Top 10 Films of 2016, No. 2 – Hell or High Water

Hell or High Water is a western film directed by David Mackenzie, with an original screenplay by Taylor Sheridan.  The film follows Toby (Chris Pine) and his ex-con brother Tanner (Ben Foster) as they carry out a series of bank robberies in West Texas in an effort to scrape together enough funds to save their family’s ranch. However, two Texas Rangers, led by Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), are right on the Howard brothers’ heels the entire way.

To be completely honest, until Hell or High Water was released theatrically in August, I had barely any knowledge about what the film was even about—if it were not for my favorite film podcast reviewing the movie shortly after its release, I would not have even been able to give someone a cursory description of the plot. I did not end up seeing the film until December, but when I finally did, I tweeted this:

If my No. 1 film did not exist this year, Hell or High Water would have clearly ended up with my coveted “Best Film of the Year” moniker—the movie is exhilarating. Hell or High Water is directed by David Mackenzie, who is a familiar face on my list: Two years ago, his unbelievably raw prison drama Starred Up ranked as my No. 4 film of the year. This year, Mackenzie is back with an even better movie. Just as with Starred Up, his knack for shameless filmmaking is clearly evident here, and his direction is self-assured and impeccable.

Helping Mackenzie along the way is Taylor Sheridan’s perfect (yes, perfect) script. Sheridan’s screenwriting debut was in last year’s Sicario, another of my favorite films, and in Hell or High Water, he has continued to tap into his screenwriting strengths, penning a script that is both emotionally visceral and distinctively enigmatic. Hell or High Water is the single greatest modern western since the Coen Brothers’ Best Picture-winner No Country for Old Men (2007), and to be honest, I actually like this one better (which seems almost sinful to say, considering No Country for Old Men is utterly amazing)—Hell or High Water is a much broader and deeper character study, causing you to be emotionally invested into the back-stories of nearly all of its characters. Needless to say, Mackenzie and Sheridan have crafted a classic in the western genre.

To top it all off, Hell of High Water is masterfully acted. Chris Pine has made his mark in Hollywood as the current Captain Kirk in the reboot of the Star Trek franchise, but in this film, he proves that his acting chops are worthy of broader critical praise. His character devises the plan to rob local banks in order to “stick it to the man,” as those very banks threatened to take his family’s ranch. In carrying out these robberies, Pine’s Toby is focused and resolute. This is much the opposite of his brother Tanner, brilliantly played by Ben Foster. In films like Alpha Dog, 3:10 to Yuma, and 2016’s The Program, Foster has long proved that he is an incredibly talented artist; however, he gives the best performance of his career as Tanner Howard. Tanner is a former convict who has been recently paroled, and the idea of risking his freedom for more crimes does not faze him one bit—in fact, Tanner embraces it. While Toby is more concentrated during the robberies, Tanner is a bit more erratic. In one scene, while the brothers are taking a break from their robberies to eat lunch at a local diner, Tanner walks across the street to single-handedly rob another bank, risking the entire operation. Tanner is intense and unpredictable, and Foster portrays these characteristics with precision.

However, as can be expected, the show is stolen by a vintage performance by Oscar-winner Jeff Bridges as Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton. Bridges is clearly one of the best to ever do it, and he channels that first-rate acting in Hell or High Water. Closing in on his retirement, Marcus spends much of his time joking with his partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham), and contemplating life. However, when it comes to chasing the Howard brothers across West Texas, Marcus is as focused as ever. The character is methodical and precise in his investigation, and Bridges plays it beautifully—this is definitely one of those performances I will remember for a long time. Hell or High Water is rated R for some strong violence, language throughout and brief sexuality.

Hell or High Water trailer:

Academy Award nominations for Hell of High Water:

Best Picture (Carla Hacken and Julie Yorn)

Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Jeff Bridges)

Best Original Screenplay (Taylor Sheridan)

Best Film Editing (Jake Roberts)

Previous movies on the countdown of my Top 10 Films of 2016: 

  1. Arrival
  2. Moonlight
  3. Lion
  4. O.J.: Made in America
  5. La La Land
  6. Fences
  7. Zootopia
  8. Nocturnal Animals

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