Welcome to 5 Favorites. Each week, I will put together a list of my 5 favorites (films, performances, whatever strikes my fancy) along with commentary on a given topic each week, usually in relation to a specific film releasing that week.
With only one more list to announce next week, we’re getting close to the end. This week, we have 18 titles to review that cover the science fiction and action thriller genres, two groupings of film that often have a lot of overlap. Science fiction is a fairly easy genre to put films into, mostly dealing with scientific fact as a basis for the film’s storyline. This can include post-apocalyptic films, space sagas, and more.
Action thrillers is a little more amorphous a designation as it can include sci-fi features as well as fantasy films, animated films, and more genres we’ve tackled before. Only one film failed to make either of my lists, but deserved recognition: The Town, Ben Affleck’s smashing sophomore feature. I had also hoped to have 1917 reviewed prior to this posting, so something might get bumped off the list in the near future.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Three decades after Mel Gibson made the post-apocalyptic future of Australia a marquee title, George Miller brought audiences back to the future with Tom Hardy now in the Max Rockatansky role. Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) leads a group of escaped concubines across Australia in search of their homeland while a jealous leader (Hugh Keays-Byrne) pursues them. Max, a different kind of escapee, gives them his unwavering support. It was a better film than any of the prior outings and forewarned a dangerous future. Instead of telling everyone everything they need to know, Miller adeptly delivers contextual and visual clues to aid the audience in following the narrative, a concept used far too seldomly in cinema these days.
Another look at the future where a new ice age has descended on mankind and the only survivors exist on a bullet train traveling around the world. Starring Chris Evans in one of his most complex roles, director Bong Joon-ho displayed a grand sensibility for visual storytelling and set us on a course of concern about our immediate future. The visual details and visceral energy of the film propelled this one onto many best of lists, but also managed to appeal to an ever-broadening audience and now destined for a small screen adaptation.
Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
More than 30 years after Ridley Scott’s sensational futuristic actioner, Denis Villeneuve brought us back to the Southern California of the future with Ryan Gosling searching out replicants for elimination and discovering that there are many secrets in the government’s attempts to corral the machines that look and act almost exactly like humans. Gorgeous photography from legend Roger Deakins accentuates this gorgeous sequel that more than lives up to the reputation of its predecessor.
Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
Tom Cruise co-stars as a solider who must re-live the same day over and over every time he dies until he can get it right and drive out the alien force that’s trying to eradicate all life on Earth. With a superb Emily Blunt at his side, the fascinating story unfolds with each new attempt giving us more information and leading us quickly towards a compelling conclusion. Director Doug Liman does a tremendous job keeping the adaptation on the rails, weaving a complex story while never losing the audience’s conscious thought or attention.
Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending futuristic thriller follows a group of thieves as they attempt to implant a false memory into the brain of a C.E.O. Never settling for small concepts, Nolan’s film is a fascinating exploration of the psyche and examines the impermanence of memory in a compelling and inventive way. The solid cast give gravitas to what might have otherwise been a frivolous bit of technical wizardry.
Rise of/Dawn of/War for the Planet of the Apes (2011, 2014, 2017)
This trio of films takes audiences back in time to the point in history before the original Planet of the Apes and gives us a rundown of the events that led up to the dominance of apes over mankind. In the original series of films, a small number of the apes aid our human companions. Here, we come to understand who these apes were and what they stood for as well as examine the social impact that could have eventually led to the events of the popular originals. It’s an interesting exploration of mankind’s fallibility and that pervasive need for control that ultimately leads to its downfall.
Ex Machina (2014)
Alex Garland’s sensational directorial debut follows a young programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) as he sets about testing a hyper-advanced artificial intelligence (Alicia Vikander) while her creator (Oscar Isaac) looks on. Nothing is as it appears as the audience and the programmer begin to question who is experimenting on whom and where the truth of it all lies. The cast is excellent and Garland would later prove his high concept film concept wasn’t a fluke with his follow up Annihilation.
Alfonso Cuaron’s meditation on humanity stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as two astronauts stranded in space after an accident on the station leaves them unable to leave and return home. Bullock is given plenty of opportunities to shine as she wrestles with the futility of life and the perseverance of humanity as she works to get herself and Clooney home. The terrific visual effects are accentuated by some of the most fascinating sci-fi cinematography since 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The Martian (2015)
Ridley Scott’s return to quality directing stars Matt Damon as a scientists on Mars who becomes stranded after an incident leaves his escape vehicle in ruins and his fellow scientists dead. Exploring the ingenuity of man, we watch as one setback after another risks his life while the events back home could result in his abandonment. The audience is not only given opportunities to learn and explore with our genial Martian companion, it’s also asked to think critically about the need for government entities to compartmentalize and downplay their most challenging situations.
Amy Adams stars as a linguistics professor who is called to an alien probe and asked to attempt to communicate using the aliens’ symbol-based language. Dennis Villeneuve’s fascinating sci-fi drama also stars Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, and Michael Stuhlbarg. When the film begins playing with our memories and calls into question the temporal nature of the aliens themselves, the audience is rewarded with a most inventive and compelling sci-fi drama.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
After a successful career in his native Sweden, director Tomas Alfredson made a successful transition to English-language cinema with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a superlative adaptation of John Le Carre’s novel starring Gary Oldman as a semi-retired spy who must exit retirement to uncover a Soviet spy in their midst at the height of the Cold War. This slow-burn thriller features a strong cast in a taut dance between secrecy and discovery.
Another Scandinavian who has worked in both English and his native Danish, Nicolas Wending Refn delivered a heart-pounding thriller with Drive, starring Ryan Gosling as a Hollywood stuntman who works on the side as a wheelman. Ably supported by Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, and Albert Brooks in his most visceral performance to date, the film opens with a syncopated chase sequences, one of the best in history, and then never lets go of the audience as everything slowly crumbles around the unnamed Driver.
Modern master of suspense and horror Bong Joon-ho finally earned the recognition he’s deserved for over a decade with this exploration of class in South Korea. The film might feel uniquely Korean at times, but Bong makes sure that the audience relates well enough to see something of their own culture and identity within it. A stellar cast helps elevate this compelling drama about a poor family who insinuates themselves into a wealthy one through deceit and trickery while something dark and disturbing burns underneath it all in the house with a backstory in which they carry out their duplicity.
In terms of original concepts, Buried is a great one about a trucking contractor in Iraq who wakes up trapped in a coffin buried somewhere under the Iraqi desert. Starring Ryan Reynolds in one of his best performances to date, the film sees Reynolds trying desperately to reach his government to arrange a rescue without knowing exactly where he is. As time ticks by, the hope of rescue rises and falls in dramatic style until we’re left with a potentially devastating ending. Spanish director Rodrigo Cortès executes a masterful suspense yarn that could just as easily have landed on my horror/suspense list.
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)
While James Bond has been the dominant series of espionage thrillers for nearly 60 years, the unevenness of those films has allowed other franchises to develop. One of the most successful and oftentimes better ones is Mission: Impossible. The fourth film in the series was one of their best with a riveting, action-packed film directed by animation master Brad Bird. With several captivating set pieces, the events in Dubai at the Burj Khalifa transpiring as an incoming dust storm threatens Ethan Hunt and his crew, is one of the most tense and exciting sequences ever filmed.
Director Steve McQueen turned the crime thriller on its ear with this female-led drama starring Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, and Elizabeth Debicki as widows of a group of bank robbers who unite to carry out their husbands’ last planned heist in an effort to pay off the goons who are threatening to kill them if they don’t turn over the money. These three ladies are terrific in a film that slowly builds towards an exciting and well earned conclusion.
First Man (2018)
Were this film not based on real men and real incidents, First Man would have fit well into the science-fiction list. Damien Chazelle’s follow up to La La Land far exceeds that prior film in terms of quality, exploring the life of astronaut Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) as he deals with the various events and tragedies leading up to his space flight on Apollo 11. Gosling’s tempered performance carries this fascinating film that takes the audience behind the scenes of the space race that put humans on the moon.
The Impossible (2012)
The challenge of making disaster films relatable to an audience is putting a human face on the disaster. The Impossible stars Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, and Tom Holland as a Spanish family on holiday in Thailand during the devastating tsunami that caused $15 billion in property damage and killed more than 227 thousand people. Hiring a white actress to play a Spanish physician wasn’t the best decision, but Watts’ performance outshines her detractors. Holland also turns in a strong performance while director J. A. Bayona proved adept at handling grand scale disaster with a humane touch.