Top 10 Films of 2018, No. 1 – The Favourite

The Favourite is an historical black comedy/drama directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, with a screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara. The film is set in England in the early 18th century and follows the power struggle between Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail Masham (Emma Stone) as they jockey for the attention and adoration of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman).

tf_02908It may seem a bit too on the nose that my favorite movie from 2018 is called The Favourite – but here we are! This film has so much going for it, and all of its spectacular areas of filmmaking combined to create the best movie of the year. The ringleader is Yorgos Lanthimos, a Greek director that has mastered his own vision and voice in filmmaking, producing a uniquely idiosyncratic blend of black comedy and drama (see e.g., Dogtooth, The Lobster, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer). I personally enjoy Lanthimos’s distinctive style of filmmaking, and in The Favourite, he is definitely at his peak. Although Lanthimos did not write the script, his customary deadpan vision (built on a sense of ridiculousness and uneasiness) undoubtedly permeates the film. In a year filled with some great dark comedies (such The Death of Stalin and Thoroughbreds), Lanthimos’s The Favourite indisputably stands out as the finest.

Fave3One of the most noteworthy aspects of the movie is the team Lanthimos assembled to execute his eccentric vision. Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara wrote the screenplay, and my goodness, it was stellar. The dialogue is snappy and razor sharp in its ability to take hold of a scene. I knew the film was going to be fantastic in an early scene depicting Abigail riding in a packed carriage, which featured one creepy individual staring at her while pleasuring himself – it was so shockingly hilarious, and it definitely set the tone for many other great scenes/lines. One of my favorite scenes from the entire year featured a completely out-of-place dance medley from Joe Alwyn and Rachel Weisz as they utilized modern dance moves in the middle of a fairly stuffy 18th-century ball – it was sidesplitting!

Fave Gif 2The movie’s cinematography is also outstanding, and the unique way in which Robbie Ryan shot the film added to the film’s comical nature. Ryan’s style here featured lots of experimental shots with a fish-eye lens, which added a wonderful layer of surrealism to the landscape within the castle. Further, Ryan’s propensity to switch views/perspectives with sharp panning was exquisite.

giphyIn terms of acting, The Favourite features a forceful trio of Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone. Colman’s portrayal of Queen Anne is flawless and perfectly captures the character’s proclivities for being both childishly needy and wickedly sinister. Queen Anne is an emotional rollercoaster, but we see that some of it is of her own doing – she propagates the battle between Sarah and Abigail for her affection, which ultimately leads to more depression for her character. Colman absolutely nailed her performance as Queen Anne.

Fave Gif 4Although Colman was impressive, I was even more taken with Stone’s and Weisz’s performances. Under Queen Anne’s roof, Weisz’s Sarah is Queen Anne’s established confidante and advisor, as well as her trusted lover, while Stone’s Abigail is the newcomer to the royal inner circle. These distinct roles have distinct personality traits associated with them, and each actress performs extraordinarily – Stone and Weisz were built for their respective characters. Abigail appears unassuming at first, but we quickly learn that she has an almost innate ability to balance that sense of innocence with disturbing cunningness – Stone thrives in this role, tapping into her comedic roots to bring Abigail’s amusingly menacing personality to life. On the other hand, Sarah finds herself having to desperately protect her position from Abigail, resorting to psychological mind games out of uncompromising devotion to Queen Anne. Weisz chillingly emotes steeliness in this role, and her portrayal of Sarah’s endless loyalty to Queen Anne is shrewdly memorable.

giphyAnother fantastic performance in The Favourite was Nicholas Hoult as Robert Harley, a member of Parliament who opposes some of Queen Anne’s economic policies. Harley is the embodiment of pretentiousness, and Hoult’s portrayal of the scheming politician was magnificent – it was an underrated part of the movie, and I was disappointed that Hoult wasn’t in greater contention for a nomination in the Best Supporting Actor category. The Favourite is rated R for strong sexual content, nudity, and language.

The Favourite trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SYb-wkehT1g&t=2s

Academy Award nominations for The Favourite:

Best Picture (Ceci Dempsey, Ed Guiney, Lee Magiday, and Yorgos Lanthimos, producers)

Best Director (Yorgos Lanthimos)

Best Actress (Olivia Colman)

Best Supporting Actress (Emma Stone)

Best Supporting Actress (Rachel Weisz)

Best Original Screenplay (Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara)

Best Cinematography (Robbie Ryan)

Best Production Design (Fiona Crombie and Alice Felton)

Best Costume Design (Sandy Powell)

Best Film Editing (Yorgos Mavropsaridis)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top 10 Films of 2018, No. 6 – Thoroughbreds

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

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

giphyMy favorite part of the movie is its exceptionally interesting characters and accompanying acting performances. For starters, the two leads are phenomenal. Amanda and Lily could not appear more opposite – Amanda is blunt and emotionless (and with respect to the latter, that is a literal personality trait, as it is revealed that Amanda actually lacks the ability to feel any emotions), and Lily is nervy but mannerly. However, as the film progresses, we start to see cracks in Lily’s façade begin to develop, as she slowly reveals a sense of narcissism and manipulation deep within. The vast differences in Amanda’s and Lily’s physical and emotional temperaments are striking, and to best depict these distinctive characteristics on the screen, Finley could not have done better than Cooke and Taylor-Joy. giphy2Anton Yelchin also gave a noteworthy performance in one of the late actor’s final film roles – the actor, who died just a couple of weeks after principal photography wrapped, skillfully portrayed Tim as a wittily arrogant drug dealer with a lot of underlying vulnerabilities. It was a wonderful performance to cap off a brilliant career that was cut too short. Thoroughbreds is rated R for strong violence, grisly images, and language.

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

Top 15 Films of 2014, No. 12 – Calvary

Calvary1Calvary is an Irish drama written and directed by John Michael McDonagh. The film follows Father James (Brendan Gleeson), the local Irish parish’s priest. At a confessional, a member of James’s parish reveals that he was once molested by a now-deceased priest, and because of this, he will kill Father James in one week’s time—he tells Father James that killing a good priest as opposed to a bad priest would be more disconcerting for the Catholic church. James then proceeds over the next week to continue helping and supporting his delicate daughter (Kelly Reilly) and the members of his parish with their own personal problems, all the while trying to figure out who is planning to kill him. These ominous and disturbing circumstances cause Father James to question whether he has the courage to face his own Calvary.

Calvary5Despite a cast composed of notable actors, this film is as independent as they come. Before seeing this movie, I was not aware of its director, McDonagh. It turns out, he has only written and directed one other feature before Calvary, an Irish comedy called The Guard, also starring Brendan Gleeson. Only after watching this movie did I learn that The Guard is one of the most critically acclaimed films in Irish cinema, and it is also the biggest box-office success in Irish history. Needless to say, McDonagh is a big name across the pond, despite the fact that I had never heard of him. After seeing Calvary, I am going to do whatever it takes to track down The Guard because McDonagh is an incredible writer and director. Character studies make for some of the best films, and McDonagh has carefully constructed one of the better ones I have seen in a while. You follow Father James throughout the entire film, and as he faces struggles, you feel that struggle on an intimate level. Yes, the film required a riveting performance from Brendan Gleeson, but the sheer emotion and empathy surrounding Father James’s character is the product of a remarkable screenplay and outstanding direction.

Priest (Brendan Gleeson) in CalvaryCalvary is first and foremost a dramatic film, but the more surprising (and paramount) feature of the movie is its unique comedic tone. Black comedies are always a riot because they mix some sincerely sinister, dark hilarity with the classic aspects of an emotional drama. McDonagh adds some hilarious dialogue into the Irish parish members’ conversations with Father James, which plays out hysterically ironic considering Father James is an upstanding religious figure in the town—Father James even proceeds to curse along with his churchgoers in some scenes, revealing a more humanistic nature not usually associated with members of the clergy. Making Father James more relatable to his parish members is an intricate storytelling device that ensures the viewers will feel emphatic with his plight.

Calvary2As mentioned earlier, Calvary is a character study if there ever was one, and Brendan Gleeson (an accomplished actor with a filmography that would make even Tom Hanks jealous) gives one of the year’s most tantalizing performances. It is no wonder he won the award for Best Actor at both the Irish Film and Television Awards and the British Independent Film Awards. Gleeson definitely pulls his weight in this movie, and his performance alone is reason to check Calvary out. I was not entirely on board with Kelly Reilly’s acting in her role as Father James’s daughter Fiona, but her utterly forgettable performance is made up for thanks to a couple of memorable supporting performances. Calvary3The always-hilarious Chris O’Dowd (the Irish guy from Bridesmaids) and Aidan Gillen (Mayor/Governor Carcetti from The Wire and Lord “Littlefinger” Baelish from Game of Thrones) both provide the funnier scenes in the movie, and they definitely stick out as a highlight from this film. If you are looking for a great movie that is off the beaten path from the average American blockbuster, I highly recommend this one. Calvary is rated R for sexual references, language, brief strong violence and some drug use.

Calvary trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LGM5rq_vX4U

Academy Award nominations for Calvary:

NONE

Previous movies on the countdown of the Top 15 Films of 2014:

  1. Interstellar
  2. Gone Girl
  3. The Lego Movie