The 92nd Oscars – Best Leading Actor

In today’s post, I will review the Best Leading Actor category for this year’s Oscars. Let’s go!

The Nominees

Antonio Banderas (Pain and Glory)Banderas gif

In legendary Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film Pain and Glory (nominated this year for Best International Feature), Antonio Banderas stars as Salvador Mallo, an aging filmmaker battling health issues and nostalgia as he reflects upon important memories and relationships throughout his past and how they’ve shaped his present. I have not seen an immense amount of Banderas’s films, but from what I have seen, his performance in Pain and Glory is certainly his best. This movie has a lot of drama and a lot of heart, all while sprinkling in some clever humor. And although the film features some wonderful supporting performances (including Penélope Cruz as Mallo’s mother and Asier Etxeandia as his former collaborator Alberto), Pain and Glory thrives most prominently because of this stunning performance by Banderas. Whether it’s the humorous moments where Mallo is, for the first time in his life, trying heroin with Alberto, or the emotional reunion with a lover from days gone by, Banderas sinks his teeth into the role and delivers a masterful performance. It is no wonder Banderas took home the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2019.

Leonardo DiCaprio (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood)DiCaprio gf

Quentin Tarantino’s newest masterpiece Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is set in Los Angeles in 1969 and tells the story of aging actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his longtime stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) as they work to find their place in the industry during the last days of Hollywood’s Golden Age. In my Best Supporting Actor post, I waxed poetic about the glorious reunion between Tarantino and Brad Pitt following their collaboration in my favorite film of all time, Inglourious Basterds. But Once Upon a Time also marks a spectacular reunion for Tarantino and DiCaprio, who previously joined forces to bring us one of the most well-acted, but despicable villains of all time, slave owner Calvin Candie in Django Unchained. As much as I loved Brad Pitt here as Cliff Booth, my favorite aspect of the film (aside from the brilliance of Tarantino’s storytelling as a whole) was DiCaprio. Rick Dalton is by far the funniest character DiCaprio has ever portrayed (yes, even more so than the real-life Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street), and he delivers a performance that, in a year where Joaquin Phoenix doesn’t play the Joker, surely would be my top pick to take home the Oscar. This performance exhibits much of DiCaprio’s range, equal parts comical and earnest. The moments that will live on in my memory forever include the Basterds-esque “anyone order fried sauerkraut?” scene; the “Easy Breezy” conversation with Julia Butters’s character; yelling at the Manson hippies with a pitcher of margaritas in his hand; and most of all, that infamous trailer argument with himself on the set of Lancer.

Adam Driver (Marriage Story)Driver gif

Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story follows a couple, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver), as they cope with a contentious coast-to-coast divorce that involves a bitter custody dispute over their eight-year-old son. Despite the sad and depressing nature of Marriage Story as a whole, it is hard to argue with the fact that the film features two utterly tremendous performances from its leading actors. I have already discussed Johansson’s performance in my Best Leading Actress post, but with respect to Driver, his portrayal of New York-based theater director Charlie is one of the most emotionally shattering acting performances of 2019. Although the film follows both Charlie and Nicole through their separation and divorce, Marriage Story eventually homes in more distinctly on Charlie’s struggles. (The character arc of Nicole is vital to the story, but given Baumbach’s own divorce history with ex-wife Jennifer Jason Leigh, the self-reflection through via Charlie is unsurprising.) Although the scene has been turned into a bit of a meme via Twitter, the argument between Charlie and Nicole in Charlie’s LA apartment (wherein Driver angrily proclaims “Every day I wake up and hope you’re dead”) is etched in my memory forever, and it certainly provided Driver his “Oscar moment.”

Joaquin Phoenix (Joker)Phoenix gif

Joker, co-written and directed by Todd Phillips, is an origin story for the infamous Joker villain from the DC Comics. The film follows Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a wannabe stand-up comedian with severe emotional instability who, over the course of the story, spirals down into a dangerous and violent state of madness. Upon release, Joker polarized audiences for its depiction of mental illness and gun violence. But regardless of your take on the ethics of the film, Joaquin Phoenix’s staggering transformation into the famed super-villain is a sight to behold and deserves all the critical acclaim you can throw at him. One of the most obvious parts of Phoenix’s transformation is physical in nature, as he lost a significant amount of weight to give Fleck a disturbingly gaunt figure. Although impressive, the weight loss hardly compares to the haunting genius of Phoenix’s acting performance as a whole. Phoenix had massive shoes to fill with his portrayal of the future Joker, as Heath Ledger already gave the world one of the greatest performances in film history as the character in The Dark Knight (for which Ledger posthumously received the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor). Phoenix’s performance is incredible, but it’s also different from Ledger’s, as Phoenix only becomes the Joker during the climax of the film. As Arthur Fleck, Phoenix is chilling and terrifying, slowly creeping toward complete derangement throughout the movie. One of the major standpoint parts of Phoenix’s performances is the variety of maniacal laughs in Fleck’s repertoire—those things will haunt my ears forever. Phoenix’s embodiment of such a mentally ill character must have been taxing, both physically and emotionally, but his acceptance of the challenge provided cinematic history with one of its better performances. I expect Phoenix to take home the gold in a few days!

Jonathan Pryce (The Two Popes)Pryce gif

Netflix’s The Two Popes is about Pope Benedict’s shocking decision to resign the papacy (the first to do so in over 700 years) amidst controversy and the unlikely journey of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (later Pope Francis) to the Chair of Saint Peter as his successor. With the exception of a couple of stray scenes, this film is comprised nearly entirely of one-on-one conversations between Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) and the future Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce). Although that does not seem like a recipe for an entertaining movie, I was thoroughly surprised in the result being just that. The two characters are both Catholic, and that is really where their similarities stop. Pope Benedict is staunchly conservative, while Pope Francis is more liberal and progressive. This dichotomy of ideologies makes for some very interesting conversations and debates throughout the film as the two discuss the future of the Church, and Pryce subtly, but quietly, steals the show, turning in a wonderfully inspired performance.

Snubs and Other Performances

This category was always going to be a bit crowded this year, as 2019 was packed with wonderful performances. In addition to the five nominees, though, there were a handful of other actors that turned in noteworthy performances this year that deserve some appreciation. First, despite the fact that both Al Pacino and Joe Pesci earned Best Supporting Actor nods this year, The Irishman’s lead, Robert De Niro, missed out on a nomination, despite giving us another very memorable performance as the titular Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran. Second, Daniel Craig was marvelous in Rian Johnson’s whodunit Knives Out as private detective Benoit Blanc—this was by far the most fun role I’ve ever seen Craig in and he killed it. Third, Eddie Murphy was absolutely hilarious in his R-rated comedy comeback Dolemite Is My Name (his first R-rated film since Life in 1999), a film about the real-life comedian and legendary blaxploitation filmmaker Rudy Ray Moore. Murphy would have been a worthy nominee for the Oscar, as he received nominations at the Golden Globes and Critics’ Choice Awards.Bale gif Additionally, Christian Bale was remarkable in Ford v Ferrari as British racecar driver Ken Miles. When I first saw the trailer for Ford v Ferrari, I thought it looked like a very paint-by-number Disney-style biopic—I was wrong. The film is fast-paced, electrifying, and extraordinarily fun, and Bale carries the film gloriously across the finish line with one of my favorite performances of his storied career.

Sandler gifThe five nominees all gave very strong performances, but I really think the Academy made a mistake by not nominating Adam Sandler for his portrayal of jeweler and gambling addict Howard Ratner in Uncut Gems. (I guess Pryce would have to lose his spot to grant a nomination to Sandler.) This was one of my very favorite movies of the year, and although it’s great for so many reasons (including, but not limited to, the raw and frenetic pace masterfully crafted by the Safdie brothers, as well as the stellar supporting performances from Kevin Garnett, Lakeith Stanfield, and Julia Fox), it is a notch better on the strength of the single greatest acting performance of Adam Sandler’s career. On paper, Howard Ratner is incredibly unlikable. Throughout the entire film, he proves to be a bit of a sleazebag who incessantly makes bad decisions at every turn. And yet, because of Sandler’s career-defining performance, it’s impossible not to root for Howard during the movie’s thrilling twists and turns. Sandler obviously has more career ahead of him, but it’s hard not to imagine this being his masterpiece—the Academy should have rewarded that.

Conclusion

Who Could Win: Adam Driver

Just like his Marriage Story co-star Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver is currently getting +1400 odds to pull off an upset in the Best Leading Actor category. Please read the “Who Will Win” section below for proof as to why this upset isn’t happening, though. (Yes, I know I listed Driver as someone who “could” win, but I feel obligated to at least list the second best odds amongs the other nominees no matter what, even though the odds don’t suggest Driver will be winning on Sunday.)

Who Should Win: Joaquin Phoenix

Think what you want about Joker as a film, but it is patently undeniable that Joaquin Phoenix turned in one of the greatest acting performances of all time. He deserves this win more than ever before.

Who Will Win: Joaquin Phoenix

Joaquin Phoenix is currently getting the second best odds of any nominee in any category to win an Oscar this year. (Phoenix’s -5000 odds are second only to Parasite’s odds to win Best International Feature, which currently stand at an astounding -10000.) With the Golden Globe, Critics’ Choice Award, SAG Award, and BAFTA already under his belt, I fully expect Phoenix to be the actor giving his acceptance speech in this category come Sunday night. If When he wins, it will be his first Oscar win.

Best Actor in a Supporting Role (2018)

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

WINNER: Mahershala Ali (Green Book)

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

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

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

3. Sam Elliott (A Star Is Born)

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

4. Sam Rockwell (Vice)

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

5. Adam Driver (BlacKkKlansman)

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

Fall Preview 2016: No. 5 – No. 1

Time to go up…cause it’s TUESDAY! More importantly, the conclusion to my “Fall Preview 2016” is finally here. Over the past few days, I have shared with you my five Honorable Mentions and No. 10 – No. 6 on the list of my most anticipated fall film releases. But now it is on to the big reveal. So, without further ado, I give you films No. 5 – No. 1 on my Fall Preview 2016 list. Enjoy!

No. 5 – La La Land

La La Land is a film set in Los Angeles where aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) serves lattes to movie stars in between auditions, while dedicated jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) plays in dingy bars in order to scrape by. The two meet and fall in love, but, as success mounts, the dreams they worked so hard to maintain threaten to rip them apart.

la-la-land-2I have been awaiting the release of La La Land for quite some time because of the man sitting in the director’s chair: Damien Chazelle. In 2014, Chazelle broke out with his critically acclaimed debut Whiplash, one of the best movies I have seen in years (Whiplash ranked No. 1 on my list of Top 15 Films of 2014). Considering Chazelle’s masterful filmmaking in Whiplash, it was impossible for me not to be excited for his sophomore effort. La La Land finds itself in the No. 5 slot on my list on the strength of Chazelle’s previous film, so I truly hope that it does not fall flat due to failing to meet expectations. However, rumors are that La La Land is just as good as Whiplash, garnering an immense amount of Oscar support months in advance of its release. If this thing turns out to be as good as it is being hyped up to be, Damien Chazelle will cement himself as one of the very elite filmmakers in the business today.

Part of Whiplash’s success was due to wonderful performances from its cast: J.K. Simmons delivered an Oscar-winning performance that will forever be one of my all-time favorites, and Miles Teller portrayed a determined, yet wildly intense jazz student with absolute precision. I am optimistic about La La Land’s potential because Chazelle has again assembled a top-notch cast. The aforementioned Simmons is back in a supporting role, but the film’s leads have a history of on-screen chemistry, which gives the film an extra boost. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone previously starred together in a romantic capacity in Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad, and their relationships in these films were incredibly real and believable—I cannot wait to watch them interact again here. La La Land is set for a theatrical release on December 2, 2016.

Director: Damien Chazelle (Whiplash)

Starring: Ryan Gosling (The Nice Guys, The Big Short), Emma Stone (Aloha, Birdman), and J.K. Simmons (Zootopia, Whiplash)

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DBUXcNTjviI

No. 4 – Passengers

Passengers follows the spaceship, Starship Avalon, on its 120-year voyage to a distant colony planet known as “Homestead II.” The Starship Avalon, transporting 5,259 people, has a malfunction in two of its sleep chambers. As a result, two hibernation pods open prematurely and the two people (Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence) that awoke are stranded on the spaceship, still 90 years from their destination. The two soon discover that the malfunction that caused them to be awoken prematurely is not the only problem afflicting the huge spaceship.

passengers-2Passengers is one of those movies that has blockbuster hit written all over it. Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt are arguably two of the most “big time” actors currently in the business, and their collaboration here is sure to drive up ticket sales this Christmas. And rightfully so—Lawrence is a three-time Oscar-nominated actress and Pratt has ascended to mainstream stardom with performances in Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic World. Notwithstanding the hype that this duo has and will to continue to garner in the lead up to the film’s release, I truly believe this pairing will make waves via pure acting ability, too. Lawrence is easily one of the top three or four actresses in Hollywood, and here I expect her to combine her proficient dramatic/comedic acting skills (see Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle) with her knack for adventure (see The Hunger Games). And although he has not garnered any award-worthy praise yet, Chris Pratt is definitely one of the brightest stars in Hollywood. I expect the same sharp wit from Pratt that we have grown accustomed to seeing (see Guardians of the Galaxy), and that is never a bad thing.

As far as the filmmaking, Passengers has plenty going for it. Manning the director’s chair is Morten Tyldum, the filmmaker behind the Norwegian hit Headhunters and the Oscar-nominated The Imitation Game. Headhunters is absolutely incredible and, although I was not a massive fan of The Imitation Game, I simply cannot deny the stunning meticulousness with which Tyldum crafted the film; thus, I feel comfortable with him leading Passengers, a big-budget sci-fi thriller. The fact that Jon Spaihts penned the screenplay only adds to my excitement, as he wrote the screenplay for 2012’s Prometheus, one of my favorite science-fiction films in recent memory. Passengers is set for a theatrical release on December 21, 2016.

Director: Morten Tyldum (Midnight Special, Mud)

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence (X-Men Apocalypse, Joy), Chris Pratt (The Magnificent Seven, Jurassic World), and Michael Sheen (Nocturnal Animals, Far from the Madding Crowd)

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7BWWWQzTpNU

No. 3 – Silence

Set in the 17th century, Silence tells the story of two Jesuit priests (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who face violence and persecution when they travel to Japan to locate their mentor (Liam Neeson) and propagate Christianity.

Without a doubt, Martin Scorsese is one of the greatest directors of all time. From Taxi Driver to Goodfellas, Gangs of New York to The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese has been lighting up the silver screen for decades with remarkable, high-quality films. Clearly, it is not hard to see why Silence finds itself in the top three of my list of most anticipated films this fall. In Silence, we have what can only be described as Scorsese’s true “passion project”—he began developing the film in 1990! Very few people—let alone filmmakers—could retain an interest in something for over 20 years, but that is what sets Martin Scorsese apart. The man is a cinematic visionary, and he has never once let me down with a project—I do not expect him to start now.

silence-2Aside from his filmmaking skills in general, Scorsese’s movies work on so many levels because of his ability to always get the most out of his actors. From Robert De Niro to Leonardo DiCaprio, Scorsese has worked with the best actors in the business, and those stars always seem to shine their brightest while working at Scorsese’s direction. With that said, I cannot wait to see what this iconic filmmaker has done with the pieces that he has assembled (i.e., Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, and Liam Neeson). Garfield and Driver are two of the most polished up-and-comers in Hollywood, and both of their careers have produced a number of outstanding performances—I am hopeful that they both deliver their best ones to date in Silence. What I am most excited for from a casting standpoint, however, is Liam Neeson. The Oscar-nominated actor had a supporting role in Scorsese’s Gangs of New York and knocked his limited time on the screen out of the park—I cannot wait to see the two reunite with Neeson in a starring role. It goes without saying: I expect big things! Silence is set for a theatrical release on December 23, 2016.

Director: Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street, Hugo)

Starring: Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge, 99 Homes), Liam Neeson (A Monster Calls, Non-Stop), and Adam Driver (Paterson, Midnight Special)

Trailer: n/a

No. 2 – The Girl on the Train

The Girl on the Train follows Rachel Watson (Emma Blunt), an alcoholic who divorced her husband Tom (Justin Theroux) after she caught him cheating on her. Rachel takes the train to work daily. She fantasizes about the relationship of her neighbors, Scott and Megan Hipwell (Luke Evans and Haley Bennett), during her commute. That all changes when she witnesses something from the train window and Megan is found to be missing, presumed dead.

Back in 2014, the number one movie on this very list was Gone Girl, the film adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s best-selling novel. Two years later (albeit in the number two spot), here I am writing about The Girl on the Train. Now I know, they are two separate movies with two separate premises. But it is hard not to want to compare them in some form: They are both mystery thrillers with similar themes derived from books that took the world by storm. Gone Girl was one of the best movies I saw in 2014, and it definitely lived up to the hype for me—I sure hope The Girl on the Train does this year, too.

girl-train-2Aside from the attention the film is getting due to its source material’s acclaim, I have been awaiting the release of The Girl on the Train because of Emily Blunt. For those that have read my reviews in the past for Looper, Edge of Tomorrow, and Sicario, what I am about to say is old news: Emily Blunt is one of my top two favorite actresses currently in the movie business, and I have gotten to the point where I will watch anything she makes. This is not (just) because of some love affair with her on a purely shallow basis; rather, I believe she has developed into one of the premier female talents in Hollywood. On the strength of my fandom for Blunt, I am more than ready to plop down in a seat at my local theater this Friday to see what I hope turns out to be a thrilling ride (on a train, of course). The Girl on the Train is set for a theatrical release on October 7, 2016.

Director: Tate Taylor (Get On Up, The Help)

Starring: Emily Blunt (The Huntsman: Winter’s War, Sicario), Rebecca Ferguson (Florence Foster Jenkins, Missions: Impossible – Rogue Nation), Haley Bennett (The Magnificent Seven, Hardcore Henry), Justin Theroux (Zoolander 2, Wanderlust), and Luke Evans (High-Rise, Furious 7)

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y5yk-HGqKmM

No. 1 – Arrival

Arrival follows an elite team that is put together to investigate when multiple mysterious spacecraft touch down across the globe. Mankind teeters on the verge of global war as everyone scrambles for answers—and to find them, team members Louise Banks (Amy Adams), Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), and US Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) will take a chance that could threaten their lives, and, quite possibly, humanity.

arrival-2Science-fiction is nowhere near the top of my list of favorite film genres. Don’t get me wrong, I do like them—but if I had to pick a range of 4-5 types of movies to watch on a Friday night, science-fiction would not be one of them. But Arrival is peak alien sci-fi…so how can it rank so high on this list? The answer is simple: Denis Villeneuve. Although I still have not seen Villeneuve’s Maelstrom (the winner of the International Federation of Film Critics Award at the Berlin Film Festival) or Incendies (the Oscar-nominated foreign language film), I still view the French-Canadian filmmaker to be one of the best in the business—this is because of Prisoners and Sicario. While in Prisoners Villeneuve crafted a film that was emotionally complex and disturbing at times, yet all the while encapsulating, he truly blew me away with last year’s Sicario, a tightly wound drug cartel thriller that put Villeneuve’s brazen filmmaking on full display for the world to see. Needless to say, his involvement with Arrival makes it a no-brainer for me to be so interested!

In Prisoners, Villeneuve truly directed his balls off in getting the most from his actors (Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, and Terrence Howard absolutely killed it), and in Sicario, the very same was true (Emily Blunt and Benicio Del Toro delivered unbelievably outstanding performances). Here, I am anxious to see what Villeneuve does with another stellar cast. Amy Adams is one of my favorite actresses (and by far one of the best in the business), Jeremy Renner always does a great job, and Forest Whitaker is a veteran in the game who still treats every performance as if it is his last. The talent is there from both an acting and directorial standpoint—I am confident that the two will intersect beautifully and Arrival will meet all of its undeniably high expectations. Arrival is set for a theatrical release on November 11, 2016.

Director: Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Prisoners)

Starring: Amy Adams (Nocturnal Animals, Big Eyes), Jeremy Renner (Captain America: Civil War, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation), and Forest Whitaker (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Southpaw)

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tFMo3UJ4B4g

Top 15 Films of 2015, No. 13 – Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the seventh installment in the Star Wars franchise and the first film in the series’ sequel trilogy. Episode VII is directed by JJ Abrams, with a screenplay by Abrams, Kathleen Kennedy, and Michael Arndt. The film is set 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi, and it follows a group known as “The Resistance” (led by remnants of the former Republic) in its fight against Kylo Ren and the First Order, the successor to Darth Vader’s Galactic Empire.

StarWars7Full disclosure: I saw all seven Star Wars movies over a two-week period during Christmas break; thus, I am not a lifelong fan of the franchise like the traditional Star Wars sycophant. However, after watching both the original and prequel trilogies, I became enraptured by the series and could not wait to watch Episode VII. StarWars8This anticipation for the newest film was two-fold: (1) I had become a genuine fan of the franchise; and (2) I was stoked to see if JJ Abrams could reinvigorate the famed series after its creative genius, George Lucas, nearly drove it into the ground with Episodes I and II (Episode III is actually pretty genius in many respects from a filmmaking standpoint—so get over yourselves, Star Wars nerds). Abrams’s take on Star Wars did not disappoint. But before I get to that and the rest of my review, I have decided to announce my own personal ranking of each film in the Star Wars franchise: (1) The Empire Strikes Back; (2) The Force Awakens; (3) Revenge of the Sith; (4) A New Hope; (5) Return of the Jedi; (6) Attack of the Clones; and (7) The Phantom Menace.

StarWars12I really only have one beef with The Force Awakens, and it is the fact that JJ Abrams will not be returning for future films in the trilogy; Mr. Abrams batted nearly 1.000 in his one-and-only Star Wars appearance. For starters, in terms of storytelling, the script is both reminiscent of the original trilogy and polar opposite of the prequel trilogy—in all the best ways. Abrams and his screenwriting team give us humor, snappy dialogue, action, and thrills, all which evoke the greatest moments of the past Star Wars films, all without much input at all from George Lucas—that is impressive. StarWars9Abrams clearly knows his Star Wars history, and he gives us plenty of callbacks to the past six films; the truly remarkable part is that he does so without bordering on schlock, which would be easy to do. We get the classic duo of Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), a prominent cameo from the Millennium Falcon, a melted Darth Vader mask, and appearances by Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), C-3PO, and, my personal fave, R2-D2. Despite the eminence of so many vintage Star Wars figures, Abrams’s real triumph stems from his creation of a wealth of new characters that are more than worthy to carry on this historic film franchise.

StarWars6Speaking of those new characters, we had a bunch of worthwhile rookies. Golden Globe-nominated actor Oscar Isaac stars as Poe Dameron, an X-wing fighter pilot for the Resistance that is heralded as the best in the galaxy. Emmy-nominated Adam Driver plays Kylo Ren, a commander of the First Order and an aspiring successor to the Darth Vader legacy. Newcomers Daisy Ridley and John Boyega star as Rey and Finn, respectively—Rey is a scavenger from Jakku in search of her family, and Finn is a First Order stormtrooper who decides to abandon his position. Despite being a big fan of Oscar Isaac, I admit that I did not connect much with his character—he was kind of boring to be honest. StarWars5Luckily, the rest of the cast carried the film with ease. I absolutely love Adam Driver as the newest bad boy of the Star Wars universe. His character is incredibly complex, possessing evil and torturous, yet anxious and sensitive qualities—Driver nails the nuances of each and every trait. Kylo Ren is also a downright badass character because of (1) a mask that rivals that of Darth Vader; and (2) one of the greatest light sabers anyone has ever seen.

StarWars3Ridley and Boyega also impress in their respective roles. Ridley’s Rey may or may not be the daughter of Luke Skywalker (the film sure does imply that, yet, maybe it is a red herring), but she definitely occupies many of Luke’s behavioral traits, not the least of which is her affinity for inherent Jedi powers—the force is definitely strong with this one. In addition to seeming much like Luke, she also at times seems like the new Han Solo—she is completely self-sufficient and is as rogue as they come. StarWars1Boyega’s Finn was one of my favorite characters from the new film. Finn’s personality is evocative of C-3PO, in that he is incredibly worrisome and always the first to panic when danger arises; it is in these ways that Finn is the funniest character of the movie. Luckily, Abrams brilliantly ensures that Finn’s character never becomes a mere caricature. I also loved R2-D2’s successor, the charmingly unique droid BB-8. BB-8 is a spherical droid with a free-moving domed head, and he is the perfect addition to a long history of classic droids in the Star Wars franchise.

Although I loved The Force Awakens, I am a bit wary of the direction of the Star Wars property. In 2012, Disney acquired Lucasfilm for over $4 billion, and it immediately set into motion plans for a bunch of Star Wars movies. In addition to the new sequel trilogy (Episodes VIII and IX will be directed by Looper’s Rian Johnson and Jurassic World’s Colin Trevorrow, respectively), Disney has planned what it is calling an Anthology series. Rogue OneThe latter will first feature Rogue One, set just before the events of A New Hope, and after that two stand-alone “origin” films about both Han Solo and Boba Fett. Starting this year, the Anthology films will be released every other year, which is meant to complement the sequel trilogy’s same every-other-year schedule. Although it will be great to get so much new Star Wars material, I am cautious because it makes the series more susceptible to people getting completely burned out, considering a Star Wars movie will be released once a year between 2015 and 2020. Only time will tell. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sGbxmsDFVnE

Academy Award nominations for Star Wars: The Force Awakens:

Best Original Score (John Williams)

Best Sound Editing (Matthew Wood and David Acord)

Best Sound Mixing (Andy Nelson, Christopher Scarabosio, and Stuart Wilson)

Best Film Editing (Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey)

Best Visual Effects (Chris Corbould, Roger Guyett, Paul Kavanagh, and Neal Scanlan)

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

  1. Beasts of No Nation
  2. The Martian