Directed by Denis Villeneuve
In my opinion, the best low-key movie of 2013 was French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s incredible thriller “Prisoners.” I say low-key because while it got a lot of serious buzz from the fans that saw it (it’s the 230th best movie of all time, according to IMDb users), most people didn’t see it (it’s the 1,163rd highest-grossing of all time, according to Box Office Mojo) and it only received one nomination at the Academy Awards. So far this year, Villeneuve’s “Sicario” is set to follow in the same path. This time, let’s hope Villeneuve’s dramatic thriller gets the attention it deserves.
Elite FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) specializes in kidnappings, mostly carried out by Mexican cartel members near the border. But regardless of the number of guys she and her partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) have taken down, they recognize that they’re not getting to the root of the evil. The root that lives across the border in Juarez, Mexico. That’s where special agents and Department of Defense advisers Matt (Josh Brolin) and Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) come in. With permission from her boss (Victor Garber), they’ll acquire Kate’s help in a secretive operation to take down the head of the Juarez cartel, Fausto Alarcon. But Kate’s kept in the dark, blindly following orders as jurisdictional lines are crossed for the greater good. Like “Prisoners,” Villeneuve asks, “Do the ends justify the means?” A cast of anti-heroes will let you make the final call.
Cinematographer Roger Deakins has been shooting films since the late-1970s. In 1995, Deakins received his first Academy Award nomination—for shooting “The Shawshank Redemption.” 20 years and 11 additional nominations later (including the well-deserved nod for “Prisoners,” the film’s only nomination), Deakins sees himself set for another mention at the Oscars. This time, despite Oscar’s tendency to award period pieces, Deakins finally deserves the ultimate recognition. “Sicario” is by far the year’s most impeccably-shot film, a visual marvel that uses all sorts of tricks but mostly settles for simple shots that are just as gorgeous. Real-time scenes create a palpable excitement and also incredible fear. Plenty of aerial shots provide context for the world we’re being transplanted to as an audience. “Sicario” is an unforgettable movie all-around, but what you remember most are the striking moments captured by this master of the art. You may question why I’m leading off by praising such a seemingly minor player, but that’s only because you’ve yet to see what I’m talking about.
It helps that he has such fine actors to film. Badass it-girl Emily Blunt will soon become a go-to in Hollywood. Whether it’s a thrilling drama or a comedic musical, Blunt steps up to the plate and gives it her all every time. Her effort is not lost on the audience, who empathizes with her character. Every time Macer isn’t informed about her mission’s objective, the audience is left on-edge, too. The result? An aching suspense, deep in my gut, like I haven’t felt since the last time I watched the ending of “The Silence of the Lambs.” And yes, “Sicario” also has a real-time night vision scene that gives the greatest thriller of all-time a run for its money. Anyway, Blunt’s monumental performance may see her nominated for her first Academy Award. In a year of strong female leads, Emily Blunt epitomizes that strength. For the film’s third possible Oscar, I’d go with Puerto Rican-born actor Benicio Del Toro. Like “Prisoners” (I swear this is my last comparison), “Sicario” benefits from realistic characters that cover the full spectrum of moral ambiguity. No all-good protagonists or caricatured villains. There’s good and bad in everyone. Del Toro’s Alejandro doesn’t let you forget that. Del Toro is entirely in his element, freely going back and forth between English and Spanish. This is his role, and he commands the screen whenever he graces it.
A loud, ominous score, stunning camerawork, and flawless acting make “Sicario” the coolest and most intense movie of the year. So far, it’s also the best. Welcome to Oscar season, everybody.