Tag Archives: Leonardo DiCaprio

Three films that prove that ‘remakes’ aren’t always bad

“Remake” is a poisonous word in Hollywood, one of the ones used to blast studios for their infuriating laziness. To an extent, audiences are right. Rehashes are too often misfires.

But too few realize that the idea of a remake isn’t the villain — simply the current way in which it’s practiced is — as some of the greatest films of all time are remakes.

The Magnificent Seven? A Fistful of Dollars? Two defining Westerns, both remakes of Akira Kurosawa films. Scarface, a film whose line of dialogue — “Say hello to my little friend!” — has entered the cultural lexicon, is a remake of a 1932 film. The Maltese Falcon, perhaps the defining film in the noir tradition, is a remake of a film made 10 years prior. Even Heat is a remake of Michael Mann’s own TV movie.

The best directors, such as the Coen brothers, Martin Scorsese, Peter Jackson, John Carpenter, James Cameron and more, all delve into remakes. There is no shame in remaking something, as long as the filmmakers are informed and committed to telling a good story — like most of these examples show.

In line with the release of Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express, a remake of a 1974 film, we decided to list some of our personal favorite remakes that also are a testament to the fact that the act of remaking something can be a brilliant idea in the right hands.

Ocean’s Eleven

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Ocean’s Eleven is truly a contemporary classic, one of the greatest heist films of all time and one of the most dynamically engaging films of the 21st century. It’s easy to write it off as simply entertainment, as director Steven Soderbergh just having a good time. But Soderbergh is at, perhaps, his most skillful here as a director. The pacing is electric and never offbeat. Despite having over 10 characters to follow, we find it easy to distinguish due to brilliant characterization. Mainly through editing, the composition of scenes occurring during the heist are, on a sensory level, as gripping as the best action scenes can be. Writer Ted Griffin’s dialogue is snappy and worthy of comparison to Sorkin. On all levels, Ocean’s Eleven is outstanding entertainment and filmmaking.

And that’s precisely what separates Soderbergh’s remake from the 1960 original. Sure, that one puts up a fight, and might honestly win, for the more steely cool cast; Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. are a tough trio to beat. But the original is only so entertaining — because its storytelling doesn’t allow it to be more than just that.

As the film continues to age, more will recognize the significance of Ocean’s Eleven beyond its own entertainment value. For now, though, we’ll gladly call it one of the most fun movies of recent memory.

— Kyle Kizu

Insomnia

Summit/Warner Bros/Courtesy

There are better remakes out there, like The Fly, The Thing and Heat, but out of principle, I feel some degree of obligation to bring up Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia (since this site, and the internet in general, is really lacking in discourse about him). All jokes aside though, Nolan’s Insomnia — a remake of the 1997 Norwegian original starring Stellan Skarsgård — really is a gem that gets overlooked too often.

Insomnia might be Nolan’s most conventional film — it’s not told out of order like Memento, it didn’t kickstart genre trends like The Dark Knight and it’s not an art-house epic like Dunkirk — but that’s no slight against it. First off, the film’s performances are just as good as any other in Nolan’s filmography. As an ethically-compromised, sleep-deprived detective, Al Pacino broods just as well as Christian Bale would in The Dark Knight Trilogy. But like the films of that trilogy, the villain in this film also steals the show. Robin Williams shines as a crime author who gives into his most depraved instincts, and we see a side of Williams previously unknown. He’d given strong dramatic performances prior to Insomnia, but in this film, we see how his comedic chops translate into darkness. As a director, Nolan prides himself on showing audiences something they’ve never seen before, and with Williams’ performance in this film, Nolan accomplishes just that.

If nothing else, Insomnia represents Nolan’s earning of Warner Bros’ trust, and in this sense, the film is somewhat responsible for giving us Nolan’s entire filmography. There would be no The Dark Knight Trilogy, Inception, Interstellar or Dunkirk without Insomnia, and that fact alone makes the film unique in cinema’s history of remakes.

— Harrison Tunggal

The Departed

Warner Bros.

A majority of Martin Scorsese’s films draw upon historical figures and happenings, but the director ensures each of his works has merit as a piece of original cinema first, and that it’s not merely an adaptation. That’s what makes it so surprising to learn that one of Scorsese’s best, The Departed, is actually a remake of 2002’s Infernal Affairs, a Hong Kong-produced film whose plot essentially mirrors the renowned director’s own. Despite the enormous debt Scorsese owes to writers Alan Mak and Felix Chong for crafting such an intriguing premise on criminality, his film represents the best possible outcome in remaking a film — a voice and identity not entirely dependent on the source material but rather established by its own volition. Scorsese injects an American, and specifically Bostonian-Irish sensibility into The Departed which informs each set piece, line of dialogue and character in the film. This is a movie that feeds off its blue-collar setting and mentalities wherein characters as major as undercover cop Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) and minor as ‘Man Glassed in Bar’ (Brian Smyj) are so indelibly real because of their American-Made attitudes and ethno-specific upbringings. What Scorsese so fantastically captures in The Departed is a moral dilemma and desperation that is autonomous and indicative of its setting’s cultures and peoples. This is not simply Infernal Affairs translated for American audiences, a whitewashed product that makes no attempt to cultivate its own social quandaries (*cough* Death Note *cough*); this is reverent of its source and an amazing piece cinema all its own.

— Sanjay Nimmagudda

 

Featured image via Warner Bros.

Trial: Who is the best movie villain of the year so far?

*Trials is a weekly series in which two writers tackle a proposed question or task. After they’ve written their opening statements, the writers will offer rebuttal arguments against the other’s and for their own, and a third writer will come in to make the verdict.*

This week’s question: Who is the best movie villain of the year so far?

Writers: Harrison Tunggal and Kyle Kizu
Judge: Levi Hill

Universal Pictures/Courtesy

Harrison’s argument:

Easily, the best villain — or rather, villains — of the year comes from Jordan Peele’s Get Out. The Armitage family function as terrific movie villains in every conceivable way. They offer thrills that more than justify the price of an admission ticket, but also transcend the entertainment value of a masterfully crafted horror film.

The Armitages hold up a mirror to our society in the most affecting way possible, presenting us with a clan of white liberals that are as destructive as any MAGA-branded, outed racist and as insidious as Freddie Krueger. Sure, maybe Dean (Bradley Whitford) would have voted for Obama for a third term, but the way he drives the point home is more like a nervous tic designed to hide a deep-seated undercurrent of racism, rather than anything remotely approaching sincerity. It’s a feeble attempt at preserving the illusion of white racial innocence, an illusion that is outed as soon as the Armitages host their party — less of a party, and more of a montage of barbed microaggressions.

And if it wasn’t obvious that the Armitages are innately and intensely harmful, then they reveal themselves as outright monsters when they enact their body-snatching plan, trapping Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) in the Sunken Place while they perform their heinous operation. Jordan Peele has been direct in naming the Sunken Place as a metaphor for the silencing of Black voices, while the Armitages’ body-snatching operation is a literal takeover of Black bodies.

Universal Pictures/Courtesy

Though I can’t know what it’s like to view Get Out as a Black audience member, it is clear that Peele’s film is a cinematic expression of racial anxiety — one made from a uniquely Black perspective. This expression of racial anxiety is effective, by and large, because of the Armitages, and the writing behind them.

Going beyond the abstract, the Armitages are an example of compelling villains, particularly Rose (Allison Williams). When she gets found out, she resorts to attempting to seduce Rod (Lil Rel Howery), a truly despicable moment in a film filled with them. She also tries to use her whiteness to pin the violent third act on Chris. Thankfully, it doesn’t work, but it once again exemplifies the depths of depravity that define Rose. Jeremy’s (Caleb Landry Jones) overbearing masculinity and Missy’s (Catherine Keener) hypnotic tea cup only add to the villainy.

Ultimately, the Armitages represent a villain we’ve never seen before. As white liberals, the Armitages are a far-cry from Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), or the snarling Epps (Michael Fassbender), which allows them to lend nuance to conversations about race, making them significant in the pantheon of film. Confronting racial anxieties has become ever more important — this country’s leadership is exacerbating such anxieties, rather than soothing them and finding solutions to them. Therefore, it is up to us to shoulder that burden, and films like Get Out — through its nuanced villains, among other aspects — can point us in the right direction.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Kyle’s argument:

While it’s an especially on-brand choice, I believe that my pick for the best villain of the year so far is the right one: “the enemy” from Dunkirk. We’ve seen “the enemy” in countless pictures before — flaunted with their symbol, uniform and leader. But we’ve never seen them quite like this. In Dunkirk, “the enemy” is faceless, a haunting spectre that terrorizes the British soldiers like the shark does to the beach goers in Jaws. And in that sense, “the enemy” is all the more frightening for it. Not only is there a sense of realism to the approach — as the real soldiers themselves almost certainly lacked any visual — but it also allows Christopher Nolan to get creative.

The main visual we do have are the ME 109 planes, and there’s something about how they’re realized that’s more terrifying than if we were also in their cockpits. They pop up of nowhere, coming “out of the sun.” They follow determinedly, with an unstoppable motivation, a horrifying monster always on our soldiers’ tails, and they hold equal terror in their evasion, a villain just out of grasp.

But with any other visuals taken away, Nolan turns to the other sensory aspects, mainly sound. The sound design of Dunkirk almost feels as though it’s for a horror film, which leads to some seriously horrific scenes of destruction and death. As eyes wander into the sky and bodies start to scramble or duck for cover, the hard cut to the approaching dive-bombers, their intimidation horns sounding out, is literally arresting and utterly transfixing.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

And their impact is devastating, with bombs lifting sand and soldiers into the air and gunshots splintering and riddling the wood of the mole as man after man takes cover.

“The enemy” terrifies even simply with its guns. Bullets pierce without origin, with a purpose solely to murder. The opening scene as soldier after soldier falls and, when Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) makes it over the fence, the gate is blown apart by countless bullets stands next to the Dutch ship scene where three gunshots inject endless fear into the soldiers below as two of the most frightening in the film.

And that’s exactly where “the enemy” becomes more than just a faceless villain. Below deck of the Dutch ship, and on deck of the Moonstone with the Shivering Soldier (Cillian Murphy), our men start to tear each other apart, absolutely terrified by the thought of murder. “The enemy” invokes a fear of annihilation, a fear that digs into our characters’ bones and causes them to turn on each other — the only direct uses of “German” being directed at our own allies. While the sounds are scary as all hell, and would alone be almost enough reason to win, it’s the effect that “the enemy” creates here that puts them over the top. Without ever being seen, they get into the minds of our heroes and almost pull them apart.

We’ve all been granted far too omnipresent, omniscient views of “the enemy” in countless films before. Dunkirk’s rendering is one of the first that shows us how real soldiers likely saw them. And we all know who they are and what they stand for, so seeing them in this light is refreshing and, truly and immensely, far more terrifying.

Universal Pictures/Courtesy

Harrison’s rebuttal:

First and foremost, Kyle, your undying love of all things Nolan will never cease to draw my utmost respect and admiration. Additionally, before I make my points, I would like to emphasize that my rebuttal is not intended to detract from the validity of “the enemy” as a movie villain, nor as a real-world source of evil. I am in no way saying that Nazis are less terrifying than the Armitages — both represent terrible evils that must be stamped out with the utmost vigor.

While I admire Nolan’s creativity in showing characters reacting to “the enemy,” I will assert that the uniqueness of the Armitages in cinema makes them the more significant villain. Jordan Peele doesn’t show us images of overt racism, but rather tries to impart a deeper understanding of the fears and anxieties of Black people by showing us villainous white liberals — people that seem harmless enough, but would reject such a deeper understanding, which only intensifies the aforementioned fears and anxieties.

Both Nolan and Peele show us new takes on villains we’ve seen before, but I would argue that Peele gives us new dimensions to a conventional racist antagonist, whereas Nolan removes dimensions from his Nazi antagonists. Again, this is not a criticism, just an observation — I mean, Nolan doesn’t give them faces or names. Nolan streamlines his antagonists, distilling “the enemy” into one thing —  the sense of fear they cause.

In contrast, Peele gives the Armitages many different angles of deplorability — the privilege that Rose embraces, the objectification of Black people that all of the Armitages are guilty of, and the denial of a Black person’s consciousness that is the Armitages’ ultimate goal. Solely in regard to the films, the Armitages represent a wider swath of villainy than “the enemy.”

Finally, the Armitages are a deliberate exercise in scathing social commentary. While “the enemy” is as relevant today as they were in 1940, Dunkirk doesn’t deliberately position its antagonists as social commentary. “The enemy” exists in the film to escalate tension, but does little else, unlike the Armitages in Get Out. As such, Get Out has the better villain, on the basis that the Armitages antagonize Chris, while also serving the film’s satiric and symbolic ends.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Kyle’s rebuttal:

Similarly to your rebuttal, it’s difficult to argue against how good of villains the Armitages are. Get Out is truly a landmark film and the unforgiving, scathing, honest and raw depiction of the damage that white liberals, apparent allies, cause is deeply nuanced in regard to how Jordan Peele writes and directs them. It’s a deeply needed portrayal within cinema. So, in rebutting, my framing is to simply show how “the enemy” is a better villain, not how the Armitages are worse.

I have to address the comment about how Nolan removes dimensions from “the enemy” because that’s exactly why they’re so phenomenally impactful. We know what “the enemy” stands for. We know the absolute atrocities that they committed and we’ve been beaten over the head with depictions of their deplorable ideology.

Thus, when Nolan removes those dimensions to focus in on a singular aspect, it actually enhances “the enemy” in ways that only reduction could. Dunkirk focuses on the visceral, invasive physicality of “the enemy” and its devastation. The film shows us images of death, tactics of intimidation — the “We surround you” papers are breathtaking in how much evil three words exude despite their simplicity — and effects of fear like we’ve never seen them before. So, because we already know the nuance, or lack thereof, of who “the enemy” is and what they represent, showing them in this light is actually a grander, more impactful and more horrifying rendering of them than we’ve gotten before.

It’s like Jaws, but if the shark were a Nazi. It’s like a Nazi shark. I mean, come on.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

As I said before, the Armitages are terrifying villains. And I don’t want to argue with how Peele depicts them — it’s an approach that does its job and does it so well that it becomes deeply resonant in today’s world. I think, in purely cinematic terms, their tracks could’ve been laid a bit more methodically. I don’t mean this to undermine how abrasive and jarring white people’s microaggressive statements are, but it feels as though, in terms of cinematic crafting of villains, they might have even been more effective with a more paced out progression.

It’s difficult to argue that Get Out isn’t clearly more of a social commentary than Dunkirk is, but I do think that Dunkirk has a very subtle political idea that goes along with not naming “the enemy.” In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Mark Rylance posited the idea that the Germans have been villainized enough in regard to the Nazis. They’re a country with guilt hanging over their heads and, more importantly, they’re a country that’s moved on from that evil while it’s in America where, somehow, neo-Nazis now hold a world stage. In that sense, not naming “the enemy” becomes more empathetic and all encompassing as it’s not a people that the soldiers were fighting, but rather an ideology. The soldiers were fighting fear and hatred, and that is something still relevant today.

Levi’s Verdict:

As the second edition of Trial, or the Kyle vs. Harrison show, I once again had the dubious honor of having to choose between two wonderful arguments. Yet, instead of masking who I think is the winner, like I did last time, I will just come out and say that Harrison, once again, wins in a tough battle. Reading the rebuttals of both, I feel that this edition offered much more succinct arguments from both sides. Both promoted their arguments and neither attempted to bring down the others. That is a testament to the strength of both writers and the ideas behind both.

Kyle’s argument about how “the enemy” revolutionizes how we typically see war villains is true. It did. And Nolan’s Dunkirk is a stunning achievement. The way that it’s the ideology being fought — a violent, pretty much unseen force — is a frightening metaphor for how those violent, deep-rooted ideologies can pervade at any time. It’s quite like the shark in Jaws, as Kyle mentions, but with real ideological fervor and fear. Hatred and fear still persist today — both nameless and faceless.

But to me, the tangible reality of Get Out’s villains, the Armitages and white liberals, are a far too pertinent villain of today.

Universal Pictures/Courtesy

Peele’s film magnifies the anxieties regarding the way African Americans are viewed within society — with their voices silenced, with their bodies sexualized and glorified, with their minds traumatized — and the film confronts both openly racist and subtly racist white people and their causation in the way society problematically operates today. Because of the fact that Get Out puts a face to the ideologies and spends time letting the audience get to know the fake-good intentions of the Armitages, only to show their truly monstrous and manipulative plans, Peele makes a specific, yet wide critique of white people in America.

Ideologies scare us all. But a face to the ideology scares us just a little more.

Winner: Harrison Tunggal

 

Do you agree with Levi’s verdict? Sound off in the comments for which villain you think is better, or if you would’ve chosen another one entirely.

Featured image via Universal Pictures.

Top ten films premiered at Telluride Film Festival since 2010

Amid the swaths of festivals, Telluride, taking place between September 1-4, stands out as an unpretentious yet incredibly prestigious venue for some of the most honest films of the year. Like the town in which it takes place, Telluride is small and intimate. It evokes the best of what a film community can be, in genuine artistry, but also in just being fans of movies and of movie-makers; it was a key moment in the great friendship between the La La Land and Moonlight creative teams, which maintained despite the audience split that sprouted during the awards season. And while many of the Oscar hopefuls look to the Venice Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival for their starts, the quieter premieres at Telluride often have the grander impact. Since 2010, the best of the best from Telluride Film Festival are breathtaking. From Oscar winners to profound independents to landmark documentaries, the top ten Telluride films of the last seven years show the best of what cinema can be.

10. Wild

Fox Searchlight Pictures/Courtesy

While many may point to Dallas Buyers Club and Big Little Lies when thinking of Canadian filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée, it would be a shame to ignore the gem that is Wild. First and foremost, any film that features the sublime, timeless, astounding Laura Dern in even just a slightly weighty role is one to adore. But Wild crafts not only its character, Reese Witherspoon’s Cheryl, so instinctively, but it also crafts the journey of Cheryl so tenderly and affectingly. Cheryl confronts the wild in her long walk from the top of the U.S. to the bottom, and the film follows suit, embracing a sort of vulnerable physicality in its color palette, in its subtle sound and intimate cinematography. Wild may not be the most jaw-dropping or impressive film, but it’s one that finds its way underneath one’s skin and into one’s bones because it is so human.

— Kyle Kizu

9. Frances Ha

IFC Films/Courtesy

Frances Ha is director Noah Baumbach’s ebullient tribute to the cinema of the French New Wave. We follow the titular Frances (the incredible Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote the screenplay with Baumbach) as she meets friends, moves from apartment to apartment and tries to reconcile her dreams of dancing with the possibility that they’ll remain dreams and nothing more. Though the film is in black and white, the spread of emotions that Frances endures is hardly so — the film pinwheels from her trademark levity to crushing lows, before rising to a strained melancholy and finally settling on a relieved contentedness. That such dichotomies coexist in the film isn’t jarring, but rather endearing. We’ve all had nights that started out perfectly, but then take a hard left into awfulness that only seems to get worse, and that’s a sentiment that the film understands and addresses with humor and sensitivity. Befittingly, the film isn’t reliant on plot, but that’s okay — we’re happy to have known Frances, if but for an hour and a half.

— Harrison Tunggal

8. The Descendants

Fox Searchlight Pictures/Courtesy

Against all odds, Alexander Payne’s 2011 film The Descendants pairs adultery, comatose spouses and Hawaiian real estate in a simultaneously heartwrenching and hilarious examination of what family really means. The film follows Matt King (George Clooney) as his wife is injured in a jetskiing accident and he is forced to decide whether or not to leave his now comatose wife on life support — a decision made more difficult by the realization that she had been having an affair. Clooney and Shailene Woodley, in arguably both their finest work to date, carry the film on their transparently expressive faces, captured lovingly in close-up by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael. True to the book on which it is based, The Descendants almost veers too far into cruel, biting satire at times, but no one is better suited to walk the balance between bleak humanity and the humor found in everyday life than Alexander Payne. While certain scenes stand out as all-timers (Clooney’s famous hospital monologue, Woodley’s character revealing her mother’s affair), The Descendants in its entirety is a hard look at dealing with the past, managing the present and confronting the future.

— Kate Halliwell

7. Steve Jobs

Universal Pictures/Courtesy

Steve Jobs had such a dramatic journey to the big screen — an intensely buzzed-about Aaron Sorkin script originally connected to David Fincher and with Leonardo DiCaprio and Christian Bale rumored to star. But the creative team it ended up with was a perfect match. Danny Boyle’s high-energy direction scores Jobs with an electric edge and Michael Fassbender transforms subtly yet entirely, embodying the icon with a domineering physicality, especially in vocal tone, while deconstructing his problematic persona and humanizing his core — not necessarily sacrificing one for the other. The film has massive ambitions, with a story structure similar to a play and carrying a character in light of Citizen Kane. It might not reach all of its goals, but it finds a place in contemporary cinema that so many films have tried for but failed.

— KK

6. Under the Skin

A24/Courtesy

On very simple terms, Under the Skin is an astonishing vehicle for the auric, subtle physicality that Scarlett Johansson can take hold of in a performance, as well as for the viscerally invasive work of composer Mica Levi — many critics still cite her score as one of the best of the 21st century. But, quite obviously, Under the Skin is anything but simple. Delving deep into the avant garde, as well as other more visually focused traditions, Jonathan Glazer’s sci-fi picture, about an alluring woman, is oftentimes terrifying without us even realizing how intensely so until afterward, or until the pop of a body contorted by forces beyond its control. As viewers, we oftentimes feel like a victim trapped beneath — a purposeful effect that produces a pure sense of the image, oftentimes simple in color and composition but wildly unnerving in context, that only cinema could. Of course, this leaves little easy explanation and few paths for traditional absorption, making Under the Skin difficult to encounter. But if we surrender ourselves to visual language, the film will prove deeply human, without much of the sentimentality, and gendered in its experience, deconstructivist in its angle and, honestly, just fucking weird — in a good way.

— KK

5. Prisoners

Warner Bros./Courtesy

The sense of mounting dread that director Denis Villeneuve builds in Prisoners is staggering to behold. Drenched in darkness and shadow by the master himself, Roger Deakins, this film transports the viewer into a world of ubiquitous horror, one where corpses fill basements, families descend into violence and even moments of reprieve contort into the realization that we’re all shackled to those we love, for better or worse. This is a film where your heart keep sinking to depths you didn’t know existed, right to its final shot. Prisoners also sports a stellar cast firing on all cylinders — Hugh Jackman’s intensity makes his performance in this film one of his finest, Jake Gyllenhaal showcases the cold determination he would later dial to eleven in Nightcrawler and Paul Dano ratchets up the tension by keeping the audience on its toes. Additionally, Viola Davis brings her eminent gravitas while Terrence Howard matches Jackman’s fear and desperation as they search for their missing daughters. Prisoners is arguably Denis Villeneuve’s best film, and we can’t wait to see how his sensibilities translate to Blade Runner 2049 and other future projects.

— HT

4. Anomalisa

Paramount Pictures/Courtesy

This stop-motion picture is difficult to confront, venturing into the abstract in many areas. But, as one should expect with Charlie Kaufman, Anomalisa, a film without actual humans, is filled with a humanity unlike most other films. It is, in large part, because of the voice work. David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh provide an affectingly raw basis within this world, conveying vulnerability and the weight of the human condition through tiny inflections. And Tom Noonan, literally voicing every other figure, is shockingly hilarious and horrifyingly scary at the same time. Yet, the voices become that profound because of the imagery within which they inhabit. Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson frame each shot with a deep understanding of theme, that everything so blandly and terrifyingly blends together, that the world is unrewarding and depressing, that finding someone within the void is miraculous and losing them to the blend is a nightmare. The amalgamation brings about an intimacy that only a masterful film could build.

— KK

3. Room

A24/Courtesy

Book-to-movie adaptations, as a rule, are difficult to pull off, and that challenge increases exponentially when the source material in question is narrated in entirety by a five year old boy with a limited understanding of the world. It gets even harder when that world consists of a tiny one-room shed, and the boy’s mother — the room’s only other occupant — chooses to raise him as if that one room really is the entire universe. So begins Lenny Abrahamson’s adaptation of Room, starring Jacob Tremblay and Brie Larson as a mother and son held in captivity until their eventual escape. Room is effectively split in two halves, which places the duo’s plotting and escape at odds with their tentative transition back into the outside world. The film would go on to win Larson her first Oscar and cement Tremblay’s place as Hollywood’s cutest kid, but it served as far more than a vehicle for its stars-to-be. Bleak, hard-to-watch moments combine with an enduring sense of childlike curiosity in what is already deservedly considered to be one of the best book adaptations of all time.

— KH

2. The Act of Killing

Final Cut for Real/Courtesy

The Act of Killing is a difficult film to watch, and if you’re at all connected to the killings that took place in Indonesia from 1965-1966, then Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary is downright excruciating. The film’s two main subjects, Anwar Congo and Herman Koto, belonged to a government death squad that extorted from and killed more than one million communists and Chinese Indonesians. They gloat about the lives they took and how they took them, going to obscene lengths to reenact their methods. It’s a sick parody of cinephilia — Congo and Koto claim to be inspired by the violence in the films they idolized, and some of the reenactments are draped in the trappings of their favorite genres. And these are just barely the reasons why The Act of Killing is a disturbing watch — ultimately, we’re left wondering if there’s redemption in remorse. After seeing the utter impunity of the murderers, such a question becomes disturbingly difficult, if not impossible, to answer. Unpleasant as it may be, The Act of Killing is truly an essential film, reminding us that the soul is at stake when blind nationalism supersedes morality.

— HT

1. Moonlight

David Bornfriend/A24/Courtesy

With a rare 99 on Metacritic, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is cinematic perfection. For anyone who’s seen the film, such a statement stands on its own, though additional validation comes from its historic Best Picture win at the 89th Academy Awards. But forget the craziness surrounding the moment of its victory — such things are much too loud for a film like Moonlight. It is a film predicated on an intimate viewing experience, one in which quiet subtleties in the performances of its all black cast and precise details in the filmmaking precipitate an immense significance. From the close-ups of Trevante Rhodes and Andre Holland as their characters reunite, we see heartbreak and hope at the same time, and years of toxic, performative masculinity erode with just one look. From the final embrace of these two men, we see a moment of LGBTQ+ representation that is executed with the utmost sensitivity and tenderness. Then there’s James Laxton’s cinematography, where a shallow depth of field puts us with the characters, exacting a sense of empathy that lends the film its total hold over our emotions. It is impossible to overstate the significance of Moonlight, especially when empathy and sensitivity are becoming ever rarer, but with Barry Jenkins behind the camera, there’s hope that such qualities will persevere, at least on the big screen.

— HT

Featured image (modified) via Ken Lund.

Ranking Christopher Nolan’s 10 films

Pretty quickly, one realizes that Christopher Nolan has never made a “bad” movie. Some have been a bit more divisive than others, but even then, none have failed financially or critically, or in the eyes of the public. His lowest rated film on RottenTomatoes, at 71%, is Interstellar, a film many, including myself, consider their favorite of all time. So then, a list of this type comes down to being about the good and the great, which makes it all the more exciting, but all the more difficult to truly nail down rankings. Some films have impacted culture unlike most movies in general, while others are some of the most impressively crafted pieces of art of our time, even if they lack similar cultural impact. But after long deliberation — and I must make note that these are what I think are his best, not my favorite, as that is a whole other list — I’ve come to a ranking I feel comfortable with:

10. Following

Following

Zeitgeist/Syncopy/Courtesy

Following is a fantastic film, and it’s still #10. The main reason for that is that it seems like here, Nolan was out to prove himself, which rendered the film as more of a showcase for what was to come than a full film in and of itself. And yet, Following is built on such an intriguing structure that really does show that Nolan is a singular storyteller. With impressive performances and sharp technical composition on a microscopic $6,000 budget, the neo-noir is a debut that one can return to and still discover more in every time.

9. Insomnia

Al Pacino Insomnia

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Insomnia has sparked a lot of discussion from Nolan fans about whether or not it really is a “Nolan” film. It’s the only one he doesn’t have a writing credit on, although Nolan was involved in later drafts of the script. But, perhaps in result of the scripting situation, it’s the only film of his that doesn’t seem to have as sharp of a story as others.

Yet, when one really looks at Nolan’s career, it becomes quite simple to place Insomnia as a vital step within it. The film falls in line with his investigations into the validity of truth and what that means for his protagonists. And, even though its executed in a different way, Insomnia also creates a fascinating exploration of time — not only through Detective Dormer’s haze of insomnia, but also through his aging career. There may not be enough “pop” for some people’s liking, but with great performances from Al Pacino and Robin Williams as well as a crime intrigue that would explode over the rest of his career, Insomnia is an astonishingly good film to be at #9.

8. Batman Begins

Batman Begins

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Batman Begins revolutionized not only the superhero genre, but the blockbuster genre as well. To this day, many still reference the movie as inspiration for their gritty, realist take on whatever film they’re making.

And it is just that spectacular. The way Nolan slips through periods of time to craft the growth and development of Bruce Wayne from his youth through to his decision to build the identity of the Batman is structurally ingenious and some of the best “origin” work there is. Batman Begins truly does take the Caped Crusader and put him in a light that he was always meant to be under.

But there are two reasons that it stands lower. The film struggles in its third act, reverting to a bombastic (in a not so good way) mess of a climactic battle that seems so out of place for Nolan. It also feels as though, here, Nolan is still searching for the true feel of the world. The color palette changes rather jarringly between this installment and the next, and some of the more fantastical elements seem fit in a Burton film, not a Nolan one.

7. The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises

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The Dark Knight Rises seems to get the most flack out of all of Nolan’s films, and it’s not for no reason. The final installment of his Batman trilogy does crumble, in ways, under its massive ambitions. Plot holes are a bit more prevalent than they’ve been with Nolan, and some deus ex machinas pop up here and there.

But it’s difficult to not be impressed by his grand vision. While some films present a grand ideology as a mask and never expand upon it, The Dark Knight Rises carries its societal complexities through its 165 minutes with full force — seemingly because the film is in the vein of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.

The ideology is muddled for some, but the scope is undeniable. With inspiration from the Dickens novel, and in simply keeping with Batman tradition, the city of Gotham is a living and breathing character unlike it ever has been before.

And as a third and final installment, The Dark Knight Rises also closes Bruce Wayne’s arc in such a resonant and fulfilling manner. Even with its imperfections, the film ends his journey in an equally epic and intimate manner, a feat most trilogies struggle accomplish.

6. Memento 

Guy Pearce Memento

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Memento, the film that truly placed Nolan on the map, will forever remain a stunningly iconic piece of cinema — it’s already being referenced and utilized in film schools as a representation of structure, editing and the evolvement of the noir genre.

And all praise is wholly earned. While some may call Nolan’s structures “gimmicks,” it’s near impossible to do so with this picture. Running backwards and forwards at the same time, the film expertly crafts both its neo-noir mystery and grittiness as well as what many experts call a perfect representation of the experience of someone with anterograde amnesia — pulled off with razor sharp editing and a visual grasp that really is the immediate maturation of Nolan as a masterful storyteller (thanks to his first collaboration with Wally Pfister).

But the elements would only add up to so much were it not for the film’s ending, which is such an unnerving and affecting idea of the self and of the self’s reality. In that sense, Memento is the first of Nolan’s films where there’s not a single wasted moment, not a single wasted frame.

5. Inception

Inception

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Inception is a cultural phenomenon, which is such a bizarre statement when one really thinks about it. This is an original, scifi blockbuster with nearly an hour and a half consisting solely of expositional dialogue, and the other hour being a time-bending, crosscutting maze.

Nolan, however, as a storyteller, captured the zeitgeist precisely because of those elements. The exposition functions as the most thorough and fascinating world-building of Nolan’s career, while never slowing down the film’s pacing because it’s interwoven with stunning visual innovation and illusion that play right back into that world-building.

As for that last hour, it’s simply a masterclass in filmmaking, specifically in editing, but also in terms of evoking theme. It functions as a Bond-esque heist thriller, which is badass in and of itself, but it also leaves a mark on viewers that they can’t shake — their realities turned upside down and questioned.

And all of that comes without mention of Leonardo DiCaprio in yet another fully committed role, and composer Hans Zimmer also at his most culturally iconic. On a good day, Inception could break the top 3, but what ends up placing it at #5 is that, upon return viewings and close inspection, such a slick film contains some rough edges. Nevertheless, Inception will last a lifetime.

4. Interstellar

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To be clear, Interstellar is my favorite of his. But it’s difficult not to find the objective weaknesses in the movie. A few expositional scenes are not entirely necessary. Some of the thematic ambition is tonally off mark, or simply too gigantic for its own means.

But Interstellar lives with an earnestness that some sadly ignore. In Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper, there’s such an intense drive of hope and for progress, delivered with such vividness and verve and evoking a sense of humanity’s innate nature for exploration — something the film needed to not completely collapse in on itself.

And the film is, quite obviously, Nolan’s most emotional work to date as well. While some complain about the aspect of love, they seem to unjustly wash over the absolutely remarkable aspects of it. Cooper saying goodbye to Murph is a scene of tragic poetics, written with a beautiful tenderness, filmed with a raw intimacy and acted so genuinely. And Cooper watching his kids grow up through 21 years of video messages is a scene that truly cannot be described. In that moment, story transcends the dimensions of film and taps into something purely human — we’re all tragic victims of time.

(And how science and love function together in that ending, after repeat viewings, of which I’ve had many, makes complete sense in respect to the dimensions that some just may not understand.)

Accenting such work, Hans Zimmer taps into a humanity he had never reached before either, resulting in his most affecting score to date. And both Zimmer and Nolan combine to craft gripping, jaw-dropping action sequences that mark Interstellar as a representation of what cinema should strive for visually.

Sure, it’s not his most well-told or well-executed story. But there’s something to be said about what Interstellar means as a piece of art, as a statement on humanity and humankind. Most will write that aspect off, but when art reaches for that, reaches that high, it becomes more important for it, and Interstellar is Nolan’s most important film thus far.

3. The Dark Knight

The Dark Knight

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If it’s not for Inception, Christopher Nolan will be remembered for The Dark KnightBatman Begins may have revolutionized superhero films, but Nolan’s second Batman installment re-revolutionized it, while revolutionizing cinema in general.

First and foremost, The Dark Knight features one of the most terrifying and haunting performances of all time in Heath Ledger’s Joker. The best performances happen when an actor embodies a character, when an actor lives in a character’s bones and blood so thoroughly that they cease to exist as themselves in those moments. And Ledger strikes on that singularity of acting. The Joker is perhaps the most iconic villain in cinematic history, but credit must also be given to Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan.

With The Dark Knight, the Nolans fully realize the potential of Batman, Gotham city and the world they occupy, and ingeniously inject ideas of contemporary, post-9/11 society into the film to do so. The Joker’s mantras are fear and nihilism, manifested through terror threats. Gotham City, vulnerable, aching and scared because of its history, are the terrified. But the Nolans execute these scenes with perfection. The terror isn’t in the terrifying event itself, but in its anticipation. That’s where the epicness of The Dark Knight lies, within its thorough and unsettling sense of fear on a city-wide scale.

And those elements are completely dependent on how The Dark Knight functions as a crime drama, specifically on a human level. Some complain that Bruce Wayne is really the third most prevalent character of the film, and I wouldn’t disagree, but I would retort that that’s because, while Batman Begins is Bruce Wayne’s story, The Dark Knight is Batman’s story. The tragic fall of man necessary to crime dramas are found within Batman, Jim Gordon and, most obviously, Harvey Dent. All three are tested in ways that question their moral center and break their moral codes. The trio’s chemistry is dynamic and lively, grand and intimate. In that sense, The Dark Knight really does earn its comparisons as the contemporary version of The Godfather.

If the film had the efficiency and pacing of Batman Begins and a more overt necessity of Bruce Wayne, not as his own character, but as a necessary duality of Batman like The Dark Knight Rises, then The Dark Knight nears complete perfection. It stands slightly away from that, but there’s something to be said about how it handles the top of Bruce Wayne’s character arc. It is undoubtedly another cultural phenomenon, and a step forward for film altogether, and that matters for so much.

2. The Prestige

Christian Bale The Prestige

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For a long time, The Prestige went under-appreciated by most. But the film has aged unbelievably well, with many critics ranking it as Nolan’s best prior to Dunkirk‘s release. The Prestige will never match the cultural recognition of almost all of Nolan’s films. But it was, for a long time, his most perfectly crafted. Think the perfection, on all levels, of Memento, and intensify it.

The structure is informed, an illusion itself that defines the DNA of the film. There is no other way of telling this story. The shifts in time not only set up the deception, but thoroughly color and accent the rivalry — one of the best in contemporary film.

And that’s where The Prestige steps above Memento and, in turn, above most others: how its characters inhabit such its perfectly crafted world. The chemistry between Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale, in regard to their hatred and despise of one another, is electric. Jackman is at his career best, owning his character’s desperation and obsession with an aura of truth that he only comes close to again in Logan. Bale’s performance is less overt, but just as impressive, with him having to convey a subtle truth about his character that builds just as much depth.

As said before, it all comes back down to the pitch perfect execution of their machinations. But it’s as the film wraps up, as the film pulls off its own “prestige,” that we begin to recognize how each frame that came before knew of its place, of its meaning — not one frame wasted. Some have strangely chided the film’s ending, but what’s built to in those final moments is really what the entire story was setting up thematically.

Oh, and did I mention that David Bowie (RIP) plays Nikola Tesla and is so good?

The Prestige has been the best of Nolan as a storyteller and a filmmaker for so long. But there’s just one aspect that’s let it sink, just one factor that keeps it away, and rightfully so, from the #1 spot.

1. Dunkirk 

Dunkirk 1

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It feels quite wrong for Nolan’s “best film” to not be a blockbuster, to not be a grand spectacle, and, truly, that’s what places Dunkirk above the rest. Its The Prestige-level of storytelling but in the massive scope that Nolan has always aimed for. Following was a showcase for his talents, and 19 years later, they’ve been fully realized.

Parring down dialogue and plot, not in response to critics, but in line with what the story calls for, Dunkirk features a method more refined than in any of Nolan’s other work. The film starts with a simple goal, of immersion, and branches out its impact from there.

The immersion starts with a capitalization of the IMAX 70mm format unlike any of his previous outings. Sound, cinematography, editing, setting, scale and the pure massive image on a true IMAX screen all coalesce and augment one another in ways that cinema should aim for visually. Cinema is about the image and, especially with this method, Dunkirk ends up being Nolan’s most cinematic endeavor.

But through immersion, he builds tension. His time-bending structure avoids gimmickry, evoking ideas of perspective and truth, but also serving as a literal experiential manipulation to manufacture the most intense action of his entire career. There’s such a viscerally invasive sense of suspense that grasps your spine and doesn’t let go for 106 minutes, only made more affecting by an entirely in-tune Hans Zimmer and his anxiety-inducing, rising, unforgiving score that makes use of the exact same manipulation to generate tension.

And, through the perfection of craft on all levels, through a singularity of filmmaking in all aspects, the film succeeds thematically as well. Each technical and more methodical choice seems to enrich theme, and that’s the way it should be.

Dunkirk is about the nameless, the faceless. It’s about the terror of war and the perspective of all of those involved in the action of this massive of event, while also digging down on a distinctly, intimately human level too. It’s about the disjointedness and senselessness of war and how that affects the humans involved, fair or not. But, finally, it’s about togetherness. Even with the disparate truths of experience between the soldiers in the air, the soldiers on the beaches and the civilians on the sea, Nolan builds a togetherness. He builds character, story and meaning through action, some moments more subtle than others, but all evoking what’s so special about the event and its aftermath: the “Dunkirk spirit.”

Dunkirk will never reach the cultural impact or significance of most of Nolan’s films. It couldn’t. But in its efforts of purely cinematic storytelling, on the big screen, and, on quite a new level for Nolan, what it means in regard to history and how it builds its truth, Dunkirk is something we haven’t gotten before, even with Nolan, and something we could only get with him in the future.