Top 15 Films of 2014, No. 4 – Starred Up

Star3Starred Up is a British prison drama directed by David Mackenzie with a screenplay by Jonathan Asser. The film follows 19-year-old Eric (Jack O’Connell), a violent criminal who has recently been “starred up,” a phrase that refers to early transfers of juvenile criminals from Her Majesty’s Young Offender Institution to an adult prison. Eric quickly makes enemies within his new confines, and his circumstances are further complicated by the fact that his cell is in the same wing as his estranged father, Neville (Ben Mendelsohn). The only hope Eric has to turn his life around is in the form of a volunteer psychotherapist who runs an anger management class for inmates. Although this class offers him a new path, Eric is still torn between the prison’s corruption and politics, and Starred Up chronicles his fight for his life.

Star4It is no secret that I am an avid fan of British dramas. There is something so raw and honest about cinema across the pond, and in Starred Up, the unabashed, candid storytelling technique is at its finest. I was not familiar with director David Mackenzie previously, but from this film alone, it is clearly evident that the man can direct with self-assurance and shamelessness. Although he does a spectacular job in his role as director, I am more smitten with the work of the film’s cinematographer and screenwriter. I am familiar with Michael McDonough’s cinematography, as he performed the same role on one of my favorite films from 2010, Winter’s Bone (Jennifer Lawrence’s breakout performance). In Starred Up, like in Winter’s Bone, the photography is incredibly untreated and unpretentious, a masterful technique for a pragmatic drama such as this. The prison appears small (and the cells even smaller), and McDonough captures these packed and pinched physical aspects of the environment remarkably. Despite the claustrophobic milieu, the characters still have plenty of room to breathe and interact on camera, and this is the result of adroit cinematography.

Star5In a film with great direction and skilled cinematography, the standout behind-the-scenes feature is Jonathan Asser’s screenplay. Asser brought his real-life experiences to this script, having himself volunteered as a psychotherapist at Wandsworth in Southwest London (the largest adult-male prison in Her Majesty’s Prison Service); therefore, Asser’s debut screenplay is packed with first-hand observation of the nuances and complexities of these violent, but vulnerable prisoners. If anything in this film is brutally straightforward, it is Asser’s tale of prison life in Britain.

Star2There are many aspects of the prison life in Britain that are examined in Starred Up, but the most distinctive and melodramatic (but not heavy-handedly) feature of the film is the exploration of the strained relationship between a father and his son. This plot point truly emanates the old adage of the apple not falling far from the tree—this angle allows Starred Up to investigate the inner workings of an all-too-familiar product of a father’s crimes being repeated by his progeny. This storytelling contrivance is expounded upon by means of two methodically audacious acting performances, provided by Jack O’Connell and Ben Mendelsohn. O’Connell, who in late 2014 became known to American audiences as the lead actor in Angelina Jolie’s WWII biopic Unbroken, brilliantly portrays Eric as a troubled, aggressive youth following in his father’s unlawful footsteps. In the early scenes of Eric being processed and those of his initial interactions with his fellow inmates, O’Connell fiercely evokes Eric’s badass attitude—he is an arrogant punk, but he backs it up, having a penchant for defending himself viciously. But once Eric starts attending the anger management classes, the therapist starts to—piece by piece—crack open Eric’s hidden vulnerabilities. The root of those weaknesses: Eric’s father Neville. Star1Mendelsohn portrays Neville in the scratchiest and abrasive manner possible, and this is the perfect manifestation of a man who has lived the hardest of lives. Given Neville’s high ranking within the prison’s gang politics, he is in a much more powerful position than his son. And despite that Eric does not initially feel intimidated by his father, that inherent familial power struggle is seemingly behind Eric’s susceptibilities. This completely distorted relationship between Eric and Neville gives both actors plenty to work with from an emotional standpoint, and they execute their respective roles with ease.

I wish this movie could have reached a broader audience in America because it is the kind of film that deserves universal acclaim from the masses. In fact, both O’Connell and Mendelsohn’s performances are more worthy of Oscar recognition than some of the actual nominees in the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor categories. Starred Up is currently streaming on Amazon Prime, so if you have this service, utilize it for this movie—it is definitely worth it!! Starred Up is unrated.

Starred Up trailer:

Academy Award nominations for Starred Up:


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

  1. The Theory of Everything
  2. Boyhood
  3. Blue Ruin
  4. American Sniper
  5. Guardians of the Galaxy
  6. Birdman
  7. Fury
  8. Calvary
  9. Interstellar
  10. Gone Girl
  11. The Lego Movie

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:

Academy Award nominations for Calvary:


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

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