MOVIES YOU SHOULD WATCH IF YOU LOVE THE NEW CAST OF “STAR WARS”
“Inside Llewyn Davis” (2013)
“Inside Llewyn Davis” was my pick for the best movie of 2013. Written and directed by the Coen Brothers, the film about a folk singer struggling in 1961 New York has all the hallmarks of their greatest films: it’s melancholy, quirky, and as it reaches its finale, utterly gutting at as the viewer realizes just what is happening. Oscar Isaac (who plays the daring Resistance pilot Poe Dameron in “The Force Awakens”), plays Llewyn Davis, a character who is rather despicable, but so talented and down-on-his-luck you just can’t help but root for him. This is the movie that cemented me as an Oscar fan; his performance is as breath-taking as the film itself, and he gets to show off his considerable musical talents with the help of a brilliant soundtrack.
Unfortunately, despite many other critics declaring their love for the film, “Inside Llewyn Davis” went virtually unnoticed during the 2013 awards season; it didn’t even receive Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor—none of it. The big award that year went instead to “12 Years a Slave” (more on that later). So if you haven’t seen this stunning movie before, see it now. A scene to look for: Isaac teams up with Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver (the baddie Kylo Ren in “The Force Awakens”) to sing an overly-poppy tune called “Please Mr. Kennedy.” It’s hilarious and brilliant and even a bit sad. Not to be missed.
“Ex Machina” (2015)
While a film like “Star Wars” leans toward the more fantasized end of science fiction, “Ex Machina" portrays a form of technology that very well could exist in the real world. Written and directed by Alex Garland, the film stars Domhnall Gleeson (who plays the snooty First Order General Hux in “The Force Awakens”) as Caleb, an employee for an internet search engine company who wins a week-long stay at his boss’s estate. What initially seems like a relaxing getaway quickly turns into an experiment, as Caleb’s boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac/Poe Dameron) reveals that he has created an A.I. (called Ava, and played by the wonderful Alicia Vikander) and wants Caleb to administer a Turing Test to determine its effectiveness. A bond soon develops between Ava and Caleb as Caleb realizes just how humanlike she is, and just how poorly Nathan has been treating her. Shocking discoveries lead to a startling, but inspired, conclusion. The movie truly belongs to Vikander, but Gleeson is perfectly cast as the average guy who gets in way over his head. Isaac is even more brilliant. His character walks a fine line between being charming and creepy, and he walks it well. The highlight: a choreographed dance sequence between Nathan and his servant Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno). It’s one of the most unforgettable scenes of any movie this year.
“The Seventh Seal” (1957)
Little is known about Max von Sydow’s character in “The Force Awakens,” but much is known about the talents of this actor, who has been working steadily in movies since 1949. In fact, one of his earliest roles was in one of the most iconic films of all time, the 1957 Ingmar Bergman classic “The Seventh Seal.” In the film, von Sydow plays Antonius Block, a medieval knight returning from the Crusades only to find his country being destroyed by the plague. He encounters the personification of Death (Bengt Ekerot) and engages him in a chess game in an attempt to stall his death. Life and death are portrayed as a hopeless game in this film that draws many of its themes and inspiration from the Book of Revelation, and von Sydow is appropriately stoic in a memorable performance. The film’s success at the 1957 Cannes Film Festival catapulted Bergman and von Sydow to fame. A gorgeously shot and haunting movie, “The Seventh Seal” is a movie that everyone needs to see, and for those who have seen it, should be watched again.
“Brooklyn” is another movie that features Mr. Domhnall Gleeson (who is having quite the year) in a supporting role. One of the best movies of 2015, “Brooklyn” follows a young Irish girl (Saoirse Ronan) who immigrates to 1950s New York City, falls in love with an Italian boy, but soon finds herself pulled back home—and to local boy Jim Farrell (Gleeson). The film is a simple, nostalgic journey that perfectly conveys the hardness of being homesick, but also yearning to try new things. Gleeson has very little dialogue as Farrell, but he doesn’t need it. Farrell is a quiet character, but the way the looks at Ronan’s Eilis tells you all you need to know. No spoilers here, but I’m still a little upset at how that whole love triangle ended up.
“Attack the Block” (2011)
This little sci-fi movie has become a cult favorite since its release a few years ago. Written and directed by Joe Cornish, the film is set in a South London neighborhood and follows a street gang who have to deal with a sudden alien attack. The innovative film is funny, action-packed, and just scary enough, and for added authenticity, most of the cast were relative unknowns local to the film’s setting. One of those locals is John Boyega (who plays disillusioned Stormtrooper Finn in “The Force Awakens”). Boyega plays Moses, the gang’s leader who ultimately saves the day. The character development in this film is well done, epecially with Moses, who we see helping mug a young lady in the film’s opening, but is soon revealed to be a brave and honorable person. Boyega’s performance in this movie serves as a sign of great things to come in his career.
“12 Years a Slave” (2013)
Chances are, you’ve seen this drama based on the true story of Solomon Northup, which won the Best Picture Academy Award (the one that “Inside Llewyn Davis” wasn’t even nominated for. Anyway). It’s a beautiful, heart-wrenching drama brimming with fantastic, nuanced performances—which is why a second viewing is required to fully appreciate Lupita Nyong’o’s portrayal of the slave Patsey, for which she won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Nyong’o—who gives a lovely motion capture performance as the wise pirate Maz Kanata in “The Force Awakens”—is electrifying, as she gives Patsey all the layers needed to make her a well-rounded character, despite not being the main part of the action. Patsey is light-hearted and carefree, the best cotton-picker on the plantation. She is also raped by her owner (Michael Fassbender) and abused by his wife (Sarah Paulson) as a result, and yearns for her freedom as she endures everything from private beatings to public whippings. In a movie filled with noteworthy performances, Nyong’o stands out.
“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” (2014)
Another actor who is more heard than seen in “The Force Awakens” is Andy Serkis, who gives a motion capture performance as the evil Supreme Leader Snoke. Serkis is widely regarded for his motion capture work, particularly playing Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. But he truly takes his craft to a whole new level in the recent “Planet of the Apes” reboots playing the intelligent ape Caesar. He played Caesar as a developing mind in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” but it’s playing adult Caesar, who has a family and is the leader of his clan, in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” that he really shows his range as an actor. The audience cares for Caesar as they would any human character thanks to the believable human emotions Serkis imbues him with. The whole films is a brilliant look at the relationship between apes and humans, but Serkis’ Caesar brings it to a whole other level.
“The Adventures of Tintin” (2011)
“The Adventures of Tintin” is a computer-animated film based on the comic series of the same name. It’s a rollicking adventure and a visual treat, which is no surprise considering the talent behind the camera. The film is directed by Steven Spielberg, produced by Spielberg, Peter Jackson, and Kathleen Kennedy (current president of Lucasfilm and producer of “The Force Awakens”), and features a screenplay by Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright, and Joe Cornish. The story follows a young boy (Tintin) and his dog snowy as they embark on a quest started when they find a message in a model ship. Andy Serkis plays the rarely sober Captain Haddock—who they encounter on their journey—in a fun and funny performance that is a refreshing break from his normally more dramatic/tortured characters. The film also features Nick Frost and Simon Pegg as the comedic, bumbling detectives Thomson and Thompson. Pegg—though you may not recognize him, as he plays an alien—appears in “The Force Awakens” as Unkar Plutt, a junk dealer on Jakku. "Tintin” gets bonus “Star Wars” points for also featuring Daniel Craig as the villain. Craig, as we now know, had a cameo in “The Force Awakens” as a very special Stormtrooper.