Top 15 Films of 2015, No. 14 – Beasts of No Nation

Beasts of No Nation is a war film written, directed, and shot by Cary Joji Fukunaga. The screenplay is adapted from the 2005 book of the same name by author Uzodinma Iweala. The film tells the 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 into an army of rebels, comprised mostly of child soldiers, by the vicious leader Commandant.

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This film is a harrowing tale of war in an unnamed West African country that is shot through a perspective that is gripping and altogether unrelenting. Cary Joji Fukunaga, the mastermind behind the first season of HBO’s True Detective, is absolutely brilliant in his execution of this film. Although I have not read the source material, the research I have done indicates that the dialogue in it is linguistically stunning and loquaciously powerful. Therefore, it is patently obvious Fukunaga made sure to utilize this style in his script, as evidenced by Agu’s voiceover depictions of the brutally realistic scenes controlling his life at any given moment throughout the film.

ITALY VENICE FILM FESTIVAL 2015

Fukunaga’s direction is as good as any you’ll see, getting the most out of his actors, scene after scene after scene. The fact that newcomer Abraham Attah conveys one of the most raw but affecting performances of the year is due in large part to Fukunaga, who clearly succeeded in bringing out all of the potential Attah had deep down to give. Fukunaga’s work on the film is exquisite, but considering he took over seven years to create this film, his hard work paid off in a big way.

Beasts6The stars of the film are its main actors: Idris Elba as The Commandant and Abraham Attah as Agu. The character arcs for both Agu and Commandant are incredibly diverse, but they both share a like-transformation in many ways, too. Agu watches his family murdered by African militants. In a matter of moments, his innocence is stripped from him. He runs terrified, sobbing all the while. What was seen cannot be undone, and those experiences shaped who Agu would become throughout the rest of the film. When he meets Commandant and his “warriors” (which we quickly learn are more like “war criminals”), he finds natural replacements for those that he lost. Beasts5The brooding Commandant becomes his father figure. The young Strika, a boy who does not speak, becomes his new best friend. In this new circle, Agu finds trust again. And it is that trust that convinces Agu it is okay to kill and terrorize upon Commandant’s orders. Atrocities are committed, but luckily the film never loses focus of the fact that these soldiers are still, at their very core, children—Attah’s brilliant performance delineates Agu’s complex journey with dynamism.

Beasts4Idris Elba’s Commandant, however, is the best part of the film for me. Stringer Bell (Elba’s character from HBO’s The Wire) and DCI John Luther (his character from the BBC series Luther) are two of my all-time favorite TV characters, and a lot of that has to do with Elba’s first-class acting abilities. Few actors can give you chills with simply a look—Idris Elba can and does often, especially in Beasts. When we meet The Commandant, we view him just as Agu does—a charismatic, but menacing leader. Beasts 3He is scary, but he is caring; he is sickening, yet he is insightful. Commandant is a larger-than-life figure, but the film hits its emotional stride when we learn that this character is simply a pawn in another’s game of chess. I felt for Commandant at times. In masterful, although rare, instances, we see a vulnerable side to Commandant; a side not readily accessible to his fellow soldiers. Yet at other times, I despised him—he is a predator and a master manipulator. No matter the point in the movie and no matter the circumstances, Idris Elba portrays his character so perfectly that you have to feel something, whether good or bad. Elba’s performances require a unique gravitas, and in Beasts of No Nation, he shows us what power can do to a man.

Beasts7Beasts of No Nation is movie-streaming giant Netflix’s first venture into the exclusive distribution of feature films. Although it was a bit odd to watch this movie on its worldwide release date from the confines of my own personal couch, I liked the experience. I still value seeing a lot of films in theaters because I believe that is the medium by which we were always meant to see them. For many comedies or basic dramas, a home viewing as an initial viewing is perfectly fine for me. But war and action films still have a place in the theater. So although I applaud Netflix’s endeavor into exclusive film distribution, and although I believe this is the direction the industry is headed into some time in the near future, it cannot solely replace a film lover’s live, in-seat experience at his or her local movie theater. Beasts of No Nation is not rated.

Beasts of No Nation trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2xb9Ty-1frw

Academy Award nominations for Beasts of No Nation:

None

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

15. The Martian

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