REVIEW: “Operation Finale” (2018)

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Otto Adolf Eichmann was a high-ranking Nazi SS officer and one of the key architects of Hitler’s “Final Solution”. Decorated and revered among the Nazi hierarchy, Eichmann’s fingerprints were all over the Holocaust. He would organize and oversee the mass deportation of Jewish communities to extermination camps across Eastern Europe during World War II. The hunt and subsequent capture of Eichmann is a fascinating story to behold.

After World War II Adolf Eichmann escaped custody and hid throughout Europe before settling in Buenos Aires. “Operation Finale” from director Chris Weitz spotlights the Israeli intelligence team who located Eichmann and were tasked with bringing him back to Jerusalem to stand trial before the nation.

Oscar Isaac stars as Peter Malkin, a secret agent from the more aggressive wing of the Mossad. In 1960 the intelligence agency initially ignores a lead claiming Eichmann had been spotted in Argentina. But fearing public outcry, Malkin and his team are sent to South America to covertly extract Eichmann under the noses of an unhelpful local government and a rising Nazi sentiment. Ben Kingsley plays the enigmatic Eichmann, a queasy mixture of family man and outright monster.

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First time screenwriter Matthew Orton covers a lot of ground in the film’s two-hour running time. A good chunk is spent peeling back the layers of Eichmann and revealing an unexpected touch of humanity. It’s a tough juggling act particularly for Kingsley who is both unsettling and convincing. His portrayal hides Eichmann’s heinous beliefs behind a veil of good manners and fatherly devotion giving form to what historian Hannah Arendt referred to as “the banality of evil”.

Then you have the Jewish intelligence team whose pain-driven impulses for revenge routinely clash with their sense of duty. It is especially true for Peter who still finds himself haunted by flashbacks of the German atrocities. This adds another level of stress to the already demanding mission. Some good performances fill out the rest of the team – Lior Raz, Nick Kroll, and the always good French actress Mélanie Laurent. She plays a doctor and Peter’s former love interest although their relationship isn’t given a lot of detail.

An integral side story features one of my favorite young actresses Haley Lu Richardson (“Columbus”, “The Edge of Seventeen”). She plays Sylvia, the daughter of Lothar Hermann (Peter Strauss) who secretly feeds information to the Israelis regarding Eichmann’s whereabouts. But her budding relationship with Eichmann’s Nazi-sympathizing son (Joe Alwyn) puts her in a precarious position. It’s an interesting story angle but unfortunately Richardson’s character gets lost in the third act as the film crunches the timeline and focuses more on the extraction.

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The film’s slow boil may push away those looking for a snappier or more action-oriented thriller. But I appreciated its deliberate pacing and attention to character. As I said about Richardson, not everyone gets the fullest treatment, but there are some fabulous character-driven moments specifically between Isaac and Kingsley. They offer some great exchanges amid two top form performances.

Producers Fred Berger and Brian Kavanaugh-Jones have stated that there is far more truth to their story than dramatic license. That’s one reason you won’t find “Operation Finale” leaning too heavily on routine tropes and gimmicks to amp up the tension. They want it to come from a more authentic place. That gives this film a different feel – patient, even methodical to a point. It wouldn’t appear to be the easiest sell, but a strong backing from MGM Studios ensured its production.

It has been said that as the end of the war drew close Eichmann declared he could “leap laughing into the grave because the feeling that he had five million people on his conscience would be for him a source of extraordinary satisfaction.” It’s that deep-seated wickedness and unspeakable callousness mixed with their own personal losses that drove the Mossad throughout this incredible mission. “Operation Finale” shines a light on their efforts and does so with reverence, patience and with the help of one stellar cast.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Annihilation”

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Around the midway point of “Annihilation” one character says to another “We’re all damaged goods here.” This seemingly inconsequential line of dialogue is one of several keys to unlocking the secrets of Alex Garland’s trippy science-fiction mindbender. It’s one of several statements or conversations that offer meaning to what we see, yet unraveling the mystery is a bit tougher than it sounds.

Garland’s previous film 2015’s “Ex Machina” was his directorial debut and showed an affection for toying with sci-fi genre norms and conventions. Garland considers himself a writer first and his genre roots actually go back a bit to his time as a novelist and screenwriter. As with “Ex Machina”, “Annihilation” sees him handling both the writing and directing duties.

The film is loosely adapted from the first volume of Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 Southern Reach Trilogy. Garland has called it an “adaptation of atmosphere” with a “memory of the book”. He takes concepts from the novel and gives each a good twist making his film very much its own thing. I also couldn’t help but see shades of Tarkovsky’s “Stalker”, Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and more recently Villeneuve’s “Arrival” just to name a few.

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Giving an introduction to the story seems almost pointless since the meat of it is found in the mystery and metaphors. But here goes: Shortly after a mysterious object from space crashes along the United States coastline, an amorphous anomaly forms. For three years the U.S. government have watched it expand and every military expedition into the anomaly has failed. The soldiers who enter immediately lose communication with the outside and have no sense of time or place. Even worse, none of the teams have returned.

Enter Lena played by Natalie Portman, a biology professor emotionally detached following the disappearance and presumed death of her military husband Kane (Oscar Isaac). After a year away Lena is stunned when Kane suddenly shows up. But something is about him is off. He has no recollection of where he has been or how he got home. He quickly becomes violently ill. On the way to the hospital in sweeps the U.S. government to take Lena and Kane to a top-secret facility near the anomaly.

Lena is briefed by a psychologist named Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). She learns the anomaly is called ‘The Shimmer’ and is slowly engulfing unpopulated swamplands. But concerns are that its growing blob-like borders will eventually swallow cities, states, and so on. Therefore a new team prepares to enter with the mission of reaching ground zero, acquiring data, and making it out alive. Learning of a connection between the Shimmer and her husband, Lena joins the expedition in hopes of finding some answers.

This time the team is made up mostly of scientists instead of soldiers and women instead of men. It’s an interesting assortment of characters. In addition to Lena and Ventress we get Gina Rodriguez as a Chicago paramedic, Tessa Thompson as a timid physicist, and Tuva Novotny as a protective geologist. Each woman fits the above description of “damaged goods” and each come into the Shimmer with their own unique perspective and purpose.

The film’s non-linear structure adds to the overall puzzle. Flashbacks and flash-forwards rich with meaning not only fill in story gaps but reveal some of the key themes. And it toys with time, not to make it needlessly complex, but to feed us narrative and thematic clues. I’m not sure how mainstream audiences will respond to the demand for attention and contemplation. It’s unashamedly cerebral and Garland isn’t interested in playing by genre rules. Sometimes he even breaks his own. For me that was a real strength.

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I found discovery to be a fundamental component both for us and the characters. Take the Shimmer itself – Garland and his crew visualize a truly fascinating off-kilter creation. The exterior emanates both beauty and menace. Think of light being bent through a detergent bubble. The soapy glow offers a stunning effect yet at the same time it’s both ominous and foreboding. The same contrast is seen inside – beautiful albeit unnatural flora mixed with terrifying animal mutations.

I really don’t want to say more because (as cliché as it sounds) this is a movie best experienced. The atmosphere alone was enough to suck me in from the gorgeously discomforting visuals and effects to Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow’s unsettling score filled with moody tones and occasional strums of a folksy guitar. It’s all quite effective. Garland has said his intent was to make the Shimmer “truly alien”. Mission accomplished.

But it all gets back to the movie’s meaning, something Garland (thankfully) is unwilling to spoon-feed us. Some have pointed out its dealings with depression, grief, guilt, and the meaning of being human. I believe it speaks to all of those things. More than anything else I heard it speaking the loudest about mankind’s penchant for self-destruction. But one of the truly great things about “Annihilation” is the ambiguity, not for the sake of being ambiguous, but to allow us to mediate and consider what it is saying to us. That’s a special trait the movie has in common some of the very best science fiction.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

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Caution, concern, skepticism, uncertainty. These are just a few words to describe my feelings after hearing a new Star Wars movie was on the way. After all, we aren’t talking about making any old thing. J.J. Abrams was taking what is arguably the most popular brand of any entertainment form and bringing it back to the big screen. He was tinkering with a property known for having the most passionate, the most protective, the most dedicated, and the most outspoken fan base. He was tackling a franchise viewed as more than a simple series of movies by millions of people from practically every demographic. Abrams was making a new Star Wars movie. No pressure.

Let’s be honest, when Disney acquired the Star Wars brand from George Lucas for $4.06 billion there was reason for Star Wars junkies like myself to at least be cautious. The Disney-fication (my new word) of Star Wars worried me. Then J.J. Abrams was given the keys to the new film. Abrams, a guy I have always seen as hit-or-miss, is best known for rebooting the Star Trek film series. But he didn’t only reboot Star Trek. He completely altered the structure, tone, and feeling of the Star Trek universe replacing it with a hip new Hollywood version. That’s the last thing I want in a new Star Wars picture.

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Abrams, a self-admitted Star Wars fanboy, has said all the right things when talking about the new film. He directs, co-writes, and co-produces “The Force Awakens”, which is essentially Episode VII. It is a film positioned as a conduit connecting the old to the new as well as an injection of fresh energy for a new generation. That sounds good, but can it deliver? Can this new era of Star Wars suck me in like the previous efforts. An answer was hinted at once John Williams’ score struck that glorious and familiar opening note.

I was able to avoid spoilers and all story details which made my viewing experience all the better. For that reason I’ll stay away from any semblance of a plot synopsis. But let’s just say the film starts with a bang and we are quickly introduced to the franchise’s new players. Abrams wants us to make early connections with these folks because they are clearly set to be key ingredients in this film and the franchise in general.

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On one side we meet the resourceful scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley). She’s the highlight of the new bunch – a strong independent sparkplug who is remarkably resourceful yet burdened by her past. We get the jittery, disillusioned Finn (John Boyega). He’s the film’s cowardly lion – a man with a conscience but who is too afraid to follow it. Boyega goes full throttle in every scene which isn’t always the best acting choice. And then there is Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), the best pilot in the galaxy. He’s a cool, rousing Han Solo type but with Luke Skywalker’s unwavering devotion to his cause. And then there is the little droid BB-8, an example of a cutesy character done right.

 

In the other corner we have The First Order, an evil Third Reich-ish force risen from the ashes of the Empire. They are led (or are they) by the volatile and dangerous Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). He is driven by an almost maniacal obsession to be the most feared person in the galaxy. There is the smug opportunist General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) whose lust for power rivals that of Kylo Ren. He operates a Nazi-like military force and flexes his murderous muscles at will. But there is also the shadowy enigmatic Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) who we only see in a familiar grainy hologram form.

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And then you have the classic characters who Star Wars fans love. It has been roughly 30 years since the events of “Return of the Jedi” and names like Han, Luke, and Leia are spoken of by many in near mythical terms. Harrison Ford returns as Han and he gets the bigger chunk of screen time. He’s slower, grayer, but ever the cool space pirate. He and his howling compadre Chewbacca feel as if they haven’t missed a beat. Leia (Carrie Fisher) is focused on leading the resistance movement against The First Order. Luke (Mark Hamill) has disappeared after a particularly troubling event. And of course there is C3PO and R2D2. Seeing these characters again is exciting for any true fanboy. I do think there are moments between them that deserved a little more attention, but I’ll leave that one alone for now.

The real trick for Abrams is juggling all of these characters both old and new. To help he brought in writers Michael Arndt and Lawrence Kasdan (who also worked on the scripts for “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi”). The script works mainly because the characters never get lost in a deluge of special effects. Each are given their own moments particularly the new faces who are well-developed and left with enough questions to be intriguing.

Speaking of the effects, there is a ton of CGI yet it never looks overused or blatantly obvious.  As good as the prequels often looked there were many instances where Lucas would visually overload his screen. Not here. Regardless of how fantastical things get, the special effects work to promote the setting, the characters, or the story. The new weapons, vehicles, and technology are fun, much of it based on blueprints from the original trilogy. Star Wars has always been known for its top-notch sound design. Here is no different. And Williams’ score is perfect sometimes feeling plucked right out the earliest films.

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Seasoned Star Wars fans will notice several nostalgic throwbacks, entertaining Easter eggs, and cool bits of fan service, but in a sense this contributes one of the film’s few problems. It plays it too safe specifically in the final act. Don’t get me wrong, I love the fan service. It struck a strong chord with me. But at the same time it kept the big ending on a relatively short leash. It was way too familiar down to certain details. Not bad by any means, but very familiar. It could be that Abrams feared alienating the tough-minded and vocal fan base. I can respect that. Now that he has expressed himself as a Star Wars loyalist I’m hoping the next installments will take us into some newer directions.

But enough of that. I am so happy to be able to stand up and tip my hat to J.J. Abrams. Talk about a bold and pressure-filled undertaking. Taking the reigns of the biggest entertainment franchise in the world was gutsy and the pressures to deliver a new yet faithful sequel were intense. But he does it. “The Force Awakens” is a fun, action-packed tablesetter for a new era of Star Wars. It has heart, emotion, and a childlike exuberance that should spark a flicker of excitement in even the most hardened person’s heart. But most importantly it FEELS LIKE a Star Wars movie. That may sound a bit silly to the more casual audience, but Star Wars fans know exactly what I mean and that may be J.J. Abrams’ single greatest accomplishment with this film.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “The Two Faces of January”

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Beautiful Greek locales and three strong performances anchor “The Two Faces of January”, a smart and measured adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1964 novel. Viggo Mortensen, Oscar Isaac, and Kirsten Dunst star in this steady-moving thriller that doesn’t depend on big twists or reveals. Instead it is straightforward and focused – a slick and stylish retro noir full of fedoras and cigarette smoke.

It’s 1962 in Athens, Greece. Rydal (Isaac) is a tour guide and small-time con man. While at the Acropolis of Athens he connects with an American couple Chester MacFarland (Mortensen) and his younger wife Colette (Dunst). Rydal is instantly attracted to Chester’s wealth and Colette’s beauty. Colette takes a liking to Rydal but Chester doesn’t trust him at all. The three have a pleasant dinner together and then part ways.

 

JANUARY1Chester and Colette return to their posh hotel where they are confronted by a mysterious armed man. Turns out Chester owes money to the wrong people. A struggle follows and the stranger ends up dead. In a panic Chester scrambles to do something with the body. While doing so he runs into Rydal who is returning a bracelet Colette left in a cab. A desperate Chester pleads with Rydal to help him and Colette get out of the city. Rydal agrees and the three head to the Greek Islands where they try to lay low until they can get back to the States.

The tensions between the three characters skyrockets. There is an obvious sexual tension between Rydal and Colette. This leads to a growing animosity between Chester and Rydal. There is also Colette’s anger and frustration with Chester for getting them into the mess they’re in. Then you can sprinkle in Chester’s heavy drinking and growing paranoia along with the question of Rydal’s trustworthiness. Each one of these tensions are allowed to play out, sometimes in unexpected but satisfying ways.

Screenwriter Hossein Amini, probably best known for his work on “Drive”, makes his directorial debut and he certainly has an intriguing eye. The film is exquisitely shot and Amini doesn’t shy away from using the beauty of his setting. He also gives a keen attention to detail particularly in creating a nostalgic noir atmosphere. I swear, at times this film looked as if it were plucked right out of the the late 1940s or early 50s. It’s something Amini is clearly going for and for the most part he nails it.

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The film is also helped by its exceptional cast. Oscar Isaac is finally getting the respect he deserves as one of cinema’s most reliable actors. Here he gives a character that is charismatic, charming, but also a mystery. Mortensen is tasked with the bigger and louder performance and he has no problems with it. He lays out the intricacy of his character sometimes with bravado but other times with quiet uncertainty. And Dunst was also very good. She is an actress who keeps getting better and better. Here she gives us a character who may be the only one worthy of our sympathy.

“The Two Faces of January” is an intelligent and efficient thriller that is very confident with its presentation and with the story it is telling. Hossein Amini gives an impressive directorial debut, but he also deserves credit for his well-conceived screenplay. And it doesn’t hurt to have talents like Isaac, Mortensen, and Dunst to help create your vision. I wouldn’t say “January” will be one of those essential time capsule movies, but it is a highly entertaining throwback thriller that more people need to see.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

 

 

REVIEW: “A Most Violent Year”

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Writer and director J.C. Chandor’s young filmmaking career has offered us two diametrically opposed films. His first movie was the wearisome, heavy-handed Wall Street critique “Margin Call”. His second film was the gripping, solitary survival drama “All is Lost”. “Margin Call” was a talky, dialogue-heavy film while “All is Lost” had only a few spoken words. “Margin Call” featured a huge impressive cast while “All is Lost” featured only Robert Redford. Two very different movies in terms of story and filmmaking approach, but two films that had me very interested in what Chandor would do next.

His third feature is “A Most Violent Year”, an unorthodox organized crime movie with a very deceptive title. This isn’t a prototypical gangster action flick. It’s a slow-burning drama set in 1981 New York City. As evident by Chandor’s other films, he is most interested in telling his stories through layered and well-defined characters. We may get that through copious dialogue or revealing observations, but his characters are his predominate storytelling tool.

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In “A Most Violent Year” our main character of focus is Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), a dedicated and hard-working owner of a heating oil company. It’s a tough business environment but Abel has managed to grow his company mostly through legal means. We get hints that there are organized crime influences not only within the heating oil business but also in Abel’s family. Yet despite possible connections, Abel seeks to do things the right way, in hopes of avoiding any possible conflict with crime bosses or the law.

That goal becomes more difficult after his trucks begin to be hijacked during delivery runs. This creates a number of problems for Abel. The oil being stolen is taking a financial toll on his company. His firecracker wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) urges him to fight violence with violence. A local Teamsters head pressures Abel to break the law and arm his drivers. And to make matters worse, an ambitious Assistant District Attorney (David Oyelowo) is investigating Abel’s company which threatens to derail a vital business acquisition.

Chandor slow-cooks all of these ingredients, meticulously building his tension at a deliberate but effective pace. There is a very strategic flow to the story and I can see where some may long for more action or a quicker tempo. But I think that would undo much of what Chandor is going for. This film isn’t about gunfights and physical violence. It’s about a man desperate to avoid all of that even though it lingers in the background and around every corner.

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There is something to be said about sitting back and watching good actors work. That is one of this film’s great pleasures. Oscar Isaac, with his well-groomed appearance and camel-hair coat, is wonderfully convincing selling us on Abel’s shaky confidence and good intentions. Chastain is also very good although there were moments when she came across as a little too big and showy. And I also have to mention Albert Brooks. Simply put he is just flawless playing Abel’s attorney who always seems to know more than he lets on. And while it is a relatively small part, David Oyelowo is always a delight.

“A Most Violent Year” is a very focused film that incorporates some of the tricks from J.C. Chandor’s other movies while also setting itself apart from them. The early 80s setting is impressively realized and the cold, wintry hues help relay the needed tone. The dialogue is sharp and intelligent. The performances are precise and confident. Most importantly the story itself pulled me in and what others may see as languid storytelling I see as uniquely fresh. Chandor’s third effort is a rich and gritty character-driven thriller that proves him to be one of the filmmakers that demands to be noticed.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

Top 5 Performances of 2013 – Lead Actor

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This is it – the final ‘Best of’ list for the 2013 movie year. For me, narrowing down this particular category to just five was the most difficult of any of these best performance lists. It pained me to leave off so many great performances from 2013, but someone decided that Top 5 lists can only feature five picks so I’m sticking to it. No need to drag this out any further. Here are my five favorite performances from a lead actor:

#5 – Robert Redford – “All is Lost

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All is Lost” may be a film that feels too familiar for some but I felt it had more to it than you may first perceive. But regardless of that, no one can doubt the incredible work from 77-year old Robert Redford. It’s such a physically demanding role and we immediately notice Redford’s 100% commitment. But being he is the only cast member, he is tasked with having the audience invest in him and he definitely succeeds. Considering there are only three lines of dialogue in the entire film, it is amazing how much he tells us through expressions and gestures. It’s just brilliant work.

#4 – Bruce Dern – “Nebraska

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What a joy is was to watch the great Bruce Dern in Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska“. Dern’s career started in 1960 and since then he has shown a wide range of mostly supporting roles. But here he gives one of the saddest yet most endearing performances of the year. His character isn’t the warmest or the nicest. Yet over time you begin to sense he’s more than we may think. Payne’s script brilliantly hides little details about the character and the audience gets to put the pieces together as we go. But it’s Dern that keeps us fixated and invested. With so many big and showy performances this year Dern probably won’t take home an award. But he’s certainly worthy of one.

#3 – Oscar Isaac – “Inside Llewyn Davis

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I’ve always been a fan of Oscar Isaac and I was thrilled to see him get the lead role in the Coen brothers film “Inside Llewyn Davis“. He certainly didn’t disappoint. There are so many things I loved about Isaac’s work. First, he’s the perfect fit for the Coen’s signature unique and slightly offbeat lead character. But Llewyn Davis is much more than that and Isaac masterfully peels back all of these layers. Another beautiful element to this performance can be found in the music. Isaac performed all of his own songs and the musical scenes in the film were all recorded live, never dubbed. It’s just another reason this performance was so good.

#2 – Chiwetel Ejiofor – “12 Years a Slave

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Perhaps the most daring and courageous performance of the year came from British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor. What tremendous work he does in Steve McQueen’s gripping and bold “12 Years a Slave“. There is nothing disingenuous or halfhearted about Ejiofor’s depiction of Solomon Northup. With amazing commitment and a ton of emotion he brings this reflective and unsettling story to life. There are so many scenes that will cut deep and stay with you well after the credits role. You immediately connect with him. You root for him. You hurt with him. If done poorly this role could have sunk the whole film. Ejiofor never allows that to happen.

#1 – Mads Mikkelsen – “The Hunt

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Regardless of the criminal omissions by the Award types, Mads Mikkelsen’s performance in “The Hunt” was my favorite of the year. The story itself is tough and unsettling and it needed a good actor to give the film the gut-punch it was looking for. Mikkelsen is the perfect guy. It is painful to watch what his character endures both physically and emotionally. Mikkelsen’s performance invests us in this man’s story, his plight, and his emotional state as things unfold. We watch and shutter as this man’s life is changed forever. This is an immensely crowded field full of great actors and performances. It says a lot that Mads Mikkelsen is at the top of that field. Brilliant work. HONORABLE MENTIONS: Tom Hanks (“Captain Phillips“), Hugh Jackman (“Prisoners“), Christian Bale (“American Hustle“), Joaquin Phoenix (“Her“), Michael B. Jordan (“Fruitvale Station“), Ben Stiller (“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty“), Jude Law (“Side Effects“) So what do you think? Who did I miss or who did I rate too high? Please take time to share your thoughts in the comments section below.