With the conclusion of the Academy Awards this past Sunday, the 2022 film season is officially over. Now, to complete my own movie-watching journey from the past year, I present here a brief summary of my favorite films from 2022, along with a complete ranking of each movie I saw from the 2022 Oscars-eligibility period. See you next year!
My Top 15 Films of the Year
No. 1 –Aftersun
I will cut right to the chase on Aftersun—this is one of the greatest films I have ever had the pleasure to experience. The movie is one of the most unique coming-of-age stories I can recall, and writer/director Charlotte Wells delivers an unfathomable masterpiece in—get this—her debut feature film. Aftersun follows a father and daughter on a holiday in Turkey in the early 2000s, and it explores generational depression, grief, and the complexity of time and memories. This movie wrecked me in every possible way—during the final few scenes, I was sobbing. After I finished the movie, I emotionally paced around my living room for 30 minutes, processing what I’d just watched. No film had ever affected me like that. Until Aftersun. I imagine the fact I have a child and my own history with mental health issues contributed to my experience with this film. Oscar nominee Paul Mescal is fantastic, but newcomer Frankie Corio clearly stood out as the most impressive performance. The film also includes my favorite scene of the year (and one of my favorites of all time) in an emotional sequence, which features a deftly edited/remixed version of “Under Pressure” by David Bowie and Queen—it is pure perfection. I have not stopped thinking about Aftersun since I first watched it. It will stick with me forever, which exemplifies the beauty of film. Streaming available for purchase or rent on most major platforms.
No. 2 –Everything Everywhere All at Once
Had I not experienced such an intense emotional response to Aftersun, there is absolutely no doubt Everything Everywhere All at Once would have been my No. 1 film of the year—this is a perfect movie. For some reason, the “multiverse” is popping up in so many films in recent memory, especially Marvel properties (e.g., Spider-Man: No Way Home, Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, etc.), but EEAAO is the single best example of what an exploration of multiple universes can be. This movie is fun. The editing is rapid-fire. The acting is phenomenal. But at its core, the most impressive part of EEAAO is its beautiful examination of generational trauma, depression, and identity. How is it that a movie which depicts a parallel universe wherein people have hot dogs for fingers can be so philosophical? How do you explain the emotional gravity of this movie when there is a scene (one of the film’s very best) depicting the characters as rocks? Writer/director team Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert somehow make it all work despite the absurdity. If you haven’t seen this movie yet and are wondering whether it is worth the hype (the film led the Oscars with eleven nominations and seven wins), I assure you it definitely is. Streaming for free for subscribers to Showtime.
No. 3 –Top Gun: Maverick
One of my dad’s favorite movies (if not his absolute favorite) is Top Gun. Thus, I grew up watching it a lot. Like so many other people, I really love that movie. However, I cannot help but admit I was worried about Maverickbecause legacy sequels are of such hit-or-miss quality. For every Creed or Blade Runner 2049, there’s an Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Mad Max Fury Road was in all ways flawless, yet Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps was atrocious. (And let’s not even talk about Space Jam: A New Legacy.) In the end, Top Gun: Maverick excels in ways of which so many other films (legacy sequels or otherwise) could only dream. Is the story a bit gimmicky and unrealistic at times? Sure. But since film itself as an artform has evolved so much since 1986, Maverick benefits from the technical advancements in cameras and visual effects. This movie blows the original out of the sky. Streaming for free for subscribers to Paramount+.
No. 4 –All Quiet on the Western Front
I love debating which movie can call itself the greatest war film of all time. Over the years, in terms true depictions of the horrors of war, there have certainly been some serious contenders: The Deer Hunter (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979), Platoon (1986), Full Metal Jacket (1987), Saving Private Ryan (1998), The Thin Red Line (1998), Downfall (Der Untergang) (2004), Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), Zero Dark Thirty (2008), Dunkirk (2017), and 1917 (2019). After this year, we can definitely add German-language film All Quiet on the Western Front—the second feature-length adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 novel of the same name—to that list. It is grueling and chaotic, yet it is masterfully crafted. Streaming for free for subscribers to Netflix.
No. 5 –Pearl
In 2022, writer/director Ti West proved that despite the uptick of films produced in the newer “elevated horror” genre (which I love), there are still good-old-fashioned slasher movies out there, waiting to be made. In March, West released X, a slasher film about a group of aspiring porn stars in the 1970s in rural Texas, which featured Mia Goth in the leading role. I loved X. It was certainly one of my favorite movies of the year, just missing out on cracking my top 15. West then released a prequel film, Pearl (co-written by and starring Goth),a mere six months later. Although the two films are starkly different (X looks and feels like a ‘70s movie, while West stylizes Pearl to look and feel like 1918), Pearl is the superior picture. Not only is the character’s origin story compelling, but Mia Goth was sensational. I honestly cannot believe she wasn’t in contention for Best Actress awards this film season (although she did secure a nomination for Pearl at the Independent Spirit Awards). The highlight of the movie is a scene toward the end at a dinner table, which features a single shot of Goth delivering a chilling monologue to her character’s sister-in-law. Streaming available for purchase or rent on most major platforms.
No. 6 –Babylon
While critics (and audiences) were sharply divided over Damien Chazelle’s latest feature (the film holds a critics score of 56% and audience score of 52% on Rotten Tomatoes), I fell in love with it. Sure, at three hours and nine minutes, the runtime is certainly intimidating. However, this movie never oncefelt that long. Depicting the transition in Hollywood from silent films to the start of the “Golden Age” of sound films in the late 1920s, this movie is fast-paced, frenetic, and downright depraved. But it works. This movie is also hilarious—I laughed out loud many, many times. Clearly the film is not for everyone, but I do believe it is worth a shot for any film lover. Streaming for free for subscribers to Paramount+.
No. 7 –The Banshees of Inisherin
In 2008, Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson collaborated with British-Irish director Marin McDonagh in the dark dramedy In Bruges, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Fourteen years later, the three joined forces again for the charming, yet tragic, dark dramedy The Banshees of Inisherin. The story is simple: The lifelong friendship of Pádraic (Farrell) and Colm (Gleeson) is interrupted when Colm abruptly decides he no longer wants to be friends with Pádraic. Farrell and Gleeson are phenomenal, sparring back and forth on screen like Ali and Frazier in Manila. Kerry Condon is also great in a supporting role, as is Barry Keoghan. This movie is fantastic and very funny in such subtle ways. I also cannot stop saying “fecking,” a delightful version of “fucking” in the characters’ thick Irish accents. Streaming for free for subscribers to HBO Max.
No. 8 –Cha Cha Real Smooth
If I could give an award to the most unexpectedly touching and purposefully funny movie of the year, I’d give it to Cha Cha Real Smooth without hesitation. Writer/director Cooper Raiff (who also stars as the aimless and awkward Andrew) is clearly a very talented young filmmaker (he just turned 26), and with this movie, he has added an essential entry to the romantic dramedy genre. I laughed repeatedly at Raiff’s quirky script, and yet I also cried during some surprisingly heartfelt scenes. This is such a great movie, and if you have an Apple TV+ subscription (I know you all do because everyone is watching Ted Lasso), do yourself a favor and watch it ASAP. Streaming for free for subscribers to Apple TV+.
No. 9 –Triangle of Sadness
I love when filmmakers satirize the 1%. Those folks are surely an easy target, but when done well, it is always a fun time. In Triangle of Sadness, Swedish writer/director Ruben Östlund may have effectively perfected this subgenre of darkly comedic satire. This film won the Palme d’Or (the prestige award) at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, and for good reason. The movie takes place in three distinct, yet related, parts, and each one is brilliant. I need someone I know to see this movie soon so I can chat about paying for meals, food poisoning, whistles, and donkeys. I also cannot stop saying “In den Wolken.” Enough with the inside jokes from the film—just go watch it! Streaming for free for subscribers to Hulu.
No. 10 –The Northman
One of my favorite movie-watching experiences last year was seeing Robert Eggers’s The Northman in the Dolby Cinema at AMC. An epic action tale of revenge set during the age of Vikings in Scandinavia, The Northman is marvelously surreal—I’ve really never seen a movie quite like this one. The cast is first-rate (I mean, when you put Alexander Skarsgård in a movie with Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke, and Nicole Kidman, what else would you expect?), and Eggers’s precise direction and creation of such a grisly atmosphere are unmistakable. What an adventure! Streaming for free for subscribers to Amazon Prime Video.
No. 11 –Dinner in America
I really don’t know quite how to describe Dinner in America, but here is my best shot: It’s like if you re-made Napoleon Dynamite intoa filthy, R-rated punk-rock film. The movie is about an anarchist on the run who unexpectedly meets and befriends (in a very weird, unique way) an awkward (understatement of the century) young woman. It has all the quirk of Napoleon Dynamite and yet all the vulgarity of The Wolf of Wall Street. And in every way possible, this outlandish blend of genres works so well. The film originally premiered at Sundance in January of 2020, but, given the Covid-19 pandemic, it did not see a theatrical release until this past year. Streaming for free for subscribers to Hulu.
No. 12 –Barbarian
Barbarian is such a wild ride, and I loved every minute of it. I cannot say too much about the film and its plot, as it is quite easy to accidentally reveal too much. What I can say is this movie was both exactly what I thought it might be and unlike anything I had ever anticipated it to be. It feels like three separate stories told respectively in each act, but all the while the film maintains an intriguing through line. If you like horror movies, this one is a must-see! Streaming for free for subscribers to HBO Max.
No. 13 –Nope
Following Get Out (2017) and Us (2019), Jordan Peele unveiled Nope, the third film in which he directed, wrote, and produced. I loved Get Out, but Us didn’t quite land for me in the same way. Regardless, I was always going to see Nope, as the Mad TV and Key & Peele alum clearly maintains a knack for horror. Ultimately, Nopeexceeded my expectations. The cinematography was captivating, the production design was stunning, and the acting was stellar, especially Keke Palmer’s performance. Further, Nope featured one of my favorite scenes of the year—Gordy the chimpanzee stole the show. Streaming for free for subscribers to Peacock.
No. 14 –Watcher
In 2014, actress Maika Monroe had her breakthrough performance in It Follows, one of the best horror films of the past ten years—she was a revelation in that movie. Eight years later, Monroe delivered another brilliant performance in Watcher, an eerily deliberate psychological thriller about Julia, a young woman who relocates from the United States to Romania with her husband for his job, who constantly feels watched by a man across the street. Writer/director Chloe Okuno, in her feature film debut, crafts an incredibly chilling, anxiety-inducing tale. Streaming for free for subscribers to Hulu.
No. 15 –The Fabelmans
One year after giving audiences an amazing West Side Story remake, Steven Spielberg delivered his most personal movie ever—The Fabelmans, which was loosely based on his own childhood. Each of these two films received seven Oscar nominations, including back-to-back Best Picture and Best Director nominations for Spielberg. Despite being over 50 years into his filmmaking career, Spielberg proves with The Fabelmans why he’s still got it! Streaming available for purchase or rent on most major platforms
Complete Ranking of All Films Seen from 2022
Everything Everywhere All at Once
Top Gun: Maverick
All Quiet on the Western Front (Im Westen nichts Neues)
In advance of tonight’s 95th Oscars (which will honor the films released in 2022), I present to you: (1) my predictions for the biggest awards of the night (Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Supporting Actor), including a discussion of the current betting odds in each of those categories; (2) a list of Oscar acting snubs and other noteworthy performances from 2022; and (3) my personal ballot for all categories in which I have seen each film/performance (14 of the 23 total categories, with a total of 91 of the 120 nominees and 86.67% of the non-short nominees).
Rather than releasing the list of my favorite films from 2022 with this post, I will publish it separately this week. So be on the lookout for that post, which will provide reviews of my 15 favorite movies of the year and include a complete ranking of all 89 films I saw from this year’s Oscars eligibility period. With that said, check out this post in greater detail below, and make sure to tune into the 95th Academy Awards tonight at 7:00 p.m. (CST) on ABC, live from the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California. Enjoy the show, film fans!
Who Could, Should, and Will Take Home Film’s Biggest Awards
Who Could Win: All Quiet on the Western Front OR The Banshees of Inisherin OR Top Gun: Maverick
This year, the Best Picture category has a clear frontrunner: Everything Everywhere All at Once. However, if there’s a chance any film could score an upset, it is unclear which one would do it. All Quiet on the Western Front, The Banshees of Inisherin, and Top Gun: Maverick are all tied at +1400 for the second-best odds.
Who Should Win: Everything Everywhere All at Once
This is now one of my favorite movies of all time. Enough said.
Who Will Win: Everything Everywhere All at Once
At -1500 frontrunner odds, the Daniels have already secured this award at the British Academy Film Awards, Critics’ Choice Movie Awards, and the Golden Globe Awards. A24 is hours away from securing its second Oscar win for Best Picture, after Moonlight won six years ago.
Best Actress in a Leading Role
Who Could Win: Cate Blanchett
There is a clear two-horse race in this category, and either Michelle Yeoh or Cate Blanchett will take home the Academy Award. Blanchett won at the British Academy Film Awards, Critics’ Choice Movie Awards, and the Golden Globes (in the drama category). While Michelle Yeoh is a slight betting favorite, Blanchett is scoring +190 odds to win her third Oscar.
Who Should Win: Michelle Yeoh
This is simply a perfect movie, and one of its greatest strengths is its acting performances. The core in that department is Michelle Yeoh, who delivers one of the most exceptional performances of the year.
Who Will Win: Michelle Yeoh
I truly think this category could go either way, but in the end, with -275 betting odds, I’m taking Michelle Yeoh to land her first Oscar.
Best Actor in a Leading Role
Who Could Win: Austin Butler
Another tight race this year is for Best Actor, where Brendan Fraser (-200) and Austin Butler (+150) will duke it out. Fraser is currently the frontrunner, but don’t count Butler out—his performance as Elvis Presley has already secured him awards at the British Academy Film Awards and the Golden Globe Awards (in the drama category).
Who Should Win: Colin Farrell
Although I really did enjoy both performances from Austin Butler and Brendan Fraser this year, if I had a vote, it would go to Colin Farrell for his stellar and profound work in The Banshees of Inisherin. Although Farrell won’t land the award (he’s currently getting third-best odds at +1400), he deserves it (in my opinion).
Who Will Win: Brendan Fraser
Talk about a comeback for the ages. Brendan Fraser was sublime in The Whale, and I really think the 54-year-old will leave the ceremony tonight with his first career Academy Award.
Best Actress in a Supporting Role
Who Could Win: Jamie Lee Curtis OR Angela Bassett OR Kerry Condon
The most wide-open race this year in an acting category is Best Supporting Actress, as there is no clear betting “favorite.” One of three performers will win out for the award—Jamie Lee Curtis (+120), Angela Bassett (+135), and Kerry Condon (+260). The actresses have split the awards this season, with Curtis winning at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, Bassett taking home the prize at both the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards and the Golden Globe Awards, and Condon landing a victory at the British Academy Film Awards.
Who Should Win: Stephanie Hsu
Despite the tight race among the top three in this category, my favorite performance came courtesy of 32-year-old performer Stephanie Hsu. Everything Everywhere All at Once is a beautifully wild tale of intergenerational trauma, and although Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan are the most impressive actors in the film, Hsu is very, very close behind. At +2000 odds, Hsu won’t win tonight, but that shouldn’t diminish her shine in any way.
Who Will Win: Angela Bassett
Again, this category is a toss-up, but I think Angela Bassett ultimately wins.
Best Actor in a Supporting Role
Who Could Win: Barry Keoghan OR Brendan Gleeson
This category is all but locked up, but just for fun, the two supporting actors in The Banshees of Inisherin are getting the next-best odds at +1400. I loved this film, and I loved both performances immensely.
Who Should Win: Ke Huy Quan OR Barry Keoghan
I simply cannot decide who I’d vote for if given the chance this year. On the one hand, Ke Huy Quan is absolutely legendary in Everything Everywhere All at Once. On the other hand, Barry Keoghan is perfect in Banshees. Either of these two performers would make a worthy winner tonight.
Who Will Win: Ke Huy Quan
After tonight, Ke Huy Quan will be etched into the history books, no longer known simply for playing Short Round in 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom or Data in 1985’s The Goonies. At -4000 frontrunner odds, the only major award Quan didn’t land was the BAFTA, which went to Keoghan.
Snubs and Other Performances
Last year, I said the following: “If you think the nominees in the acting categories at the Academy Awards are always the five best from the previous year, you’re greatly mistaken.” That could not be truer this year. Here are my thoughts on some of the best performances of 2022, which should have landed an Oscar nomination:
Lead Actress: Not only did Mia Goth provide a wonderful performance in Ti West’s X this year, but she co-wrote and again starred in West’s prequel Pearl. In Pearl, Goth gives one of the single best performances from any actor in 2022. Further, I am stunned that Danielle Deadwyler was snubbed for her heart-wrenching performance in Till. My other favorite lead actress performances of 2022 were (alphabetically) Olivia Colman in Empire of Light, Rebecca Hall in Resurrection, Maika Monroe in Watcher, Florence Pugh in Don’t Worry Darling, Margot Robbie in Babylon, Taylor Russell in Bones and All, and Emma Thompson in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande.
Lead Actor: Despite the polarizing critic reviews, I loved Babylon, and although the film features stellar performances from Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Jovan Adepo, and Jean Smart, the breakthrough role was Manuel, played by Diego Calva—he delivered a lights-out performance. Another under-appreciated performance this year was Jeremy Pope in The Inspection, wherein Pope played the role of Ellis French, a gay Black man who endures a brutal experience at a Marines boot camp—the film is based on writer/director Elegance Britton’s real-life experience, and Pope played it masterfully. My other favorite lead actor performances of 2022 were (alphabetically) Christian Bale in Amsterdam, Nicolas Cage in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, David Earl in Brian and Charles, Caleb Landry Jones in Nitram, Felix Kammerer in All Quiet on the Western Front, Cooper Raiff in Cha Cha Real Smooth, Adam Sandler in Hustle, Alexander Skarsgård in The Northman, and Sebastian Stan in Fresh.
Supporting Actress: I loved Jordan Peele’s newest film Nope this year, and the standout performer was Keke Palmer—she absolutely brought this film to life. Further, although I am glad Paul Mescal was nominated for Best Actor for Aftersun, the greatest performance in that film comes from the young breakthrough actress Frankie Corio. She was truly brilliant. My other favorite supporting actress performances of 2022 were (alphabetically) Jessie Buckley in Women Talking, Claire Foy in Women Talking, Thuso Mbedu in The Woman King, Sadie Sink in The Whale, and Jean Smart in Babylon.
Supporting Actor: Two actors who definitely deserved more awards love this year were Mark Rylance, who portrayed quite possibly the creepiest film character of 2022 in Bones and All, and Micheal Ward, who was a revelation in an otherwise average film Empire of Light. My other favorite supporting actor performances of 2022 were (alphabetically) Jovan Adepo in Babylon, Sean Harris in The Stranger, Rory Kinnear in Men, Daryl McCormack in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, Pedro Pascal in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, Brad Pitt in Babylon, Eddie Redmayne in The Good Nurse, Seth Rogen in The Fabelmans, and Ben Whishaw in Women Talking.
My Personal Ballot for the 95th Academy Awards
Everything Everywhere All at Once
Top Gun: Maverick
All Quiet on the Western Front
The Banshees of Inisherin
Triangle of Sadness
Avatar: The Way of Water
Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – Everything Everywhere All at Once
Martin McDonagh – The Banshees of Inisherin
Steven Spielberg – The Fabelmans
Ruben Östlund – Licorice Pizza
Todd Field – Tár
Best Actor in a Leading Role
Colin Farrell – The Banshees of Inisherin
Brendan Fraser – The Whale
Austin Butler – Elvis
Paul Mescal – Aftersun
Bill Nighy – Living
Best Actress in a Leading Role
Michelle Yeoh – Everything Everywhere All at Once
Cate Blanchett – Tár
Ana de Armas – Blonde
Michelle Williams – The Fabelmans
Andrea Riseborough – To Leslie
Best Actor in a Supporting Role
Ke Huy Quan – Everything Everywhere All at Once
Barry Keoghan – The Banshees of Inisherin
Brendan Gleeson – The Banshees of Inisherin
Brian Tyree Henry – Causeway
Judd Hirsch – The Fabelmans
Best Actress in a Supporting Role
Stephanie Hsu – Everything Everywhere All at Once
Kerry Condon – The Banshees of Inisherin
Jamie Lee Curtis – Everything Everywhere All at Once
Hong Chau – The Whale
Angela Bassett – Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
Best Original Screenplay
Everything Everywhere All at Once – Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert
The Banshees of Inisherin – Martin McDonagh
Triangle of Sadness – Ruben Östlund
Tár – Todd Field
The Fabelmans – Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner
Best Adapted Screenplay
Top Gun: Maverick – Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer, and Christopher McQuarrie (screenplay); Peter Craig and Justin Marks (story); based on the film Top Gun (1986) written by Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr.
Living – Kazuo Ishiguro; based on the original motion picture screenplay Ikiru (1952) by Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, and Hideo Oguni
Women Talking – Sarah Polley; based on the 2018 novel of the same name by Miriam Toews
All Quiet on the Western Front – Edward Berger, Lesley Paterson, and Ian Stokell; based on the 1929 novel of the same name by Erich Maria Remarque
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery – Rian Johnson; based on characters created by Johnson and the film Knives Out (2019)
Best Original Score
Babylon – Justin Hurwitz
All Quiet on the Western Front – Volker Bertelmann
Everything Everywhere All at Once – Son Lux
The Fabelmans – John Williams
The Banshees of Inisherin – Carter Burwell
Top Gun: Maverick – Mark Weingarten, James H. Mather, Al Nelson, Chris Burdon, and Mark Taylor
All Quiet on the Western Front – Viktor Prášil, Frank Kruse, Markus Stemler, Lars Ginzel, and Stefan Korte
The Batman – Stuart Wilson, William Files, Douglas Murray, and Andy Nelson
Avatar: The Way of Water – Julian Howarth, Gwendolyn Yates Whittle, Dick Bernstein, Christopher Boyes, Gary Summers, and Michael Hedges
Elvis – David Lee, Wayne Pashley, Andy Nelson, and Michael Keller
Best Production Design
Babylon – Production Design: Florencia Martin; Set Decoration: Anthony Carlino
All Quiet on the Western Front – Production Design: Christian M. Goldbeck; Set Decoration: Ernestine Hipper
Elvis – Production Design: Catherine Martin and Karen Murphy; Set Decoration: Bev Dunn
Avatar: The Way of Water – Production Design: Dylan Cole and Ben Procter; Set Decoration: Vanessa Cole
The Fabelmans – Production Design: Rick Carter; Set Decoration: Karen O’Hara
Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Elvis – Mark Coulier, Jason Baird, and Aldo Signoretti
The Whale – Adrien Morot, Judy Chin, and Anne Marie Bradley
The Batman – Naomi Donne, Mike Marino, and Mike Fontaine
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever – Camille Friend and Joel Harlow
All Quiet on the Western Front – Heike Merker and Linda Eisenhamerová
Best Film Editing
Everything Everywhere All at Once – Paul Rogers
Top Gun: Maverick – Eddie Hamilton
The Banshees of Inisherin – Mikkel E.G. Nielsen
Elvis – Matt Villa and Jonathan Redmond
Tár – Monika Willi
Best Visual Effects
Avatar: The Way of Water – Joe Letteri, Richard Baneham, Eric Saindon, and Daniel Barrett
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever – Geoffrey Baumann, Craig Hammack, R. Christopher White, and Dan Sudick
Top Gun: Maverick – Ryan Tudhope, Seth Hill, Bryan Litson, and Scott R. Fisher
All Quiet on the Western Front – Frank Petzold, Viktor Müller, Markus Frank, and Kamil Jafar
The Batman – Dan Lemmon, Russell Earl, Anders Langlands, and Dominic Tuohy
Tonight, the year in film officially closes with the granddaddy of them all—the 94th Academy Awards. And now, the time is apt for me to share my thoughts on the past year in movies. During awards season, I usually spend a month or so blogging every few days. However, with a busy work schedule and an even busier time raising a two-year-old son (who turns three in 12 days—Happy Early Birthday, Paxton), my film blog has reached a new point in its evolution over the years. Today is my first post of the awards season, but I’m coming in hot with as much information as you’d possible need heading into the Oscars. Therefore, in advance of tonight’s 94th Academy Awards (which will honor the films released last year between March 1st and December 31st), I present to you: (1) my Top 15 Films of the Year; (2) my predictions for the biggest awards of the night (Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Supporting Actor), including a discussion of the current betting odds in each of those categories; (3) a list of Oscar acting snubs and other noteworthy performances from 2021; (4) my personal ballot for all categories in which I have seen each film/performance (15 of the 23 total categories, with a total of 95 of the 120 nominees and 90% of the non-short nominees); and (5) a complete ranking of every film I saw from this year’s Oscars eligibility period.
This year’s Oscars is set to look quite a bit different than usual. One thing we haven’t seen since 2018 is a traditional host, but this year, Regina Hall, Amy Schumer, and Wanda Sykes will emcee the event, marking the first time the show has featured multiple hosts since that disastrous tag-team of Anne Hathaway and James Franco in 2011. I fully expect this year’s trio of hilarious women to absolutely kill it! Additionally, the live telecast is set to feature far less award categories than usual, a decision about which I am personally disappointed. Buckling under pressure from ABC executives, the Academy announced only 15 categories will be awarded during the live telecast—the other 8 will be presented by Josh Brolin and Jason Momoa off the air. A night celebrating the best in film is much more than just the sexy categories (e.g., acting, writing, and cinematography)—it’s also about recognizing the immense talent within the industry in short-film production, as well as vital technical artistry, such as film editing, sound, and production design. I hope this new format does not become the standard in years to come because it shortchanges both fans of cinema and those who work so hard behind the scenes to bring movies to life.
With that said, check out this post in greater detail below, and make sure to tune into the 94th Academy Awards tonight at 7:00 p.m. (CST) on ABC, live from the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California. Enjoy the show, film fans!
My Top 15 Films of the Year
No. 1 – The Worst Person in the World
Did I come into this past year in film with the general idea that my favorite movie would likely be a dark, Norwegian-language romantic dramedy? Nope. Is that exactly what ended up happening, though? Yep. This masterpiece of a film (directed and co-written by Joachim Trier) is a coming-of-age story about Julie, a young woman in Oslo trying to find herself as she approaches 30. The movie begins with a prologue, closes with an epilogue, and features a central narrative divided into 12 chapters (including “Oral Sex in the Age of #MeToo” and “Julie’s Narcissistic Circus”—the latter of which features the film’s wildest and craziest scene involving psychedelic mushrooms). It’s simply that kind of movie. The romance is relatable. The comedy is continuous. And the heart of the story is brilliant. It’s an absolute travesty lead actress Renate Reinsve (who won for Best Actress at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival) missed out on an Oscar nomination. Further, if any international film was going to land a Best Picture nomination this year, it most definitely should have been The Worst Person in the World over Drive My Car. Streaming available for purchase or rent on most major platforms.
No. 2 – Candyman
Over the last few years, Jordan Peele has transformed from sketch-show funnyman to master of horror films with distinctive social commentary. And although his 2018 film Get Out likely set the standard in this arena, his greatest work is bringing this sequel to the 1992 film of the same name to fruition as a writer and producer, not a director. This film, directed by up-and-comer Nia DaCosta, is nearly perfect in every way. The cinematography is stunning (the opening credits sequence quickly became one of my favorites of all time), the acting is superb (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II delivers one of the most haunting performances of the year), and the storytelling is remarkable (the greatest use of shadow puppetry in film history?!). Magnificent filmmaking. Streaming available for purchase or rent on most major platforms.
No. 3 – Swan Song
If you’re in the mood for science-fiction, romance, and hard drama, look no further than Swan Song, a beautiful, thought-provoking film written and directed by Benjamin Cleary. The movie is about a terminally ill husband and father who considers switching places with a clone in order to save his wife and son from facing the life-shattering pain of his impending death. Mahershala Ali is clearly one of the greatest actors working in film today (as evidenced by his two Oscar wins), and in Swan Song, he turns in a dual performance for the ages, deftly portraying both the lead, Cameron Turner, and his clone, Jack. A good drama will make you cry, and without a doubt, Swan Song did its job with me. Streaming for free for subscribers to Apple TV+.
No. 4 – Encanto
I distinctly remember the colossal hold Frozen’s “Let It Go” had on kids across the world nearly a decade ago, but that sensation has now likely been eclipsed by five words—“We Don’t Talk About Bruno.” Encanto, the latest production from Walt Disney Animation Studios, is a magical (literally) tale of family set in Colombia, and the film, which operates as an infectious musical, is enchanting. Encanto is more than just its music, though (although Lin-Manuel Miranda’s original tunes are, collectively, the proverbial cherry on top of the sundae)—it is a deeply gripping story of love, loss, and familial resolve. Moreover, the film stands as a shining beacon of cultural diversity—representation matters, and Disney delivers a beautiful love letter to Colombia. But back to that music. Although “Bruno” gets all the attention (it’s incredible, so I’m not complaining), the film features a number of other wonderful compositions, including “Surface Pressure” (my personal favorite) and “Dos Oruguitas” (which serves thematically as the heart and soul of the movie). Streaming for free for subscribers to Disney+.
No. 5 – Dune
Every so often, the battery of Best Picture nominees includes a blockbuster film amongst the more prototypical artsy movies. This year, that blockbuster is Dune (although many film fans wish Spider-Man: No Way Home received the same adulation). In the latest adaptation of Frank Herbert’s famed science-fiction novel of the same name, visionary filmmaker Denis Villeneuve delivers a visually stunning experience—in fact, Dune is my favorite of all this year’s Best Picture nominees. The movie is epic in scale (it only covers half the book, with the second half to be dealt with in Dune: Part Two, to be released on October 20, 2023), and Villeneuve was the perfect vessel for this story, having previously directed Arrival and Blade Runner 2049. In some sense, Dune reminds me of Mad Max: Fury Road, my second-favorite film of all time. Both movies are epic tales and examples of the masterful filmmaking balance between high-brow art and mass-appeal blockbuster. Streaming for free for subscribers to HBO Max.
No. 6 – The Harder They Fall
One of my new favorite westerns of all time is The Harder They Fall, an exquisite piece of original filmmaking by writer-director Jeymes Samuel (along with co-writer Boaz Yakin). When I think of this film, the first thing that will always come to mind is the opening sequence, which felt inspired by the opening scene in Inglourious Basterds. Had the movie kept up the energy from that opening scene (a tall task indeed, as that scene is perfect), this movie very well may have been my favorite of 2021. Led by an all-Black principal cast, this film is loosely based on real-life people in the American West during the 1800s. The movie is chock-full of unique style, gunslinging action, hard-hitting music, and immense acting prowess, including excellent performances from Jonathan Majors, Zazie Beetz, Lakeith Stanfield, Idris Elba, and Regina King. If you like westerns, this is a must-see. Streaming for free for subscribers to Netflix.
No. 7 – tick, tick…BOOM!
Although I’ve never personally watched Rent from start to finish, I know it is one of my wife’s favorite musical films. So, when I saw a new musical film was set to debut on Netflix about the life of the man behind Rent, I knew we had to watch. I am not really sure what I expected from this movie, but whatever those expectations were, this film exceeded them spectacularly. Tick, tick…BOOM!, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s feature directorial debut, is based on the stage musical of the same name, which itself is an autobiographical story of budding Broadway composer Jonathan Larson’s life up to that point. The music is certainly Broadway, through and through, and the story (set in New York City in the early 1990s) pulls you in and emotionally wrecks you. I already can’t wait to watch (and sing along with) this one again. Streaming for free for subscribers to Netflix.
No. 8 – Spider-Man: No Way Home
I’m going to start with a bold (yet maybe not that bold) statement: Spider-Man: No Way Home is Marvel’s best film yet. Yeah, I said it. I am a big fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, especially the likes of Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, and Avengers: Endgame, but I’m not certain any of those films has hit the mark more precisely than the third Tom Holland-led Spidey installment. I especially love the film’s introduction of a multiverse, which opens up immeasurable opportunities for future films. At a time when theater attendance is vastly dwindling (the COVID-19 pandemic sure didn’t do anything to help that), Spider-Man: No Way Home reinvigorated the industry, becoming the highest-grossing film of the year and the sixth-highest-grossing film of all time—it has made nearly $2 billion! Streaming available for purchase on most major platforms.
No. 9 – No Time to Die
No Time to Die is Daniel Craig’s final go-round as MI6 agent James Bond, and this iteration of 007 sure goes out in style. The previous four Craig-led installments in the Bond franchise haven’t necessarily been consistent—a couple were utterly incredible (Casino Royale and Skyfall), one was mehhh (Spectre), and one was downright dreadful (Quantum of Solace)—so I was a bit nervous about how this particular series would end. To my surprise, the Cary Joji Fukunaga-led movie was magnificent. For me, I now place No Time to Die right behind Skyfall for my favorite of the Craig films—it was that good! The film features a number of visually stunning set pieces (the trademark of any Bond movie), but it is the film’s emotional hook that truly drives No Time to Die to the finish line. Time to get out the gin and pour a Vesper in Daniel Craig’s honor. Streaming available for purchase or rent on most major platforms.
No. 10 – The Green Knight
At the outset, I’ll say this about The Green Knight: It was definitely mismarketed. The publicity surrounding The Green Knight ahead of its summer 2021 release made it seem as though it was generally in the same vein as most summer action blockbusters. However, it was far from typical and definitely not action-packed, as the film’s pre-release promotion led on. All this means is that it is unsurprising that a lot of film audiences didn’t care for it. For me, it just means I had to adjust my expectations during the film. In the end, I still absolutely loved this adaptation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a 14th century poem about a knight of King Arthur’s Round Table. If you’ve seen A Ghost Story, you’ll know filmmaker David Lowery is far from conventional—this sentiment resonates in The Green Knight as well. The cinematography is exquisite and Lowery’s storytelling is distinctive and original. Not to mention, the acting is first-rate, led by Dev Patel in the lead role. Streaming for free for subscribers to Showtime.
No. 11 – The Suicide Squad
Let me set the scene…It is the summer of 2016. My most anticipated film of the year comes out. I’ve been anxiously awaiting its release for a year. Jared Leto as the Joker. Will Smith as Deadshot. And in the end…a steaming hot pile of garbage. I can’t possibly undersell just how awful and disappointing Suicide Squad turned out to be—it’s probably one of the most drastic examples from the past ten years of a film failing to meet expectations. And yet, I was still hyped for the sequel/re-brand, The Suicide Squad. Luckily, the newest version is downright amazing and one of the most fun movie-watching experiences I’ve had in recent years. Margot Robbie is the epitome of perfection once again as Harley Quinn (her third turn as the character), Idris Elba is lights out as Bloodsport, and John Cena nearly steals the show as Peacemaker, a role in which he also stars on HBO Max’s subsequent TV series, Peacemaker. Streaming for free for subscribers to HBO Max.
No. 12 – Zola
The setup for Zola is both simple and mesmerizing—the film is based in part on a viral 148-tweet thread posted on Twitter by Aziah “Zola” King in 2015, wherein she describes a wild and crazy road trip she took to Florida with a random stripper she met, featuring tales of murder, prostitution, and much more. Zola is a thrill ride from start to finish, and the film is held up by wonderful acting performances from Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, and Colman Domingo. Streaming for free for subscribers to Showtime.
No. 13 – A Quiet Place Part II
Despite my love for A Quiet Place, I admit I was initially skeptical about what new ground writer-director John Krasinski could cover in a sequel and whether a second installment could be as captivating as the original. By the time I finished the film, my concerns were firmly put to rest—Krasinski knocks this out of the park. Part II features immense levels of suspense, thrill, edge-of-your-seat nervousness, and it’s anchored by two stunning performances by Millicent Simmonds and Cillian Murphy. If you loved the first film, I assure you, the sequel lives up to every expectation. Streaming for free for subscribers to Paramount+.
No. 14 – Last Night in Soho
The latest film from Edgar Wright adds another eclectic installment to the English writer-director’s filmography. Wright has created comedic zombie and science-fiction films (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End), a cult-classic romantic comedy (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), and an ambitious action film (Baby Driver), and in Last Night in Soho, he gives us a psychological horror for the ages. Wright’s blend of 1960s and modern-day London is striking, and the wonderful performances by Thomasin McKenzie and Anya Taylor-Joy certainly make the film worth the watch. Streaming available for purchase or rent on most major platforms.
No. 15 – The Tragedy of Macbeth
Based on William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, this black-and-white film adaptation provides a breath of fresh air to its nearly 400-year-old source material, displaying a masterful mixture of style, minimalism, first-rate acting (Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand in the lead roles), and captivating photography. Oscar winner Joel Coen wrote and directed this movie, and it marks the first time one of the Coen brothers directed a film without any involvement by the other brother. It turns out, Joel kills it as a solo artist. Streaming for free for subscribers to Apple TV+.
Who Could, Should, and Will Take Home Film’s Biggest Awards
Who Could Win: CODA or The Power of the Dog
This year’s award for Best Picture is truly a toss-up between two clear frontrunners (-120 odds for each)—the more feel-good, formulaic CODA and the more daring, artistic The Power of the Dog.
Who Should Win: Dune
As discussed above, my favorite of this year’s Best Picture nominees is Denis Villeneuve’s bold and adventurous adaptation of Frank Herbert’s epic science-fiction novel.
Who Will Win: The Power of the Dog
I am truthfully clueless as to which film’s name will be in the final envelope tonight, but my gut says it is legendary filmmaker Jane Campion’s cerebral drama set in Montana during the 1920s. The film is certainly the more audacious of the two frontrunners, and I hope the voters reward that cinematic bravery.
Best Actress in a Leading Role
Who Could Win: Penélope Cruz
In recent days, the odds have steadily shortened for Penélope Cruz to strike an upset in the Best Actress category—she now sits at +300, the second-best odds among the nominees. The four-time Oscar nominee delivered a beautiful, heartbreaking performance in Pedro Almodóvar’s Parallel Mothers (Cruz’s seventh cinematic collaboration with the renowned Spanish filmmaker), and if she shocks the world by receiving her second Oscar tonight, it will have been much deserved.
Who Should Win: Jessica Chastain
As much as I loved the performances from Cruz and Olivia Colman (The Lost Daughter) this year, from the moment I watched The Eyes of Tammy Faye, it has always been Jessica Chastain for me. If you’ve followed this blog since its inception, you’ll know Chastain is one of my favorite actresses in Hollywood, and for me, an Academy Award for Chastain is beyond overdue. If I had a vote, Chastain would get it for her awe-inspiring turn as the late televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker.
Who Will Win: Jessica Chastain
Despite the surge of attention Cruz is receiving ahead of the Academy Awards, I still think in the end, Chastain (a -150 favorite) comes out victorious. Cruz has yet to win a single major award for her performance in Parallel Mothers, while Chastain took home the hardware at both the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards and the Screen Actors Guild Awards.
Best Actor in a Leading Role
Who Could Win: Benedict Cumberbatch
Based on current success this awards cycle, nobody in this category appears to stand a chance against Will Smith. However, if any underdog is going to do it, it’ll be Benedict Cumberbatch for his performance as Phil Burbank in The Power of the Dog. Presently, Cumberbatch is receiving odds of +500.
Who Should Win: Will Smith
So far this awards season, Will Smith has secured wins at the Golden Globes, Critics’ Choice Movie Awards, Screen Actors Guild Awards, and BAFTAs for his performance as the real-life father of Venus and Serena Williams, Richard Williams, in King Richard. His trophy cabinet is full, but if I had a vote, he’d need to make room for one more.
Who Will Win: Will Smith
Will Smith has swept awards season with a vengeance. This performance in King Richard garnered Smith his third Academy Awards nomination in an acting category (he’s also nominated for Best Picture this year for his role as a producer for King Richard), and with frontrunner odds of -900, the Fresh Prince looks set to hoist the gold on film’s biggest night.
Best Actress in a Supporting Role
Who Could Win: Kirsten Dunst
Like the Best Actor category, the odds here do not favor a challenge to the favorite for the Oscar. However, in a universe where an upset takes place, my money would be on Kirsten Dunst to make that happen for her performance in The Power of the Dog—she is currently pulling odds of +600.
Who Should Win: Jessie Buckley
Although she likely stands no chance to actually win this year, my vote in this category would land undoubtedly on Jessie Buckley for her emotionally charged performance in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s feature directorial debut, The Lost Daughter. As a whole, I didn’t find this film particularly captivating. Olivia Colman was stellar, per usual. But the story just didn’t make its mark with me. With that said, all of the film’s standout moments came courtesy of Buckley. It doesn’t matter that the film wasn’t one of the year’s best—her performance sure was.
Who Will Win: Ariana DeBose
After sweeping the season’s major awards in this category, Ariana DeBose is nearly certain to win the Oscar for her performance as Anita (a role made famous by co-star Rita Moreno, who won the Oscar for the original 1961 film adaptation) in West Side Story—her odds currently sit at -1500. DeBose’s dominance in this category is not a fluke. Her performance is equal parts boisterous and crushing. A beautiful piece of acting.
Best Actor in a Supporting Role
Who Could Win: Kodi Smit-McPhee
As if The Power of the Dog didn’t have enough acting prowess with the performances by Benedict Cumberbatch and Kirsten Dunst, the Best Supporting Actor category features nominations for both Jesse Plemons and Kodi Smit-McPhee for their respective roles in Jane Campion’s film. Of the two, Smit-McPhee was certainly the more impressive—if there is a surprise in this category (Smit-McPhee is currently getting the second-best odds at +450), it will be to the benefit of the 25-year-old Australian.
Who Should Win: Ciarán Hinds
He’s not going home with an Oscar tonight (+1600 odds for a win), but that doesn’t do anything to change how I feel about Ciarán Hinds’s performance in Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, a film set in Northern Ireland during the early days of The Troubles. For me, the 69-year-old Irish actor is the heartbeat of this movie—an utter masterclass in nuance.
Who Will Win: Troy Kotsur
As is the case in nearly every acting category (except Best Actress), the winner here appears to be a foregone conclusion, as deaf actor Troy Kotsur is currently getting -1000 odds to win the award. A Kotsur win is understandable, as he turned in a magnum opus of a performance in CODA, anchoring the film’s funniest and most heartbreaking scenes.
Snubs and Other Performances
If you think the nominees in the acting categories at the Academy Awards are always the five best from the previous year, you’re greatly mistaken. Each year, the Academy voters overlook a number of impressive performances. Here are my thoughts on some of the year’s best:
Lead Actress: The biggest snub in this category is Renate Reinsve, who delivered a revelatory performance as the lead in my favorite movie of the year, The Worst Person in the World—she absolutely deserved an Oscar nod this year. My other favorite lead actress performances of 2021 were (alphabetically) Alana Haim in Licorice Pizza, Emilia Jones in CODA, Thomasin McKenzie in Last Night in Soho, Taylour Paige in Zola, Agathe Rousselle in Titane, and Millicent Simmonds in A Quiet Place Part II.
Lead Actor: One of the lasting memories I will have from 2021 in film is how in the world Mahershala Ali (a two-time Oscar nominee and winner) missed out on another nomination for his flawless dual performance in Swan Song—Ali proved again why he is one of the very best actors working today. My other favorite lead actor performances of 2021 were (alphabetically) Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in Candyman, Nicolas Cage in Pig, Don Cheadle in No Sudden Move, Winston Duke in Nine Days, Frankie Faison in The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain, Andrew Garfield in The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Jake Gyllenhaal in The Guilty, Jonathan Majors in The Harder They Fall, Dev Patel in The Green Knight, and Simon Rex in Red Rocket.
Supporting Actress: Aside from Mahershala Ali’s brilliance, Swan Song also features a beautiful performance from Naomie Harris (Ali’s Moonlight co-star), who depicts Poppy Turner (the wife of Ali’s Cameron Turner) with deft emotional skill. My other favorite supporting actress performances of 2021 were (alphabetically) Caitríona Balfe in Belfast, Kathryn Hunter in The Tragedy of Macbeth, Riley Keough in Zola, Regina King in The Harder They Fall, and Milena Smit in Parallel Mothers.
Supporting Actor: Zola was one of my favorite films of 2021, and although Taylour Paige and Riley Keough were phenomenal, Colman Domingo stole the show—his depiction of the mysterious X was ruthlessly menacing. Domingo’s dynamite performance certainly deserved more love from the Academy voters. My other favorite supporting actor performances of 2021 were (alphabetically) Anders Danielsen Lie in The Worst Person in the World, Robin de Jesús in tick, tick…BOOM!, Mike Faist in West Side Story, Vincent Lindon in Titane, Cillian Murphy in A Quiet Place Part II, and Benedict Wong in Nine Days.
My Personal Ballot for the 94th Academy Awards
The Power of the Dog
West Side Story
Don’t Look Up
Drive My Car
Kenneth Branagh – Belfast
Jane Campion – The Power of the Dog
Steven Spielberg – West Side Story
Paul Thomas Anderson – Licorice Pizza
Ryusuke Hamaguchi – Drive My Car
Best Actor in a Leading Role
Will Smith – King Richard
Andrew Garfield – tick, tick…BOOM!
Benedict Cumberbatch – The Power of the Dog
Denzel Washington – The Tragedy of Macbeth
Javier Bardem – Being the Ricardos
Best Actress in a Leading Role
Jessica Chastain – The Eyes of Tammy Faye
Penélope Cruz – Parallel Mothers
Olivia Colman – The Lost Daughter
Kristen Stewart – Spencer
Nicole Kidman – Being the Ricardos
Best Actor in a Supporting Role
Ciarán Hinds – Belfast
Troy Kotsur – CODA
Kodi Smit-McPhee – The Power of the Dog
Jesse Plemons – The Power of the Dog
K. Simmons – Being the Ricardos
Best Actress in a Supporting Role
Jessie Buckley – The Lost Daughter
Kirsten Dunst – The Power of the Dog
Ariana DeBose – West Side Story
Aunjanue Ellis – King Richard
Judi Dench – Belfast
Best Original Screenplay
The Worst Person in the World – Eskil Vogt and Joachim Trier
Don’t Look Up – Adam McKay (screenplay); McKay and David Sirota (story)
Licorice Pizza – Paul Thomas Anderson
King Richard – Zach Baylin
Belfast – Kenneth Branagh
Best Adapted Screenplay
The Power of the Dog – Jane Campion (based on the novel of the same name by Thomas Savage)
Dune – Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve, and Eric Roth (based on the novel of the same name by Frank Herbert)
CODA – Sian Heder (based on the 2014 French film La Famille Bélier)
The Lost Daughter – Maggie Gyllenhaal (based on the novel of the same name by Elena Ferrante)
Drive My Car – Ryusuke Hamaguchi and Takamasa Oe (based on the short story of the same name by Haruki Murakami)
Best Animated Feature
Raya and the Last Dragon
The Mitchells vs. the Machines
Best Original Score
Dune – Hans Zimmer
Encanto – Germaine Franco
The Power of the Dog – Jonny Greenwood
Parallel Mothers – Alberto Iglesias
Don’t Look Up – Nicholas Britell
Dune – Mac Ruth, Mark Mangini, Theo Green, Doug Hemphill, and Ron Bartlett
No Time to Die – Simon Hayes, Oliver Tarney, James Harrison, Paul Massey, and Mark Taylor
West Side Story – Tod A. Maitland, Gary Rydstrom, Brian Chumney, Andy Nelson, and Shawn Murphy
Belfast – Denise Yarde, Simon Chase, James Mather, and Niv Adiri
The Power of the Dog – Richard Flynn, Robert Mackenzie, and Tara Webb
Best Production Design
Dune – Production Design: Patrice Vermette; Set Decoration: Zsuzsanna Sipos
The Tragedy of Macbeth – Production Design: Stefan Dechant; Set Decoration: Nancy Haigh
West Side Story – Production Design: Adam Stockhausen; Set Decoration: Rena DeAngelo
Nightmare Alley – Production Design: Tamara Deverell; Set Decoration: Shane Vieau
The Power of the Dog – Production Design: Grant Major; Set Decoration: Amber Richards
Dune – Greig Fraser
The Tragedy of Macbeth – Bruno Delbonnel
West Side Story – Janusz Kaminski
The Power of the Dog – Ari Wegner
Nightmare Alley – Dan Laustsen
Best Film Editing
Dune – Joe Walker
tick, tick…BOOM! – Myron Kerstein and Andrew Weisblum
The Power of the Dog – Peter Sciberras
Don’t Look Up – Hank Corwin
King Richard – Pamela Martin
Best Visual Effects
Dune – Paul Lambert, Tristan Myles, Brian Connor, and Gerd Nefzer
Spider-Man: No Way Home – Kelly Port, Chris Waegner, Scott Edelstein, and Dan Sudick
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings – Christopher Townsend, Joe Farrell, Sean Noel Walker, and Dan Oliver
Free Guy – Swen Gillberg, Bryan Grill, Nikos Kalaitzidis, and Dan Sudick
No Time to Die – Charlie Noble, Joel Green, Jonathan Fawkner, and Chris Corbould
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
13th 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.
To 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 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 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 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 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
Hacksaw 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.
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 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.
The 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!
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. However, 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.
“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. After 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!
The 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. The 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.
George 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. The 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. The 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. Her 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.
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.
When 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.”
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. The 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 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.
Now, 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. But 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. 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 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. This 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. Margot 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.
Although 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. But 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.
Another 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. Carell 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. My 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.
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.
This 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.
Villeneuve 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. With 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.
The 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.
The 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.” In 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. As 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.
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.
This 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.
I 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. Speaking 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.
Aside 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. Oscar 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.
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.
Spotlight 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.
Although 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. Spotlight 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.
Despite 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. Ruffalo 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. Pfeiffer’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.