Top 15 Films of 2015, No. 5 – Ex Machina

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.

Ex7This 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.

Ex3I 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. Ex5Speaking 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.

Ex6Aside 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. Ex4Oscar 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.

Ex Machina trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XYGzRB4Pnq8

Academy Award nominations for Ex Machina:

Best Original Screenplay (Alex Garland)

Best Visual Effects (Andrew Whitehurst, Paul Norris, Mark Ardington and Sara Bennett)

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

  1. Spotlight
  2. Straight Outta Compton
  3. Kingsman: The Secret Service
  4. Steve Jobs
  5. Creed
  6. ’71
  7. Room
  8. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
  9. Beasts of No Nation
  10. The Martian

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

Fall Preview 2013: No. 10 – No. 6

6-10 Fall Preview

Hey movie fans!  I hope everyone enjoyed the introductory post to my Fall Preview 2013 a couple days ago, which included five honorable mention films set to debut in theaters in the next few months.  Today’s post reveals films No. 10 through No. 6 on my list of Top 10 most anticipated movies coming out during the fall season.  This batch includes some surefire, award-quality works of cinema, 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.

No. 10 – Prisoners

Prisoners is a film about two girls that go missing and follows a detective (Jake Gyllenhaal) and a desperate father (Hugh Jackman) as they work to track both girls down.  Even Prisonersthough the trailer presents the film as a thriller following two families trying to track down their daughters, Gyllenhaal says it is much more than meets the eye: “What’s different about this story is the idea that revenge just begets more revenge and you become a prisoner of that need to seek revenge.”  The trailer initially caught my eye with its dark, menacing demeanor, and not only was I captivated with the idea in general, I was even more fascinated with Paul Dano’s role.  He has long been a fantastic character actor, and I expect nothing but a superb supporting performance in this film from the twenty-nine-year-old star.  Prisoners is set for a theatrical release on September 20, 2013.

Director: Denis Villeneuve (Incendies)

Starring: Hugh Jackman (Les Misérables, Wolverine), Jake Gyllenhaal (Brothers, End of Watch), Paul Dano (Little Miss Sunshine, There Will Be Blood), Terrence Howard (Crash, Hustle & Flow)

Trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bpXfcTF6iVk

No. 9 – Rush

Rush tells the true story of Formula One rivals James Hunt and Niki Lauda.  At the 1976 German Grand Prix, Lauda (Daniel Brühl) was involved in a disastrous crash that nearly took his life.  The film follows his comeback and relationship with Hunt (Chris Hemsworth).  I am always a sucker for a quality sports-themed movie, and I have been aware of Rush Rushfor quite some time.  Not only is the story emotional and uplifting, but the film also features two exceptional actors playing these infamous lead roles.  Over the past couple of years, I have become a huge fan of Hemsworth’s acting abilities, highlighted in Thor, The Avengers, and The Cabin in the Woods.  I also expect big things in this film from Daniel Brühl, whose breakout performance was in my favorite film of all time, 2009’s Inglourious Basterds.  Lastly, the film features a supporting performance by one of my favorite actresses in cinema, Alexandra Maria Lara.  Needless to say, this movie has everything going for it, and I anticipate moviegoers everywhere to “rush” to the theater to see it (pun clearly intended).  Rush is set for a theatrical release on September 13, 2013.

Director: Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind, Frost/Nixon)

Starring: Chris Hemsworth (Thor, The Cabin in the Woods), Daniel Brühl (Inglourious Basterds), Olivia Wilde (The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, Drinking Buddies), Alexandra Maria Lara (Downfall, L’affaire Farewell)

Trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dA3XN54J8nY

No. 8 – Her

Her is a film about an introverted writer named Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) who is dealing with the end of a long relationship.  He decides to buy a new computer operating system named Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), and through their conversations, Theodore begins to fall in love with “Samantha.”  The first time I saw this trailer, I thought, “wow, what an oddher phoenix premise.”  But the more I watched it, the more engrossed I became with the subject matter.  Half of my intrigue dealt directly with this unique plot, but the other half came from the people involved with the film.  No matter how odd he may be as a human being, Joaquin Phoenix is still one of the single most talented actors working in Hollywood, and his involvement with the film foreshadows an excess of award praise for the movie.  I am also looking to this movie to put Spike Jonze, the director, back on the cinematic map.  He has had success directing on the silver screen in the past, with movies like Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, but his 2009 live-action adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are was clearly less than spectacular in my book.  I am hoping Her revitalizes my enjoyment of Jonze’s films.  Her is set for a theatrical release on December 18, 2013.

Director: Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Where the Wild Things Are)

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix (Walk the Line, The Master), Amy Adams (The Master, American Hustle), Scarlett Johansson (Hitchcock, Don Jon)

Trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dJTU48_yghs

No. 7 – Out of the Furnace

Out of the Furnace is a film that follows an ex-convict (Christian Bale) as he seeks revenge on a crime boss (Woody Harrelson) that he suspects has something to do with the disappearance of his missing brother (Casey Affleck).  Obviously, with a couple of the out of the furnaceheavy hitters of Hollywood in this film, specifically the always-remarkable Christian Bale, it will definitely be one to look out for come Oscar season; however, I am most eager for the film because of the director, Scott Cooper.  Cooper has only directed a single feature film before Out of the Furnace: the 2009 drama Crazy Heart, which earned Jeff Bridges the Academy Award for Best Actor.  I immediately fell in love with Crazy Heart after seeing it for the first time, and I have been eagerly awaiting Cooper’s next film for four years.  Luckily, he has come back strong with a motion picture that is already receiving a fair amount of Oscar buzz, and I cannot wait to see how his second go-round pans out.  Out of the Furnace is set for a wide theatrical release on December 6, 2013.

Director: Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart)

Starring: Christian Bale (The Dark Knight Rises, American Hustle), Casey Affleck (Gone Baby Gone, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints), Woody Harrelson (The Hunger Games, Now You See Me)

Trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ClzRVlMhU2E

No. 6 – Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn Davis is a film about an anti-social musician (Oscar Isaac) and the struggles he faces as he tries to salvage any success in his personal and professional lives.  The24-inside-llewyn-davis newest Coen Brothers film does not quite look like any other that they have created before, but my devotion to their work is unrelenting, and I believe this film will captivate not only myself, but also all movie fans alike.  For Mumford & Sons fans, this movie will be right up your alley—Marcus Mumford and Academy Award-winner T-Bone Burnett produced the folk-style music incorporated throughout the film.  Some gifted young performers appear in the film in addition to Isaac, including Mr. “Suit and Tie” himself, Justin Timberlake, and Carey Mulligan, one of the most popular and talented young actresses in the business today (not to mention she’s Marcus Mumford’s wife).  The film debuted at Cannes earlier this year, winning the second-most prestigious award available, the Grand Prix, and it was met with rave reviews—based on 23 critics reviews, the film has already garnered a 91% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  With this film, expect the same amazing product the Coen Brothers have been handing out for many years, including just the precise balance of emotion and their classic satirical humor.  Inside Llewyn Davis is set for a theatrical release on December 6, 2013.

Director: Joel and Ethan Coen (No Country for Old Men, True Grit)

Starring: Oscar Isaac (Drive, The Bourne Legacy), Carey Mulligan (Drive, The Great Gatsby), John Goodman (Argo, Flight), Garrett Hedlund (Tron: Legacy, Country Strong), Justin Timberlake (Trouble with the Curve, Runner, Runner)

Trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jl8DidbbTQM