The Best Films of 2015 – Honorable Mentions (16-20)

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Although I love writing about all of the major Academy Awards categories, my favorite part of this blog is revealing my favorite films from the past year. Over the next few weeks, I will announce each of the movies on my “Top 15 Films of 2015” list; however, today I start by announcing my “Honorable Mentions.” Therefore, I present you with the five films that just missed out on making my list of the Top 15 Films of 2015:

No. 16 – Legend

Legend 1Legend is a British crime thriller written and directed by Brian Helgeland. The film tells the true-life story of Reggie and Ronald Kray, identical twin brothers who headed the preeminent organized-crime gang in London’s East End in the 1950s and 60s. Full disclosure: the story and direction as a whole lose focus two-thirds through the film, which is what prevents this movie from being much higher on my list of 2015’s best films. However, Legend still stands tall as a worthy leader of my Honorable Mentions because of Tom Hardy and Oscar-nominated cinematographer Dick Pope. Tom Hardy plays Reggie Kray. Legend 2Tom Hardy plays Ronald Kray. That’s right—the most talented actor in world cinema leads the film in both main roles. His acting alone is reason to see this movie. Reggie can be violent and dangerous, but he has a softer, more romantic side. Ronald, on the other hand, is the walking example of mental instability, and his violent side is worn much more openly on his sleeves. Hardy’s performance is one of the more amazing things I have ever witnessed in film. You truly forget early on that Hardy is playing both roles—you connect with these characters on a completely individualized basis, as if two actors pulled this off. This visceral exposition was inherently complex, and Dick Pope deserves mounds of credit for making it happen from a cinematography perspective. I highly recommend this movie because of Tom Hardy alone, and it is additionally worth your time to read this article about how, technically, the double-performance by Hardy was created.

No. 17 – Southpaw

Southpaw 1Southpaw is a boxing drama directed by Antoine Fuqua, with a screenplay by Kurt Sutter. The film follows world champion boxer Billy Hope as he attempts to get his career back on track after seemingly losing everything in life: his wife is killed in a tragic shooting, and his daughter is stripped from Billy’s care by Child Protective Services. I only saw Southpaw recently, and since I saw Creed beforehand, my expectations for Gyllenhaal’s boxing movie were not high—I mean, how could there be TWO great boxing movies in one year? Boy, was I wrong. Creed (which will come up much later on my blog…wink, wink) and Southpaw are vastly different films, each with its own identity.

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Gyllenhaal nailed his leading role, even if the character appeared a bit too dark for me at times. Sutter’s story was fantastic and hard-hitting, which comes as no surprise after I found out that he created FX’s critically acclaimed Sons of Anarchy. I have been incredibly disappointed with Antoine Fuqua’s directorial efforts since Training Day (a top-20 film for me of all time), so I am thrilled to see him back to making remarkable movies. Although I wish I could have seen Eminem in the lead role (the story was based on his life and the rapper was attached to the film for years), I was glad he still crept into the finished product: one of the best scenes features Gyllenhaal training while Eminem’s “Phenomenal” blasts through the speakers—it was glorious!

No. 18 – The Gift

The Gift 2The Gift is a psychological thriller written, directed, and produced by Joel Edgerton. The film follows a married couple, Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall), as their lives are turned upside down with the introduction of Gordo (Joel Edgerton), a mysterious acquaintance from Simon’s past. This movie went decently under the radar throughout its limited release towards the end of summer, and I was lucky to have come across it—it was one of the more surprising film experiences of 2015 for me. I have always enjoyed Edgerton as an actor, but my respect for his acting abilities has wildly intensified after seeing this movie. The Gift 1The character evokes the epitome of creepy-crawly emotions, and Edgerton nailed every nuanced look and gesture. What really surprised me was how impressive Edgerton is as a filmmaker—plus, this is his directorial debut. Wow, what a way to start off with a bang! I have seen The Gift twice at this point (once in theaters, once at home), and with a second view, the thrills and chills were still aplenty. Need a good Redbox suggestion? Here you go. You’re welcome!

No. 19 – Black Mass

Black Mass 1Black Mass is a crime drama directed by Scott Cooper, with a screenplay by Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk. The film follows the true-life events surrounding one of the most notorious American mobsters: Boston-native James “Whitey” Bulger. If you like gangster movies, then this is a must-see; Cooper has created a worthy entry into one of film’s best genres. The direction is great, the story is well crafted, and the movie is thrilling, but the standout feature of Black Mass is the ensemble cast (and the performances that flow therefrom). As I pointed out in my Fall Preview in August, Johnny Depp is (despite his many flaws) at his core an incredibly talented performer—all of that talent is on full display in this movie. Black Mass 2There are also wonderful supporting performances from Benedict Cumberbatch, Rory Cochrane, Kevin Bacon, Jesse Plemons, Peter Sarsgaard, Adam Scott, Dakota Johnson, and Corey Stoll. However, my favorite part of the film was Joel Edgerton as FBI agent John Connolly. Edgerton’s character had by far the biggest character arc, and Edgerton knocked every aspect of that journey out of the park. For that performance alone, Black Mass is one you need to check out.

No. 20 – Bridge of Spies

Bridge of Spies 1Bridge of Spies is a Cold War drama directed by Steven Spielberg, with a screenplay written by Matt Charman and the Coen brothers (Joel and Ethan). The film follows the true-life story of James Donavon (Tom Hanks), an American attorney tasked with defending Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). Additionally, Donavon helps the CIA negotiate for and assist in the exchange of Rudolf Abel for Francis Gary Powers, an American spy-plane pilot captured by the Soviets. No one is happier than I am to see a Spielberg movie among the ranks of my favorite films from the past year. Bridge of Spies 2Movies like Jaws, E.T., Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, and Catch Me If You Can are incredible, absolutely incredible. However, recent films like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, War Horse, and Lincoln forced me into a state of lost hope for Spiely as a filmmaker. I included Bridge of Spies on my Fall Preview because I had high hopes for the movie, considering Spielberg employed the Coen brothers to write the script. The Coen brothers are some of the most masterful screenwriters in the industry, and they brought their A-game to this movie. With a superb script, vintage directing, and skilled acting by Hanks and Rylance, Bridge of Spies turned out to be one of the year’s best—obviously the Academy agreed, as it nominated the film for six Oscars, including Best Picture.

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Fall Preview 2015: No. 10 – No. 6

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In this post, I reveal films No. 10 through No. 6 on the list of my Top 10 most anticipated movies coming out during the fall season.  This batch includes some potential heavy hitters, and if you are looking for a great movie to go see in theaters in the next few months, this post will give you some top-notch options among the films that look most poised for success.

No. 10 – Steve Jobs

According to Entertainment Weekly, Steve Jobs follows its titular character, one of the most revolutionary tech giants of all time, behind the scenes of three iconic product launches: “The Macintosh, Jobs’ failed NeXT computer, and the first iMac.” In 2013, Ashton Kutcher played the Apple founder in the blatantly average Jobs. That boring biographical piece is by far the cause for my unconditional anticipation of Steve Jobs. This is due to the fact that the 2013 film proved that there is an amazing story waiting to be unearthed about the visionary behind the iPod, but it simply needs the film industry’s best and brightest to do the tale justice. In 2015, that is exactly what we get!

Steve Jobs 2Sitting in the director’s chair is Danny Boyle, the genius behind Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire, and 127 Hours. Leading the cast in the role of Jobs is the rapidly up-and-coming cinematic great Michael Fassbender. And penning the screenplay is one of my favorite writers in the game, Aaron Sorkin (the writer behind A Few Good Men, Charlie Wilson’s War, The Social Network, and Moneyball). With this incredible team pulling the strings in the newest incarnation of Steve Jobs’s life story, it is destined for Oscar nominations. Steve Jobs is set for a theatrical release on October 9, 2015.

Director: Danny Boyle (127 Hours, Slumdog Millionaire)

Starring: Michael Fassbender (Slow West, Frank), Kate Winslet (The Divergent Series: Insurgent, Divergent), Seth Rogen (The Interview, Neighbors), and Jeff Daniels (Dumb and Dumber To, Looper)

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aEr6K1bwIVs

No. 9 – Beasts of No Nation

Beasts of No Nation tells the vexing story of Agu (Abraham Attah), a young boy in West Africa who watches as his family is ripped apart from him by terrorizing militants. After, Agu himself is recruited by the leader (Idris Elba) of an army of rebels, comprised of mostly child soldiers. This movie appears to tell a gripping story of a tense and controversial subject matter, and it seemingly has all of the parts to make it a masterpiece: Cary Joji Fukunaga wrote and directed, and Golden Globe-winning actor Idris Elba plays the devilish commander. For all of you True Detective fans out there (I have only seen a few episodes of season 1, but from what I gathered, it was amazing), Fukunaga directed season 1. Take his direction and mix it with Elba, one of my favorite actors in the business, and I think Beasts has what it takes to succeed.

Beasts of No Nation 2One of the most interesting facts about this movie is that it is Netflix’s very first original feature film. With Netflix already becoming known for its critically claimed original programming (House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black, and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), I am incredibly pumped for its journey into original film production—Beasts debuts on Netflix’s streaming service on the same day as its theatrical release. Speaking to Entertainment Weekly, Fukunaga stated: “It’s really hard to deny the power of 66 million subscribers. If the audience can have an emotional experience with my movie, then that’s everything I want.” Beasts of No Nation is set for a theatrical and Netflix Instant Stream release on October 16, 2015.

Director: Cary Joji Fukunaga (Jane Eyre, Sin Nombre)

Starring: Idris Elba (Avengers: Age of Ultron, The Gunman) and Ama K. Abebrese (Double-Cross, Ties That Bind)

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oRsaclO0VbU

No. 8 – Joy

To keep it simple, Joy is about the inventor of the Miracle Mop, Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence). Treating cinematic visionary David O. Russell’s story to a more in-depth and honest description, it is an epic story about a 30-year span in a woman’s life, charting her ups and downs, successes and struggles. Russell again collaborates in Joy with the trio of superstars (Lawrence, Robert De Niro, and Bradley Cooper) he has featured in each of his last two films (American Hustle and Silver Linings Playbook). Take these established relationships and throw in the fact that Russell’s last three films have all been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, and movie fans worldwide surely have a cocktail for genius.

Joy 2Speaking of David O. Russell’s professional relationships with his recurring stars, my interest in this film is most evidenced by Jennifer Lawrence in the leading role. Silver Linings Playbook did feature her as one of the two main co-stars, but the film was mostly about Cooper’s character. Subsequently, American Hustle featured a hilarious supporting performance by J-Law, but it was Amy Adams, Christian Bale, and Cooper taking up the film’s bulk. Therefore, I am beyond stoked to see one of my favorite actresses own the screen time. Lawrence knows her relationship with Russell is special, telling Entertainment Weekly, “Working on his sets is like the Olympics of acting. Everything moves so fast. It’s like watching someone do a giant abstract painting or sculpture and you go, ‘Where is this going?’ And then all of a sudden you’re like, ‘Oh, it’s a Pegasus. It’s beautiful!” Joy is set for a theatrical release on December 25, 2015.

Director: David O. Russell (American Hustle, Silver Linings Playbook)

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Parts 1&2, Serena), Robert De Niro (The Intern, Grudge Match), and Bradley Cooper (Aloha, American Sniper)

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SN4MLMHET7w

No. 7 – The Martian

The Martian follows astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon), as his crew mistakenly takes him for dead during a storm on Mars. Stranded on the red planet alone without enough resources to last him more than a few weeks, Watney must defy the odds to ever make it back to Earth alive. Ridley Scott directs this sci-fi thriller, and that is all I need to know to get on board. Scott is the creative innovator behind Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator, and Prometheus, and with an interstellar (pun intended) cast at his disposal, his every cinematic desire will surely play out masterfully on the screen. Although I really did like Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar last year, it was a bit too Inception-esque with its utterly complex structure. From the looks of Scott’s The Martian in its trailer, this film looks to still provide the stunning visual prowess akin to that in Interstellar, while connecting more with the audience.

The Martian 2Scott’s ensemble cast in The Martian is most definitely one of its most impressive features. Matt Damon is obviously an award-winning star, but I am most looking forward to seeing Jessica Chastain. Those familiar with my blog and opinions on film in general know that I have long contended that Chastain is the most skilled actress in the industry. Just like her role in the aforementioned Interstellar, I expect big things from such a Hollywood heavyweight. I am also intrigued by the star power of this film’s supporting cast: the forever fearful of trains Kate Mara (House of Cards anyone?), the always hilarious, but I imagine soon-to-be dramatic Kristen Wiig, and the Oscar-nominated Chiwetel Ejiofor. A cast this strong is likely to command every last second of the film. The Martian is set for a wide theatrical release on October 2, 2015.

Director: Ridley Scott (Exodus: Gods and Kings, The Counselor)

Starring: Matt Damon (Interstellar, The Monuments Men), Jessica Chastain (A Most Violent Year, Interstellar), Kristen Wiig (The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Welcome to Me), Jeff Daniels (Dumb and Dumber To, Looper), Michael Peña (Ant-Man, Fury), Kate Mara (Fantastic Four, Transcedence), and Chiwetel Ejiofor (Z for Zachariah, 12 Years a Slave)

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ue4PCI0NamI

No. 6 – Legend

In the true-life biopic Legend, set in London during the 1960s, Tom Hardy plays both twin brothers Reggie and Ron Kray, two of the most renowned gangsters in the world. Tom Hardy + Tom Hardy = double the Tom Hardy. Boom! I am in! Just like my devoted contention that Jessica Chastain is the most talented actress in the game, I likewise believe Hardy is the single greatest actor in all of world cinema. He has proven his worth as the titular character in the brutally violent Bronson, the demented supervillain Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, the emotionally torn Ivan in last year’s Locke, and the legendary master of madness in this year’s Mad Max: Fury Road. He is the ultimate craftsman, and Legend director Brian Helgeland immediately took notice of Hardy’s seriousness behind the scenes, telling Entertainment Weekly, “he takes it to a point I’ve never seen—just the commitment and the focus. There’s no gag reel.”

Legend 2Aside from the actual casting of Hardy in Legend, I am fascinated by the fact that he plays both of the Kray twins. Yes, Armie Hammer did a wonderful job as both Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss in 2010’s The Social Network, but Legend is pitched as a badass action adventure, which implicates a completely unprecedented challenge for an actor to take on two roles. While Helgeland initially wanted Hardy to portray only Reggie, the character with the emotional love story at his core, Hardy was smitten with the challenge of playing Ron, the gay and much more outgoing of the twins. Helgeland told EW that “from the time Tom sat down, all he was talking about was Ron. At the end, Tom said, ‘I’ll give you Reggie if you give me Ron.’” The rest was history, and I cannot wait to see the result. Legend is set for a theatrical release on October 2, 2015.

Director: Brian Helgeland (42, The Order)

Starring: Tom Hardy (The Revenant, Mad Max: Fury Road), Emily Browning (Pompeii, God Help the Girl), David Thewlis (The Theory of Everything, The Fifth Estate), and Chazz Palminteri (Henry & Me, Yonkers Joe)

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yI3v6KfR9Mw

Top 15 Films of 2014, No. 8 – American Sniper

American Sniper - BP

Sniper6American Sniper is a biographical war drama directed by Clint Eastwood with a screenplay, adapted from the book of the same name, by Jason Hall. The film tells the true-life story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), America’s most deadly sniper in history (160 confirmed kills, according to the United States Department of Defense). During four tours in Iraq, Kyle’s marksmanship quickly earns him the nickname “Legend” among his American comrades. All the while, however, his ever-growing reputation of being the most lethal sniper has garnered the close attention of the enemy, and the insurgents have put a price on Kyle’s head. With a budding family back home that misses him and a war that demands his contribution, Kyle must reconcile what is most important in his life.

Sniper4More so than I ever could have expected, American Sniper has been met with a challenging combination of critical/box-office acclaim and social controversy. Some critics have labeled it merely “right-wing” propaganda, Michael Moore has spoken out against snipers in general, and even Seth Rogen caused a stir. Everyone seems to have an extreme political/religious bias about the film’s depiction of Kyle’s life and legacy, and I do not dare allow this blog to become a forum for my political thoughts in this heated debate. I will only say this—it was a harrowing tale of war and the consequences that flow from it, but it made me proud to be an American. I appreciate every single soldier that has ever and will ever devote his or her life to protect our freedom.

Sniper3Now, on to the analysis of the film. Although Clint Eastwood has had some missteps in his career as a director, American Sniper was most definitely a journey back to the top for the 84-year-old Hollywood staple. In 2012, Zero Dark Thirty became (in my opinion) the gold standard for modern warfare films. It was realistic, in the most daunting and terrorizing ways, and the lead performance by Jessica Chastain (the best actress in Hollywood) elevated it to an unreachable height. The closest thing I have ever seen in my life to that of Zero Dark Thirty’s cinematic pragmatism regarding war is American Sniper (although Zero Dark Thirty is still a superior film). It is a story of a real-life figure (told through his own eyes), and Bradley Cooper delivers the single greatest performance of his career. That says a lot about where Cooper ranks among the modern greats considering his Best Actor nomination for his portrayal of Chris Kyle is now his third consecutive Oscars nomination. Every year, it seems Bradley Cooper becomes better and better, and in this movie, he pounces on the opportunity to be hailed as the most premier American actor on the circuit. With veteran direction from Eastwood and an acting performance for the ages by Cooper, the valiant story of this American hero is thrust upon our social conscience in a way that evokes all of the most patriotic emotions out of us—it is the textbook manifestation of wrapping yourself up in the Stars and Stripes.

American Sniper, a box-office smash that has accumulated over $361 million in worldwide theater receipts, is a movie that will stay with me for a long time, and it is fully justified in receiving a spot among my Top 10 films of 2014. After viewing it in theaters, I knew this movie would be among the two or three best films of 2014. But it ended up at No. 8. Why? Sniper2Sadly, it is because of that fake-baby scene that I am sure you are all familiar with at this point, whether you have seen the movie or not. In my conversations with friends and family, most are astounded at how a single scene like that can automatically drop the film’s ranking on my list so drastically. My reasoning is simple: something like that in this day in age (with a $60 million budget) is absolutely unacceptable. Sure, I understand the predicament that the filmmakers were innocently plunged into—the first baby had a fever that day and the back-up baby was a no-show. But you are Clint F’n Eastwood—get another baby!!! Stop production for half of a day and track down a baby—ANY BABY! By cutting corners to get the scene shot (i.e., settling for a plastic doll), Eastwood and the entire crew of filmmakers on set bastardized an otherwise classic picture. In 20 years, nearly everything about this movie will withstand the test of time and continue to dazzle its viewers; yet, that scene will still be there, and it will stand as a reminder of the cringe-worthy choice that the filmmakers made. Maybe you do not agree with me. Understandable. But watching Bradley Cooper blatantly moving his thumb in this scene (click now to see for yourself) to move the baby’s arm in order to make it look like it is an authentic human being will stick in my mind for ALL of the wrong reasons. Bad move, Clint.

Sniper5All baby criticisms aside, Cooper and his unbelievable portrayal of Kyle outweighs any mistake that the filmmakers could have made, and this is definitely a film that will go down in history as one of the most epic tales of true-life heroism during an American war. American Sniper is rated R for strong and disturbing war violence, and language throughout including some sexual references.

American Sniper trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5bP1f_1o-zo

Academy Award nominations for American Sniper:

Best Picture (Clint Eastwood, Robert Lorenz, Andrew Lazar, Bradley Cooper, and Peter Morgan, producers)

Best Actor (Bradley Cooper)

Best Adapted Screenplay (Jason Hall)

Best Film Editing (Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach)

Best Sound Editing (Alan Robert Murray and Bub Asman)

Best Sound Mixing (John Reitz, Gregg Rudloff, and Walt Martin)

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

  1. Guardians of the Galaxy
  2. Birdman
  3. Fury
  4. Calvary
  5. Interstellar
  6. Gone Girl
  7. The Lego Movie