REVIEW: “Sicario”

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I think we have reached a point where we can watch a movie and confidently say “That is a Denis Villeneuve film”. The French-Canadian filmmaker can be defined as someone not afraid to claw deep under the surface of difficult subject matter. He also spares his audience no amount of discomfort or unease when telling his stories. His films are incredibly cinematic and are recognized by both their narrative and visual intensity. Several films have helped reveal his uniquenesses, but his new film “Sicario” is his best yet.

Every one of Villeneuve’s characteristics mentioned above are  present in “Sicario”, a border thriller that stings with relevancy. Emily Blunt is superb playing Kate Macer, an FBI field agent specializing in hostage rescue. The film opens with a gripping sequence featuring Kate leading a raid on an Arizona housing division. Her actions catch the attention of her superiors who then ask her to join a task force led by Department of Defense ‘advisor’ Matt Graver (played with amusing cockiness by Josh Brolin). The mission is to strike back at the drug cartels responsible for a number of brutal killings. Anxious to finally make a significant difference, Kate agrees to join Graver’s team.

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Also on the team is the mysterious and shadowy Alejandro played with unflinching precision by Benicio del Toro. Back in 2000 he won the Supporting Actor Oscar for “Traffic”, but this stellar performance rises above his past work. His Alejandro is impenetrable – a walking contrast of information and emotion. The vast majority of the film is shown through Kate’s perspective. Like her, we struggle to figure out Alejandro, Graver, and the entire mission for that matter. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan meticulously feeds us small bits of information never allowing us the feeling of being fully informed.

“Sicario” is also strengthened by the sting of its moral ambiguity. There is no easy way to navigate the morality of what we see on screen. Kate struggles with it and Villeneuve forces his audience to struggle with it too. It casts a bright light on the drug war, border violence, and government policy painting each as murkier and far more complex than we normally hear through political talking points. It operates under the idea that we have lost the drug war. Now it’s about control and making sure it doesn’t consume us. But does that mean compromising our moral conscience and turning what we known to be ‘right and wrong’ into a much more gray area? These questions hit Kate like a crashing wave.

And there is no way to talk about this movie without mentioning its phenomenal presentation. Villeneuve has perfectly matched the intensity of his story and subject matter with a visual rendering that is truly absorbing and stimulating. It will come as no surprise that Roger Deakins’ cinematography is magnificent. When will this man finally win the Oscar he deserves? His camerawork is key in making many of these scenes work. There are no vanity or prestige shots. They all have meaning. Deakins visually infuses so many scenes with tension and potency.

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There is one particular sequence that may be my favorite of the year. Kate joins Graver’s team in a extradition mission to Juarez. They are to move across the border, pick up a high value target, and make it back. Deakins’ magic takes over the moment they leave the military base. Through his lens, Deakins reveals to us the boiling tension of the location and situation – the same tension that Kate is experiencing for the first time. It is also helped by JĂłhann JĂłhannsson’s simmering score – one of the year’s best. The entire sequence is cinema at its finest.

“Sicario” is a searing and provocative thriller – visceral and unflinching in its depiction of a situation with no easy answer. Denis Villeneuve and company expertly craft a cinematic experience grounded in relevancy and unwilling to sugar coat its subject matter. Villeneuve, Blunt, del Toro, Deakins, and JĂłhannsson all deserve Oscar nominations and the film itself is among the year’s very best.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Edge of Tomorrow”

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Some folks immediately dismissed “Edge of Darkness” once they heard the name Tom Cruise and science-fiction joined together again. Not me. This was one of my most anticipated films of 2014. Unlike many I enjoyed Cruise’s last sci-fi project “Oblivion” although it was a movie with noticeable flaws. Now he’s back playing in a science fiction sandbox filled with a strong script, cool special effects, and a time loop angle that makes this film feel undeniably unique despite it dabbling in familiar territory.

“Edge of Darkness” is based on a Japanese graphic novel entitled “All You Need Is Kill”. At first glance it may come across as a typical, run-of-the-mill alien invasion picture. Times are bad on planet earth and the human race is close to extinction. Our last hope lies in a big beach invasion on the European coast akin to D-Day. But while many aspects of that will sound very familiar, the movie throws us a clever curveball which is not only fresh but very entertaining.

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Cruise takes on a very different role than we are used to seeing him in. He plays Major William Cage. That may sound like a macho military tough guy name but actually he’s a public relations specialist who works to encourage people into service while avoiding it himself. There’s no heroic and attractive golden boy aura. He’s actually an unlikable and cowardly man who soon finds himself tossed onto the frontlines of the big invasion. The battle doesn’t go well and the untrained and combat-ineffective Cage is killed in action. But instantly after death he wakes up at a past point before the invasion took place. Over and over this takes place and Cage must adapt while repeatedly reliving the doomed invasion.

We are also introduced to a character named Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt). She’s a Special Forces Sergeant who has an almost legendary status following her inspirational fighting in an earlier battle against the aliens. She crosses paths with Cage on the battlefield but their connection may go beyond that. Vrataski is a really cool component and not only does she add a lot to the story, but she gives us a strong and capable female lead. I was immediately drawn to her toughness and resolve.

If you’ve read other reviews you’ve probably heard this film compared to the Harold Ramis comedy “Groundhog Day”. That’s an undeniable comparison. Someone else said it best – “Edge of Tomorrow” is an entertaining mix of “Groundhog Day” and “Starship Troopers”. The trippy time loop element works really well within the sci-fi environment and its definitely more than just a gimmick. Director Doug Liman uses it as a focal point and it could have easily went bad. Instead it’s a ton fun and not only does it make for a great plot device, but it also opens the door for some of the movies genuinely funny moments.

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Tom Cruise does a nice job going against type and reminding us that he is still a quality actor when given good material. I quite liked him here and he showed that he is still an actor with noticeable range. Emily Blunt once again shows that she is an actress who can play almost any role that she takes on. She never flinches in response to the physical demands of her character and you never doubt her authenticity. We also get Bill Paxton having fun playing with Master Sergeant stereotypes and we get Brendan Gleeson who is always good regardless of what he is in.

So far 2014 has been the year of the really good blockbuster. That is rarely the case but we’ve had several this year that have really won me over. Add “Edge of Tomorrow” to that list. Now it would be very easy to nitpick this movie to death and to point to a few plot points that don’t exactly make sense. But I think the movie works extremely well as a complete package. There’s some good science fiction, strategic funny moments, exhilarating action, and a smart and sharp story that never grows dull. I was thoroughly entertained by “Edge of Tomorrow” and that was exactly what I was hoping for.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

TOP 5 LEADING ACTRESS PERFORMANCES OF 2012

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We’ve had some amazing supporting performances from some incredibly talented men and women. Now we move into the lead performance categories and let me say there were a lot to choose from. As I mulled over my options for the top lead actress performances, I had forgotten how many strong female lead performances there were in 2012. So many of them stood out and stuck with me. That’s one reason it was so difficult to leave some off this list. But that’s the nature of Top 5 lists, right? Ok, enough babbling. Here are the Top 5 Lead Actress Performances (according to me)…

5 – EMILY BLUNT (“Salmon Fishing in the Yemen”)

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I’m on record as being a big, big Emily Blunt fan. Well, this is one example why. Once you get past its goofy title “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” has a lot to offer. One of the highlights is Blunt’s delightful performance. She plays opposite Ewen McGregor and the two have a very different but enjoyable chemistry. Blunt is charming and witty and she brings her signature playfulness to this character that I love. But Blunt does a lot more than just smile and giggle. She has some really heartfelt scenes that I think give the movie its punch. The Golden Globes surprised people by giving her a nomination for her work. For me it was a very pleasant surprise.

#4 – RACHEL WEISZ – (“The Deep Blue Sea”)

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Rachel Weisz has come a long way since I first saw her in “The Mummy”. Since then she has stretched out her talent to reveal some serious acting chops. She showed it again in this year’s underappreciated “The Deep Blue Sea“. In this layered British drama from Terence Davies, she plays a character trapped by her own poor decision. Her desire for passion muddies her vision of true love and Weisz takes us through all the conflicting emotions and subsequent heartbreak that this fragile woman endures. It’s a powerful and complex role that only works because of Weisz’s brilliance.

#3 – NAOMI WATTS – (“The Impossible”)

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Naomi Watts is another one of those actresses that gets a lot of praise but yet I was never fully convinced of her work. That has changed and I now see she is a tremendous actress. You can see that clearly by her strong work in “The Impossible“. This is one of the most believable and captivating performances of 2012. Her ability to convey a mother’s love for her family is amazing but watching her sell both the physical and emotional pain her character is enduring is acting at its finest. Talk about giving everything to a performance! Watts nails it.

#2 – JESSICA CHASTAIN – (“Zero Dark Thirty”)

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2011 was a fantastic year for Jessica Chastain. She was featured in two of my favorite movies of the year, “The Tree of Life” and “Take Shelter”. But 2012 saw her soar even higher with an incredible lead performance in “Zero Dark Thirty“. She plays a tough and determined CIA operative heading the search for Osama bin Laden. Watching Chastain take her character through the highs and lows of the search is a delight. She gives us a character who is hard-nosed and aggressive yet we also see her emotionally laboring under the burden of her mission. Chastain channels all of this brilliantly while establishing herself as a bonafide superstar.

#1 – QUVENZHANE WALLIS – (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”)

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I just smile when I think of Quvenzhane Wallis and her performance in “Beasts of the Southern Wild“. This amazing newcomer was only 5 years old when she auditioned for the part and 6 years old during filming. That alone is stunning especially after seeing the beautiful work she did. This is a sweet but heartbreaking role and it’s impossible to not be deeply moved by what you see. Wallis navigates through this weighty material with a grounded authenticity and a skill that makes you think she’s a professional. Hats off to the Academy for giving this young star the recognition she deserves.

So where did I get it right and where was I wrong. Share your thoughts as well as your favorite lead actress performances. Tomorrow I wrap it up with the Top 5 Lead Actor Performances of 2012.

REVIEW: “Looper”


Time travel is one of those fun and intriguing concepts that has found its way into every movie genre. Obviously there is time travel in science fiction films, but it can also be found in the horror, action, drama, comedy, and even romance genres. So there’s an apparent attraction to the idea of time travel and its been explored in a variety of different ways. Therefore the real challenge for a filmmaker is to take this familiar subject and give us something new and fresh – something we haven’t seen before. I’m thrilled to say that’s exactly what writer and director Rian Johnson has done with his mind bending sci-fi action film “Looper”.

As you can guess, “Looper” takes place in the not-to-distant future. Time travel has been realized but by the year 2074 it has been outlawed. The crime syndicates illegally use time travel as a means of executing and disposing of targets, something that has grown increasingly difficult to do in their time. That’s where loopers come in. They are mob killers who execute the targets sent from the future, collect the silver bars sent with the target as their reward, and then dispose of the bodies – no mess and no connections to the mob. Loopers operate out of Kansas City in the year 2044 and are headed by a mobster named Abe (Jeff Daniels). In fact, we learn that Abe is essentially running the entire city.

Joseph Simmons (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is one of Abe’s most trusted loopers. He’s efficient and by-the-books. But soon Joe is faced with what’s called “closing the loop” – the syndicate’s version of retirement. You see, the looper will be sent the future version of the himself to be executed. No party or shiny plaque. Just a hefty payment in gold bars and a release from their contract. “Good-bye” and enjoy the next 30 years. As we hear in the movie, the looper job doesn’t attract the most forward thinking people. Joe is surprised and unprepared when his latest target turns out to be himself only 30-years older and bald (Bruce Willis). He makes the biggest mistake a looper can make – he hesitates and old Joe jumps him, knocks him out, and then escapes. Soon young Joe has the mob hot on his trail as he’s trying to “make things right” by catching up with and killing old Joe. But old Joe has a mission of his own which really turns everything on its head.

The first half of the movie focuses more on the loopers, on introducing us to Johnson’s world, and setting up Gordon-Levitt’s character. A huge part of any movie like this, especially when dealing with time travel, is creating a believability to what you’re presenting. In other words, we need to buy into what we’re being shown. The concept behind this Rian Johnson futuristic concoction is brilliant and a breath of fresh cinematic air. What’s even more impressive is how well it’s realized on screen. He doesn’t overdo his futuristic landscape so I never felt too disconnected from this world. But there is some cool technology and Johnson clearly has fun with some of it including his ugly green energy dependent cars and the bad cell phone reception. But the city itself is a dirty and unpleasant place filled with poverty and drug use – just what you would expect from a mob-led city.

The second half of the movie takes a slight change in direction. Much of it takes part on a farm outside of town owned by a single mother Sara (Emily Blunt who exchanges her English accent for a country girl one) and her son Cid (Pierce Gagnon). Young Joe’s search for old Joe leads him to the farm where he hopes to find shelter from the syndicate and clues to what his older self is up to. But he quickly learns that there’s more to this farm family than meets the eye. These scenes add some authentic emotional punch to the film. But Johnson also uses this part of the movie to open up several new doors which add more and more layers to the already challenging story. Of course there were a couple of times where I had to stop and process what I had just seen, but I really liked these different directions and as a whole, the complex yet miraculously cohesive script is constructed with such intelligence and precision so that I never felt lost nor did I feel the material ever bogged down.

It’s also worth mentioning the spectacular visuals and no-holds-barred action sequences. It doesn’t take long to recognize Johnson’s skill with framing shots and moving his camera. He uses several unconventional techniques which give the move a unique look. We get several close-ups where Johnson wants the expressions of his characters to tell the story. He also often times places his camera at ground level giving us the feeling we are looking up at them. This is very effective particularly during the buildup to a couple of key action scenes. Speaking of the action, it is incredibly done. It’s a brutal and violent mix of sci-fi and 1980’s gun-blazing action and both work extremely well. Johnson doesn’t skimp on the blood but it feels right at home in this picture.

I also have to talk about the acting. The performances in “Looper” are solid throughout with some being Oscar caliber in my opinion. Joseph Gordon-Levitt continues to prove that he’s a top Hollywood talent. Here he’s armed with heavy makeup, a prosthetic nose, and a Bruce Willis smirk. The funny thing is he channels Willis perfectly from his slouch to his expressions, all while giving a very different performance than Willis. And speaking of Willis, he is excellent here. What stood out was the range that he shows in this performance. For instance there are scenes where he’s a cranky codger, an emotional wreck, and laugh out loud funny. But there were also scenes that reminded me of John McClane from Die Hard – steadily yelling while his machine gun pumps loads of lead. Emily Blunt is fantastic as always, Jeff Daniels just eats up his lines, and Paul Dano plays the same measly, wormy character that he always plays. Then there is young Pierce Gagnon who is phenomenal. He’s such a tender presence but his performance goes well beyond that standard cute kid role. He’s given a lot to do and he really stands out.

I’m sure it’s obvious by now that I really liked “Looper”. But it’s not a perfect movie. While the story is intensely original and thoroughly engaging, there are a few plot holes as well as some pointless throw away scenes in the first half of the movie. For example early on we see young Joe has a relationship with a prostitute. He appears to be quite fond of her even though she’s only in a couple of scenes, one of which seems to be there strictly to add some pointless content to the film. This time could have been spent better elsewhere. I also couldn’t help but ask the question – what type of crime organization would actually hire Paul Dano’s character to be a looper? His performance is fine but I had a hard time believing in him. That said, he did provide us with one of the films very best sequences. I’ll just leave it at that.

I could go on and on about “Looper” but let me just sum it up by saying that it’s the most ambitious and imaginative movie I’ve seen all year. It’s smart and audacious and Rian Johnson actually pulls it all off. It’s completely unpredictable and no matter how hard you try, you never catch up with it. It’s always one step ahead of you. “Looper” takes the familiar device of time travel to new places through a brilliantly original concept. Johnson lays out that concept clearly for the audience. Then he takes it, shakes it, twists it, and contorts it and then challenges the audience to keep up. He dabbles in different genres and themes, examines societies, questions morality, and asks us to take it all in and process it. That’s something I’m happy to do especially when the movie is this good.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

“THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT” – 2 STARS

Let me start off by saying that I went into “The Five-Year Engagement” at a slight disadvantage. Unlike many people today, I’m not a fan of Judd Apatow, his films, or most of his usual collaborators. Apatow frequently works with the same casts including Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill – two actors that I instantly avoid, as well Will Ferrell who I feel is terribly overrated. This particular Apatow production stars another favorite of his, Jason Segel who’s nowhere near as annoying as Rogen and Hill, but has never really blown me away either. But I was encouraged to give the movie a try after seeing Emily Blunt’s named attached. I think she’s a fabulous and underrated actress who also has a knack for humor. Unfortunately, despite her wonderful performance and occasional hilarity, “The Five-Year Engagement” is a sluggish and often times erratic romantic comedy that had me checking my watch numerous times.

The film was directed by Nicholas Stoller who also co-wrote the story along with Segel. At it’s core it’s a fairly basic rom-com but with genuine promise. Segel plays Tom Solomon a chef at a fancy San Francisco restaurant. Those familiar with Segel will recognize this character from several of his other pictures. Tom is a dorky but easygoing guy. After a year together, Tom proposes to his girlfriend Violet (Blunt), a psychology graduate who is desperately hoping to be accepted by Berkley for doctoral studies. It doesn’t take us long to see where the story is going. The two begin planning their wedding but soon Violet receives a letter saying she has been accepted by the University of Michigan. The two push back their wedding and Tom sacrifices a chance to be the head chef at a new restaurant to relocate to Michigan.

While in Michigan Violet’s career takes off while Tom grows more and more disenchanted with his job at a sandwich shop. A wedge (that you can see coming a mile away) forms in their relationship and soon her career desires and his hatred for living in Michigan leave them questioning whether they were ever meant to be. Blunt and Segel have a nice chemistry even though there were a few scenes where I couldn’t help but question the authenticity of their relationship. Segel gives a solid performance all while hitting the same notes over and over. Blunt is fantastic and her character has more depth and range than any other in the film. There are several times where their jovial playfulness cracked me up. There are also some more serious scenes where the two work off each other exceptionally well. Then there are the few instances where their relationship feels completely manufactured. This can be attributed to what I think is the biggest problem with this film – the writing.

Segel and Stoller’s story runs into a wall at about the 80 minute mark. With a running time of over two hours, “The Five-Year Engagement” lumbers along to the point where I was taking the movie’s “5 Year” title seriously. Segel and Stoller cram way too much into the film, dragging things out and apparently leaving nothing on the cutting room floor. They take the basic plot points and draw them out well beyond what’s necessary. There were several times where I was so ready for them to move on to the next part of the story. They also stray off into some fairly weird directions. For example, in a dark comedy turn of sorts, Tom becomes this deranged mountain man type. It happens out of the blue and is over before you know it. Overall, the plodding pace and unneeded deviations end up squashing whatever charm and affection the movie builds up.

I also struggled with the erratic use and styles of humor. Now don’t get me wrong, there were instances where I laughed pretty hard. Many of these instances were due to some quirky, out-of-the-blue moment that hit just right. But there’s no real flow to the comedy and many of the gags fall flat. I mentioned the dark comedy turns, but there are also dashes of slapstick and the unfortunate and unfunny raunchy gutter humor that Apatow productions just can’t seem to steer away from. I can think of several of these scenes that added nothing to the movie and that could have been sacrificed for a tighter and more concise story.

“The Five-Year Engagement” has the premise for a smart and entertaining romantic comedy but the overindulged writing and poor execution causes it to fall short. It’s a shame because Blunt is wonderful and her performance feels wasted. But I did find some laughs and our couple do have some good moments on-screen. There are also some good supporting roles that help the movie along as well as some rehashed roles that we’ve all seen before. But in the end it’s the writing that lets the movie down and that may surprise those people who are big fans of these guys.

5 PHENOMENAL ACTRESSES TO WATCH OUT FOR

Movies have always been blessed with an assortment of wonderful actresses and it’s no different now. Amazing acting talents are springing up and making names for themselves. I thought it would be fun to consider 5 Phenomenal actresses that you should keep your eye on. These ladies aren’t exactly “seasoned” in the traditional sense but they have enough on their resume to prove that they are remarkable performers. Now I didn’t want this to be an up-and-coming list. Instead I’m wanting to give props to five ladies who I think have huge careers ahead of them. Now as always I wouldn’t call this the definitive list. But there’s no denying that these 5 actresses to watch out for are absolutely phenomenal.

#5 – MIA WASIKOWSKA

At only 22 years of age, Mia Wasikowska has already tackled a variety of great roles. She’s shared the screen with big names such as Johnny Depp, Michael Fassbender, Glenn Close, and Daniel Craig and she’s more than held her own. She’s made some great film choices and the future looks promising. She’s already lined up to be in “Lawless”, a film where she will co-star with big names such as Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy, and Guy Pearce.  Wasikowska is never overpowered by the material and her ability to handle challenging roles at such a young age is very impressive. Expect to see a lot from this phenomenal young talent.

#4 – EMILY BLUNT

Emily Blunt as an example of a very talented actress who is still looking for that one big role. She starred in several films that I’ve enjoyed and several that I haven’t but yet she’s always delivered a strong and steady performance. She’s clearly comfortable with comedy or drama and her assortment of films show that to be true. She was in several smaller but entertaining films before really drawing attention for her work in “Young Victoria”. From there she has starred in everything from family films, quirky British comedies, sci-fi thrillers, and romantic comedies. Through them all she has shown an amazing range and an ability to handle any material she has given. She’s a magnetic actress who will be around for a long time.

#3 – SAOIRSE RONAN

An even younger but equally talented actress is Saoirse Ronan. At 18 years of age she has steered clear of some of the movie traps that many young performers fall into. She first gained major attention for her wonderful work in “Atonement”, a performance that earned her an Academy Award nomination at the age of 13. She was also very good in Peter Jackson’s “The Lovely Bones”, a film that doesn’t hold up well despite her fantastic performance. I was really impressed with her work in “The Way Back”, a very underappreciated film. And in 2011 she showed what kind of range she has by playing a trained assassin in “Hanna”. Ronan has a wonderful screen presence and has grown with each performance. She’s certainly one to watch.

#2- JENNIFER LAWRENCE

While her resume may not be as plump as the other actresses on this list, Jennifer Lawrence has blown me away by her work so far. Lawrence has never been to acting school or taken an acting class yet she has what seems to be a natural ability. It was her starring role in 2010’s “Winter’s Bone” that immediately caught the attention of the movie world. She gives a tough and gritty performance that earned her a Best Actress Oscar nomination. It was a performance that still amazes me today. She had a great role in “The Beaver” and she was also very good in “X-Men: First Class”. Most recently she’s been seen starring in a little movie you may have heard of, “The Hunger Games”. The movie has catapulted her into the more mainstream spotlight. And while the film isn’t perfect, there’s no denying that Lawrence is brilliant in the lead role. She has several projects in the works and, of course, more Hunger Games sequels. Expect to hear Jennifer Lawrence’s name for a while.

#1 – JESSICA CHASTAIN

2011 can officially be called a break-out year for Jessica Chastain. After a small career in television, Chastain made her feature film debut in 2008. But it was last year that she truly made her mark on the film industry with some amazing work. She was really good in “The Help” and received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her performance. But that wasn’t even her best work of the year. She was mesmerizing in Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life”. She was even better alongside Michael Shannon in the underappreciated film “Take Shelter” and it’s there that she gives what I felt was the best supporting work of the year. She was also fantastic with Ralph Fiennes in “Coriolanus” and this year she will be in the above mentioned “Lawless”. Chastain has a grounded and almost natural grace about her and it translates so well on screen. With all of the attention she’s getting for her recent work, you can count on good director’s wanting to work with her even more.

And there they are. Do you agree or disagree with my list? Do you know of someone I missed? Please leave a comment and share your thoughts.