big Short, he brings those deft comedic chops to the table dexterously. But I was most incredibly impressed with how he, as a proven comedic filmmaker, handled the brutally dramatic reality of the financial collapse. The movie made me laugh, but it also made me angry. I found myself bouncing between happiness and sadness throughout. During the film, you see the deceptive behavior conducted on Wall Street, and you want to see those guys suffer. When McKay’s characters come into the fold with the genius “big short” idea, you root for these guys. You want to see them succeed in their risky investments. TBS7But one scene towards the end with Brad Pitt summed up the true message of the film flawlessly. While Pitt’s character’s associates are celebrating the fact that their bet appears to be paying off (while the audience was internally cheering, too), Pitt reminds them what their success really means: “If we’re right, people lose homes. People lose jobs. People lose retirement savings. People lose pensions.” At one of the film’s highest points, this quote brings it all crashing down to the floor—this crisis ruined people’s lives. As mentioned above, this truly brings everything into perspective.

TBS3Another amazing aspect of The Big Short is the acting. Wow, McKay assembled an incredible cast. Christian Bale has garnered the most attention, as he has received a wealth of nominations at major award shows this season, including an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. He plays the real-life Dr. Michael Burry, an antisocial hedge fund manager who initially conceives the idea of “the big short.” Bale is obviously one of the best actors in the game, and I admit, he was spot-on in his portrayal; however, I thought he gave the third-best performance of the film. The top two acting performances in my mind were Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling. TBS2Carell plays Mark Baum, a character based on the real-life Steve Eisman. The character is bitterly angry all of the time at the big banks, and he receives his calling in life to participate in “the big short” because he can once and for all stick it to the guys he sees as society’s real criminals. Carell was fantastic last year in his Oscar-nominated role in Foxcatcher, but for me, this was his greatest acting achievement. TBS1My favorite performance, though, was Ryan Gosling as Jared Vennett, a character based on the real-life Greg Lippmann. Vennett is a talented bond salesman for Deutsche Bank who, like Dr. Burry, makes the decision to short collateralized debt obligations (CDOs). His character is a cynical greaseball, but all the while charming. Gosling brings his heartthrob persona to this character brilliantly, and he definitely gives a performance that should have resulted in an Oscar nomination. The Big Short is rated R for pervasive language and some sexuality/nudity.

The Big Short trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vgqG3ITMv1Q

Academy Award nominations for The Big Short:

Best Picture (Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, and Brad Pitt)

Best Director (Adam McKay)

Best Supporting Actor (Christian Bale)

Best Adapted Screenplay (Adam McKay and Charles Randolph)

Best Film Editing (Hank Corwin)

Previous movies on the countdown of the Top 15 Films of 2015:

  1. Sicario
  2. Ex Machina
  3. Spotlight
  4. Straight Outta Compton
  5. Kingsman: The Secret Service
  6. Steve Jobs
  7. Creed
  8. ’71
  9. Room
  10. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
  11. Beasts of No Nation
  12. The Martian

Top 15 Films of 2015, No. 4 – Sicario

Sicario is an action crime thriller directed by Denis Villeneuve, with a screenplay by Taylor Sheridan. Set within the drug war that spreads across both sides of the US-Mexico border, Sicario follows Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), a by-the-books FBI agent who is recruited to participate on a special governmental task force for a black-ops mission behind enemy lines. Joining Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), a stress-free special agent, and Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro), a mysterious “consultant” with unknown motivations, Kate sets out on a mission that questions everything she believes in.

Sicario2This film is not about the US’s “war on drugs.” Sicario is 100% about the drug war—a meticulous difference that must be recognized. This subject matter has become more and more popular for the film industry in recent memory, but that was not always the case. In 2000, Steven Soderbergh gave us Traffic, an Oscar-winning film that broke new ground as it pertained to the drug-cartel crisis at the border; however now, in present day, this topic is seen quite often. In 2013, there was the critically acclaimed documentary Narco Cultura, which was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. And aside from Sicario, 2015 also brought us Cartel Land, a gripping documentary about vigilante groups on each side of the border fighting back against the cartels—this film earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary. I mention the recent history of this genre to highlight the fact that director Denis Villeneuve does not tackle some innovative topic with Sicario. However, this film quickly became one of my absolute favorites from the year because Villeneuve and his cinematographer (Roger Deakins) have made the trek to the well of Mexican-American drug-war films and come back with a unique perspective that is both spine tingling and visually stunning.

Sicario7Villeneuve and Deakins begin the film with incredibly horrific images, and these same types of gruesome illustrations are pervasive throughout. We see the walls in a seemingly empty house on the Arizona-Mexico border torn down to reveal tens of dead bodies; when the task force strolls through downtown Juarez, dead bodies hang from bridges. These moments set the tone for Villeneuve’s film. We as Americans have many anxieties and speculative expectations about our border relations with Mexico as they relate to the drug war—via these visceral images, Villeneuve and Deakins validate those fears. This is war; it is real, and it is not pretty! Another aspect of the film that stands out is its take on deceit and duality. Sicario5With the exception of Kate, it is difficult to pinpoint or even comprehend the characters’ motives. It is never revealed who Matt Graver even really works for—he is a “special agent,” but for who? And Alejandro is as enigmatic as they come. Villeneuve previously tackled morally duplicitous characters in Prisoners (2013), but he expands upon that examination with far more depth in Sicario. All in all, Villeneuve crafts an inimitable vision in Sicario, and cinematographer Roger Deakins paints that picture with his camera in the most instinctive ways possible.

Sicario9The acting in Sicario is absolutely first-rate. The stars are an incredibly talented trio: Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro, and Josh Brolin. Brolin portrays special agent Matt Graver, a seemingly relaxed soldier who has apparently found his calling in the drug war. When he first meets Kate, he strolls into FBI offices wearing the epitome of casual dress: flip-flops. Behind his laid-back exterior, though, is a menacing man—Matt takes his actual work serious, and if you are not on board, then in his mind, GTFO! Brolin has made a pretty solid career out of playing this type of character—the ostensible douche—but that is because he is such a talented actor. I always bought into Brolin in this role, and although his significance is laconic, his performance is adroit.

Sicario3The film’s best performances come from Blunt and del Toro. Emily Blunt is by far one of my favorite actresses (she is incredibly talented and undeniably fetching), and in 2014, she made her mark as a cinematic badass with her role as Sergeant Rita Vrataski in Edge of Tomorrow. That performance gained her action-star credibility, but her character could not be more different in Sicario. Kate Macer plays by the rules. She needs formulaic process and boundaries. She needs a clear-cut objective. Thus, Kate is in for a rude awakening when her mission with Matt and Alejandro blurs the mechanical lines she so desperately requires. In one scene, Kate asks Matt, “What’s our objective?” Matt responds, “To dramatically overreact.” This really is the task, and it makes Kate uncomfortable. In another scene, Kate discusses tracking down the leader of the cartels, to which Alejandro responds, “Every day I cross that border, people are kidnapped with or killed with his blessing. To find him would be like discovering a vaccine.” Sicario8In this moment, Kate realizes not only the gravity of her mission, but also the confliction of it—the drug cartels keep these task forces in business, so at some point they are necessary. Although I initially thought Blunt’s character was a bit too dry and unappealing, I now realize how important she is. Blunt’s performance was not showy and dramatic—the kind that will garner you Oscars. But she was calculated—effective and honest. Blunt succeeded in that endeavor. Sicario5As far as Benicio del Toro, he absolutely should have been nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. The complexity of his character required not panache, but enigma; it needed not loquaciousness, but quiet subtleties. Del Toro delivered with perfection. Two scenes stood out for me in regards to his performance. At one point in the film, there is a wildly gripping moment during a traffic jam on the drive back to the US from Mexico. As the tension builds, Alejandro is at the center of the commotion. Benicio del Toro thrived in this moment. Additionally, the climax of the film (which I will not spoil here) features del Toro at his best—that one scene makes the entire viewing experience worth it! Sicario is rated R for strong violence, grisly images, and language.

Sicario trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G8tlEcnrGnU

Academy Award nominations for Sicario:

Best Cinematography (Roger Deakins)

Best Original Score (Jóhann Jóhannsson)

Best Sound Editing (Alan Robert Murray)

Previous movies on the countdown of the Top 15 Films of 2015:

  1. Ex Machina
  2. Spotlight
  3. Straight Outta Compton
  4. Kingsman: The Secret Service
  5. Steve Jobs
  6. Creed
  7. ’71
  8. Room
  9. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
  10. Beasts of No Nation
  11. The Martian

Top 15 Films of 2015, No. 5 – Ex Machina

Ex Machina is a science-fiction thriller written and directed by Alex Garland. The film tells the story of Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a computer coder for a powerful technology giant, who wins a competition to spend a week at the private compound of his company’s CEO, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). Once the two make acquaintances, Nathan tells Caleb that he was chosen to spend the week with him to witness one of the greatest scientific events in the history of man—Nathan’s creation of “Ava,” an A.I. (artificial intelligence). Caleb must perform a “Turing Test” on the A.I. to determine if Ava has the ability to exhibit intelligent behavior that is equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human. As it becomes evident that Ava possesses incredible intelligence, the lines quickly become blurred between human and machine, and Nathan’s creation proves to be far more sophisticated than anyone could have ever imagined.

Ex7This movie is not your run-of-the-mill sci-fi. This movie is an experience unlike many others I’ve ever had—it’s a psychological thriller that is more of a character study than anything else. I have enjoyed a range of other “artificial intelligence” films in the past, such as Steven Spielberg’s A.I. (2001) and I, Robot (2004), but those movies never quite accomplished what Ex Machina has—in my opinion, the depth and genius of Ex Machina starts with writer/director Alex Garland. Garland cemented himself in the industry with his striking screenplay for the horror film 28 Days Later (2002), and in that script, he created one of the finest films in the horror genre; however, his story never became too “tropey,” meaning it never seemed cliché. In Ex Machina, he has done the same thing—only better! The plot of the film leaves the door wide open for a filmmaker to shell out the same boring motifs that already saturate this genre. Thankfully, Garland avoided this temptation and delivered a film that this genre should look to as the modern standard.

Ex3I do not want to sugarcoat anything—the film definitely gets incredibly philosophical, pondering what really makes us human. It is a lofty idea to conceptualize, but Garland does so in stunning fashion. His visuals are remarkable (Ava was part live-action and part-CGI), and his characters are even more spectacular. For starters, Ava’s entire existence and ability to learn how to interact like a human sets the tone for the twists, turns, and overall message of Garland’s film. She constantly poses thought-provoking questions to Caleb during his “Turing Test” research. Little by little, these questions create struggles for Caleb that manifest in him questioning his true role in Nathan’s experiment—he especially wonders about his very own existence. Ex5Speaking of Nathan, he is the most captivating character for me. He is a billionaire tech-genius with seemingly enough resources to live a lavish life. But the lavishness is not what one would imagine—he lives in a beautiful home (which doubles as a research facility), but he is completely secluded from the real world. In this home he is imprisoned, both mentally and physically, and he appears to be nothing more than a reclusive savant/madman. He claims to create Ava for purely scientific purposes, but it is apparent that his motivations are to create the perfect woman—this is his downfall.

Ex6Aside from Garland’s filmmaking vision, Ex Machina impresses from an acting standpoint. I am a huge fan of Domhnall Gleeson—he is incredibly charismatic in every role he takes on, but in Ex Machina, he ends up being more of a placeholder than anything else. It is worth noting that although Alicia Vikander and Oscar Isaac outperform Gleeson, this is not due to the latter’s own acting abilities, but instead the fact that Garland left the real story arcs to Ava and Nathan. Vikander nails her portrayal of Ava with grace, yet mystery. Playing a robot-like character is a tall task for any actor, but Vikander succeeds by delivering a perfect character equilibrium—Ava is not too robotic, but not too human, either. Vikander broke out as an actress in 2015, but despite the Oscar nomination for The Danish Girl, this, in my opinion, was her best performance from the past year. As alluded to earlier, I was exceptionally fascinated by Oscar Isaac’s performance as Nathan. He makes hilariously dry jokes and drinks copious amounts of alcohol—Isaac thrives off his character’s apparent charm. But at the same time, Nathan is demented and scary. This two-faced personality profile makes Nathan a character that cannot be trusted, even by the viewer—you never know if Nathan is showing his true colors. Ex4Oscar Isaac also helmed my favorite scene from the film. At a critical point in the movie where Caleb’s trust in Nathan is rapidly waning, Nathan’s assistant (Sonoya Mizuno) starts to dance on Nathan’s command. Nathan tells Caleb to dance with her, but Caleb has no interest—he wants to speak one-on-one with Nathan and question him about Ava. While asking Nathan what he was doing with Ava, Caleb says, “You tore up her picture.” Without missing a beat, Nathan pompously boasts, “I’m gonna tear up the fucking dance floor, dude, check it out.” Not taking Caleb seriously, Nathan and his assistant then proceed to engage in one of the greatest dance scenes in film history—far and away my favorite moment! Ex Machina is rated R for graphic nudity, language, sexual references, and some violence.

Ex Machina trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XYGzRB4Pnq8

Academy Award nominations for Ex Machina:

Best Original Screenplay (Alex Garland)

Best Visual Effects (Andrew Whitehurst, Paul Norris, Mark Ardington and Sara Bennett)

Previous movies on the countdown of the Top 15 Films of 2015:

  1. Spotlight
  2. Straight Outta Compton
  3. Kingsman: The Secret Service
  4. Steve Jobs
  5. Creed
  6. ’71
  7. Room
  8. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
  9. Beasts of No Nation
  10. The Martian

Top 15 Films of 2015, No. 6 – Spotlight

Spotlight is a biographical drama directed by Tom McCarthy, with a screenplay by McCarthy and Josh Singer. The film tells the true-life story of a group of investigative journalists with the Boston Globe as they work to uncover a child-abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. Throughout a year of investigating, the “Spotlight” team discovers a systemic cover-up at all levels of authority in Boston (religious, legal, and governmental). What is more horrifying is that Boston ends up being merely one of many child sex-abuse scandals centered on the Catholic Church around the entire globe. Whether you’ve seen the movie or not, or whether you are planning on seeing it or not, it is absolutely worth your time to read the original publications from the “Spotlight” team, which earned the Boston Globe a Pulitzer Prize.

Spotlight4Spotlight is sad, angering, and despicable at times—that is what makes it so incredibly compelling. The Catholic Church has immense power and prominence worldwide, but the fact that this story takes place in Boston is vital—the Catholic Church is a way of life in Boston, just like the Red Sox and clam chowder. In the film, the Globe’s new editor Marty Baron kicks off the investigation, and the journalists are initially thrown off—characters question Baron vigorously about whether it is such a good idea to take on the Catholic Church in a community where that institution permeates everyday life. Throughout the investigation, citizens of Boston—including lawyers, members of the Church, and even victims of sexual abuse from Boston priests—are hesitant to speak with the “Spotlight” team, and some are even downright appalled that this story is even a thing. It is against this backdrop that makes Spotlight such an important film: Sexual abuse in the Catholic Church runs rampant, and yet, as contemptible as it sounds, everyone who denies the graveness of the scandal becomes complicit in its cover up.

Spotlight2Although Spotlight is by far one of the best movies from 2015, I do not credit Tom McCarthy with much of its success as a director (he did co-write the script, which is impressive). I know, this sounds like a pretty bold and cynical statement considering McCarthy received an Oscar nomination for Best Director (I assure you, he does not deserve the nomination—especially since The Martian’s Ridley Scott was left out of the category in a year when he absolutely deserved to be included), but Spotlight thrives off its screenplay and story. Visually, there is nothing that jumps out as unique; the camerawork is simple and McCarthy’s direction is minimal. Spotlight3Spotlight makes its mark due to its remarkable script, written by McCarthy and Josh Singer. The story is gripping, and the screenplay reads like a thriller at times. With every passing moment, the substance of the film grows more sickening, and it is this tough-to-stomach plotline that keeps you on the edge of your seat. McCarthy (as a writer) and Singer rely on their award-winning source material to guide this film, and they do so with marvelous precision.

Spotlight6Despite the fact that the film succeeds due to its heavy reliance on the story, a talented ensemble cast carries out this triumph dexterously. The film features great performances from Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, and Stanley Tucci. However, the best performances come from Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams, both of whom received deserved Oscar nominations in the Best Supporting Actor and Actress categories, respectively. Spotlight7Ruffalo plays Michael Rezendes, a “Spotlight” reporter whose unyielding efforts to take on the Catholic Church provided some of the most noteworthy insights into the scandal. Ruffalo is a masterful actor, and his portrayal of Rezendes earned him his third Oscar nomination in six years. McAdams delivers my favorite performance in the film as Sacha Pfeiffer, another “Spotlight” reporter. Spotlight8Pfeiffer’s character has one of the more fundamental, yet complex character arcs, and McAdams excels in her portrayal. Pfeiffer’s grandmother is a devout Catholic, and Sacha attends mass with her regularly. This storyline delineates the constant confliction McAdams’s character faces—how can she reconcile her loyalty to her grandmother with her determination to take down the Church as a disreputable institution? McAdams flourishes in this role. Spotlight is rated R for some language including sexual references.

Spotlight trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tb_WgKDqPsE

Academy Award nominations for Spotlight:

Best Picture (Michael Sugar, Steve Golin, Nicole Rocklin and Blye Pagon Faust)

Best Director (Tom McCarthy)

Best Supporting Actor (Mark Ruffalo)

Best Supporting Actress (Rachel McAdams

Best Original Screenplay (Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer)

Best Film Editing (Tom McArdle)

Previous movies on the countdown of the Top 15 Films of 2015:

  1. Straight Outta Compton
  2. Kingsman: The Secret Service
  3. Steve Jobs
  4. Creed
  5. ’71
  6. Room
  7. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
  8. Beasts of No Nation
  9. The Martian

Top 15 Films of 2015, No. 7 – Straight Outta Compton

Straight Outta Compton is a biographical drama directed by F. Gary Gray, with a screenplay by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff. The film tells the true-life story of one of the most controversial, yet inspirational groups in the history of music: N.W.A.

NWA4From the moment I found out that a project was in the works to bring the story of N.W.A. to the silver screen, I was captivated. The preeminent gangsta-rap group, which was founded in the mid-1980s, was more than just a fivesome of rappers (I say “five” because credited member Arabian Prince only appeared on one song from the Straight Outta Compton album and was hardly featured in the film); it was a collective of youths, determined to convey to the world the story of the dangers of growing up in the hood. Despite being met with critical and commercial success, the group’s eponymous debut album was subjected to stark criticism from an abundance of powerful groups, including the US Senate and Federal Bureau of Investigation. NWA3The lyrics were incredibly profane, derogatory, and aggressive towards the police; it was this content that garnered the group and its debut album such disparagement. In fact, one of the premier tracks on the group’s debut album was titled, “Fuck tha Police,” which featured lyrics that addressed police brutality and racial profiling. Although the “authorities” were not fans, this song epitomized the political message behind N.W.A.’s existence as artists: People need to know what really goes on—what you do not see on the news. As relevant as this message was at the time—nearly thirty years ago—the film’s release has an analogous significance now, as in 2016, we are still battling significantly hostile race issues. N.W.A. was more than a rap group that ultimately crashed and burned—it was the voice of a generation.

NWA5Director F. Gary Gray and his team of filmmakers have crafted in Straight Outta Compton more than another cliché biopic—this film is flat-out incredible. I have become so sick of most biopics because they simply pander and bore, delineating nothing more than the fact that filmmakers can follow a strict template of melodramatic, insincere, and unaffecting drivel. Straight Outta Compton is so great because it takes this monotonous formula and flips it on its head with vivacity. The film features numerous “action” scenes of police hostility and brutality, and the ways in which Gray and his cinematographer (Matthew Libatique) portray these atrocious images is unrelenting—they make you feel as if you are living these cruel moments along with the characters. NWA7I also loved the scenes of the group’s creative process. As a fan of rap music, and especially N.W.A., it was an unexplainable treat to watch legends like Dr. Dre, MC Ren, and Eazy-E artistically craft of the greatest albums in the history of music. The camerawork is always visually appealing, and Libatique and Gray captured the group’s chemistry with dynamism.

NWA6The acting in the film was superb—I am not sure the filmmakers could have created a more cohesive group. Although it was great to see Ice Cube’s very own son—O’Shea Jackson, Jr.—portraying him, the stars of the picture were, without a doubt, Paul Giamatti and Jason Mitchell. Giamatti portrayed Jerry Heller, a notorious music manager and businessman who co-founded Ruthless Records with Eazy-E. Heller was hired by Eazy-E to manage N.W.A., and he was a key figure in the group’s initial success. However, much controversy surrounded Heller’s tactics, as members of the group viewed him as a guy who was truly only looking out for he and Eazy-E’s best interests (and in the end, his devotion to Eazy-E was suspect). Straight Outta ComptonHeller was an angry and vicious man at times, but he also had a lighter side, especially regarding his heartfelt relationship with Eazy-E; Giamatti, as a veteran actor, absolutely nailed this portrayal. Giamatti’s deftness for his craft is undeniable, and, considering the film’s cast was mainly a group of young, up-and-coming actors, it was the perfect set of circumstances for Giamatti to make his mark. The film’s best performance, however, came from Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E. The story, although about the rise and fall of the group in general, revolves around his character. Eazy-E is the true beginning, middle, and end of the group’s story. He is the one that funded the group’s upstart and acted as the “lead.” He is the one who ultimately was at the center of the group’s demise, due to his relationship with Heller. And his HIV-diagnosis and subsequent death is what ended the chances for a potential reunion of the group.NWA9 Eazy-E’s story arc is incredibly dynamic, and it was a tall task for Mitchell to take on—Mitchell took on the challenge and succeeded beyond measurability. Mitchell portrays his character as an incredible complex guy—one who has lived the “thug life” and puts on a hard exterior, but who also has a wildly sensitive/emotional side. Jason Mitchell’s delineation of this larger-than-life figure was amazing, and I truly believe he was absolutely snubbed by the Academy in the Best Supporting Actor category.

Much controversy has surrounded the Oscars again this season for its lack of diversity in major categories. Although I disagree with a lot of the hype, I do firmly believe that Straight Outta Compton is a film that deserved much more award praise. This film should have definitely been a Best Picture nominee, and, as mentioned before, Jason Mitchell deserved a nomination for his incredible performance as Eazy-E. Straight Outta Compton is rated R for sequences of language throughout, strong sexuality/nudity, violence, and drug use.

Straight Outta Compton trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rsbWEF1Sju0

Academy Award nominations for Straight Outta Compton:

Best Original Screenplay (Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff, S. Leigh Savidge and Alan Wenkus)

Previous movies on the countdown of the Top 15 Films of 2015:

  1. Kingsman: The Secret Service
  2. Steve Jobs
  3. Creed
  4. ’71
  5. Room
  6. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
  7. Beasts of No Nation
  8. The Martian

Top 15 Films of 2015, No. 8 – Kingsman: The Secret Service

Kingsman: The Secret Service is a British spy film directed by Matthew Vaughn, with a screenplay by Vaughn and Jane Goldman, which was adapted from The Secret Service, a comic book series by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons. The film follows Harry Hart (Colin Firth), a veteran “Kingsman” spy agent, as he recruits “Eggsy” (Taron Egerton), a troubled youth from the poor streets of London. Eggsy takes part in a highly aggressive training program to become a Kingsman agent, just in time to pursue a global threat led by Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), a maniacal tech billionaire.

Kingsman3Director Matthew Vaughn is the filmmaking genius behind one of my favorite comic-inspired action films of all time, 2010’s Kick-Ass. That film was filled with non-stop action and hilarious banter, not to mention a superfluity of profanity-laced dialogue. Vaughn adapted Kick-Ass from a comic series of the same name by author Mark Millar. In addition to creating the Kick-Ass series, Millar has penned the comic series Wanted (which was adapted into a film starring Angelina Jolie) and The Secret Service, the latter of which served as the source material for Kingsman. In his latest film, Vaughn has delivered his greatest filmmaking achievement yet—in fact, Kingsman grossed over $414 million worldwide, which made it Vaughn’s most commercially successful film. This film is obviously not one that is contending for any major accolades, but I assure you, it is some of the most fun you will have watching a movie!

2014, KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICEKingsman always knows what it is as a movie, and it thrives off never taking itself too seriously. Much like 2015’s Spy (starring Melissa McCarthy)—but done so far more magnificently—Kingsman straddles the line between the James Bond film series and Austin Powers. The film is never so serious as to be a real Bond thriller, but it also never completely sells itself out as a full-blown parody—Kingsman strikes a happy medium between the two. In one scene, Eggsy is asked how he would like his martini prepared, and he replies, “With gin…stirred for ten seconds while glancing at an unopened bottle of vermouth.” The line is entertaining, as it puts a cheeky twist on Bond’s infamous “Vesper Lynd” drink. Aside from the film’s sidesplitting repartee and vintage spy reverences, the action is out of this world. Kingsman2As the film progresses, its action sequences get more and more over the top—yet, it works, simply because the film never takes itself too seriously. One of the biggest set pieces is one of the most epic brawls/massacres you will ever see in a movie, all triggered by the villain’s lethal SIM-card plot. The scene is bloody, filled with blockbuster combat, and takes place in a church, nonetheless. It is madly exaggerated, yet it is one of the best things I saw all year—pure entertainment at its finest.

Kingsman5Kingsman boasts a wildly impressive cast, which is one of its most noteworthy feats. Colin Firth stars as Harry Hart (codename Galahad; all the Kingsman agents have knights-of-the-round-table names), and at first glance, the character is as archetypal as it gets for Firth. He wears a nice suit, speaks in proper English, and does not appear to have a violent bone in his body—and then the action starts! I was quite impressed with Firth’s portrayal of his character as one of the biggest badasses in the film—in one scene, he defeats an entire gang of hooligan-like gentlemen in a bar…with only an umbrella! In addition, newcomer Taron Egerton (who will star in Eddie the Eagle in 2016) fills the role of the snot-nosed, temperamental young recruit quite well. He has a certain charisma about him, and he holds his own next to the Oscar-winning Firth. Kingsman4The film also features solid supporting performances from the legendary Oscar winner Michael Caine, Mark Strong, Sophie Cookson, and Sofia Boutella. However, the best supporting performance comes from Samuel L. Jackson. In his role as the film’s villain (Valentine), Jackson plays the character brilliantly. Valentine wears flat-billed hats cocked to the side, has a vicious thirst for blood, and hilariously speaks with a pronounced lisp—Samuel L. Jackson nails it! Kingsman: The Secret Service is rated R for sequences of strong violence, language, and some sexual content.

Kingsman: The Secret Service trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kl8F-8tR8to

Academy Award nominations for Kingsman: The Secret Service:

NONE

Previous movies on the countdown of the Top 15 Films of 2015:

  1. Steve Jobs
  2. Creed
  3. ’71
  4. Room
  5. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
  6. Beasts of No Nation
  7. The Martian

Top 15 Films of 2015, No. 9 – Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs is a biographical drama directed by Danny Boyle, with a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, which was adapted from Walter Isaacson’s biography of the same name. The film is divided into three distinct scenes, all taking place behind the curtain before three product launches. The film opens up in 1984 before the unveiling of the Macintosh. Next the film shifts to 1988 as Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) prepares to announce his NeXTcube. Finally, the film ends in 1998 with the presentation of the revolutionary iMac.

Jobs4Ever since Steve Jobs’s untimely death in 2011, the film industry has become exceedingly saturated with Jobs-related material. In addition to the numerous documentaries about the head of Apple, Ashton Kutcher gave us an unbelievably subpar portrayal of Steve Jobs in Joshua Michael Stern’s 2013 feature Jobs. I mention this recent history of Jobs-related media to highlight that I understand the public’s hesitation to go see another movie about Steve Jobs. But if you have not seen this yet, I desperately urge you to rent this immediately—this movie hits the mark in nearly every way possible!

Jobs2The real geniuses behind Steve Jobs are director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. Danny Boyle is the filmmaker behind award-winning films like Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours, but for me, Steve Jobs is his best work yet. In this film, Boyle taps into his veteran directing style to carefully craft each scene and get the best performances out of his actors and actresses. Despite Boyle’s own brilliance, Aaron Sorkin is the single piece to this puzzle that is most imperative. Sorkin’s credits as a TV writer include heavyweights like The West Wing and The Newsroom, and his movie résumé is just as impressive, boasting scripts like A Few Good Men, Charlie Wilson’s War, The Social Network, and Moneyball. Sorkin is known in industry circles as a preeminent screenwriter due to his rapid-fire technique, and in Steve Jobs, he has provided us dialogue that I have not seen done so masterfully in years. Jobs3The movie lasts for 122 minutes, and, as I mentioned, features only three scenes—this makes Sorkin’s work even more remarkable. The story is supposed to track in real time behind the scenes of these launches, which does not leave Sorkin much time to execute his oral interchanges—he feeds off that pressure. The film (evocative of a play, which Sorkin has penned many of) thrives off conversation, and with every line, Sorkin delivers hard-hitting discourse. Although the actors execute his plans via Boyle’s direction, Sorkin is at the heart of this film’s success for me, and it is an absolute abomination that the Academy snubbed him for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Jobs5The acting performances in this film are exquisite; both Michael Fassbender (as Jobs) and Kate Winslet (as Joanna Hoffman, Apple’s marketing executive) were nominated for Oscars, and rightfully so. Michael Fassbender is by far one of the top five actors currently working in the film business. He has garnered immense praise for roles in Hunger, Inglourious Basterds, Shame, Prometheus, and 12 Years a Slave, and in Steve Jobs, Fassbender has killed it again. Steve Jobs was a once-in-a-generation kind of innovator, but the skeletons in his closets were always present, feeding off his stressful life. Jobs4Jobs’s professional and personal lives often intersected, and Steve Jobs fiercely examines the crash course that resulted. Fassbender was always the best actor for the role, and with dexterity and intricacy, he owns the many personal and professional faces of his character. Kate Winslet additionally delivers an amazing performance, for which she has already won Best Supporting Actress at both the Golden Globes and the BAFTA Awards. Jobs6Throughout Jobs’s many personal/professional-life debacles in the film, Winslet’s Joanna Hoffman is always the voice of reason that settles these issues. Winslet perfectly articulated Hoffman’s accent (a product of English mixed with her Polish and Armenian origin), and she portrays her as an incredibly strong, independent woman. It is by far one of my favorite Winslet performances of all time. Steve Jobs is rated R for language.

Steve Jobs trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aEr6K1bwIVs

Academy Award nominations for Steve Jobs:

Best Actor (Michael Fassbender)

Best Supporting Actress (Kate Winslet)

Previous movies on the countdown of the Top 15 Films of 2015:

  1. Creed
  2. ’71
  3. Room
  4. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
  5. Beasts of No Nation
  6. The Martian