Top 15 Films of 2015, No. 4 – Sicario

Sicario is an action crime thriller directed by Denis Villeneuve, with a screenplay by Taylor Sheridan. Set within the drug war that spreads across both sides of the US-Mexico border, Sicario follows Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), a by-the-books FBI agent who is recruited to participate on a special governmental task force for a black-ops mission behind enemy lines. Joining Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), a stress-free special agent, and Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro), a mysterious “consultant” with unknown motivations, Kate sets out on a mission that questions everything she believes in.

Sicario2This film is not about the US’s “war on drugs.” Sicario is 100% about the drug war—a meticulous difference that must be recognized. This subject matter has become more and more popular for the film industry in recent memory, but that was not always the case. In 2000, Steven Soderbergh gave us Traffic, an Oscar-winning film that broke new ground as it pertained to the drug-cartel crisis at the border; however now, in present day, this topic is seen quite often. In 2013, there was the critically acclaimed documentary Narco Cultura, which was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. And aside from Sicario, 2015 also brought us Cartel Land, a gripping documentary about vigilante groups on each side of the border fighting back against the cartels—this film earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary. I mention the recent history of this genre to highlight the fact that director Denis Villeneuve does not tackle some innovative topic with Sicario. However, this film quickly became one of my absolute favorites from the year because Villeneuve and his cinematographer (Roger Deakins) have made the trek to the well of Mexican-American drug-war films and come back with a unique perspective that is both spine tingling and visually stunning.

Sicario7Villeneuve and Deakins begin the film with incredibly horrific images, and these same types of gruesome illustrations are pervasive throughout. We see the walls in a seemingly empty house on the Arizona-Mexico border torn down to reveal tens of dead bodies; when the task force strolls through downtown Juarez, dead bodies hang from bridges. These moments set the tone for Villeneuve’s film. We as Americans have many anxieties and speculative expectations about our border relations with Mexico as they relate to the drug war—via these visceral images, Villeneuve and Deakins validate those fears. This is war; it is real, and it is not pretty! Another aspect of the film that stands out is its take on deceit and duality. Sicario5With the exception of Kate, it is difficult to pinpoint or even comprehend the characters’ motives. It is never revealed who Matt Graver even really works for—he is a “special agent,” but for who? And Alejandro is as enigmatic as they come. Villeneuve previously tackled morally duplicitous characters in Prisoners (2013), but he expands upon that examination with far more depth in Sicario. All in all, Villeneuve crafts an inimitable vision in Sicario, and cinematographer Roger Deakins paints that picture with his camera in the most instinctive ways possible.

Sicario9The acting in Sicario is absolutely first-rate. The stars are an incredibly talented trio: Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro, and Josh Brolin. Brolin portrays special agent Matt Graver, a seemingly relaxed soldier who has apparently found his calling in the drug war. When he first meets Kate, he strolls into FBI offices wearing the epitome of casual dress: flip-flops. Behind his laid-back exterior, though, is a menacing man—Matt takes his actual work serious, and if you are not on board, then in his mind, GTFO! Brolin has made a pretty solid career out of playing this type of character—the ostensible douche—but that is because he is such a talented actor. I always bought into Brolin in this role, and although his significance is laconic, his performance is adroit.

Sicario3The film’s best performances come from Blunt and del Toro. Emily Blunt is by far one of my favorite actresses (she is incredibly talented and undeniably fetching), and in 2014, she made her mark as a cinematic badass with her role as Sergeant Rita Vrataski in Edge of Tomorrow. That performance gained her action-star credibility, but her character could not be more different in Sicario. Kate Macer plays by the rules. She needs formulaic process and boundaries. She needs a clear-cut objective. Thus, Kate is in for a rude awakening when her mission with Matt and Alejandro blurs the mechanical lines she so desperately requires. In one scene, Kate asks Matt, “What’s our objective?” Matt responds, “To dramatically overreact.” This really is the task, and it makes Kate uncomfortable. In another scene, Kate discusses tracking down the leader of the cartels, to which Alejandro responds, “Every day I cross that border, people are kidnapped with or killed with his blessing. To find him would be like discovering a vaccine.” Sicario8In this moment, Kate realizes not only the gravity of her mission, but also the confliction of it—the drug cartels keep these task forces in business, so at some point they are necessary. Although I initially thought Blunt’s character was a bit too dry and unappealing, I now realize how important she is. Blunt’s performance was not showy and dramatic—the kind that will garner you Oscars. But she was calculated—effective and honest. Blunt succeeded in that endeavor. Sicario5As far as Benicio del Toro, he absolutely should have been nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. The complexity of his character required not panache, but enigma; it needed not loquaciousness, but quiet subtleties. Del Toro delivered with perfection. Two scenes stood out for me in regards to his performance. At one point in the film, there is a wildly gripping moment during a traffic jam on the drive back to the US from Mexico. As the tension builds, Alejandro is at the center of the commotion. Benicio del Toro thrived in this moment. Additionally, the climax of the film (which I will not spoil here) features del Toro at his best—that one scene makes the entire viewing experience worth it! Sicario is rated R for strong violence, grisly images, and language.

Sicario trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G8tlEcnrGnU

Academy Award nominations for Sicario:

Best Cinematography (Roger Deakins)

Best Original Score (Jóhann Jóhannsson)

Best Sound Editing (Alan Robert Murray)

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

  1. Ex Machina
  2. Spotlight
  3. Straight Outta Compton
  4. Kingsman: The Secret Service
  5. Steve Jobs
  6. Creed
  7. ’71
  8. Room
  9. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
  10. Beasts of No Nation
  11. The Martian
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Top 15 Films of the Year – Honorable Mentions (16-20)

This Is The End

Now that the Oscars season is officially back into action, I have once again compiled a list of my favorite fifteen films from the previous year.  Over the next few weeks, I will be revealing each of the movies on my “Top 15 Films of 2013” list, but today I am announcing the five “Honorable Mention” films that were nearly worthy enough for inclusion of my year-end list.  Now, I present you with the five films that just missed cracking my Top 15 list:

No. 16 – This Is The End

This Is The End is a comedy film written and directed by Seth Rogen and long-time collaborator Evan Goldberg.  The film features a number of Rogen’s film buddies, includingThis Is The End 2 James Franco, Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride, and Craig Robinson, playing fictional versions of themselves as the disastrous apocalypse takes place.  The movie was based on a short film called Jay and Seth versus the Apocalypse (2007), and its feature-length adaptation was most definitely one of my favorites from 2013.  It was such a simple concept with a pretty distinctive plotline, and the performances by the actors were ridiculously humorous, keeping me entertained the entire time.  A vast amount of celebrities make hilarious cameos in the film, such as Rihanna and Channing Tatum, but my favorite was Emma Watson—but then again, I will support anything she is in!!  If you have not seen this movie yet, do society a favor and get to your nearest Redbox ASAP!!!  Okay, maybe that is extreme, but still, you will not want to miss this one.

No. 17 – August: Osage County

August: Osage County is a film directed by John Wells with a screenplay by Tracy Letts.  Letts adapted this film, a tale about an Oklahoma family reuniting after the passing of a August Osage Countyrelative, from his very own award-winning Broadway play by the same name.  My viewing of the film was a case of first impression because I had never seen the play, but I greatly enjoyed the dark, twisted storyline of the dysfunctional Weston family.  The film featured some scenes that will most definitely live in my memory for a long time, particularly the family dinner scene and the scene where Julia Roberts cusses out her sister and mother over a plate of fish.  Speaking of Roberts, she did an absolutely phenomenal job in her role as Barbara, and that performance was one of the highlights for me; furthermore, Meryl Streep, the greatest living silver screen actress, lit the film on fire with her wildly erratic behavior as Violet, the pill-popping matriarch of the Weston family.  The combination of a dark, but amusing script and some fantastic acting performances is the reason this was one of the better films of 2013.

No. 18 – Rush

Rush is a film directed by Ron Howard with a screenplay written by Peter Morgan about the infamous Formula 1 rivalry between racers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and NikiRush Lauda (Daniel Brühl) during the 1976 racing season.  As a sports fan, I am always on board to watch a sports-related film, but rarely do I come across one that is made with such an intricate filmmaking style as Howard’s Rush.  The sound was amazing, the cinematography was wildly intense, and the acting was top-notch.  I have rapidly become a big fan of Chris Hemsworth, and in this movie, he truly spreads his wings and establishes himself as a rising dramatic talent in Hollywood as the real-life James Hunt.  But my favorite performance from the film was Daniel Brühl’s role as Niki Lauda.  If you watch any interviews with the real-life Lauda on YouTube, you will see that Brühl absolutely nailed the accent.  His portrayal of the Formula 1 driver was spot-on and award-worthy, and I was relatively disappointed that he was snubbed for a Best Supporting Actor nomination.  I bought into everything on the screen when I watched Rush, and I would highly recommend this film.

No. 19 – Mud

Mud is a coming-of-age drama written and directed by established indie-filmmaker Jeff Nichols.  The movie is about Mud (Matthew McConaughey), a criminal on the run, and hisMUD-13103-PS.JPG friendship with a couple of 14-year-old boys (Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland) who happen upon Mud’s hideout on a small island in the Mississippi River.  Matthew McConaughey had probably the best acting year of any performer in Hollywood, and although he is receiving widespread acclaim for his role in Dallas Buyers Club, his outstanding performance as the mysterious Mud is definitely not one to overlook.  Even with solid performances from McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, and Sam Shepard, Mud is highlighted by a breakout performance from Tye Sheridan.  Although he was just 14-years-old during production, Sheridan gave an exceptionally mature performance in his role as Ellis.  Even though Sheridan did not receive any major award nominations, his performance was the best part of Mud, and I expect great things from him in the future.

No. 20 – Prisoners

Prisoners is a thriller directed by Denis Villeneuve and written by Aaron Guzikowski about the search to find two young girls that are abducted from their neighborhood in PrisonersPennsylvania.  Guzikowski’s script is dark and menacing, and each actor makes the most of the mystifying plot.  There are some first-rate supporting performances from Terrence Howard, Jake Gyllenhaal, Maria Bello, Melissa Leo, and Paul Dano, but Hugh Jackman steals the show with an extraordinary performance as a father willing to go to all lengths to find his daughter.  Last year, I voted for Jackman as Best Actor for his role in Les Misérables, and once again this year, he gave a performance that I truly felt was worthy of acclaim.  Even though he was ultimately not nominated for any major awards, he still gave a brilliant performance, and Prisoners is a frightening film you do not want to miss.

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